What dogs can learn from watching other dogs — and humans


My favorite example, though, involves two poodles I was privileged to meet and work with recently. The older one, Fletcher, is a working service dog. His little brother, Beckett, is learning to take over Fletcher’s job. Fletcher has many responsibilities, among them alerting his human to impending seizures and going to find her parents if she needs assistance. As her mom described it to me, Fletcher on several occasions came into her office to alert her, as he had done for years. The difference was, Beckett was trailing him. When they got to the door, Fletcher stood aside and seemed to indicate to Beckett that he should go to her. Beckett eventually came to alert the mom on his own while Fletcher stayed with their human partner. Both dogs intuitively reacted to seizures, and Fletcher took upon himself the alerting role. He appeared to understand that he needed to teach Beckett to do this as well.


Saying that dogs do things like alert people to impending seizures seems fantastic to some people. I’ve worked with enough dogs to know that it’s real. One (of many) reasons I especially enjoyed working with the poodles and their family is that they truly understand how wonderful and exceptional their dogs are — and they understand that some tasks, like seizure alerting, are behaviors that the dog has to offer. I cannot teach a dog to do that; no one can. I can teach a dog what response he or she should offer when he detects a seizure coming on, but sometimes the dogs just know. The family worked closely with Fletcher’s trainer. But they say that a lot of what he does comes out of his own initiative. Beckett is showing the same tendencies, and seems eager to learn from both his human family and his doggy sibling.


Humans and dogs have lived and worked together for thousands of years, in many cases developing incredible partnerships that allow each species to shine. Simply put, dogs can do many things that we humans cannot, such as detect tumors, bombs, oncoming seizures, and impending blood sugar level changes in diabetics. Sometimes, humans cannot even figure out what the dogs are reacting to. We’re just fortunate that they care enough to do so. In return, we open dog food containers for them and drive them places. It’s a pretty good deal for the humans, I’d say.

Anyone who thinks that dogs do not learn by watching has never had two dogs. For that matter, dogs learn perfectly well by watching humans, too, but that is the subject for another blog.

I can give you endless examples of dogs learning from each other — for instance, my mom’s dog, Daisy, who hardly ever barked. Then she got a little brother, Buddy.

Buddy is a terrier mix. Which means that he barks. At everything. Now Daisy does, too.

A more compelling example might be our dogs and the mulch in our yard. Jana has always liked to munch on sticks. I’ve never really understood it, but I have failed miserably at stopping her. We now have a large yard, huge sections of which are covered in delectable mulch. Soon after joining us here, Oriel was observed delicately sampling small pieces. She is now a compulsive mulch eater. And if that weren’t enough, today I noticed Wiley gnawing on a choice piece of his own. I drew the line when he brought it in (through his prized dog door), wanting to recline on an indoor rug to enjoy his snack. It is cold outside, after all.

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