Emotional Responsibility and Self-fulfilling Prophecies (“Expectancy Effect”)
Anyone who has spent more than five minutes talking to us knows that we are big proponents of puppy parental responsibility—we all need to take responsibility for the actions of our dogs.
There’s a part of this responsibility we don’t talk enough about, and that is emotional responsibility and self-fulfilling prophecies.
We love dogs because they are such sweet, in-tune, and sensitive beings. That’s a tremendous upside. But that also gives us a big responsibility in managing our emotions and emotional expectations around our dogs.
We sometimes worry and care so much about our dogs and that they grow up to be as great as they can that we inadvertently end up creating the very situation we were trying to prevent. An expectation—conscious or subconscious—creates the very behavior that is expected, whether positive or negative.
This has been shown in countless behavioral experiments and is known as the “expectancy effect.” If you want to read a little more about this effect, this link describes a classic experiment with rats where one group of handlers expected their rats to be “bright” and another to be “dull.” http://psych.wisc.edu/braun/281/Intelligence/LabellingEffects.htm The rats with handlers who expected them to be smart far outperformed the rats with handlers who expected them not to be smart.
As an example, I might be very concerned about properly socializing my dog and that she not be afraid of people. So every time I bring her to meet someone, I feel anxious about making sure she’s ok. She doesn’t understand that my anxiety is for her well-being, and what she experiences is that whenever we meet a stranger I get anxious. So to her, that means that new people are scary. She quickly learns to be timid and anxious with new people. That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: I was worried about her meeting new people so she became worried about meeting new people.
The upside of this is that you can use the very same principle to help your puppy socialize well. If you approach people with the confidence and expectation that your puppy will be friendly and appropriate, then she will sense that and react much more in line with your behavior and expectations. Even if your puppy has a hard time meeting new people, this behavior on your part will help her work through that as she will see that you aren’t afraid. Lead your puppy by example emotionally and through your interactions. That’s not to say that actual training isn’t important, but your attitude and expectations goes a long way in supporting the training. Expect your puppy to be good, confident, happy and that will go a long way in helping her achieve those states.
So when we are working with puppies, it’s important to remember to be strong for them and have positive expectations because they will feel our anxiety or stress. They can literally smell and see the emotional expressions on our faces and in our body language (dogs are masters of body language reading—the CIA and FBI really should have some on their interrogation staff!). It’s great to have positive expectations, and important to manage negative ones.
If you feel you may be setting up a negative self-fulfilling prophecy with a particular behavior or situation, ask a dog-savvy friend to observe, call us, or contact a professional to help. Set your dog up for success and she will surprise you with what she can do!
If you want to read more about this topic, here are some places to start: