Simple Mechanisms Can Explain Social Learning in Domestic Dogs (Canis familiaris)


Dorit Mersmann, Institute of Animal Husbandry and Animal Welfare, University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna (Vetmeduni Vienna), Veterinärplatz 1, 1210 Vienna, Austria.


Recent studies have suggested that domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) engage in highly complex forms of social learning. Here, we critically assess the potential mechanisms underlying social learning in dogs using two problem-solving tasks. In a classical detour task, the test dogs benefited from observing a demonstrator walking around a fence to obtain a reward. However, even inexperienced dogs did not show a preference for passing the fence at the same end as the demonstrator. Furthermore, dogs did not need to observe a complete demonstration by a human demonstrator to pass the task. Instead, they were just as successful in solving the problem after seeing a partial demonstration by an object passing by at the end of the fence. In contrast to earlier findings, our results suggest that stimulus enhancement (or affordance learning) might be a powerful social learning mechanism used by dogs to solve such detour problems. In the second task, we examined whether naïve dogs copy actions to solve an instrumental problem. After controlling for stimulus enhancement and other forms of social influence (e.g. social facilitation and observational conditioning), we found that dogs’ problem solving was not influenced by witnessing a skilful demonstrator (either an unknown human, a conspecific or the dog’s owner). Together, these results add to evidence suggesting that social learning may often be explained by relatively simple (but powerful) mechanisms.