Cognitive Dissonance, Fundamental Attribution Error, Confirmation Bias and Your Dog

A local dog went missing. The dog was hiking at a park with its pet parents. The dog’s pet parents invested in one of Washington’s top dog trainers and felt secure letting their dog be off-leash wearing its “e-collar” in a large on-leash nature park. The dog ran up to an on-leash dog, was attacked, became scared, and ran off. The dog was found 4 days later, the pet parents spent those 4 days worried about their dog and didn’t know whether their dog was suffering from injuries or had been hit by a car.  I wish missing dogs were a rare occurrence, but a 2012 study found that about 14 percent of dogs go missing in a 5-year timeframe and 7 percent of those dogs are not found.

This blog is not about bashing pet parents who just want to give their dog freedom and a good time. It’s about helping others learn from this misfortune while discussing several factors that hinder our ability to persuade others to change behaviors and beliefs. However, I’m afraid these skeptics will find this writing upsetting and I don’t know that I can convince them of anything.

Discussions about off-leash dogs in on-leash parks always garner two main camps of opinion, unless the discussion is among a self-selected group of individuals within one camp (confirmation bias AKA preaching to the choir). In this missing dog scenario, one camp blames the on-leash dog because, in their opinion, aggressive dogs have no right to be out in public endangering others. This camp says that leash rule is just a suggestion, meant for people who don’t bother to train their dog.

The other camp blames the pet parents of the missing dog for not leashing their dog or preventing their dog from approaching the on-leash dog. The law is on their side. Even dogs that have been deemed dangerous by the county are allowed to be walked on-leash in on-leash parks, though they may be required to wear a muzzle.  The law also usually sides with the on-leash dog when there is a fight between an on-leash dog and an illegally off-leash dog.

Where do I sit? I don’t think this was an appropriate park for a fear-reactive dog. This park has some narrow trails with steep sides that can make it difficult to get off the trail and there are numerous off-leash dogs. One of the park websites has an article on how to cope with off-leash dogs. So, the park is aware of the problem but can’t police it. You have to decide if it’s safe for your dog.

I do not have scientific evidence on the risk of dogs going missing when on-leash verses off. We do have research on dog attacks and reactivity. In the Blame Game, I discussed many factors that contribute to reactivity. In Reactivity is Contagious I discussed a study that found on-leash dogs are twice as likely to threaten another dog. Do you still want to let your off-leash dog go running full tilt at an on-leash dog? A 2010 study found “If the subject dog was on-leash an interaction was half as likely compared to if the subject was off-leash. If the other dog was on-leash an interaction was again less likely; an interaction was almost four times more likely to happen with an off-leash dog than one on-leash.”

This horrible incident might have been prevented if both dogs were on-leash.

  • The reactive dog’s pet parent might have been able to get off the trail and let the other dog pass or distract their dog as it passed.
  • A leash prevents the dog from running off into the woods when they are too panicked to respond to cues.
  • The fight may have even been stopped sooner because both handlers were close by and able to intervene quickly. It’s really difficult for one person alone to break up some fights especially in a kind manner.

Maybe one of the dogs would have still slipped from their handlers grasp and gone missing.

Many well-intentioned people responded to the missing dog post, mentioning how leashes may have prevented this tragedy. But consider this: How helpful was that really to comment this on a post of a pet parent whose dog is currently missing? Just like the dog being too panicked to follow its training, these pet parents were not in a good emotional state to take constructive criticism, the wound was too raw. In addition, if their dog being attacked and going missing didn’t convince them to leash their dog, do you really think the comment of a complete stranger will? This is why I don’t think I could possibly persuade them myself.

So how could someone possibly keep letting their dog off-leash in on-leash parks after such an experience? In a nutshell, Cognitive Dissonance, Fundamental Attribution Error, Self-Serving Bias, and Confirmation Bias. Let’s start with Cognitive Dissonance.

Cognitive Dissonance

When two incompatible thoughts or beliefs are held at the same time, it causes emotional stress so people try to alleviate that stress by either:

  • Changing behavior
  • Altering a belief
  • Justifying a belief
  • Gathering more evidence that supports their belief.

