Tonawanda News

September 10, 2013

Humans aren't the only ones with 'superstitious behavior'

The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Today can be measured in many ways. For instance, in exactly eight months from now it will be my birthday. Another way would be to note that this is the 70th article for Critter Companions. A third way would be to say that this is the first week back from my first week off as a columnist. Lastly, you could measure this day by noting that in only a few short days the first Friday the 13th in 2013 will be occurring (it happens again in December).

Forty-three articles ago, I had mentioned superstitious behavior in animal training. Superstitious behavior is when an animal offers a behavior during the request of another behavior even though it is unrelated to the behavior being trained. The behavior occurs again and again because the delivery of something good or bad happened close enough to the non-related behavior that their actions were accidentally reinforced or punished.

Superstitious behavior happens to humans often. A person buys a lottery ticket, generated by a computer, on a Monday. They win big. Instead of realizing that they were fortunate enough to get the lucky numbers that the computer randomly created, they give credit to purchasing the ticket on a Monday. From now on they only purchase lottery tickets on Mondays. It is their lucky day, after all.

A black cat walks by a child’s path. The same day the kid does poorly on a presentation at school. It could be easy (and foolish) to blame the cat for their bad luck. Yet, people and pets exhibit superstitious behavior. Pets show signs of superstitious behavior when they misunderstand what the trainer is asking.

I have recently seen this with the ‘come over’ cue. The pet caregiver wants their pet to come by their side. The person says their name out loud. The pet, laying down, perks up and looks right at them. The caregiver immediately opens up their arms and calls their name again. The pet stands up and starts to slowly walk their way. The caregiver then pats their thighs and continues to call their pets name until they are by their side.

I would say that the organism that is exhibiting superstitious behavior is the human. They might subconsciously think in order to get their pet to come over, they need to first say their pet’s name, open their arms and pat their legs. Luckily, it’s an easy fix. The caregiver could say the pet’s name and see what happens. If the pet doesn’t need the other flamboyant arm motions, then the cue that the pet is following to come over is hearing their name. All the other things that caregiver is doing is extra and not necessary. Judging the behavior of perking up, and standing, I bet that animal was going to come over, due to hearing their name, if they were given just a few seconds longer to respond.

In the training world when we say a behavior is “finished” we say the behavior is under Stimulus Control. It must exhibit a few things for it to be under Stimulus Control. One is that once you cue the behavior the behavior you asked is followed immediately after. For example, you say the pet’s name and they come in a timely manner.

The second criterion is that the behavior is offered only when the behavior is asked. A caregiver is sitting on the couch watching television. The pet stays in the corner playing with a toy.

The third criterion is that is not offered in the presence of another cue. If the caregiver asks for the pet to roll over and they come to the caregiver’s side, then the behavior is not under Stimulus Control.

The last condition is that no other behavior occurs in response to the cue. If the caregiver says the pet’s name and they come — perfect.  If they say the pets name and they bark and roll over then there is still some training that needs to be done.

Testing out to see if your pet has Stimulus Control can give you insights on how well your pets follow your cues. If they are a little hazy, break down all of the cues you are giving and see if you can limit it to one single prompt. The really cool thing about cues is that they can be as subtle as you like. The possibilities for cues are endless. It would be very impressive for caregivers to train their pets to lay down, sit, and roll over with covert cues like crossing the arms, raising a leg slightly or scratching their own head. Friday the 13th might be your lucky day to start training.

Kenny Coogan has a B.S. in animal behavior. Please email your questions to, or search for “Critter Companions by Kenny Coogan” on Facebook.