I have a great friend who is a confirmed cat lady. Not the cat hoarding variety like Angela of The Office, but the owner of just one or two cats at a time. However, her cats are treated like equals, given loads of thought, care and respect, and generally live what might be called “the good life”. Recently, that friend met me at a coffee shop and initiated a very interesting conversation.
“Ash,” she said, “Do you think there is anything to an article I read that said our cats copy our behavior or act like us?”
“Sure,” I answered, “Dogs are noted for doing this, so why not cats?”
Sighing, she replied, “Yeah, I thought you’d say that.”
Then I remembered: Coco.
Her sweet little calico cat that had been rescued from the miserable and short life of a feral. Though she was barely a year-old when my friend took her in, and though she had lived with two very elderly gentlemen cats for several years, Coco was, well…a jerk.
Don’t take that the wrong way. I know Coco is sweet and adoring towards her mistress and fawns all over her whenever she has the chance. However, she is about as anti-social a creature as ever lived and refuses to come out when even familiar friends stop by. As time passes it seems to get worse. There used to be a few of us who were deemed suitable for a nod from the top of the stairs. These days, though, she senses our arrival even before the car’s engine is turned off and disappears only to emerge moments after the front door clicks behind us on our departure! The little so and so!
I realized my friend was worried that Coco had picked up on some sort of anti-social rudeness that she, the human in the equation, might unknowingly display. Laughing, I said, “Don’t worry. I don’t think that Ms. Coco is acting in a way that mirrors you!”
I waited a minute. “I think she’s just snotty!”
But, as I drove home, it made me wonder about dogs and their behaviors. For instance, how much of Leroy’s absent-mindedness is mine? How much of Janice’s love of napping is a reflection of my tendency to drift to the bed every Sunday afternoon? These were questions to be answered for you dear readers, and what I have learned is very interesting, useful and relevant. In the first part of today’s article, I am going to go over more than a dozen things our dogs do absolutely pick up from us and then emulate. I will then go over a few behaviors that they do not display naturally, and which may be signs of cognitive issues, including dementia. Though they don’t “catch” this non-contagious issue from us, dogs also develop this dreaded issue over time, and it is their behaviors that can give us early cues that they need help with this most unwelcome condition.
So, as that old saying goes, let’s get the good news first, and then we’ll delve a bit into the less good news.
Signs Your Dog is Imitating You
Anyone who has ever lived with a dog already knows that there are certain moments when it seems like a dog is mimicking the personality of one or more people in the home. For example, the younger brother who always bolts up and down the stairs, never actually walking them but only sprinting them, may cause the family dog to behave the same. The dad who heads directly to the TV each evening and plops down on a specific chair may find that the family dog often beats him to one of the nearby spots, seeming to be following the same routine.
And while it is nice to see that dogs know our routines and behaviors, and may adopt them as their own, it is also important to keep in mind that an owner’s responsibility is always about a dog’s well-being. After all, it is just as easy to condition a dog into an unhealthy or unwelcome behavior as it is to condition them into a beneficial or appealing one. Just like you are warned to be aware of your words and actions around toddlers, since they are remarkable little sponges and mimics, I would advise you to be similarly aware around dogs.
They are all observant witnesses to our behaviors, and whether they are watching OR just listening, they are picking up a lot more than we realize. Often, this is why they fit into our routines so well, but it could also be part of some of their less likable behaviors.
As a simple example, my dad is not a huge fan of cats. There is one cat in the household who has a similar dislike of him, and so they both display body language that says “Ugh, I really, REALLY don’t dig you.”
Interestingly enough, one of my dad’s favorite dogs in the house seems to have also picked up on my dad’s body language. This dog has always liked all of the other animals, including all of the cats, but now he issues a low and rumbling growl whenever that cat approaches my father, and he is nearby. He might even be resting on the sofa and see the cat nearing my dad’s chair, and soon you hear the grumble.
My mother has had to start to train the dog that this cat is his friend as much as the other cats, but it is tricky because my father’s behavior is reinforcing the unwanted anti-cat behaviors.
So, although a lot of us want to believe all dogs are very intuitive and can really read people (which, I feel some can), it might just as easily be that a dog has taken on its human family’s habits and is mirroring them. Need proof? Here are several things your dog might do that proves he or she is definitely imitating you.
