Dog psychology operates largely through classic conditioning. The aim of dog training is to teach dogs that good behaviors will get rewarded and that bad behaviors will be punished or ignored. The result should be a happy dog who does good things to get good rewards.
But are there other ways that dogs can learn? As it turns out, the answer is yes.
What is Social Learning?
If you sit down and you’re given a treat often enough, you will come to associate sitting down with getting treats and you’ll enjoy sitting down when instructed too. But what if you see someone else sit down and get a treat? This is an example of ‘vicarious learning‘ or ‘social learning’ and in humans we can rationally reason that if one person gets a certain reward for a behavior, so too might we in similar circumstances. Dogs don’t have this reasoning ability but they still can learn to associate actions with rewards thanks to ‘mirror neurons‘ that fire in their brains and make them empathize with the situation.
If you see someone get punched in the face on TV, you might wince. Those are your mirror neurons kicking in. The same goes for dogs who see their colleagues rewarded for sitting down or behaving generally.
What Does This Mean?
So what does all this mean? Most basically, it means that your dog can learn good behavior from another, older and better behaved dog. On the downside though, your dog can also learn bad behaviors from other dogs.
This can also be further enforced by something called ‘local enhancement’ which describes the process dogs go through of trial and error when trying to fit in with other dogs. This is another type of social learning and is something to be aware of when walking dogs in large groups. Be wary of the company your dog keeps!