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What My Dog Has Taught Me About Social Learning Theory – Changing Behavior

Cody Peluso Mar 02, 2023

We’ve all learned something by watching someone else. It’s natural. But there are many nuances to how this method of learning works, and sometimes it can be life-changing, as my dog Handsome would help me understand.  


What is The Social Learning Theory? 

Social learning theory is a psychological perspective that emphasizes the importance of learning from the observation and imitation of other people’s behavior, attitudes, and beliefs. It suggests that people can learn new behaviors and skills by observing others, and that this process can occur both through direct observation of other people’s behavior and through media, such as television, movies, or the internet. 

Social learning theory is rooted in the work of psychologist Albert Bandura, who proposed that people can learn by observing the behavior of others and the consequences that result from that behavior. Social learning theory has been applied to a wide range of areas, including education, parenting, and organizational behavior. 

Social learning theory is also a big part of our work at Population Media Center. 

How does my dog connect with a famous psychologist? 

You may be wondering, how do I learn something from my dog regarding a theory studied and advanced by someone who spent their lifetime studying the human brain? Well, a brain is a brain. Handsome, it turns out, is just as impacted by social learning theory as the rest of us. 

Some background. About three years ago, I visited the local pound in Albuquerque, New Mexico looking for a new dog to share my home with. I spent months looking at different breeds, puppies, and companions hoping to find the perfect best friend. I had found precisely who I was looking for and confidently went to the animal shelter with a very specific dog in mind. Before I could meet this new dog, I noticed families visiting with a different dog— all having a similar reaction. Anytime a new family would try to say hello, the dog would immediately retreat to his corner and defecate out of overwhelming fear.  

My well laid-out plans were immediately halted. I knew I was at this shelter to take this dog home with me.  

I was told he was badly abused, afraid of everyone, couldn’t be taken for walks, couldn’t be pet or touched, and that he would be a lot of work. I saw their doubts, their confusion, but I had no doubt this dog and I would make it work.  

For years, I tried hiring trainers. I tried treats. I tried every type of positive reinforcement possible. The results were mixed. Handsome, this beautiful creature, continued to live under the couch for a year. He would only come out to relieve himself or eat. I couldn’t pet him. I could barely look at him without him being overcome with fear. 

Enter The Role Model 

Smokey & Handsome

One day, I had the thought that what Handsome really needed was another dog he could learn from. Another dog who had experiences similar to his, but who acted differently. A dog who wasn’t deathly afraid of humans, or sounds, or toys – a dog he could learn from to live his life in a different way. A friend, or brother, who could show him he could change his behavior.  

Whether or not I knew it then, I was stealing this thought from a well-known psychologist who taught us that we learn through role-models.  

It didn’t happen all at once. It happened slowly, over time. But it did happen, and it happened because I brought home a new dog from the same shelter who immediately began showing Handsome it was ok to be loved, it was ok to go near humans, it was ok to choose what you want to do and what you don’t want to do.  

Albert Bandura emphasized the importance of role models in social learning theory. He believed that people can learn new behaviors and skills by observing and imitating the behavior of others, particularly those they consider as role models.  

According to Bandura, role models can be influential in shaping behavior, attitudes, and beliefs. Role models can be individuals or groups that a person admires, respects, or identifies with. Bandura suggested that people are more likely to imitate the behavior of role models who are similar to themselves, such as those of the same gender, age, values, or other matches to how someone self-identifies. 

However, Bandura also recognized that not all role models have a positive influence on behavior. People, and dogs, can learn negative behaviors and attitudes from negative role models, such as those who engage in aggressive or harmful behavior.  

Handsome learned what some might consider negative behavior, by being in a shelter with other aggressive dogs. He learned to be afraid of humans through his own lived experience, in order to survive. Up until this point in his life, it is fair to say, he had no positive role models he could relate to, to change his behavior.  

Smokey, his new four-legged friend , was the positive role model who changed his life.  

Smokey & Handsome

The Breakthrough  

After recently returning from a few weeks in Liberia, I was excited to return home to my dogs. They were excited to see me. Tails wagging, tongues out, paws in the air – you know how it goes. This time was different. Handsome now has roughly a year of spending time with a positive role model – and the change in behavior was reaching a tipping point.  

He saw how excited Smokey was to go outside for a walk with me, something Handsome never showed any interest in doing. Something he always feared. This time, he took the walk outside, making a brand new choice, based on behavior he saw in a role model who looked like him, had similar experiences to him, in a similar environment to him. He bravely went outside, making new choices in his life, thanks to a role model.  

The sun hit his face, his body warmed, his tail propelled as if he would soon lift off in excitement. It’s been three days. Three days of Handsome exhibiting a vastly new behavior of wanting to go outside, each and every day. He is still afraid of stairs; he is still afraid of collars. He still wonders if the door will be closed on him, and not re-opened, so I am sure to always leave it open, so he knows he will never be locked out. 

None of this would have been possible without a positive role model in his life. As much as I tried to show him new behaviors, the truth is, I couldn’t be his role model because I didn’t look like him, sound like him, I didn’t live the Iife he did. Smokey did. Smokey was relatable. None of this would have been possible without a dog seeing the behavior of another dog and deciding “I want to behave differently.” Handsome wants the sun to kiss his face, the wind to blow new and exciting scents in his nostrils. Handsome wants to live a different way. And he got to choose that. No one forced him. No one shamed him. No one told him he had to do something he wasn’t ready to do. He saw a role model, it took time, and then he took action. It’s exactly like the way we design PMC shows. 

I have learned from a dog, a sentient creature, the profound effect of role models in our lives. I have learned that behavior can and will change and all living beings can make new choices in their lives. We just need to see that this new behavior will have positive effects on our life.  

A dog that was afraid of everything and anything, had no power in his own life, feared any animate or inanimate object, now looks for the sun. He looks for freedom in his own life. I will be forever grateful for Smokey – the perfect brother and the perfect role model for Handsome.  

I am grateful for all positive role models in this world who show living beings there are new choices to be made. New behaviors to take. Change is always possible. 

Let’s change the world together.