Dogs imitate each other just like humans, study says

Technically Incorrect: Italian researchers find that dogs mimic each other's expressions, showing signs of empathy.

Chris Matyszczyk
2 min read

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.

Do they feel what other dogs feel? Do they mimic their faces?


It's the holiday season, when families and friends get together to celebrate the fact that there are NBA games on TV.

As the ouzo flows and souls relax, there will be mockery and mimicry.

Which means, perhaps, that humans are a little like dogs.

It seems, you see, that canines may be excellent, instinctive mimics. They copy each other's expressions in order to become chums.

I learn this from research conducted at the University of Pisa in Italy. These scientists leaned in and considered how it was that some dogs get along.

The study, published on Wednesday, is called "Rapid Mimicry And Emotional Contagion In Domestic Dogs."

Rapid mimicry is a response scientists have found in humans and apes in which individuals automatically mimic each other's facial expression. In humans, it seems to reflect our capacity for empathy.

But it's also a response shared by our four-legged friends. After observing dogs, researchers concluded: "The stronger the social bonding, the higher the level of rapid mimicry."

From this observation, the researchers went further: "Our results demonstrate the presence of rapid mimicry in dogs, the involvement of mimicry in sharing playful motivation and the social modulation of the phenomenon."

In essence, then, the researchers believe not only that dogs mimic each other but that they experience some level of empathy with other dogs.

The lead researcher, Dr. Elisabetta Palagi, told the BBC: "A dog while playing with another dog can read their motivation and the emotional state of the other dog by mimicking the same expression and body movement of the other dog."

That is quite a leap. Playing with another dog is one thing. Understanding the feelings of another dog is a slightly more elevated mental state.

The researchers observed 49 dogs playing in the park in Palermo, Italy, and filmed them. Some were pure breed, some mixed breed. This was all with the approval of the dogs' owners, of course. In all, they had 50 hours of video to parse.

That would certainly incite some expressions of emotions from me.

Can it be, then, that dogs have sophisticated communication systems among themselves? Why on earth do they bark at each other on sight, in that case?

If only science could tell us exactly what other animals are thinking and feeling. I suspect we'd be rather surprised.