Are You Teaching Your Pet Superstitious Behavior?

DogBarking3

Warning: superstitious behavior is easy to create and extremely difficult to extinguish.

Superstitious behavior is behavior we erroneously associate with particular results. Animals create superstitions as we do. If by accident, a particular stimulus and consequence occur a number of times temporarily close to one another, we tend to believe that the former caused the latter. Both reinforcing and inhibiting consequences may create superstitious behavior. In the first case, we do something because we believe it will increase the odds of achieving the desired result (we do it for good luck). In the second case, we do not do something because we do not want something else to happen (it gives bad luck).

In 1948, B.F. Skinner recorded the superstitious behavior of pigeons making turns in their cages and swinging their heads in a pendulum motion. The pigeons displayed these behaviors attempting to get the food dispensers to release food. They believed their actions were connected with the release of food, which was not true because the dispensers were automatically programmed to dispense food at set intervals.

Dog barks at door.

Some cases of CHAP (Canine Home Alone Problems) could be superstitious behavior. The dog believes that if it barks long enough at the door, someone will open it because it has happened before. Many CHAP cases are not even remotely connected with anxiety as the dog owners erroneously presume.

Superstitious behavior is extremely resistant to extinction. Skinner found out that some pigeons would display the same behavior up to 10,000 times without reinforcement. Displaying a behavior expecting a reinforcer, and receiving none, increases persistence. It’s like we (as well as other animals) feel that if we continue long enough the reinforcement will follow sooner or later.

As always, being an evolutionary biologist, the first question that comes to my mind is, “what conditions would favor the propagation of superstitious behavior?” Making correct associations between events confers a substantial advantage in the struggle for survival. That is what understanding (or adapting to) one’s environment means. The benefits of getting one association right outweigh the costs of making several wrong associations, so much that natural selection favors those who tend to make associations rather than those who do not—and that’s why superstitious behavior is highly resilient to extinction.

CheeringDiploma
Happy Golden
Earn your Diploma in Animal Behavior and Training paying your fees in monthly installments
CPDT: EUR 110 — CACE: EUR 132 — CAAE: EUR 214
Start earning your diploma from Ethology Institute Cambridge, today!
Click here to read more and select your favorite program. Then choose, "pay by installments."

Superstitious Behavior in Animal Training

Dog snarling

Superstitious behavior is easy to create and extremely difficult to extinguish (photo from galleryhip.com).

 

Superstitious behavior is behavior we erroneously associate with particular results. Animals create superstitions as we do. If, by accident, a particular stimulus and consequence occur a number of times temporarily close to one another, we tend to believe that the former caused the latter. Both reinforcing and inhibiting consequences may create superstitious behavior. In the first case, we do something because we believe it will increase the odds of achieving the desired result (we do it for good luck). In the second case, we do not do something because we do not want something else to happen (it gives bad luck).

In 1948, B.F. Skinner recorded the superstitious behavior of pigeons making turns in their cages and swinging their heads in a pendulum motion. The pigeons displayed these behaviors attempting to get the food dispensers to release food. They believed their actions were connected with the release of food, which was not true because the dispensers were automatically programmed to dispense food at set intervals.

Timberlake and Lucas concluded in 1985 “[…] that superstitious behavior under periodic delivery of food probably develops from components of species-typical patterns of appetitive behavior related to feeding. These patterns are elicited by a combination of frequent food presentations and the supporting stimuli present in the environment.”

We should be very careful when reinforcing any desirable behavior the animal we train shows us. If the reinforcement happens to coincide with other more or less accidental stimuli, we may be creating superstitious behavior. We may create superstitious behavior with any reinforcement, but probably food is the most liable to do it.

 

Dog barks at door.

This can be superstitious behavior: the dog believes that if it barks long enough at the door, someone will open it because it has happened before. Many CHAP (Canine Home Alone Problems) are not even remotely connected with anxiety as many dog owners erroneously presume.

 

In one of our Guinea Pig camps, we saw Guinea pigs displaying superstitious behavior. One of them would place a paw on the tin containing the target scent and would swing its head repeatedly in the direction of the trainer. The piggy created the superstition because the trainer presented the reinforcers (“dygtig” and food) when it swung its head and not when it placed the paw on the tin right after sniffing the target scent. It did not take many repetitions before the animal had created an erroneous association. Another would walk over the tin if it didn’t get a reinforcer right away.

Superstitious behavior is extremely resistant to extinction. Skinner found out that some pigeons would display the same behavior up to 10,000 times without reinforcement. Displaying a behavior expecting a reinforcer, and receiving none, increases persistence. It’s like we (as well as other animals) feel that we continue long enough the reinforcement will happen sooner or later.