NOTE: If you are multi-person household, a dog may seem to copy the behaviors of one or more people. Typically, it will be the person to whom the dog is most bonded. However, it is entirely possible that a super-social dog emulates many different people or habits. Trust me, once you know what to watch for, you’ll probably have a family debate about “who the dog is most like”!
They Sleep Exactly the Same Way as You
Cats are credited with being some of the world’s best sleepers, but dogs actually need more sleep than humans do, as well. The thing about dogs is that they can actually begin to model their own sleep patterns on yours. Yes, they might enjoy a daytime snooze, or five, but they will also want to be near you and sleeping at the same time as you.
So, if you are a big fan of late-night TV, you might notice that your dog sits on the sofa or floor, watching you watching Kimmel, Conan, Fallon, Colbert or another late night program. If you also wake up late in the mornings…guest what? It is likely that your dog is going to do the same. Naturally, not all dogs do this. Janice is Ms. Polite and never tries to wake me up in the mornings, while Mr. Leroy is definitely wearing some sort of watch concealed beneath his fur as he nails my morning wakeup calls between 4:40 and 4:50 AM every single day.
And while we are talking about dogs sleeping like their humans, I want to take a second to look at the issue of allowing your dog to sleep with you. I have admitted freely to taking regular naps with my dogs, and we do this on my queen-sized bed. Do I allow them to sleep in bed with me other times? Yup!
Here’s the thing: Medical science says it is not only fine, but good for me. According to the experts at PetMD, research from Mayo Clinic indicates that a healthy dog is perfectly safe to share a bed with, and it may even improve the quality of a human’s sleep. The study focused on both dogs and cats and found that the emotional comfort provided by a pet within reach could lead to improved sleep.
As long as your dog has no issues such as fleas or ticks, and is not a nervous or aggressive dog, it can be a really beneficial experience for both of you. After all, most of us spend most of the day away from home. Allowing our dogs to rest alongside us, or at our feet, is a way to give them that satisfying closeness they have craved most of the day. It also lets us enjoy
what the famous writer Edith Wharton called “a heartbeat at my feet”.
Just try to remember, that a dog that is imitating you in terms of sleep patterns is a great dog for sharing a bed with, but the one who is restless and likely to be up and down a few times each night is not. Some dogs just cannot adapt to a human’s sleep pattern, or doesn’t wish to imitate them, and so you cannot force this issue. Do so, and you’ll start experience low quality sleep and a bit of damage to the bond you share with your dog.
They Never Shut Up
As one of my readers, you might safely guess that I talk a lot…a lot! I do, and I also talk a lot to my dogs. In fact, I’ve often thought about setting up a camera of some sort to track just how often I speak out loud to them, and probably act as if I’m waiting for a response! Here too, though, a dog may pickup a certain tendency for vocalizing.
Yes, there are breeds known for being yappy, vocal and even howling a lot (we’re all looking at you, Huskies). However, as one dog behaviorist says, “If that behavior of vocalizing is reinforced (by laughing, petting, smiling or given a high-value reward of any kind), the dog will continue to offer those behaviors.”
It can take just one time of you reacting very positively to your dog’s vocal response to a pat, a bit of direct eye contact or even a few spoken words from you and the habit is fixed in the dog’s pattern. I have seen this at work in single person households and family households, and as you might guess, it is not often multiple people in a family home that can get a dog talking. For example, we’ve all seen those videos of dogs that sound like they are saying “I love you” in response to an owner saying it. If you pay attention, it is only a single person who is speaking to those dogs, and that is probably due to the fact that the dog picked up the habit of talking with just that one person.
Try to remember, though, that some dogs will naturally vocalize and others will not. Don’t try to make your dog vocalize as this may not be their thing. And though it might be funny if a dog howls or vocalizes loudly when you do one thing (such as singing a certain song or saying certain words) I would advise such interactions. For example, we had a dog that howled like crazy whenever we sang the “Happy Birthday” song. He hated it, and his little head would be tossed back and a mournful wail would emerge. As kids, my brother and I thought this was hilarious. I wish now that our parents had forbidden it because it meant the little guy thought we were howling, and probably unhappily, too. (NOTE: My singing is not THAT bad!)
Yet, if a dog does come with a more vocal nature and the two of you have a sort of chit chat experience each day, it is because the dog has started to imitate you, and probably enjoys this exchange.
