Just Like Humans, Dogs are Superstitious

©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

You wear that special t-shirt when watching your favorite sports team play; you’ve found that if you don’t, they lose. This is known as superstitious behavior and we all do it. Sometimes we do it intentionally, and sometimes we do it unconsciously.

You might be surprised to learn that dogs (yes, dogs) also engage in superstitious behavior, albeit of the unconscious type. This superstitious behavior can have significant ramifications in dogs with behavioral issues such as aggression or separation anxiety.

It all has to do with Pavlov’s dog.

In the late nineteenth century, Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, learned that he could get a dog to associate a bell (conditioned stimulus) with the presence of food (unconditioned stimulus). This association became so strong that if Pavlov merely rang the bell, even in the absence of any food, the dog would begin to salivate. The dog had learned to unconsciously connect the ringing of the bell with the same response he had when he actually saw food (conditioned response).

Let’s revisit that special t-shirt you wear in order to help your sports team win. Over time, you had a few instances when your team won (unconditioned stimulus) while you had that t-shirt on (conditioned stimulus). You ultimately were conditioned to think that wearing the t-shirt caused your team to win (conditioned response).

And that is how superstitious behaviors start – it’s Pavlovian. This type of learning is known as classical, Pavlovian or respondent conditioning. It’s a staple of all Psychology 101 courses.

How do dogs create superstitious behaviors?

A good example is dog-dog aggression. This is when dogs act aggressively toward other dogs when they see them and it’s the most common behavior problem I see. The following represents a common origin for dog-dog aggression (there are a number of other ways this behavior can start too):

Max the Border Collie is taken from his mother at three weeks of age. He is hand raised by humans who are unable to expose him to his siblings and they fail to expose him to any other puppies or adult dogs.

At 3.5 months of age, Max finally gets to meet another dog. Unfortunately, the meeting does not go well. The older adult lab does not take kindly to Max’s jumping and licking. He lightly bites Max on the muzzle to get him to stop these unruly behaviors (unconditioned stimulus). Max retreats and is scared to death (unconditioned response). Unfortunately, Max has two or three more of these types of bad introductions as a result of his immature dog-dog greeting behaviors.

Max quickly makes the association that just the appearance of any dog (conditioned stimulus) causes bad things to happen to him. Any time he sees any dog in any context, he learns to act aggressively in an attempt to get the dog to leave him alone (conditioned response).

Max’s superstition is his incorrect belief that the appearance of any dog in any situation predicts that bad things will happen to him. The goal of behavior modification with Max will be to carefully manage (through some form of desensitization and counter conditioning) how he views this conditioned stimulus (i.e., other dogs).

Dogs develop these associations (i.e., superstitions) in the same way that humans do. I find the similarities between human and dog psychology compelling, and humbling. Many of the treatment protocols used in human psychology have their basis in ethology (i.e., animal psychology).

Addressing aggression and other behavior issues in dogs can be complex because of the conditioning issues involved. If handled incorrectly, behavior problems frequently become worse. Please contact someone who is certified by a recognized sanctioning body as a behavior consultant or animal behaviorist if your dog is experiencing problematic behavior issues.