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Published August 15 2010

Swift: Forget copycats, dogs are masters of mimicry

The headline stopped me in mid-Google.

It read, “Dogs automatically imitate people.”

The article described research that found that dogs employ “automatic imitation” – a subconscious tendency to copy their owners’ head movements and hand use.

This mongrel mimicry can be used to teach dogs how to do tricks and open doors. In fact, the pooches were so hardwired for copycat behavior that they aped their humans even when doing so meant they wouldn’t get reward treats.

It’s the latest evidence of how dogs have managed to survive and thrive through the ages: by keenly observing their pack leaders and adapting accordingly.

For years, people have claimed dogs tend to physically resemble the humans who own them. And there’s some truth to that. Our dog Jake seems to be a canine-ized version of husband Irwin. They are both large-boned, easygoing and blond. They both love chasing Frisbees. And they both love to eat.

But now it seems that human-Fido similarities may run much deeper than we used to think.

Apparently, we live in a “husky see, husky do” world.

I can vouch for this. From the moment I brought our pomapoo, Kita, home, she has watched me with a soul-scorching intensity whenever we’re in the same room.

For a long time, I assumed she was daydreaming that I was a very large and slow-moving honey-glazed ham.

Or maybe she was judging me: “Really? Do you seriously think that cobwebby potato chip falls within the confines of the 5-second rule? Nice use of opposable thumbs, idiot.”

Now it all makes sense. She simply has been observing my every movement so she can imitate it.

Uh-oh.

It’s almost like having human children who mirror your most embarrassing mannerisms.

Will I someday find Kita sprawled on the sofa, covered in Cheeto dust and watching Doris Day reruns?

Is this why Jake automatically sits and waits for a Milk Bone whenever he comes in the door? Perhaps he’s just aping his humans, who head to the fridge to self-medicate with a can of cream-cheese frosting after a long, hard day at work.

“I’ve earned that Milk Bone,” he may be thinking. “It isn’t as easy to bark at the Schwan’s man as you might think. And those marigolds aren’t going to dig up themselves.”

I’ll try not to be offended if this happens.

After all, "i-mutt-ation" may be the sincerest form of flattery.


Readers can reach Forum reporterTammy Swift at (701) 241-5525 or tswift@forumcomm.com