Superstitious furry animals

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Illustration by Kevin Brockbank

Article by Colette Kase, first published June 2019 in Dogs Today
(Uploaded by Editor Beverley)

Are we alone in having strange repetitive rituals, or do our dogs have their own superstitions?

How many of us knock on wood without a second thought without necessarily considering ourselves superstitious? Plenty of common superstitions are passed through generations. The origin of superstitions can be rooted in religion, or even based on outdated but once useful practical advice. One of my favourites is the French belief that stepping in dog poop with your left foot is good luck because, biblically, our left side is ‘evil’. The truth is that most of these superstitions make little or no sense in a modern context and yet many still live by them.

Science recognises superstitious behaviour and can explain why you might have a lucky pair of underpants. Personal experiences associated with something bad or good happening to you can lead to a lifelong belief that it works. If your favourite team won when you were wearing a certain pair of underwear, you might feel obliged to wear those particular pants for all future matches even if your team never won again. That behaviour could either be motivated by a hope of winning again, or the powerful pull of fear that they might not. Either way, you give your lucky pants a power that doesn’t really exist.

PIGEON EXPERIMENTS

Animals practise superstitious behaviour too and for very similar reasons. BF Skinner, who taught us so much about the way animals learn, was one of the first to record superstitious behaviour in animals. In one experiment, he had food dispensers set up to release food for pigeons on timers at specific intervals. He began to notice that some pigeons would perform certain behaviours over and over again, believing that their behaviour was directly affecting the dispensation of food. Some turned in circles, while others swung their heads back and forth. He recorded that some of the pigeons would repeat these behaviours thousands of times with no real reinforcement.

Dog trainers are well versed in superstitious behaviour in dogs. During clicker or other types of motivational dog training, it can be either cute or annoying – depending on what you are trying to achieve – if the dog you are training believes that a behaviour you are not hoping for is exactly what you are requesting. Getting rid of the behaviour, as demonstrated by Skinner’s observations, isn’t quite so simple. It’s referred to as ‘extinction’. When someone tells you to ignore an undesirable behaviour in your dog to make it go away, think about those pigeons. Anyone who has tried to ignore persistent jumping up or barking will know that some behaviours just won’t go away that easily.

Kelly Gorman Dunbar, dog trainer, behaviourist and educator extraordinaire, told me a little bit about how superstitious behaviour manifests when training dogs and shared some of her own experiences.

“Timing is everything in dog training and when the trainer’s timing is even slightly off, or if multiple behaviours are offered in quick succession by the learner, sometimes there are interesting, and undesirable, results,” Kelly explained. “For example, when I was teaching my Belgian Shepherd to do basic positions – sit, down, stand – I wanted them to be super snappy crisp and full of energy. I taught the positions with a food lure and reward, and I used a lot of playful movement in my signals to get lots of enthusiasm from Mars.”

Kelly went on to describe how she watched a superstitious behaviour develop.

“Well, I ended up getting more than I bargained for. Somehow, in all of the excitement, while I was focused on speed of movement and accuracy of position to verbal request, I must have failed to notice that Mars was also clacking his jaws in a playful attempt to chase my lure and signal movements with my hand. While Mars’s position changes are indeed crisp and full of energy, he quickly associated my verbal request for sit, down or stand not only with his body movement but also with the jaw clacking. Talk about a snappy performance. Be careful what you wish for!”

SPLIT BEHAVIOURS

Hindsight, as we all know, is 20/20 vision. Kelly shares her advice on how to prevent superstitious behaviours while training.

“This is why it is important to initially split behaviours into such tiny, specific pieces and to reinforce separately to fluency before putting all of the components together to create your complete behavioural picture. It’s also a very good reason to identify exactly what you are looking for and to be discriminate in what you reward. Once a superstitious behaviour is in place, it can be quite difficult to convince the dog that it’s not necessary to earn the reward.” And this is why it’s called superstitious behaviour. It’s pointless, it’s unhelpful, but the dog still thinks it works. A bit like lucky pants.

