Years ago when I adopted my little savage, Sox, I called a dog trainer to help me tame my wild puppy. During one of the first training sessions, her trainer, Chris, said something along the lines of “dogs are superstitious.”
It took me a second to process the statement, and it’s taken me years to fully understand what he meant. Now years after working with animals on a daily basis, I completely agree. I’m certain dogs, and all other animals for that matter, are superstitious. It’s just one more way in which humans and animals are alike.
Superstitions stem from misunderstanding. For example, many cultures believe women should not put their purses on the ground because, if they do, their money will disappear. Well, I believe this superstition found its way into our lives because centuries ago thieves would steal money from chatty, old women who were distracted by stories of their neighbors’ dirty laundry. Easy explanation, right?
But the ladies swore their money vanished without a trace, resulting in a superstition many of us continue to adopt in our everyday lives. Just to be on the safe side, even when I’m alone in my home, I refuse to put my purse on the floor. I work hard for my money and don’t want it to disappear!
The point is superstitions stem from the unexplained. And there is a lot our pets don’t understand about our world, causing them to develop rationalizations of sorts.
For example, one of Sox’s “tricks” while transitioning from beast to beauty was counter-surfing. Titan never even sniffed a counter, so I was completely unprepared when Sox gobbled up two-dozen chocolate chip cookies I had baked for out-of-town guests. Yes, I said, “chocolate chip.” It was not a great experience.
I was similarly stunned when, only a couple nights later, my chunky monkey downed almost an entire pizza in the two seconds I left her alone. This is where her trainer, Chris, entered the picture.
Chris recommended I use a spray bottle of water (add some vinegar to sour the taste if you have an aqua-loving dog but watch the eyes because that stuff stings) and spray her in the mouth when she approached the counter. Or squirt her if there was anything else I wanted to keep her from doing — climbing, approaching, destroying, etc.
Eventually, he said, she would come to believe the counter was spraying her, thus developing an aversion to it. The only catch was I had to be ninja-like in my approach: She could not see the bottle or me spraying it. If she did and was smart enough, she would believe “the counter” only was spraying her when I was there, yielding the technique useless.
There are animals convinced dancing in front of their food bowls makes food appear. They don’t see it as a form of effective communication; they see it as worship.
And you really can’t blame them. The animal gets hungry, goes to the bowl to check if there is food, picks up the bowl and tosses it a few times. The owner realizes it’s past dinnertime and feeds the starving pet. Thank you, food gods! The pet develops a belief twirling the food bowl like a baton will produce food. Voila, a superstition is born.
Training and superstition ultimately go hand in hand. And by hand in hand, I mean we should use our pet’s superstitious tendencies to our training advantage. You will never be able to explain to your pets the Persian rug in your living room is worth a serious sum. But you will be able to convince your silk-spoiled pup the rug is evil by dusting a bit of cayenne pepper on it. Your pup will avoid that rug like the plague. That stuff does not feel good up your nose, let alone taste good.
Open your eyes and watch your pets. You will see your superstitious little monsters in action and maybe get a little laugh out of it. But always be good to your pets. Only use the cayenne technique when absolutely necessary!