Ludwig Huber

Messerli Research Institute, Unit of Comparative Cognition, University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna

1. Over-imitation in dogs and human children

Dogs have not only shown different kinds of social learning, from either conspecifics or humans, including do-as-I-do imitation, deferred imitation, and selective imitation, but in two previous studies they have also shown an eagerness to copy causally irrelevant actions. This so-called over-imitation is prevalent in humans, especially children, but is totally absent in great apes. Whereas in one of two previous studies a reasonable number of the dogs copied the irrelevant actions from their human caregiver (Huber et al., 2018), only very few did so when the actions were demonstrated by a stranger (Huber et al., 2020). We therefore assumed that over-imitation in dogs might be strongly motivated by social factors, such as affiliation or conformity. Dogs have not only been domesticated to live and work with us, but many companion dogs develop strong affiliative relationships with their caregiver, which are akin to the attachment bonds between human children and their mother. In this PhD study we would confront dogs with the same demonstration of causally relevant and irrelevant actions as in the previous studies, but this time with caregivers of various relationships (in a range of weakly to strongly attached) to their dogs as the demonstrator. The human-dog bond would be determined by using classical attachment tests, such as Ainsworth strange situation test. We hypothesize that the eagerness of dogs to learn from humans and to copy even unnecessary actions is strongly facilitated by their relationship with the particular human. Finally, to see if over-imitation in dogs is based on the same socio-cognitive processes as in human children, we would start a cooperation with a new Faculty member of the DK, Stefanie Hoehl, an expert in over-imitation in humans (e.g., Hoehl et al., 2019).


Huber, L., Popovová, N., Riener, S., Salobir, K., & Cimarelli, G. (2018). Would dogs copy irrelevant actions from their human caregiver? Learning & Behavior, 46(4), 387-397. doi:10.3758/s13420-018-0336-z

Huber, L., Salobir, K., Mundry, R., & Cimarelli, G. (2020). Selective overimitation in dogs. Learning & Behavior, 48(1), 113-123. doi: 10.3758/s13420-019-00400-w

Hoehl, S., Keupp, S., Schleihauf, H., McGuigan, N., Buttelmann, D., & Whiten, A. (2019). 'Over-imitation': A review and appraisal of a decade of research. Developmental Review, 51, 90- 108.

2. Social tactics of free-ranging pigs

The main goal of this PhD project is to test the hypothesis - implicit in most theories of the evolution of advanced cognition - that socio-cognitive abilities become apparent in groups of social animals if they a) are kept in conditions similar to the natural environment and b) if they are forced to use those abilities in appropriate, challenging circumstances, such as in competitive foraging tasks. To test this hypothesis, we will conduct a series of experiments that have been used in the literature to examine the socio-cognitive abilities of non-human animals. So far mainly species with advanced skills in both the social and technical domain, like primates and corvids, have been used. To control for the confounding factor of technical intelligence as the driving force of the evolution of intelligence, one needs to test animals with only modest abilities in the technical domain. Pigs seem to be a perfect candidate. They show a number of features indicative of social complexity but as omnivores only modest technical skills. Importantly, to bring their true potential in the social domain to the front, we will conduct the studies on free-ranging pigs (kept in semi-natural environments), where they (slowly) grow up, forage naturally, develop a natural group structure (sounder) and live for years. Experiments will be conducted to test their tactical behavior building on well-proven tasks such as the 'informed forager' paradigm. The few experiments conducted so far with this aim have tested commercially reared pigs living for few months in artificially formed groups.