Simple and Complex Superstitions in Dogs
More than one eyebrow was raised in my direction recently in a seminar I was giving. I was explaining a concept related to reinforcing desired behaviors and I stated that “dogs are naturally both religious and superstitious.” The attendees were skeptical. Understandably. Allow me to clarify. I do not, in any way, mean to imply that dogs have a sense of the supernatural or an eternal soul nor do they subscribe to any religion that humans do. Those questions and their consequences are better left to the theologians, philosophers and poets. What I do absolutely mean to state, is that dogs develop "religious" belief systems and superstitions that are every bit as valid in shaping their behavior if not even more so than religion and superstition are in shaping behavior in human beings. This can lead to phenomenally good results in training desired behaviors when we do it right as well as spectacularly bad results in producing unwanted behaviors and our inability to modify those unwanted behaviors away when it goes badly.
There are also specific times in a dog's life when these superstitions (negative ones) are more easily formed and when we must take special care to avoid creating them. Think of these times in their life as they relate to stages of human development. They are roughly the first grade stage, Jr High school/puberty and some dogs have another period like this that would relate to a human’s freshman year in college around the one year mark. We should not get too hung up on these times in a dog's life except to maybe be a little cautious about introducing aversives during these times and especially cautious about bad experiences with other dogs and humans. The fact is a dog can create and reinforce a superstition at any time in their life. When a dog has an especially frightful or painful experience during one of these more sensitive times, a single event may create a life-long, intense fear that the same event will repeat when similar stimuli are present. Such as the dog is bitten by an aggressive adult dog and from that point on barks at every dog that approaches and if pressed fights back. This is a simple superstition. A superstition may also be considerably more complex. We recently began work with a dog that had had a bit of a rough time in the home it was placed in. The owners had come to us with the explanation that they had been training in a number of different methods and with multiple trainers and finally tried working with an e-collar with the trainer on the remote. It is our opinion that this dog had already been pressured with aversives beyond what should be done in this case.
During the training with the e-collar the trainer provided a continuous shock to the dog. We do not know the settings or the duration of the shock because we were not there but we can assume the dog was either not prepared for this level of stimuli, it was too intense, too long or the dog was not in control of itself or of the behavior that the trainer felt was worthy of the shock. The result was the dog felt helpless to turn off the pressure and bit the handler. Hard.
This in itself does not mean a superstition was formed, however, The handler/owner was female and the trainer was male. From this point on the dog would react badly when handled by her owner when she was in the presence of a male. A male could handle the dog, a female could handle the dog, but put her owner on the leash and a man in the area and… Bite.
This seems to suggest that the dog has developed a superstition that requires a two stimuli combination to trigger the intense fear that gripped it that day the trainer stimmed it with the e-collar. Great. My wife and I may not ever be able to be together in the presence of this dog without her getting bit. Fear is the mind killer. There is no path to courage through fear for the dog. Fear reinforces fear. Courage reinforces courage. The Book of Dogmas 1:2-4