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The Magic of Expectations

Updated: Jan 22, 2021

happy cute dog face looking up at camera

I recently listened to a very interesting podcast that explored how one’s expectations can affect another being. The hosts mentioned a study that was done on rats. The rats were divided into two groups. One group, the human participants were told, were highly intelligent. The other was filled with rats who, let’s say, would not have scored well on their SATs. Or perhaps their RATs. I’m not sure what the tests involved, but the results showed that those in the “intelligent” group scored significantly higher than those in the other group. The thing is, the rats had actually been separated into groups at random with no regard to their intelligence! So what gives? Was there some sort of human-rodent telepathy going on, with I know you can do this vibes being wafted to the smart rats? Nope. As it turns out, people handled the allegedly intelligent rats more gently and respectfully, which allowed the rats to relax, thereby yielding an increased ability to do well on the tests. People with the less intelligent rats handled them more roughly, which caused stress and a loss of ability to perform well.

It’s not just rats, either. Back in 1963, a scientist named Rosenthal wanted to demonstrate the phenomenon of expectancy—how expectations can affect outcomes—on student performance. First, kids were given an IQ test. Then, teachers were told that certain students had scored highly on a test that measured “academic blooming,” while others had not. In reality, the groupings were random. At the end of the school year, IQs were measured again. Among first and second graders, those who had been labeled as “ready to bloom” showed greater gains than those who had not been labeled this way. Rosenthal concluded that the teachers’ expectations had a significant effect on students’ scholastic achievements.

Well, you know all of this had me thinking about dogs! I remember a woman in one of my group classes who clearly did not want to participate in training exercises. I tried to coax her along, but I could sense her reluctance. When I finally questioned her alone, she told me that her dog was “just plain stupid.” She had taken the class to please her husband, who had said the dog was out of control at home, but she honestly felt the dog was incapable of learning. After that conversation I made a concerted effort to demonstrate often with that dog, who, given the chance, performed brilliantly. The woman eventually went from believing the dog was stupid to recognizing that the dog was actually quite bright. Their relationship gradually changed and they both learned and performed much better together.

I have heard countless people describe entire breeds as not very intelligent, or as stubborn. I’ve not seen research on the topic, but my guess is that if a similar experiment to the aforementioned ones were conducted, results would show that human expectations have an awful lot to do with how well those dogs do in training and in how they behave. I’ve seen many owners over the years who felt their dogs weren’t very smart when in reality, there was a disconnect in the communication between dog and human. Either the person just didn’t want to work very hard at training—because really, what’s the point in training a dumb dog?—or they simply didn’t understand how to communicate so the dog understood what was being asked.

I’ve had two dogs that are part malamute, one being my current dog Bodhi. Malamutes are one of those breeds people tend to label as “stubborn.” What exactly does stubborn mean? The dictionary would say things like, “contrary; headstrong.” In my experience, it means I don’t want to do something just because you tell me. I need a good reason. Hmm. I suppose I’m stubborn as well, then. Is that really such a bad thing? The malamutes and mal mixes I’ve known have been highly intelligent dogs. You simply need to know how to motivate them. When people expect them to be stubborn, guess what? They are! When people expect that the dogs are smart and capable of learning and take the time to learn how to work with them, training and behavior modification are suddenly a lot more successful. Bodhi was dumped at a shelter by someone who I am sure believed he was a lost cause. And his behavior was awful. But with a bit of belief and a lot of time and effort, he’s now a wonderful, intelligent dog with much improved behavior.

Our expectations constantly affect our dogs. Some people believe their dogs are capable of learning tricks and advanced obedience skills, while others never attempt it because they don’t think the dogs can do it. Some dogs go from being highly reactive with other dogs to being able to walk nicely past them, because their owners felt that a change in behavior was achievable. Others will have to be tightly managed forever, because the human at the end of the leash doesn’t believe the dog can change his behavior. There are factors that we know affect the success of training and behavior modification; patience, consistency, and a gradual, incremental approach come to mind, among others. Expectations should be added to that list, as their importance cannot be overstated. How might your expectations have affected your dogs? ___________________________________________________________________________________

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