Superstitious Behaviors in Dog Training

Definition of a Superstitious Behavior: Accidentally or unintentionally reinforced behavior where a behavior is reinforced but the reinforcement occurred by random chance instead of in accordance with a specific contingency.   —From the Association of Animal Behavior Professionals glossary

My little black cat Arabella never brought me bad luck

I wrote when I started this blog that I was going to share my mistakes in the hopes of helping others learn. Here are some nice big embarrassing ones regarding superstitious behaviors, but at least they date mostly from my earlier training days. Hopefully you, or any beginning trainer, can benefit from the lessons I learned the hard way.

The Terminology

B.F. Skinner first described superstitious behaviors in experiments with pigeons in 1948. He set a feeding mechanism to trip at variable intervals that had nothing to do with the actions of the pigeons. The pigeons nonetheless started repeating behaviors that had been “accidentally” marked and reinforced by the feeder.

The term “superstitious behavior” now refers to any behavior that is accidentally reinforced. A couple of the behaviors in this post stretch the definition. But even if they aren’t technically superstitious, they are nonetheless accidental or at least poorly trained on my part.

Summer’s Nod

When one of my agility buddies encouraged me in 2008 to start using a clicker, I didn’t know that I should practice timing. I didn’t know that there were mechanical and observational skills involved. A clicker seemed like a fun thing and I had heard that dogs got motivated and enjoyed it. So I also didn’t know that it would be wise to start with a behavior that involved only gross motor movements.

Uh oh.

The very first behavior I actually got with a clicker was a head nod, even though I was trying to click for eye contact. I realized this after working on this a few weeks with Summer. Summer would move her head to look at me and I would click. I clicked the eye contact but apparently also clicked the nod.  Strangely, the nod drifted to the period after the click and before treat delivery. The sequence went: eye contact, click, head nod, treat. The nod, immediately preceding the food, accordingly got a ton of reinforcement. Even though she did learn (despite me) that I was trying to teach eye contact, the head nod remained.

Four years later, I still get little nods from Summer. Interestingly, she doesn’t offer it in shaping sessions. When it comes back, it returns in its old place between the marker and the treat when I have just clicked her for something else. This is an example of a superstitious behavior.  And it turns out that I am really good at creating those!

It has faded some over the years, but I found a couple of examples. Want to see?

Zani’s Weave Poles

The following is a behavior that would have been very difficult to teach, had I intended to do so.

In the course of teaching Zani agility weaves using the two by two method, I would tend to mark with a “yes” the moment she made the turn between the last poles. This was the moment I was absolutely sure she was going to complete the behavior correctly. That’s a natural time to mark. But early on in our training, she did a few little jumps through the last pair of poles. I marked, and you can see what happened.

But what is most fascinating is that she does it only when I am on her right side. When I am on her left, she doesn’t do her “jump thing” between the last poles. I speculate that since she is very spatially sensitive, she is less likely to hurl herself out of the weaves when I am close to where she will emerge. Or perhaps I just didn’t mark the exit as much when we practiced on that side.

Clara’s Circles

Those first two behaviors are pretty cute. This behavior of Clara’s that I accidentally reinforced is rather unfortunate.

Clara has always been pushy. When she was about three months old I started a training project of reinforcing her for walking a few feet away when I was interacting with another dog. I started off with the other dogs in crates and was very systematic about it. I drew lines on the floor for my own benefit so as to keep consistent criteria about Clara’s distance from the other dogs. We did lots and lots of sessions where she would walk away a few steps and reorient at some distance.

It would have been better if I had taught a default down or Go to Mat, or at least thrown the treat away from our immediate area. I ended up unintentionally reinforcing a circling behavior. She would walk a few steps away, turn and reorient at the desired distance. I marked the turn way too often, when what I wanted for her was just to back off. But the “backing off” was not a well-defined behavior, even with my lines on the floor. So I ended up clicking an observable behavior, and that was when she turned back to me. Dang.

What is so unfortunate about this is that the circling either morphed into a stress behavior or it was one already. Because I have seen a lot more of it ever since those sessions. Clara tends to do it when I don’t mark a behavior that she expects to be marked. She will immediately whirl around, usually counterclockwise, then often retreat to a mat.

It is impossible to tease apart how much of this is due to all that early reinforcement, and how much of it is a natural stress behavior for her. I do wish I hadn’t trained so many 180 and 270 degree turns when she was young. When I set out to teach her spinning as a trick, it was dead easy, but I gave that a second thought and decided not to use that trick.

Cricket, Too

I even taught superstitious behaviors with Cricket. I tried to train a paw lift as a “wave” trick, but then it started occurring in her “sit” position as a superstitious behavior. Once it started, I kept accidentally reinforcing it. She almost never put her left foot down when she sat for me again. I didn’t know enough at the time to fix the problem I had created.

The way I first taught the behavior was not great either. A friend had suggested holding a treat in my hand and clicking Cricket for pawing at it, then fading the hand and treat. Such a bad idea in so many ways. Reinforcing an enthusiastic digging terrier for pawing at my hand? Ouch.

How To Avoid Training Superstitious Behaviors

I wish I could give some succinct, pithy advice that could keep other newish trainers from doing this. When choosing what behaviors to teach and how to teach them,  it takes experience to learn to predict the ramifications.

Here are the best suggestions I have.

  • Answer a few questions. Is there a persistent extra behavior that is happening when I train this behavior? What’s going to happen if that extra behavior sticks around? How can I get rid of it? If I’m training a trick—might this extra behavior or the trick itself turn up where I don’t want it? Might it interfere with behaviors that are actually more important to train?
  • Video yourself. If you don’t have a teacher, you can learn a lot by recording your training sessions, and if you are brave, showing those recordings to online friends if you don’t have a teacher or local training buddy. People can give much better counsel if they actually see what you and the animal have been doing. Most of us humans could use a lot of work on our observation and description skills. Cameras do a lot better job for a lot of us.
  • Get expert advice. I didn’t have a teacher to ask when I taught most of the behaviors I’ve described here. A professional would have seen most of my mishaps in an instant and showed me how to head them off.

A Success!

One thing that I got right: I started training that “backing up the stairs or wall” trick that was going around a while back. Zani just loved it and started getting good at it. It was great for hind end awareness.

But then one day when we were practicing our two on, two off agility contacts, she overran them and happily backed up into position. That would be a fault in many agility venues. I immediately stopped training the trick. A more experienced or patient trainer could certainly have both behaviors, but sometimes I realize my limitations. The risk wasn’t worth it to me.

Here is one more superstitious behavior Clara and I collaborated on. This is an example of something that is cute when a puppy does it, but can get pretty tiresome in a grown dog. Of course it’s still cute, but who wants their fingers licked Every. Single. Time. They go to open a crate door?

OK folks, please tell me I’m not the only one who trains silly behaviors by accident. Does anybody want to say what they have done? Or are you all perfect?

(Here’s a link to a one minute video that shows all five behaviors, to make my humiliation complete.)

Many thanks to Joyce Loebig for suggestions that improved this post!

Coming Soon

Copyright 2012 Eileen Anderson