Anyone who has ever tried to train a dog knows what a struggle it can be. Some dog owners would probably even go so far as to say it was easier to potty train their kid than teach their dog to sit. Pet parents have been testing out new training methods since dogs became domesticated — positive reinforcement, shock collars, alpha dog method... the list goes on. But there's a new training method growing in popularity, and it's called mimicry.
Mimicry training is the idea that it's actually easier to train multiple dogs at once rather than one-on-one. Ideally, if one dog in the group learns a new behavior quickly, the other dogs will want to do the same. But how does it actually work, and is it really appropriate for every dog? We asked an expert to get some answers.
"There is kind of a little buzz about using mimicry in animal training right now," Carey Haas, certified dog training and behavior modification expert told SheKnows.
Haas said it's important to first work with each dog individually before bringing them together to ensure that the dogs understand the individual behaviors first. The dogs need to understand the behavior before pairing so they aren't just mimicking without really having the foundation of learning as well.
Haas explained the most common way she uses mimicry: "When I'm working with two dogs, I already have taught dogs their individual behaviors. If I want to teach a dog how to respond faster to a command, I want them to lay down quickly instead of saying it two or three times, I will do things like, the first dog that lays down gets the cookie and the second dog does not get the cookie. Frequently, with the dogs using competition and seeing the other dog lie down faster, I can start getting really fast downs from all the dogs because I'm using a little bit of mimicry and a little bit of competition to create an environment where I'm getting faster responses."
While Haas said pairing dogs together can be great training reinforcement, she doesn't recommend it as an initial method since she said dogs have the tendency to "go to the dark side."
"I always say, 'Dogs go to the dark side,'" Haas said. "If you have one 'good' dog — and usually that means the behavior that they do may not be very obedient, but it's just not problematic — and you bring another dog into the mix, what happens is that good obedience starts to decline because that dog will sometimes follow the other dog around. They wind up skewing to the easiest path, which is, 'that's good enough.'"
She added, "It's kind of like a coach that has too many kids. They're not doing enough close coaching and picking up on things. Some dogs may follow along but not really pick up on the behavior."
"If you're trying to train two puppies at the same time, that's going to be a lot of work," Haas cautioned.
Though she did say mimicry works well with potty training, "I hear people telling me all the time, 'Well, I never had to potty train Fluffy because she was potty trained by the other dog.' So those types of behaviors I hear all the time, and I know it's easier."
Generally, however, Haas doesn't recommend using mimicry with puppies, especially if they're from the same litter.
"One thing to keep in mind, really good, reputable breeders will not sell two puppies to one person because the puppies will wind up bonding with each other and they can develop all kinds of bond and focus issues," Haas explained. "Unless that person is really an expert, then the puppies will end up bonding so closely that it can be an issue down the line."
If you are considering two puppies from the same litter, keep in mind that Haas recommends you take them to different training classes and take other training steps to ensure that as adults they are obedient. Haas cautioned that the puppies can end up bonding with each other and not the owner, and advises puppy-seekers to avoid it altogether as a precaution.
Haas was sure to say there are exceptions to the general mimicry rules, just like with everything else. For example, if she's working with a "scaredy-dog," as she called them, then she will put the fearful dog with a confident dog and have them work together with specific training methods in order to boost the confidence of the scaredy-dog. This technique takes a skilled leader, though, so we recommend hiring a knowledgeable trainer like Haas before attempting this one on your own, as it can be detrimental to your dog's behavior if not approached properly.
For more in depth advice on this topic, Haas recommends a book and video series called Do As I Do: Using Social Learning to Train Dogs by Claudia Fugazza, which can be found at Tawzer Dog. Haas called the series the gold standard on mimicry for those interested in learning more.
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