The Puzzle Week – Part 21: Social Learning

I used to call dogs learning about social interactions from other dogs “social facilitation” – but I just learned in Kristina Spaulding’s excellent Fundamentals of Ethology course1 that this not technically the correct term! Turns out that social facilitation does not meet the criteria of social learning: it just means that a certain behavior increases in animal A when animal B is present. When B is not present, animal A does not show the same increase in behavior. No learning has taken place!

So … what is social learning?

What, then, is social learning, exactly? And what’s the correct term for the interaction I used to call social facilitation? Let’s see. Social learning is learning by means of observing others. Kristina (again, in her fantastic Ethology course, which you should definitely take the next time it runs) refers us to a definition by Wynne and Udell2. They have three criteria for social learning:

  1. The behavior is not innate – it must be learned.
  2. It must be learned in a specific way: by means of social transmission.
  3. As a result of the learning process, the behavior also occurs in the absence of the demonstrator.

There are four kinds of social learning: imitation, emulation, stimulus enhancement, and local enhancement. Note that social facilitation is not on this list: while there is social transmission, a socially facilitated behavior does not occur without the demonstrator being present.

What is social facilitation?

Dancing might be an example of sopcial facilitation: I’m not into it. But if a friend convinces me to go out, I’ll dance if they do (preferably after having a beer or two). However, I won’t dance in the absence of said friend. Having gone dancing with my friend will not cause me to go back to the music venue, and dance on my own, or with other people. Once my friend has gone home, so will I, and I’ll be glad to go back to not dancing. I’d venture my dancing meets the definition of social facilitation, but not the definition of social learning because it does not occur in the absence of my friend, the demonstrator.

Back to social learning!

What are the 4 types of social learning?


Imitation is a goal-directed behavior resulting from the observation of another animal. The learned behavior replicates either the motor pattern or the form of the behavior.

Say an alien just landed on earth and sees a human drop a coin into a coke machine, and then drink a refreshing beverage. The alien, who has never encountered a coke machine, then also drops a coin in the machine and enjoys a soda. Going forwards, the alien is able to get a coke whenever they want (as long as they have access to coins and coke machines): through imitation, they have learned to work coke machines the same way humans do. If they used their hands to drop coins into the slot, we’d call it true imitation (they imitated the motor pattern). If they used their trunk to drop cpins into the slot, we’d call it functional imitation (they imitated the form of the behavior, but not the exact motor pattern).


Emulation is also a goal-directed behavior resulting from the observation of another animal. However, unlike imitation, the form or motor pattern of the behavior isn’t directly imitated. Instead, the observer just recognizes that a solution to a problem is available. Let’s look at a different alien. They watch a human drop a coin into the coke machine, and out comes a refreshing beverage. Yummy! Looks like it’s possible to get cold drinks from that big box with the Coca Cola logo on it! The alien now smashes the coke machine with its trunk, pieces of broken glass and plastic everywhere, and in the midst of it all, there are bottles of cold beverages, which the alien now enjoys. Assuming that I understand things correctly (no guarantee there), this is emulation. When the alien encounters another coke machine in the future, even if there’s no human present to demonstrate the coin-inserting action, the alien will know that there are likely cold beverages in it, and, if thirsty, will smash it with its trunk to gain access to it.

Stimulus or local enhancement

Animal A’s behavior causes animal B to notice an environmental stimulus, or a particularly interesting spot in the environment.

Dog A sees a cat and stares at it – dog B sees dog A staring at something, and follows their gaze – now dog B also sees the cat, and stares as well. Ta-da! Stimulus enhancement!

Dog A sniffs a certain spot. Dog B notices dog A’s interest in said spot, and heads over to sniff it as well. Ta-da! Local enhancement! Look how easy I’m making this sound!

Let’s clear up my former misuse of the term social facilitation!

So what do we call a situation where animal A observes animal B’s interaction with animal C, and doesn’t only copy their behavior right then and there (imitation), but learns something for the future? What if dog A is shy towards other dogs, but, after observing dog B’s confident interactions, becomes less shy themselves, even in B’s absence? Well, we’ll just call it social learning. Plain and simple.

If A copied a specific play move of B’s, we’d call it imitation (especially if it wasn’t an innate play move, I suppose). If A learned that it was possible to get strange dogs to play (there is a solution), but came up with their own way of initiating play (different from B’s play style), we’d call it emulation.

Once A is confident around other dogs, they might notice a potential playmate after B does, and then initiate or join the fun: stimulus enhancement! In case of doubt, just call it social learning.

And what the heck is social contagion?

Social contagion is a subtype of social facilitation. It is not social learning. In social contagion, observing a behavior causes the observer to engage in the same behavior – without knowing why they are showing the behavior.

Maybe this is social contagion? In any case, it’s hilarious:

Maybe this is social contagion, too! Game is chasing something to fetch it. Puzzle doesn’t know why she is running – she just does what Game does:

What about social support? Yours truly has been throwing that term around, too!