They Do or Don’t Work Out
We all know the old chestnut about many dogs taking on the looks of their humans. The overweight guy walking the stodgy bulldog is the classic example of it, and yet there is some bit of truth to it. For example, the human who has a daily routine that includes working out is likely to have a dog that seems to reflect this habit. The dog will be leaner and well-muscled, trimmer and more active – just like mom or dad.
Yes, the dog is probably a participant in some forms of the daily exercise, but it is more than that. A dog actually wants to exercise more when its human(s) exercise on a regular basis, and on the flip side of that is the fact that even a breed noted for requiring activity may become sedentary if paired with an inactive owner. This is an identical human trait – the more we move, the more we want to move – and the famous object at rest remaining at rest will apply, too.
While our daily routines become the daily routines for our dogs, too, if something shifts and we are unable to exercise, the dog that is imitating their human may find it hard to cease seeking that outlet. They may come to the ill or injured owner and request that daily or regular workout. They come to crave it, which is what happens to a human laid up and unable to exercise.
This is one reason that people who are seeking to get out more and do more exercise are advised to consider adopting a dog. In fact, the Mutual Rescue film about Eric and Peety (warning, watch it with a box of tissues on hand) proves this true.Naturally, don’t force a dog into a fitness regimen! Just like any other living creature, dogs have to be physically conditioned and do little workouts, build up strength and endurance and get prepared for any challenges.
I hike and camp with my dogs and yet did not expect them to do multiple miles of trails the first time we set out. In fact, it was less than three miles in total for the two days! Every day the dogs now walk around four or five miles with me (two walks per day), and if weather keeps us shut up inside, I can see that they are edgy in the same way I get about it.
And in the same way that they get a bit annoyed by being unable to workout, they also show signs of “hanger” in the same way I do, which leads to the next sign that a dog is imitating you.
They Seem to Get Hungry Exactly the Same Times as You
I like to feed Janice and Leroy at the same times of day that I feed myself. I don’t eat like a normal person but instead eat a larger meal late in the morning and a light dinner around 7PM. I have a few power snacks throughout the days as well. The dogs have almost identical routines, and though partially by design, it also seems that they are mirroring my preferences. They look for a big bowl of wet food as I tuck into my big meal, they nibble a bit of protein when I sip a cup of soup or peck at a light dinner, and they seek out a few treats as I enjoy a snack myself.
This is conditioning, but also a form of imitation. After all, I do free feed with dry kibble, and the dogs choose to ignore it, for the most part. They seem to become naturally hungry around the same times of day as myself, and it is Leroy who migrates to the kitchen late at night to eat a bit of the dry food as a way to tide him over until the morning snack.
So, I encourage you to reconsider your dog’s behaviors if you think they are just begging every time you eat. It could be that they have adapted to your routine and are authentically hungry because it is the time when you, yourself, are hungry, too. If your dog seems to get agitated around your meal times, consider that they’re copying you has turned into an actual schedule, and be sure you are feeding them as you feed yourself
They Are Happy When You Are, Sad When You Are, and Even More
Do you think your dog can read your moods? I asked my friend Mandy just that question the other day, and she said “Oh, absolutely! Moose knows when I am sad or under the weather and responds to it.”
“How?” I asked.
“How does she know, or how does she respond?” she replied.
Laughing, I said, “Well…both”.
Her answer was long and a bit convoluted (sorry, Mandy!) but boiled down to two thoughts:
- Dogs know what we are feeling
- Dogs are sympathetic and offer what we need, emotionally
I kind of agreed with her about it because Leroy and Janice are totally ready to jump around for joy if I am doing the same, and they turn into little nurses whenever I am sick (I trip over them constantly throughout any colds or stomach bugs, so I know this is true). But, does that mean they know just what I am feeling?
I decided to see if there is any science to give an answer…and there is! Dogs are prone to the same “emotional contagion” that many social animals experience. Technically, emotional contagion is “a basic component of empathy defined as emotional state-matching between individuals… shown in dogs even upon solely hearing negative emotional sounds of humans or conspecifics.” Wait! If you are going to go back and re-read that, don’t. I’ll explain.
Apparently, scientists have tested dogs with emotional sounds (of both dogs and people) that were positive and negative. For example, a dog whining or howling or a human laughing or sobbing and monitored dog’s reactions. What did they find? That dogs can match their state to that of the sound they hear. They said that this sort of “response pattern indicates emotional state-matching or emotional contagion”.