FEATHER FLUSTER

When I started looking for dog owners to interview about this subject, I went in with the mind of a dog trainer, thinking that dog owners would think of superstitious behaviour in the same way that I did, but I quickly realised that they didn’t and got some very interesting responses.

Nicole’s dog, Ziggy, is a yellow Labrador. Her family acquired him when he was eight weeks old and they have had him for six months. He lives with two other dogs and a cat, and other than being described as having intense eyes, is, for all intents and purposes a typical Lab – except for one thing. Ziggy has an unexplained fear of feathers and Nicole perceives this as a superstitious behaviour, as there is no obvious explanation for the fear. Their neighbours have chickens and Ziggy is very specific about the type of feather that he dislikes: the fluffy ones. He stiffens, barks and keeps his distance.

Nicole says she always knows Ziggy has found a feather because she can hear him barking from another room. He certainly has no other fears or phobias she’s aware of, but she does admit she performs some superstitious behaviours herself, including not walking under ladders, throwing salt over her shoulder and the ubiquitous not opening umbrellas in the house.

Does the behaviour count as superstitious? Well, it’s hard to know because we can’t ask Ziggy why and this tends to be what frustrates our understanding of some dog behaviours that we have no answers for.

Unexplained and irrational fears of objects seem to be relatively commonplace. A number of dog owners I interviewed shared similar stories. Janice’s rescued Husky cross, Valentine, whom she adopted at the age of eight weeks old, was terrified of teddy bears. This was particularly odd for Janice, as Valentine loved all other stuffed toys.

Carla’s working Labrador, Inka, purchased at the age of eight weeks, started presenting a bizarre phobia of Tupperware just a week after they brought him home. They could never work out what triggered the fear, but tried to help Inka overcome it by associating the containers with treats. It did reduce the barking and growling, but Inka continues to be fearful when they are waved around at his level even at the age of seven.

A CLEAN SWEEP

Another owner, Tara, said her dog has what she thinks is superstitious behaviour. Harley, her English Mastiff, didn’t come into her life in a conventional manner. He simply turned up as a stray one day and busted through her screen window, sofa. Not exactly a behaviour that one would expect from a dog prone to phobias.

Even though she says he’s so chilled that she can quite easily vacuum right over him and he won’t even move, if she gets a broom out, he will avoid it like the plague. Tara has two young boys and two dogs, so she sweeps a lot. Instead of Harley becoming desensitised to the broom over time, he continues to make a wide circle around it whenever it’s being used.

Tara puts this behaviour down to possible abuse in his past home. This is something that the owners of secondhand dogs often attribute these apparently inexplicable behaviours to. We’ve all heard about the man with a beard, hat and a stick that perpetually terrifies every rescue dog.

Do our human superstitions affect the way we perceive the behaviour of our dogs? Whitney has some very interesting observations  of what she considers superstitious behaviour in her nine-year-old Pug, Chuy. She describes him as non-assertive, friendly and polite. She adopted him when he was about three years old from a family member who was no longer able to care for him.

Whitney described the first time they witnessed what she believes is Chuy’s superstitious behaviour.

Illustration by Kevin Brockbank

IF WALLS COULD SPEAK

“Chuy started by staring high at the north-east corner of the living room. Sometimes he’d start running around, spinning, and ‘talking’ to the area. I checked for maybe a bug on the wall and didn’t see anything. It continued and we were befuddled. I went outside that area of the house to see if maybe there was something outdoors that might be brushing against the house. There was some shrubbery and a small tree. We assumed that maybe squirrels and birds were making a noise there, even though it went on year round.

“One night, we were awakened by Chuy going nuts. He was spinning on the bed and yelping. There was a huge raccoon climbing the small tree right outside the bedroom window. The bedroom is right next to the living room, and shares a wall with the spot that interests him. We assumed we had the answer, and had the tree taken down and any remaining shrubbery trimmed away from the house.