They believe they are great pet parents: they feed the dog the best diet they can afford, they took the dog to a “top trainer”, they take their dog on hikes and let their dog run and play and have a good time. This study found that pet parents were less likely to leash their dog if they thought the off-leash outdoor play was important. The belief that a leash could have prevented this ordeal does not align with their other beliefs, it’s easier to believe the other pet parent is at fault for their dog’s disappearance because that aligns better with their positive view of themselves!

Fundamental Attribution Error and Self-Serving Bias

Fundamental Attribution Error is where people are more apt to attribute a behavior of a person in a specific situation to their character and personality than to notice how the circumstances influenced their behavior. This bias is debated within the science community, some reviews suggest other causes for the behavior observed in the original studies of FAE. In this particular situation, I think FAE related behaviors go hand in hand with Self-Serving Bias which is our tendency to take credit for our successes but blame others or the situation for negative events.

So, for instance, when I see an illegally off-leash dog, I yell to their owner to call their dog and imply that things won’t go well if their dog approaches. This usually prompts the illegally off-leash dog parent to get their dog, though not always before their dog is in my dog’s face, harassing her. Many of them proceed to blame me for the fact that my dog isn’t friendly, completely ignoring the fact that she behaved perfectly the whole time. They tell me that I am the problem. They make excuses for why it’s OK for them to break the law in this park, and blame me for ruining their day. Many of them make it clear that they think I am an aggressive individual with poor social skills. They would be surprised to find out that my friends would probably say that in general, I am a meek individual, except when something angers me. People who refuse to obey the law and therefore risk the safety of their dog AND my dog is something that angers me.

What the off-leash pet parents don’t know is that I have tried being polite to illegally off-leash dog parents such as themselves many times before. I found that being polite is a very unreliable way to keep both of our dogs safe as being polite fails to motivate the pet parents to get their dog out of my dog’s face and will still result in them scoffing at how I am interrupting their wonderful outing and how my dog doesn’t belong in the park if she can’t handle loose dogs running up to her. As a result, I have had to buck up the courage to behave in a way out of my normal character to get them to restrain their dog.

Notice how their statements deflect their responsibility in the situation and put all the blame on me personally even though they are breaking the law, not me?  I am also demonstrating Fundamental Attribution Error and Self-Serving Bias in order to buck up the courage to be firm and as rude as I need to be, because in my head I attribute their lawbreaking to their personality and blame them for an interaction that wouldn’t have happened if they had followed the law.

Confirmation Bias

If an illegally off-leash pet parent and I were to tell a story of our encounter to our Facebook friends, we would likely get very different responses because our friends usually share our own views. So, the illegally off-leash pet parents’ friends would be supporting their actions and thinking I am an evil person that should have never brought my dog to the park.

My friends would be supporting my groaning at yet another illegally off-leash dog, asking when are these pet parents going to learn that they are recklessly endangering their dog by letting it run up to strange dogs that could harm them out of fear, not to mention the safety aspects of off-leash dogs going missing and being hit by cars or attacked by wild animals depending on the location or dog size.  Our friends are made up of people that share many of our beliefs so their responses to us are likely to result in confirmation bias.

There are many other Biases that affect our view of aggressive encounters and our decisions to follow particular laws and rules.  Some of these are described in this article.

So then why do I write?

If people are hard to convince, why do I waste my time writing about this? Because studies show that we can change a few minds; the ones who do not staunchly hold those beliefs but might be considering the validity of their belief and actions.  The original study that led to the idea of cognitive dissonance was of a cult who believed doomsday was a specific day. When the world didn’t end on that day, part of the group left the cult, but the other part stayed and their belief got stronger. They rationalized that they had misinterpreted when doomsday would happen.

So, when we write articles or respond to people with opposing views on social media, we should gear our time towards those we actually have the possibility of influencing. The staunchest believers of having their dogs off-leash regardless of the law are not going to take our responses seriously and may well decide to troll us. Our chances of convincing people are higher with people who haven’t made a firm stance completely opposite of our own.


Some studies on how to persuade people who have been influenced by anti-vaccine activists to suggest that storytelling along with statistics may be the most effective method of persuasion at least in that particular scenario (Okuhara et al, Shelby et al). I would suspect that this may be able to be extrapolated outside of the human health field, but at this time have no evidence to provide to support this extrapolation.