So, your dog is full-on imitating you if you are sad or happy, calm or even under the weather. It is probably why dogs can often tell when we don’t trust a stranger and will mirror that through specific postures and even vocalizations (growling). Though Mandy was close to the mark, it is not that a dog is consciously giving us what we need, but that they are so bonded and loyal to us that they may imitate our mood or emotional state as a sign of dedication or unity.
They Move in a Way That Reminds You of…You?
I dance around, a lot. I would probably die of mortification and embarrassment if anyone saw how often I sing into a spoon as I wait for tea water to boil or how frequently I bust a move as I sort mail, clean the house or simply walk from one room to another. I also walk so fast that my sister refuses to visit malls with me any longer (“Ash! Why are you jogging?” is her common complaint). I talk with my hands, too.
Janice and Leroy also dance, walk very quickly even when at a slower pace, and use their paws when sitting with me. I did not know until I began my research for this article that they were imitating me. Naturally, I knew all about dancing dogs and the many competitions in which people show the little numbers they’ve trained their dogs to perform. However, I didn’t realize that dogs might also unknowingly begin to imitate such maneuvers on their own.
As one expert explained, “Many pet owners create habits of dancing with their dogs, and soon the dogs have their own dance moves too, from jumping up and down, howling, and spinning.” I almost fell off my chair when I read this because Janice has this funny step I call “bounce-bounce” which she does by seeming to spring off her front feet alone. Her back feet hardly move, but her upper body goes boing-boing and takes a pause before repeating it. She’ll do this for minutes at a time. It never occurred to me that the jumping rope exercise I do for about eight minutes each day might have inspired her take on this classic “Mom move”!
It is not only the dancing and jumping though. Apparently dogs often find many ways to mirror the way we move. They might flop hard on a sofa if we do the same. They might climb on to the bed from the same side if that’s what we do. They may even walk up or down stairs in a way that is similar to their humans.
If you have not seen the famous Instagram dog known as Lunging Luca you can watch this play out in real time as an enormous Great Dane copies his human in a series of lunges. He doesn’t get it quite right, but he clearly gets the idea! The point here is that he is moving in a way that his human moves and even seems to get excited about it.
They Show Excitement or Mistrust and/or Dislike Over Similar Things
And speaking of excitement, your can tell your dog is imitating you if they get excited about the same things as you. We already learned that they might mirror our feelings and experience emotional contagion, but they can take that a bit farther. They can pick up on that emotion, whether excitement, sadness, dislike and so on, and apply it to very specific issues.
Here’s what I mean: You may be the kind of person who hears the front door bell, heads straight to the door, flings it open and sees who is outside. On the other hand, you may be a very cautious soul who is a bit edgy about an unexpected knock at the door and who then peers at the peephole and leaves the chain in place if there is a stranger at the door.
Either way, your dog will take this in and behave the same way whenever the doorbell rings.
Now, that is a very general form of mimicry. Let’s consider something more specific. Let’s say you are at a dog park and there is someone you enjoy seeing at the park. You stand up straighter, say something like “Oh, there’s so and so (insert the name, I don’t believe anyone is really named so and so!)” in an excited and happy tone, and head straight to them.
Your dogs know what’s going on here and every time they see that person, they’ll be happily excited, too.
Now, turn it around. Let’s say you are at a gathering and there is a person there you dislike and whom you don’t feel comfortable around. Your dogs will track this, log it into their memory and probably never like or trust that person either. Naturally, not all dogs can pick up on the subtlest signs or cues, but if your dogs are prone to imitating you, they will recognize your discomfort and mirror it around that specific person.
This is another sign of that unity I mentioned earlier. Yet, it means they also blend their natural instincts into the mix. You feel uneasy around a specific person, and your dog may become more protective of you. You love to see someone, and your dog is going to be happy to welcome that member of the pack back into the fold – even if it is temporary. Your dogs imitate your emotional spectrum, even if you don’t realize yourself that it is on such display!
This is also true where other displays are concerned…
They Are Affectionate in Exactly the Same Way as You
I hug dogs…there, I admit it! However, as my readers know, that can be a huge no-no. So, let me correct myself – I hug dogs that know me, love me and trust me. Not all dogs are big fans of hugging, so I don’t force myself on a dog that is not very tactile. However, I bring up hugging to make my point. It is how I show affection, and guess how Janice and Leroy show affection? In an almost identical manner.
