While at an agility trial this weekend, a dog in the novice ring was sniffing around while the handler tried in vain to get his attention. The handler came out of the ring, visibly frustrated, saying that there must have been some really good smells on the ground or Buster would not have been ignoring her. She went on to say that her dog does very well in class. While it may be true that the smells caught his attention, it is more likely that Buster was exhibiting avoidance behavior.
Avoidance is a natural behavior in dogs and humans alike. Avoidance behavior is a part of survival instinct. In the 1960s, various tests were conducted using “visual cliffs”, an apparatus created by psychologists at Cornell University. The visual cliff was made of a sheet of Plexiglass covering a cloth with high contrast. The cloth was right beneath the plexiglass at one end. At the other end, the cloth was dropped four feet down, giving the illusion that one would fall off, even though the plexiglass was still there. The researchers then had babies crawl on the glass to see if they would crawl over the cliff. They did the same thing with rats, cats, turtles, cows, chicks and lambs – sorry, no dogs. Most of the test subjects avoided “falling” off the cliff.
In 1953, researchers conducted an experiment with a shuttle box, a chamber containing two compartments divided by a barrier a few inches high. Dogs were put in the box with the ability to move freely between the two compartments just by stepping over the barrier. Both compartments had a metal floor designed to give the dogs a vibration. There was a light in each compartment which would turn on and off. The researchers turned the light on in the compartment the dog was occupying, then they would shut it off and turn the light on in the other compartment. After ten seconds in the dark, if the dog did not go to the lit compartment, they would feel a vibration. The vibration would continue until the dog moved to the lit compartment. Dogs could avoid getting vibrated by leaving the dark compartment within ten seconds of the light turning off. After several trials, dogs would avoid the dark compartment as soon as it went dark, with many dogs never receiving a vibration after the first trial. This served to prove that while avoidance behavior is natural, it is also adaptive.
When a dog feels a situation is scary or unsafe, his survival instinct will be to avoid it. The same can be said for situations in which the dog has previously experienced a negative outcome. William James’ book “Principles of Psychology” explains that positive reinforcement is a great reinforcer of a behavior, while negative reinforcement if an extraordinary inhibitor of a behavior. Dogs will naturally repeat behaviors in which they experienced positive reinforcement and will try to avoid those in which negative reinforcement followed. So, the next time your dog avoids a situation, try not to get frustrated. Instead, try taking a step back and helping your dog through the stressful situation that caused the avoidance in the first place.