It’s Halloween season again, and if you live in America, you’re probably not far from elaborately decorated homes and there may even be a haunted house attraction or two in your town. There’s a reason that it’s one of the most popular holidays, along with Christmas.
People like being scared in safe ways. That’s why a lot of us watch horror movies, or go on thrill rides, or visit escape rooms. There’s something about the excitement of facing fake danger that many people enjoy.
A big reason for this is that we know that the scares aren’t real, and we trust that nothing bad is going to happen. We know that the actor dressed as a zombie who pops out of that dark corner is not going to hurt us. We may scream anyway, but then we laugh at our own fear.
Needless to say, dogs handle fake scares in an entirely different way.
That is, to a dog, the scare is not fake at all. Since they live in the moment, they take things at face value, and if something looks like a threat, they react to it accordingly. People can and do get bitten by their own dogs, no matter how non-aggressive that dog is, if they startle them in the wrong way, or create the perception of danger.
This is because dogs, unlike humans, are not intellectually equipped to overcome their natural responses to danger: fight, flee, or surrender. They can only overcome them regarding a specific stimulus once they are confident that it isn’t a threat.
You’ve seen this if you’ve ever seen your dog suddenly stop and cower at the sight of a plastic bag ruffling on the ground but then proceed once they determine that it isn’t another animal, but this doesn’t mean that they instantly get over their fear of threatening plastic bags forever. It just means that they’re no longer afraid of this particular bag, right here and right now.
It’s similar to the reaction of a dog that always runs when you pretend to throw the ball only to stop in confusion when they don’t see a ball go flying away. It can take a long time, during one game, for them to finally figure it out and stop being fooled — but play fetch the next day and pull the same trick, and they’ll be fooled all over again.
You might think that dogs are constantly tricked by fake-outs and false dangers because they’re incapable of deceiving us, but it turns out that dogs actually do use deception when they have incentive. In a fascinating study led by Marianne Heberlein at the University of Zürich and published in Animal Cognition, researchers discovered that dogs would mislead humans if it meant the difference between getting a treat or not.
In the basic set-up, the dogs met two people, one of whom would always share a dog treat with them and the other who would always keep the treat for themselves. Once the dog had figured that part out, they were presented with three boxes — one with their preferred treat, one with a not quite as desirable treat, and the third one empty. They were also taught that their human would take them to the boxes and give them what was in the box the dog picked after the next part of the experiment.
The next part involved one of the two experimenters taking her to the boxes. If it was the generous person, the dog would pick one of the boxes with a treat. But when they were with the selfish person, they would lead them to the less desirable treat or to the empty box, knowing that they would get nothing now, but were guaranteed a treat when their owner brought them back.
In keeping with the Halloween theme, you could say that the dogs learned to trick the human to get the treat! However, we also need to remember that it’s not nice to trick our dogs by scaring them, because while they may know how to deceive, they also cannot perceive the difference between a real and imaginary threat. In order to be compassionate Pack Leaders, we should never put them in the position of having to guess, no matter how “cute” or “funny” we think their startled reactions are.
Stay calm, and Happy Halloween!