“It was not the answer – his interest in the corner continued. At that point, we’d wonder to each other what it was. Finally, Terri, my spouse, commented, ‘You know, that’s where Dad’s chair was.’ Since stirring up the cute little dog was a thing Tom would’ve gotten a huge kick out of, we just made up our minds that Chuy was interacting with Grandpa.”

Whitney noticed Chuy’s behaviour changed after the passing of her mother-in-law.

“My mother-in-law, Jean, died last September. A day or two later, Chuy started looking up above the spot where her chair used to be. He didn’t ‘talk’ to it, just looked at it intently for a couple days then went back to being interested in Tom’s old spot.”

Benjamin Radford, award-winning author of the book Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits, has written numerous other books and articles on myths, folktales, critical thinking, superstitions and media literacy. He is also the deputy editor of the science magazine Skeptical Inquirer. It seemed like he would be the perfect person to ask about the way people perceive what they believe to be superstitious behaviour in their dogs.

Benjamin said, “Well, there are a couple of issues, including motive attribution and anthropomorphism. We see this, for example, in pet owners who believe that their dogs or cats see ghosts. It’s a common folkloric theme, the idea that children and animals are more ‘earthy’, innocent, or spiritual than adults, who have had their openness to such experiences drummed out of them by a rationalistic, materialistic world.

“Of course, animals have keener senses than we do, especially sight and smell, so they may be paying attention to an unseen insect in an apparently empty corner of the room, and the owner could assume it’s a ghost. So in that case, the superstitious behaviour is an interpretation imposed by the human mind.

WINNING GAMBLE

“Superstitious behaviour has been demonstrated in animals, though they may not be ‘rewarded’ in ways we would necessarily recognise. In humans, for example, we know that conditioning can occur with only occasional rewards, as long as they are noticed; gamblers may wear a lucky shirt, but they don’t win every time, and they would win just as often if they wore another shirt. But all it takes for the imprinting, the kernel of superstition to take root, is the elation of that first association between a positive reward – winning money, getting a treat etc – and the circumstances under which it happened. And as Skinner demonstrated, the reward may have no connection to the actions at all, whether bird or human.”

What many dog owners may not have thought of is that the onset of behaviour that appears to be superstitious could be an indicator that something more troublesome than a ghost may be the source of the problem.

BLACK SACK

Jo’s rescued Border Collie, Bella, was five years old when she took a sudden dislike to black plastic bags that seemed very much like a superstitious behaviour. This isn’t uncommon in young or anxious dogs, but Bella had no history of this kind of behaviour and had been well socialised. Jo noticed the behaviour getting worse over time. Bella would bark and growl at bin bags and dark objects, backing away from them in fear. Ultimately, it turned out that Bella had a disease called progressive retinal atrophy (PRA), a genetic disorder in Border Collies, which causes a deterioration in eyesight.

Jo explained how she made this discovery.

“I would never have known about her eyesight issues had we not competed in agility at an indoor show with low-light conditions! Poor love couldn’t see the jump until she got right up to it, so she had to almost stop dead in front of it and then launch herself over it. Luckily, someone videoed it for me so I could see it properly. I knew it was either a horrible injury, which was unlikely as she was otherwise fine, or eyesight.

“I had her checked out by a vet physio and injury was ruled out. My vet is an eye specialist, so she had the full test for PRA, which was positive.”

So, whether you always make sure not to step on the cracks in the pavement, or your dog does a little tippy tappy dance every time he’s fed, it seems superstitious behaviour is just another thing that we have in common with our beloved companion animals.

Remember that these behaviours may be based on fear or anxiety or, as in Bella’s case, may be the symptom of something more sinister. So, if you have any concerns about sudden changes in your dog’s behaviour, make sure to talk to your vet and, if necessary, get a referral to a qualified behaviourist.

Article by Colette Kase, first published June 2019 in Dogs Today
(Uploaded by Editor Beverley)

 

 

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