Dog Training – The Clever Hans Effect

In the late 1800s, a German high school mathematics instructor named Wilhelm Von Osten began parading around his horse, “Clever Hans”.

You see, Clever Hans was no ordinary horse. Clever Hans could add, subtract, multiply, divide, work with fractions, tell time, keep track of the calendar, differentiate musical tones, read, spell, and understand German.

Clever Hans would be asked a question and he would tap his hoof on the ground until he came to the right answer.

People came from all over to see Clever Hans give the answers to some very difficult math questions. But some folks were not impressed with Clever Hans. They thought that it was all some kind of trick.

The German board of education agreed and appointed a commission to investigate Hans.

Did Hans really add, subtract, multiply, divide, work with fractions, tell time, keep track of the calendar, differentiate musical tones, and read, spell, and understand German?

The quick answer…NO.

Hans did not know how to do any of the things that his owner claimed. Hans was not a mathematical
genius but…

What they learned was that Hans was an expert at reading body language.

The investigators discovered that when a question was asked of Hans, he would start to tap his hoof until he came to the correct answer. He knew the correct answer by watching for cues given by the person asking the questions. The questioner’s posture and facial expressions changed in ways that were consistent with an increase in tension, which was released when the horse made the final, “correct” tap.

This provided a cue that Hans could use to know when to stop tapping.

In other words, Clever Hans was an expert at reading body language and knew when to stop tapping by the subtle cues given by the person asking Hans a question. Pretty interesting. Clever Hans really was clever, but not in the way that we thought.

Anyone that lives with a dog should know about this because this has lead to what is now called “The Clever Hans Effect.”

Social animals, like horses and dogs, become experts at reading our body language. This is important to understand when you live with a dog. Not too long ago I was working with a very nice couple that was having problems with their dog.

They said that their dog knew the sound of their car, became agitated before they left the house, and could become very withdrawn when either one of them became angry. I explained the Clever Hans Effect and that it has been found that many animals are sensitive to such cues from the humans that they live with.

Their dog was so “tuned in” to them that he knew when they were getting ready to leave, were happy,
upset and a host of other things which in turn affected his behavior. Today, the term “Clever Hans Effect” is used to describe the influence of a questioner’s subtle and unintentional cues upon their subjects, in both humans and in animals.

For instance, when drug-sniffing dogs undergo training, none of the people present know which containers have drugs in them; otherwise their body language might betray the location and render the exercise useless.

So why am I writing about Clever Hans?

Because your dog is an expert at reading your  Clever body language, many times some of the behavior problems you are experiencing are being reinforced though unintentional cues given by you.

JUMPING – How many of you reading this have a jumping problem with your dog? I would wager that a good number of your dogs are jumpers. How do I know that?

Am I psychic?

Nope, I just know that after 18+ years of working with dogs, jumping is at the top of the list when it comes to behavior problems and that the main reason it is such a problem is because The Clever Hans Effect is working in full force when it comes to jumping. It’s important to remember that training is more than a clicker, choke collar, or a pat on the head.

Your dog is constantly watching you for some type of cue that may indicate that it’s time to go for a walk, dinner or to jump on you. If your dog is doing a behavior that you don’t like, pay attention to your cues and see if you are doing anything to reinforce the behavior.

When it comes to dog training the dog is often blamed for bad behavior but sometimes we have to be careful of what we are unintentionally teaching our dogs.

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