As always, being an evolutionary biologist, the first question that comes to my mind is, “what conditions would favor the propagation of superstitious behavior?” Making correct associations between events confers a substantial advantage in the struggle for survival. That is what understanding (or adapting to) one’s environment means. The benefits of getting one association right outweigh the costs of making several wrong associations, so much that natural selection favors those who tend to make associations rather than those who do not—and that’s why superstitious behavior is highly resilient to extinction.

 

Animal Learning by Roger Abrantes

If animal behavior and learning fascinates you, you will enjoy "Animal Learning," the book and course by ethologist Roger Abrantes. This is an indispensable course for all animal trainers as well as responsible pet owners.
Study online at your own pace. Follow your passion and earn a certificate.

Click here to read more and enroll.

Once a While We Should Focus on What Our Animals Can Teach Us

Dog And Owners
Our animals have a lesson to teach us. In these technocratic times we live, we tend to forget what is it like to be an animal (human animal in our case).

 

One of the most exciting aspects of the Guinea Pig camps, as far as I’m concerned, is how they evolved throughout the times.

Learning is an ongoing process and in spite of having held many GP camps, I still learn new fascinating details for every camp I have the privilege to conduct.

For example, for each camp we held, it became increasingly clear how important it is to build a good and trusting relationship with the little Guinea pig before we even consider teaching it any skills. If the piggy does not trust you, it won’t work. This should be obvious, but in these technocratic times we live, we tend to forget what is it like to be an animal (human animal in our case).

We also learned how efficient we can be when combining ethology with behaviorism, a daunting task many consider virtually impossible—but it is not.

Let me explain. Ethology studies the behavior of animals in their natural environment. Ethologists do not interfere with the animals, and as such there is no training theory to find in ethology. There is, however, much to find about interaction, communication and living together.

Behaviorism studies the behavior of animals in artificial setups. Behaviorists attempt to control the environment best possible to achieve the results they want by manipulating stimuli and consequences. As Pavlov showed, to control the environment is a much more difficult task than researchers first assumed.

Combining ethology with behaviorism means to apply the knowledge we have about the natural behavior of the animals with which we work with the principles of behavior modification that we know will lead us to proven results under controlled conditions.

It is not as easy as it looks because as soon as we leave a proven track, we are on our own. Suddenly, we have no longer a recipe to follow. We need to improvise, to dig deeper in ourselves, to find the empathy that will connect us to the animal we train. The rules, we so painstakingly have memorized, do not seem to work any longer. This is an illusion, though, for the rules work all right—though only after a myriad of tiny, individual adjustments, so that they end up resembling exceptions. In that, Guinea pig camps excel. I’ve seen it time after time in the faces of the camp participants: a mixture of excitement and doubt, comparable to what I see in my diving students the first time they jump into the sea to discover that they can actually breathe under water.

And so here I am ready to start a new Guinea Pig camp, this time at the Wolf Park in Indiana. Wolves and Guinea pigs have nothing in common except that they both have much from which we can learn. We will commute between wolf enclosures and Guinea Pig training areas, listening to their stories and learning.

We tend to focus on what we can teach our animals, but maybe once a while we should turn it around and focus on what they can teach us.

 

Wolf Park Logo

"I can recommend a visit to the Wolf Park, unreservedly. You won't find Disneyland like fanfares and glimmering lights, but a genuinely devoted and knowledgeable staff that will answer all your questions about your dog's wild cousin. If you're lucky, you can even pet a wolf and best of all, get your face scrupulously washed by a wolf's tongue. This is a tour you won't forget. Enjoy your visit to the Wolf Park!" ~Roger Abrantes

Wolf Park,
4004 E 800 N Battle Ground, IN 47920, (765) 567-2265.

ChildAndDog

We want to protect them, who need it most, our children and our animals. We want to keep offering "Knowledge to everyone... everywhere," free courses and blogs. Join us, buy "Dogs And Children," book and course, for the cost of a cup of coffee and a muffin. Help us to help them.

Can Two Training Methods Be Equally Good?

Treat Training Dog Cartoon

I receive many emails with questions about animal behavior. Most of them involve practical issues, but, now and then, someone poses a more complex question. Here is my answer to one of the latter, one I’d like to share with you because it deals with important issues for our understanding of animal behavior and training.

