dog looking happy and relaxed wearing an e-collar

Training Your Dog Using Superstitious Fears Is Possible And Effective – If You Do It Right. Here’s How It Works.

You Can Train A Dog To Do (Or Not Do) Just About Anything. 

When it comes to dog training, anything is possible with a little patience, communication and trust. Most of the time when we think of dog training we think of having our dogs learn to DO something. Obeying basic commands like “sit” or “leave it” are perfect examples. However, there are times when life would be a whole lot simpler (and safer) if your dog was trained NOT to do certain things. Teaching your dog to avoid specific objects, behaviours or places is a perfect opportunity to work with his or her natural instincts to avoid things that don’t feel good or safe. By strategically creating a superstitious fear in your dog, you can help them learn what NOT to do and keep them happy and safe in the process. 

Dog Training Serves Many Purposes But One Of The Most Important Is Safety. 

When it comes to superstitious fears, what a dog decides is scary or unsafe doesn’t always make a lot of sense to us humans. For example, once spooked by a clattering garbage can, your dog could decide that all garbage cans are bad and scary. To avoid being scared, they may decide that garbage cans are something to be avoided whenever possible. This could look like a dog that won’t go near a garbage can, that runs way from garbage cans or that barks or whines at garbage cans. 

Sometimes, superstitious fears can be annoying. No matter how much your dog loathes garbage cans, you still have to have one, right? If your dog develops a superstitious fear on its own, it can take some work to undo. However, the principle is a useful one for training your dog to avoid things that YOU have decided are either dangerous, off-limits or simply unpreferable. 

Black and white dog looking scared and hiding under table.

Training Your Dog To Avoid Things On Their Own Makes Life Easier And Less Stressful. 

Some obvious examples of things you would like your dog to avoid for their own safety and your peace of mind include: 

  • Busy roads
  • Snakes or other dangerous animals
  • Garden sheds where sharp equipment or pool chemicals are stored

On the other hand, some things aren’t necessarily dangerous (a dog nosing through the garbage can or digging in your garden, for example) but they are not acceptable behaviours. Having to correct and redirect a persistent dog constantly can be stressful for you – and for your dog. 

Training your dog to simply avoid these no-nos on their own would be much easier and less stressful for everyone! This is where the power of a well-placed superstitious fear can really come in handy. 

Are Dogs Really Superstitious? 

According to Paul Chance, author of Learning & Behaviour, superstitious behaviour can be defined as: 

“An increase in the strength of a behaviour due to coincidental reinforcement.” 

This definition applies to both people and animals. Dogs may not be superstitious in the same way people are but, like people, they do have the tendency to change their behaviour when they equate an object, behaviour or place (the cause) with something really good, or really bad, happening to them (the effect). 

Lots of people have superstitious beliefs about “lucky” items or little rituals we have to perform to ward off bad luck (don’t step on a crack or you’ll break your mother’s back!). Some of them are passed down to us from parents or peers while others are learned. For example, a pencil might become lucky if you use it to fill in the numbers on a winning lottery ticket. 

Dogs can also make connections between things or behaviours and the good or bad consequences that follow. Most often, these superstitious beliefs (good or bad) happen by accident – without intervention from you. Sometimes, your reaction actually reinforces the superstitious belief and makes it stronger than it might have been. 

When a broom falls with a loud crash and scares your pooch once and they may be suspicious of brooms. When it happens again, it confirms the suspicion and now your dog may develop a fear of the broom. This type of budding superstitious fear can be strengthened when you, the loving dog owner, rush to your dog’s rescue with pets and words of reassurance. Your intention is to show your dog that all is well, but to your dog, you are confirming that indeed that nasty broom was scary – scary enough to cause you to behave in an excited or agitated way.

As a dog owner, you have to be careful not to feed into unnecessary superstitious fears by over-reacting. That being said, you can harness the concept of superstitious fear and use it as a training tool. This is often referred to as avoidance training. 

What Is Avoidance Training?

Avoidance training is exactly what it sounds like – training your dog to avoid certain things, places, or behaviours because they result in a consequence they actively want to avoid.  

As luck would have it, animals naturally tend to avoid situations that they feel are unsafe or that have proven to be unsafe, uncomfortable or otherwise negative in the past. By avoiding the “bad” thing, they get the reward of feeling relief and not experiencing the negative outcome. They also remain safe. 

Training your dog to avoid a space or object is most easily and effectively done with an e-collar. Contrary to what some positive-only dog trainers would have you believe, e-collars are not cruel training tools. When used properly, they do not harm your dog or break trust with them. They are, in my considerable experience, a reliable tool for communication and training. You can read more about e-collars and why they work HERE in a previous post.

So, If Dogs Naturally Avoid Dangerous Or “Bad” Things, Why Do You Need To Train Them? 

The simple answer is because some things are best not left to chance. 

Dogs don’t understand human society and, as such, can’t be expected to know when they are at risk from something they may have never seen, heard or smelled before.

Antifreeze, for example, used to taste sweet. Too often, dogs would ingest it whenever they smelled it on the ground or if it was left out in the open. This led to many many poisoned dogs. Because antifreeze isn’t something an animal would encounter in nature so they have no instinctual behaviour. To know it is a risk, they would have to learn by ingesting it and getting sick – or worse. 

Similar problems can happen even when the potential danger is something found in nature – like a poisonous snake. In the southern United States, poisonous snakes are common and as many as 150,000 domestic animals are bitten every year. If your dog has never encountered a snake before, they won’t know to avoid it. And if they get bitten, they may not have a second chance. 

For Dante and I, having him stay “on place” while I am working with another dog is crucial not only for the quality of my training but for his safety, the safety of my client, the other dog and anyone in the area where we are training. I need to be able to focus my attention on my client so Dante is required to stay on place until I release him. 

Using An E-Collar To Create A Superstitious Fear

Because Dante is such a big suck, it isn’t enough to reward him for staying on his spot – his desire to be close to me would very quickly outweigh his desire for a treat. I had to teach Dante that the consequence of leaving his spot was worse than him having to tough it out while he waited for me. In other words, I had to create a superstitious fear so that he would avoid leaving his place until released. 

In both cases – learning to avoid a snake and teaching Dante to avoid leaving his place – a superstitious fear is created by giving the dog a stronger than usual “shock” from their e-collar. I call this an “Oh Shit!” moment. 

During regular e-collar training, the stimulation is used at a “working level”. This means it is strong enough to redirect the dog’s attention but isn’t uncomfortable or painful. Instead of an “Oh Shit!” it’s more like a “Hey, you! Pay attention.” To effectively create a superstitious fear, the shock has to be uncomfortable or even hurt a little. The point is to teach them that sniffing the snake (which could lead to a fatal bite) or getting down off of his place (which could lead to another dog or person being injured) is something to be avoided. 

Because of this training, Dante is able to hold his place despite distractions or his need for mommy cuddles. He has come across dogs, people, bikes and other distractions that have caused him to react, but he does NOT leave the bench. By creating a specific superstitious fear, I can trust that Dante will remain safe on place and that my clients will benefit from my full attention. 

Superstitious Fears Are An Effective Training Tool 

As a responsible dog owner, keeping your dog safe is always a top priority. Equally important is finding a way to establish boundaries and acceptable behaviours so that your time together is well spent and free from unnecessary stress. Sometimes this means training your dog to do things like obey commands and sometimes it means teaching him to avoid doing things, such as getting close to a potential danger. Creating superstitious fears to make the most of your dog’s natural tendency to avoid things that are scary or uncomfortable is an effective way to help your dog feel secure and safe within the boundaries you, his owner, have set for him.

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