social learning theory

Social Learning Theory in Dogs

Sometimes the most useful behaviors are learned by watching others; how to play catch, buttoning up a jacket, and how to run up and down stairs.  All of these examples of learning through observation, a process shared by both humans and dogs.  This method of learning is called the social learning theory, and can be a dog owners salvation in teaching new activities and understanding old behaviors.

What is social learning, which animals are more likely to use it, and how can social learning be used in training routines for dogs?  All these are questions to explore and to take into account when developing a relationship with a new furry companion.

What is Social Learning Theory?

Social learning theory came after classical and operant conditioning were publicized, and is the most commonly used method of learning for both humans and dogs (McLeod, 2016).  A researcher named Albert Bandura was observing learning through conditioning in 1977.  He realized that learning often occurs through observation of conditioning, and that the behavior observed was more likely to be imitated if they watched something good happen to the person performing the behavior.

While completely revolutionary at the time, this theory is obvious once examined: all people in social groups learn through watching others.  If we see a person put in a coin in a gumball machine and receive a candy, we are more likely to put a coin in after them.  If we see a person put a coin in and receive nothing then we are unlikely to try putting a coin in afterwards.  In dogs, though, researchers realized that behavior was learned socially because of how contagious certain behaviors were.  This would be like humans learning to smile because of how contagious smiling is.  These behaviors are known as allelomimetic behaviors.

Allelomimetic behavior, a mouthful in any language, is simply a term used to describe socially learned behavior that is commonly mimicked (Abrantes, 2014).  A dog howling often sets all the neighborhood to a chorus, running cats pick up a glaring of other running cats on the way, even yawning can be considered allelomimetic behavior.  Allelomimetic behaviors are common in the social learning process because it makes the behavior more likely repeated since it is so contagious.

Which Animals Use Social Learning, and Why?

Social learning can be seen in all animals that live in a social group.  Humans, dogs, cats, chimpanzees and even whales can be observed performing a task, which is then repeated by other members of their group.  Similarly, all species who use social learning show that a behavior is more likely to be mimicked when the result is good, such as getting food or praise from other group members.  The question is; why is this the best method of learning in social groups?

Dogs were the subjects in an experiment that involved dogs running singly and paired through an alley of obstacles (Scott & Fuller, 1967).  They were tested on which group of dogs were most successful in learning the environment: dogs who ran alone and received a treat, dogs who ran with one dog knowing the course and one who did not who both received a treat, and two dogs who both knew the course but only the first to finish received a treat at the end.  The result was surprising; the dogs who had the best time to completion was the team where one dog knew the course and one did not.  The conclusion of this experiment was that competition did not make success likely, instead it significantly slowed the dogs down, even when both knew the course.  Only when social learning was encouraged over competition, even when enticed with reward, were the dogs successful.  Dogs evolved in a group dynamic that favored cooperation over competition, which is why the tools for learning through cooperation result in better results.

This experiment points to why dogs rely on social learning in their survival.  From five-weeks-old, puppies are displaying allelomimetic behavior by running together, laying down together, and attempting grouped attacks (Scott & Fuller, 2012, pp. 74-75).  These behaviors, learned from watching adults perform duties necessary to survive, are more likely to be mimicked by puppies because they are naturally contagious activities.  Instead of competing against each other, the behaviors that are commonly repeated result in the pack (including humans) growing closer together and more likely to succeed.

How Can You Use Social Learning Theory?

When considering how to use these two learning methods in training, remember that dogs are the only species who accept humans as pack-mates on instinct (Scott & Fuller, 2012, pp. 81-83).  That means in building a team with your dog, you would be at the front of the list.  Take advantage of this close relationship by paying attention to socially learned behavior and how it affects your dog during training.

Whenever possible, use another dog, or human, to model the desired behavior.  When faced with difficult behavior in a dog, such as fearful walker, nervous bark, or food aggression, exposure to a calm demeanor can smooth the way.  Knowing that dogs view humans as part of their group, people can moderate their reactions to stimuli in order to prevent unwanted behaviors.  Instead of yelling at a dog for barking at the mailman, a behavior dogs will see as validating their fear of visitors because you are alarmed by the visitor as well, react calmly and quickly to stop a fearful reaction.

“Do as I do, not as I say” is the best mantra when training dogs, and social learning theory is the reason.  By learning about the methods dogs learn new behaviors, dog trainers can change behaviors in a way that is natural to a dogs’ learning style.  Training through modeling good behavior is the most natural learning style a dog has, and using it can result in a closer bond between partner and dog because natural communication is happening.

Abrantes, R. (2014, October 05). Does Your Dog Show Allelomimetic Behavior? Retrieved February 13, 2018, from

Mcleod, S. (2016). Social Learning Theory. Retrieved February 13, 2018, from

Scott, J. P., & Fuller, J. L. (2012). Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press. doi: %22allelomimetic behavior%22&ots=hYNpRNwTH9&sig=QdhYaQiHfbUbac1uzJ933Epewsw&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=canine%20%22allelomimetic%20behavior%22&f=false

Scott, J. P., & McCray, C. (1967). Allelomimetic behavior in dogs: Negative effects of competition on social facilitation. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 63(2), 316-319, from

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