Dear ….,

Thanks for your comment, which gives me the opportunity to clarify a few issues. By no means, I see animals as biological robots or do I regard the Skinnerian approach as the truth, the only truth and nothing but the truth, quite the contrary (please, consider the following passages from “Mission SMAF—Bringing Scientific Precision Into Animal Training”).

“In fact, I suspect that [communication] even involves more than what science can describe with the intrinsic limitations of its key concepts and methods, no matter how stringent they are.”

“It seems to me, therefore, that our goal must not be to oppress or suppress emotions, but rather control them and use them advantageously. Emotional arousal proves to be necessary to learn and the right amount of emotional arousal even shows to increase the efficiency of learning processes.” (A very non-Skinnerian statement, I would say).

As to my own method to analyze learning processes in artificial set-ups (like in animal training), I write: “In a crude sense, SMAF is an oversimplification of complex processes […] certainly not an attempt to reduce complex mechanisms to a few formulas. In the end, [its] value depends solely on its successful application to solving practical problems; beyond that it has no value.”

Operant conditioning (when we use it correctly) is an efficient model of behavior for animal training because we control the conditionals to a certain extent (as Pavlov explains in its original writings, not the subsequent translations). Whilst operant conditioning is adequate to analyze behavior at a particular level, beyond that it is too crude a tool. To do that, we need evolutionary models and concepts like variation, selection, adaptation, fitness, function, evolutionary strategies, ESS (evolutionarily stable strategies), cost and benefit, etc. Thus, my approach to behavior is based on evolutionary biology and philosophically sound argumentation.

Greetings,

RAA

The core of the argument is reductionism, the view that we can reduce complex processes to the sum of its simpler parts. In a sense, all science is reductionistic. We attempt to explain complex processes with a few notions well organized in little boxes. That is a process that seems to suit our human brain particularly well.

However, we must bear in mind that our interpretations, independently of how good they are, are just our pictures of an elusive reality. They suit our particular umwelten but definitely not all. They explain parts of it from particular angles so we can make sense of it. Newton and Einstein, the classical example, are (probably) both right, only explaining reality at two different levels.

There’s nothing wrong about being a reductionist if only we do not get greedy and attempt to explain far too much with far too little as in, “That’s it, this is the way things are. Period.” Simplifying gets us often to the point, which complicating and oversimplifying, both have missed.

In animal training, one theory or one method can be as good as another depending on its foundations, approaches, what it attempts to explain and what practical purposes it intends to serve. If both are based on reliable evidence, use well-defined terms, and are logically sound, there’s little to choose between one or the other.

If only animal trainers would understand that, I believe we would forgo many senseless disputes.

Then again, we can brag about being the most emotional creatures on this big blue marble of ours, can’t we?

CheeringDiploma
Happy Golden
Earn your Diploma in Animal Behavior and Training paying your fees in monthly installments
CPDT: EUR 110 — CACE: EUR 132 — CAAE: EUR 214
Start earning your diploma from Ethology Institute Cambridge, today!
Click here to read more and select your favorite program. Then choose, "pay by installments."

The Biggest Difference between Humans and Dogs

 

The biggest difference between us and them is not that we reason and they don’t.

The biggest difference between them and us is not that we reason, and they don’t.

The biggest difference between them and us is not that we reason, and they don’t. If you want to observe rational behavior, look at the dog. If you want to see an emotional response, watch the owner.

Some animals, other than humans, do reason. They have well-developed brains and are goal-seeking. They acquire, store, retrieve, and process information. Research shows that other animals than humans also understand rules, i.e., that a series of events must happen in a particular sequence to produce a specific effect.

Animals of many species are capable of solving a broad range of problems involving abstract reasoning. The fact is that most of our research projects into animal cognition either adopt a behaviorist approach—its conditioning methods nearly turning other species than ours into automatons—or focus on particular human characteristics like speaking and counting.

The standard depiction of the ladder of nature, on which the various species occupy successively higher levels, places humans at the top. However, species have distinct kinds of cognitive processes depending on how they have adapted to their different ecological niches.

That brings us back to Darwin—the difference between humans and other animals is “[…] one of degree and not of kind.” (1871 in “The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex.”)

Special OfferHappy Golden
FEATURED Course of the week—limited OFFER
at a reduced price—ONLY until Sunday. Click here.
CPDTCertified Professional Dog Trainer online self-study
"Roger Abrantes teaches Boxer to retrieve

Earn your CPDT (Certified Professional Dog Trainer) diploma—nine online courses, two video Proficiency Verifications.
EUR 1,030 (or EUR 110 monthly) — USD 1,091.45 (or USD 116.56 monthly).

ReadMoreEnrollNow