Dog Training: The Superstitous Dog

When dog training, you, the trainer, can introduce superstition into your dog. Superstition occurs when the dog makes an association between and event and an outcome, but the event and the outcome are unrelated. When we hear "superstition", we think of an association that has been formed between a black cat and "bad luck". When dog training, a superstition is any unintended association. This could look like any number of things, from fears to unwanted behaviors.

Let me use the world of human superstitions to try to explain:

2000px-Chicago_Cubs_Logo.svgConsider the matter of a lucky item of clothing needed to "ensure" the home team's win. One day, I bought a new Chicago Cubs hat to wear while watching the game. Perhaps I am wearing this new hat while sitting in the bleachers. While at the game, not only did the Cubs actually win (bear with me...I am making this up to demonstrate something), but I also caught the game winning home run ball.

I've been to games before; most games are unremarkable. But today was outstanding...what changed? In reality, a pitching mistake was made against a capable hitter. But I am a human being, and like most humans, I cannot conceive of a world that does not revolve around me. The only change I am aware of is my hat. I make an association that my new hat actually caused the team to win. The association is not valid, but it still gets made because it was reinforced by both the win and the ball in my hand.

And a superstition is formed.

The Superstitious Dog

Those of us who have hunting dogs see superstitious behavior all the time. When I take my dog for a walk, he looks under one particular bush every time. This is because, once, 15 months ago, there happened to be a rabbit present that he almost caught. The superstition is that this location will generate a rabbit for him again.

When doing our dog training, many of the faults we accidentally introduce into our dogs are the result of unintended associations. These can make it very hard to turn the dog into a quality hunting dog. The two big ones are:

  • Bird Blinking: Here the dog has associated something unpleasant (pecking or scratching) with birds, and now the dog avoids birds.
  • Gun Shyness: The dog was surprised by the sharp sudden sound of the gun and now has a fear of the gun.

The Importance Of The First Impression

Remember the story of the baseball hat? What made it memorable for me was it was the first time I wore the hat. Now, had I first worn the hat and the team lost, or even the team won but I had not caught the ball, an association would not have been formed. When something is new, we are more prone to make associations about the new thing.

1024px-Nerd_11Think of meeting a person the first time...the most minor of social infraction turns you off to this person forever. In contrast, if your best friend committed the same social gaffe, you could easily overlook it. Point being: first impressions are huge.

Why Do We Care?

We care because superstitious behavior is easier to avoid than to fix. Once it is in place, it can seem near impossible for an amateur trainer to fix.

One way we can avoid improper associations is by making sure the first exposure to a new thing is a good one. I've written previous entries about how to introduce birds and gunfire to the hunting dog. In each case, the first introductions are done in such a way as to allow the dog to form positive associations and to minimize anything unpleasant for the dog.

Another key to avoiding superstitious behaviors is to take control of the environment when introducing new things. When introducing new things, additional stimulation should be kept to a minimum so that associations are not made between the external stimulation and the new thing. Both unwanted behaviors and crippling fears can be reduced by controlling and limiting the amount of extra "stuff" going on.

Practical Applications

I have two pupils this year: Zeke, who is the cover dog for this blog, and Shiloh, my own dog. The new behavior of "not chasing, but standing" when a bird is flushed is going to be taught. We are going to avoid unwanted associations by teaching this behavior in the safety and familiarity of the back yard. Zeke will be taught in his back yard, Shiloh will be taught in his. By doing the initial teaching in the back yard, the external stimulus is well known and familiar. No unknown dogs or smells or sounds or sights will be there, just the very familiar and nothing to be afraid of. Once the proper associations are formed in the back yard, then we can take the show on the road and work on the skill in new locations.

Also, when we introduce this behavior, there will be nothing remotely uncomfortable. We will hold the dogs in our arms, rather than relying on leashes and collars. While it is highly unlikely, I do not want the dogs to associate birds with discomfort around the neck. Both of these dogs have seen birds in wild situations, so it is unlikely that an unintended association would be formed. But by holding the dog, I decrease the chances.

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