Do dogs have lucky socks?

Baseball players are known for their superstitious ways. Winning streaks are dependent on wearing the same socks every game. Heaven forbid you wash them in-between games, lest you lose that essence of fortune. Dogs have superstitious behaviors as well, they just don’t generally involve wearing stinky articles of clothing.
So, what is a superstitious behavior in a dog? It’s a behavior the dog performs because he has attached it to a particular cue. For example, our dogs get their dietary supplements every morning in a wad of peanut butter on a spoon. Everytime Bingley gets his, he takes it from the spoon, swallows it, and then licks his right foreleg. Every day, every time. Lick, lick, lick, until his breakfast is served. How this quirky licking (ie: the superstitious behavior) started I am not sure, but I think some peanut butter dropped on his leg right after he got his supplements and now that is what one must do after getting a wad of peanut butter in the kitchen in the mornings.
You want us to sit? But we're not in the kitchen...

You want us to sit? But we’re not in the kitchen…

Superstitious behaviors can happen in relationship to you and your dog and the cues you give him for particular behaviors. Dogs may think that a behavior is only “legit” if mom does “that one thing.” This can handicap your training because your dog may learn “oh man, ‘sit’ is only legitimate if I’m right in front of mom and she has her hands next to her stomach. Any other time she says that word, it’s not a real situation to sit.” To avoid this phenomenon, I encourage owners to practice their cues in different places, positions, times, and scenarios. That way your dog won’t begin to look for the “is this a legit request?” sign, and will merely attach the word to the desired behavior. Therefore, when working on sit, down, come, name-your-favorite-behavior-here, do it in a variety of ways, and in a variety of places. For example, to see if your dog really knows sit*, see if you can complete this challenge:

Does your dog sit when you say the command:
• standing with your back to him
• sitting down with your back to him
• lying down (on your side, on your back, on your stomach)
• from a different room
• while not looking at him.
Run away! Run away!

Run away! Run away!

Why is it important that your dog understand that a command means a particular behavior no matter the circumstances? In the case of Bingley’s peanut butter superstition, nothing bad is going to happen to him if he continues to ritually lick his leg until breakfast is served. But it doesn’t take much to imagine a scenario where it would be critical for your dog to respond, immediately, to your command to sit, down, stop, or back up.** What if your dog is chasing a squirrel and is headed towards the street? Or, you are on one side of the street and your dog, on the other side, desperately wants to get to you? Or you are at the dog park and realize one of the fences is down and Fido sees a deer just ahead? This is not the time for your dog to think that your cue is not legitimate because you are not doing that one thing that makes it a real command.

So pick a behavior and commit to doing it 50 times a day. Do it in every room in your house that the dog is allowed. Do it while you sit, stand, lie down, or with your back to him. Walk out of sight and ask him to sit (or wait, lie down, recite the preamble to the constitution, etc). Now, go outside and do all of the above. Start in the least distracting part (the back porch, garage, back patio, etc) and work up to doing this in the most distracting part of your exterior environment. If Rover is having a hard time doing what you ask, then go back to an easier place and practice some more before you head to the big time. Once you have one behavior perfected, repeat with another. Then, amaze your family and friends as Rover performs, every time, every place!

I will sit. I will not chase the deer. I will sit. I will not chase the deer…

* Dr. Ian Dunbar designed several tests to help you figure out just what Fido knows about a given cue. “The first was a Sit Test — nothing fancy, no bizarre or frightening distractions — just minor variations in what the dog expects. I chose ‘Sit’ because it is the easiest command to teach, probably the first command that many dogs learn, and the command that everyone is convinced that their dog “knows.”
**Patricia McConnell has a great story about how “Down!” saved her dog from being attacked by another dog. See her book, For the Love of a Dog, Chapter 1. 

General General Training or "Why, Why, WHY?"2 comments

  1. Cool. This made me remember something I read or heard about dogs long ago: that they have lower transferability of knowledge than we do. That dogs soaked in all the conditions present when they trained and didn’t necessarily assume the command was even a command if, say, another person walked into the room. So you had to lock the training in with as many variables as possible. And, of course, not get too upset if they seemed to forget everything in totally new situations. Thanks for the great advice. (As usual!!) I’ll be watching my dogs more closely for avoiding cracks in sidewalks, etc.

  2. Julie Smith says:

    Thank you Laura, especially for the reminder that one thing we also have to train for is the distraction of people! Sit may mean sit in every room in the house, but all is forgotten when Uncle Bob comes in the room! Add distractions slowly, practice often, pay well!

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