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New Training Frontiers: Mimicry Part 1

It’s a fun, yet complicated time to be a dog trainer, as there are constantly new methods and techniques being developed. One that I’m currently working on is “mimicry.”
 
Mimicry is simply learning something by copying it. Humans do it all the time: “Do this,” I can say, and demonstrate a task like shortening a leash or presenting a hand target, and the person can immediately do it. Dogs, on the other hand, don’t really get this. In fact it was long thought that they couldn’t learn by imitation or mimicry at all, other than very basic things that young puppies could pick up from their mother.
 
We are finding that this really isn't correct -- the truth is that dogs can definitely learn through imitation. It’s not a natural learning mechanism for them, but they can be taught the concept of watching a demonstration, then repeating the behavior. This is very exciting for most trainers, as it means that now there can be a very fast way of teaching very complicated behaviors.
 
Here’s a little bit about my experience working through this training procedure for the first time with my 4-year-old Golden retriever, Halo. And there should soon be some videos up on the Facebook page so you can see it in action! If any of you want to try this training method out, I’m definitely happy to help!
 
There are prerequisites. Your dog must have about six distinct, stand-alone behaviors that it knows on verbal cue only. This is crucial. So many times we think that our dog knows a specific cue or command, but it’s actually relying on our body language or some feature of the environment in order to do the behavior. Your dog has to know what to do when you stand completely motionless and say the word. It’s best if your stand-alone behaviors include some that the dog can do independently (spin, lie down, wave, etc) and some that involve an object (retrieve, jump, fly, any of the Parkour behaviors etc.) The other important thing is that a human can replicate any of the behaviors.
 
Practice the prerequisites, aiming towards no body language or other cues – verbal only! – until your dog is very quick to do the behavior – you want him to leap into action immediately on your verbal cue.
 
Separately, practice a “stationing” behavior – “Wait” or “stay” – this will hold the dog in one place while you do your demonstration for the dog to copy. Practice a lot of handler movement while the dog is working on stationing – jump around, roll around, run around – so the dog gets used to remaining in place while you’re doing things.
 
After you’ve got everything planned out and your dog is fluent with the verbal cues for its six behaviors and can stay at an observation station while you do stuff, you’ll be ready to move on to Phase II of Mimicry training – so stay tuned!

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