Monday, September 10, 2012

Bad Dog: A Self Fulfilling Prophecy

When I am taking Otis with me outside to parks and other public areas, people always comment on how polite and quiet he is. Since Oats is not too fond of being pet, I usually have him perform some tricks. This culminates into everybody saying how Otis is only like this because he is a freakishly smart dog and how their own dog is too stupid to learn any of these tricks. The way I see it, their relationship with their so-called stupid dogs is due to a self-fulfilling prophecy: Their dogs are stupid because they think their dogs are stupid.

According to most people, Oats is a freakishly smart dog!

Defining a Good Dog

Otis is a wonderful dog. His favorite tricks include nodding his head, resting his chin in someone's hand or lap, backing up, jumping, and running into his crate on cue. He can perform many different tricks and is eligible for an Intermediate Trick Dog title, if only I had the money to get him one! He also likes to boogie board and has his own boogie board to use in the swimming pool. People see this and they are baffled at how much he can do. Most people say that their own dogs are too dumb to do more than give a paw and sit down on cue, but when I watch how they interact with their dogs, I can only think that if I treated Otis like that, he would not have been able to learn half of what he did. They treat their dogs like bad dogs, and so, their dogs learn to be bad dogs. This is related to the self-fulfilling prophecy.   

My little sister runs Oats through his fave tricks.

What is a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?

Rat running a maze.

A self-fulfilling prophecy is when a person's expectations about another person, or in this case, a dog, eventually leads to behavior that confirms these expectations. A study that shows this clearly is when students were given rats to train to run a maze.  Half of the students were told that their rats were specifically bred to be maze-smart and could learn quickly. The other half were told that their rats were not maze-smart and would not learn the mazes as quickly. In actuality, there was no differences between the maze aptitude of these rats; however, the students with the maze-smart rats had taught the rats more quickly. This is because the students with the maze-smart rats believed that their rats were smart while the ones with the other group of maze-dumb rats believed that their rats were dumb. This caused the rats to learn at different rates. Perhaps the ones with maze-smart rats gave more positive feedback to the rats at small successful steps and the ones with the maze-dumb rats showed disappointment when their rats did not perform perfectly.  The self-fulfilling prophecy is actually a lot more powerful than many people think it is!

The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy in Bad Dogs

Several of these so-called dumb dogs are breeds or breed mixes that represent the most popular and successful breeds in the obedience ring. An example would be the Labrador, which, as a pet dog, is usually afforded dumb dog status. I watch these owners of these dogs do things like leave their trash out and then chastise the dog for eating it. They also claim that their dogs are dumb for doing things such as not learning a trick in a few tries. They start the cycle by expecting too much from their dog and set their dogs up to fail over and over again, calling their dogs dumb for failing. In comparison, Otis does not eat the trash because my family put the trash where he could not get it until he was trained a default leave it. However, we did not expect him to magically know that the trash was off limits. What I find surprising is that people still consider Oats to be some kind of genius dog when it took him over a month to learn to fetch a ball and bring it back.

In conclusion, Otis is expected to be a good dog, so he is one.    We manage him properly in situations that make him anxious and he looks like nothing worries him. Other dog owners claim that their dogs do nothing or learn nothing. Perhaps, what their dog has learned is that doing anything makes them a stupid, bad dog, and, when you get down to it, a dog that does nothing does tend to look a lot like a dumb dog. This self-fulfilling prophecy is a rather sad one because people can do more with their dogs if they simply change the way they see their dog. Instead of seeing stupid, bad, terrible dog, they should see that their dogs are simply untrained!

Read More:

  • Rosenthal, R., & Fode, K. (1963). The effect of experimenter bias on performance of the albino rat. Behavioral Science, 8, 183-189
  • Rosenthal, R. & Lawson, R. "A longitudinal study of the effects of experimenter bias on the operant learning of laboratory rats." J. Psychiat. Res. 2, 61-72 [link]


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