Indeed, I probably have. It’s such a lovely term, isn’t it? Social support. I want to give and receive it from my friends! I want to bathe in it! I want to be socially supportive of my dogs! That said, I don’t think social support is an ethological term. Assuming there is no agreed-upon ethological definition, it won’t serve us in the analysis of dog/dog interactions. It’s a nice buzzword though, so I might keep it around to spice up my paragraphs when its meaning is clear from the context. In any case, since you asked, I looked up its definition in the APA dictionary of Psychology. According to them, social support is

the provision of assistance or comfort to others, typically to help them cope with biological, psychological, and social stressors [my emphasis]. Support may arise from any interpersonal relationship in an individual’s social network, involving family members, friends, neighbors, religious institutions, colleagues, caregivers, or support groups. It may take the form of practical help (e.g., doing chores, offering advice), tangible support that involves giving money or other direct material assistance, and emotional support that allows the individual to feel valued, accepted, and understood. […]”3

The first sentence is useful for observers of canine behavior. The rest is anthropocentric, and irrelevant for our purposes.

Where are all the puppy videos?

I know, I know, you’re here to watch puppy videos, not to get hung up on terminology. But I want to get better at using the correct biological terms for the situations and encounters I’m describing. Explaining them to other people and making up examples is my favorite way of remembering stuff. So here you go! All mistakes and all misleading explanations and examples are my own, and not Kristina Spaulding’s. She actually knows what she’s talking about, while I’m only just learning. As Brené Brown would say, “I’m here to get it right, not to be right.” Feel free to point mistakes out to me (kindly and constructively, because that’s how we do things around here!). And if you are hungry for more geeky ethology, check out Kristina’s classes on her website and at the IAABC foundation.

Alright – back to the cute puppy videos! My next post is going to have lots and lots of dog/dog socialization videos. I promise! To keep this fun, we’ll be playing a game! After reading this post, I want you to tell me what you see in the upcoming videos: social learning? What kind of social learning? Social facilitation? All or none of the above? Hang tight – my next post is coming soon, and it will be gameshowesque.


(1) Spaulding, Kristina. Fundamentals of Ethology. IAABC Foundation, January 2022. (Will be running again in May – don’t miss it!)

(2) Wynne, Clive D.L and Udell, Monique A.R. Animal Cognition: Evolution, Behavior & Cognition. London, Red Globe Press: 2020. (Note that I have not read this book, but I believe this is the resource Kristina Spaulding is referring to.)

(3) “Social support,” in APA Dictionary of Psychology. Accessed March 9, 2022.

6 thoughts on “The Puzzle Week – Part 21: Social Learning

  1. Theo Jak e/o Zimet says:

    In every day life social facilitation has a different meaning.
    Imo it means: you preform simple tasks better when somebody is watching you.
    When we play frisbee and someone is looking at us I will do some throws we know very well and do my at most to make it happen.

    But difficult tasks will be preformed worse when others are around.
    My dog and I will preform better when we are all alone.

    I wonder where you picked up your dance example
    I am not sure you are on the right trail.
    You are being a good sport

    • Chrissi Schranz says:

      Using the term “social facilitation” in its ethological sense (it only occurs in the presence of the demonstrator, but won’t occur or increase in the future), I’d venture my dancing example meets the definition. It’s entirely possible that I’m off there though – I’ve only just learned about this definition myself. Help me understand why you suspect I might not be on the right trail there! 🙂

      • Theo Jak e/o Zimet says:

        I think your example of dancing with only one friend is a pretty good one.
        Maybe you will do another best friend the same favor of dancing together.
        If you participated in an interesting experiment and you were asked to do some somple dance moves (at the background not in the spotlight) you will probably go along with it. So the dancing behavior is not bound to one and only one person.

        Our labradoodle was fond of a toller. She frantically licked him in the face. She did this only with that toller. She did not generalize this licking behavior to other dogs. The first time they met, the toller licked her face. Because dogs don’t generalize as well as we do social facilitation might occur more in dog’s behavior.

        I always get the creeps when scientists give a different meaning to a popular term like social facilitation.

        Your explanation of the four types of social learning is lively and clear. Thanks,
        My question: Do you see more specific dog behavior with those new concepts?
        What do you see now that you did not notice before?

      • Chrissi Schranz says:

        Theo, this is a really interesting argument, and a good juxtaposition with the Toller example!

        After thinking about this some more, I still think it is social facilitation in my dance example: if I danced in order to do another best friend a similar favor, it would still only be occurring in the presence of the demonstrator (only that now, the demonstrator would be a different person). In order for it to be social learning, I would have to end up dancing even without friends who encourage me to do so. (This is not going to happen anytime soon!)

        In the social experiment where I’m asked to perform dance moves in the background – you are right; I might agree to participate (depending on who is running the experiment). However, there, too, would likely be a demonstrator of some sort. So again: not social learning.

        I’m not an ethologist though, so if anyone reading along is one – I’d love to hear your expert opinion of my dance example and Theo’s Toller face licking example!

      • Chrissi Schranz says:

        Theo wrote:
        “Your explanation of the four types of social learning is lively and clear. Thanks,
        My question: Do you see more specific dog behavior with those new concepts?
        What do you see now that you did not notice before?”

        My thanks go to Kristina Spaulding, who has helped me understand these concepts! If you want to learn more, make sure to check out her Ethology class at the IAABC Foundation!

        I don’t think I see *more* behavior(s), but I am able to slice my observations into finer parts: I don’t just see *social behavior*, but I now see *stimulus enhancement* or *local enhancement*, for example. I’m still seeing the same picture – but rather than seeing just blue, for example, I now notice aquamarine, navy, cobalt, sky blue …

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