Now, they are not allowed to jump on anyone or paw anyone, but if you are someone they love, and you are crazy enough to sit down on the sofa, they will position themselves one on each side, and lean in with those big chests up against you, lean their heads on your shoulders or neck and try to slip in a few licks. They hug in a Boxer-style that is a nice copy of the way I hug them.
What I discovered about this trait in dogs is that they also imitate their humans. If you are a physically affectionate person, your dogs are apt to copy this whenever showing any sort of affection to humans. If you are reserved, your dog is prone to be that way, as well. They may wiggle their bottom, wag their tail and make vocalizations, but they are not likely to put on the over the top displays like Janice and Leroy.
Having grown up around small dogs, toys and lap dogs, we made a habit of picking them and cuddling them. We did not know then, though I know now, that this was also showing them how to give affection. It is why all of them ended up heading straight for the laps of people they liked, and often smothering small kids with kisses!
So, if you are not an overly effusive person, your dog might copy you and show you and the rest of the world a more dignified form of affection. If you are like me, your dog might try to hug everyone it meets. Be sure you pay attention to this and prevent your dog from being a jumper and knocker down of small people or kids as this often leads to tears or anger rather than hugs and kisses!
Reading Us Like Books
Although we like to think of ourselves as superior beings, dogs have us beat in so many ways. They love simply and fully, they trust us completely, and they want to please us to such a degree that it can lead them to harm. As humans, we owe our dogs a great deal, and if you have adopted a dog or two (or more), part of your responsibility is to try to ensure you are modeling the most desirable behaviors and avoiding conditioning of any potentially harmful or dangerous ones. You now know the signs that your dog is imitating you, and though you may not like all that you see, you can always make changes in your own behaviors in order to manifest the same changes in them.
Keep in mind that this means you have to take the time to really get to know your dog, and that means knowing how they act when they are happy and healthy and how they act when they are not. Though it is pretty awful to think about the ends of our dogs’ lives, it is also part of our responsibility as loving pet parents. One thing that you can do is monitor your dog’s behavior for any signs of cognitive trouble, i.e. dog dementia.
Is It a Behavioral Change or Dementia?
Often, the behaviors we have grown used to (such as all of those things I’ve just outline above), may begin to change. This is a time to watch your dog closely and track any signs that CCDS or Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome may be at work. Close in its behavior to human Alzheimer’s Disease, it has a few similar symptoms. The most common signs of it, however, include:
- Noticeable changes in their interactions with you
- Aimless wandering
- Soiling inside the home
- Extensive amounts of sleeping
- Aggression in a once passive dog
- Inability to navigate formerly familiar routes
- No interest in play time
- Whining and/or pacing (i.e. Anxiety)
- Vacant staring
Naturally, age is often part of the reason for a dog developing this issue, and if your dog is 11 or older, it is possible they may face this challenge. The good news here is that, unlike human dementia, there is a tremendous range of things you can do to reduce and control symptoms.
For example, mental stimulation and light training are often prescribed for dogs showing early signs of CCDS. Light exercise is also known to help, and there are specialty diets and supplements, along with medications that will also help.
Keeping to the usual routine without any alterations is also of tremendous help to your older dog. This includes not only a fixed routine for the household, but also refraining from rearranging any furniture or having too much activity or commotion in a normally quiet home (i.e. hosting a big party, having a lot of work done, and so on), or doing anything that can confuse the dog. Stick to your usual sleep patterns, too since CCDS messes with a dog’s usual sleep routine, and by helping them with daytime wakefulness (they’ll want to sleep more as they age, but you will want to try and offer stimulation to help them burn up energy and feel fatigued at night) they may be able to enjoy beneficial sleep at night (and you will, too).
If a dog does seem to soil indoors, be sure that it is not another health issue altogether. It can be too easy to say, “Oh, he’s old…that’s why he’s peeing inside.” It could be a GI issue or a bladder problem. Get a health check at least once each year when a dog is over 11.
Remember too, patience is key. Cognitive failure leads to confusion and anxiety. Your old dog needs you more than ever if they start to feel scared and disoriented. Stick to the routine, do all you can to stimulate their body and minds, give them loads of love, and show them that you know them as well as they’ve always known you! They need that reassurance as they struggle with the demands of an aging body and mind, and it will ensure that you repay the many years of dedication, love and observation that dog has given to you!