One assessment of addressing non-compliant behavior in parks concluded: “The use of multiple strategies to reduce non-compliant behaviors is often warranted, largely because different people may be performing the same behavior for different reasons”.  A 2009 study found “Dog owners were more likely to feel obliged to leash their dog when they believed other people expected dogs to be leashed”.  Some of the suggested interventions from these studies include ensuring there are legal off-leash areas that are attractive to owners, educational campaigns, establishing leashing dogs in on-leash areas as a social norm, and better enforcement of rules.  My local area has established a multitude of off-leash dog areas but has failed to effectively implement the latter 3 suggestions.

As I write this, yet another local dog that has gone missing after an off-leash hike, yet I will not be wasting my time saying anything about a leash on that person’s post.


Weiss E, Slater M, Lord L. Frequency of Lost Dogs and Cats in the United States and the Methods Used to Locate Them. Animals (Basel). 2012;2(2):301-15. Published 2012 Jun 13. doi:10.3390/ani2020301

Kathryn J. H. Williams, Michael A. Weston, Stacey Henry & Grainne S. Maguire (2009) Birds and Beaches, Dogs and Leashes: Dog Owners’ Sense of Obligation to Leash Dogs on Beaches in Victoria, Australia, Human Dimensions of Wildlife, 14:2, 89-101, DOI: 10.1080/10871200802649799

Webley, P. and Siviter, C. (2000), Why Do Some Owners Allow Their Dogs to Foul the Pavement? The Social Psychology of a Minor Rule Infraction1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 30: 1371-1380. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2000.tb02525.x

Carri Westgarth, Robert M. Christley, Gina L. Pinchbeck, Rosalind M. Gaskell, Susan Dawson, John W.S. Bradshaw, Dog behaviour on walks and the effect of use of the leash, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 125, Issues 1–2, 2010, Pages 38-46, ISSN 0168-1591, (

Rock, Melanie J. et al. “Dog-Walking, Dog-Fouling and Leashing Policies in Urban Parks: Insights from a Natural Experiment Designed as a Longitudinal Multiple-Case Study.” Landscape and Urban Planning 153 (2016): 40–50. Web.

Our Rights and Responsibilities: Dog Law Q+A with Attorney Heidi Meinzer

Dietsch A and Others. 2016. Towards an adaptive management approach to non-compliance in National Park Service units. Natural Resource Report. NPS/NRSS/BRD/NRR—2016/1125. National Park Service. Fort Collins, Colorado

Okuhara T, Ishikawa H, Okada M, Kato M, Kiuchi T. Persuasiveness of Statistics and Patients’ and Mothers’ Narratives in Human Papillomavirus Vaccine Recommendation Messages: A Randomized Controlled Study in Japan. Front Public Health. 2018;6:105. Published 2018 Apr 12. doi:10.3389/fpubh.2018.00105

Shelby A, Ernst K. Story and science: how providers and parents can utilize storytelling to combat anti-vaccine misinformation. Hum Vaccin Immunother. 2013;9(8):1795-801.

Articles on Cognitive Biases.

Kendra Cherry (2018) 10 Cognitive Biases that distort your thinking.  Very Well Mind.

McLeod, S. A. (2018) Cognitive Dissonance. Simply Psychology.  Retrieved from

McLeod, S. A. (2018, Oct, 31). Fundamental attribution error. Retrieved from

Sabini, J., Siepmann, M., & Stein, J. (2001). The Really Fundamental Attribution Error in Social Psychological Research. Psychological Inquiry, 12(1), 1-15. Retrieved from

Wang X, Zheng L, Li L, et al. Immune to Situation: The Self-Serving Bias in Unambiguous Contexts. Front Psychol. 2017;8:822. Published 2017 May 22. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00822


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I am Rebekah Hudson. I am a Fear Free CVT and am the Admin of Canine Research Studies Facebook group. I have a BS in Biology and am currently working on a masters in Biostatistics (basically doing math for scientists). I love training animals, but training people not so much, so I adopt reactive dogs and help them transform into good canine citizens. My work experience has lead to skills in finding, reading, and understanding scientific papers.

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