14 Common Dog Behavior Myths Decoded

by | March 9, 2012 at 9:03 AM | Pets

(iStockphoto)

By Mikkel Becker

Although dog training has become more of a science than a craft in recent years, some persistent myths still mislead us when reading canine behavior. Don’t let a myth harm your relationship with your pooch. Here, we dispel 14 common myths and look at the facts.

1. An old dog can’t learn new tricks.
False. Old dogs not only learn new tricks but they thrive when trained. My late Pomeranian, Mr. Teddy, who was adopted at an estimated 10 to 13 years of age, was a training superstar in Vetstreet videos, which were filmed two weeks before he passed away. By the same token, older dogs without house-training experience as puppies can successfully be house-trained. As long as a dog is mentally and physically capable of learning to perform a behavior and is properly motivated, it’s entirely possible to train her. While intense agility training for Teddy was not realistic, teaching basic commands was.

2. A dog shouldn’t sleep with you or be allowed on furniture, or she’ll think she’s the boss and will misbehave.
False. Just like humans, dogs simply want a comfortable place to lie down. If comfort can be combined with being next to their beloved human, whether it’s right next to you on the couch, or even on top of your lap, then they’re all for it. In rare cases, dogs will guard their sleeping and resting areas, and will show aggression when humans approach these sacred areas. This type of behavior will require remedial training. But for the average Rover, sleeping in bed or resting on the couch has no adverse behavioral effects.

3. When your dog has a potty accident, it’s important to rub her nose in it to let her know what she did.
False. When you rub a dog’s nose in her own mess, she often sees no association between that and her having had a potty accident. Nor does rubbing her nose in her accident teach her not to potty on the floor again. Instead, rubbing her nose in her accident teaches her that humans are dangerous and unpredictable, and she will likely begin to hide in safety by sneaking into another room to go to the bathroom, making housebreaking even more difficult.

4. A dog who cowers from people was likely abused in the past.
False. There are various reasons for dogs cowering, and not all of them are because a dog was abused. Commonly, the dog was not properly socialized or had negative experiences during her prime socialization period as a puppy. Genetics also play a role in the fearful dog. Other reasons for a dog to duck away might be that she has learned to dodge people who try to grab her collar, or she is uncomfortable with petting, such as having her ears handled. Unfortunately, well-meaning strangers often approach dogs by bending over the top of their heads and reaching down to pet, which will send timid dogs into a cowering position. A better way to approach is by getting into a kneeling position, with your body turned toward the side, and then inviting the dog to approach you. If you practice this method, it will be less likely to cause a canine to cower.

5. Shelter dogs have too much baggage. It’s better to adopt a puppy to start with a clean slate.
False. Many shelter dogs are well-behaved pooches who, for an endless list of possible reasons, could not be kept by their original owners. Older shelter dogs make ideal candidates for people wanting to skip the puppy stages of chewing, potty training and mouthing. The interview process at most shelters also pairs canine candidates with the family setting that will best suit the dog’s temperament, which can create cohesion from the beginning.

6. All dogs should enjoy being around other dogs. It’s essential for dogs to go on outings with other dogs, such as at the dog park. If a dog doesn’t enjoy other dogs, there is something wrong with her.
False. Not all people are social butterflies and neither are all dogs. Some dogs may prefer solitude and only a small, select group of people. Dogs also have their own preferences when it comes to other canines. Breeding can play a big role in their sociability, with terriers being notorious for contentiousness with other pooches. Other times, whether from lack of socialization as a puppy or simply an individual preference, dogs may not enjoy canine comradery. Even though plenty of dogs enjoy the dog park, not all of them enjoy the idea of dozens of other dogs frolicking around them and would instead prefer a quiet walk with their owners.

7. You should let dogs just fight it out when they get into a scuffle.
False (well, at least partly false). It’s true that you should never get into the middle of a dog fight, because some of the most damaging dog bites occur when owners try to separate fighting dogs. There are some tactics you can use to break up the scuffle without actually getting in the middle of the fray. Try using water, a really loud noise, or even a distraction like grabbing a treat bag or using voice to direct them to do something else. Owners should do everything they can to prevent another fight in the future. Often dogs don’t settle matters on their own, and fighting intensifies over time, especially with dogs in the same home. This calls for advanced training with the help of an animal behaviorist or a certified professional trainer.

8. My dog is trying to show she’s in charge when she doesn’t listen to me.
False. It’s easy to attribute human motives like “getting even” or “being spiteful” to our dogs, but dogs don’t have the same complex emotions as humans. The more realistic reasons why a dog doesn’t do what’s being asked is either because she doesn’t understand what she’s being asked to do, or the dog doesn’t have the proper motivation to want to perform the behavior. For example, most dogs don’t come when called because the payoff isn’t worth it. When they do, they usually are put on a leash or taken into the house when they’d rather stay outside.

9. My dog knows she was bad after she goes potty in the house. Her guilty face says it all.
False. Dogs show a perceived “guilty face” not because they feel an actual emotion of guilt, but they are actually showing appeasement behaviors in response to their owners intimidating body language. Whether we want to or not, it’s difficult not to display negative body language when we’re upset with our pets. A 2009 study by researcher Alexandra Horowitz at Barnard College in New York revealed that the “guilty look” dogs display is solely attributed by humans and has no relation to whether the dog is actually responsible for an offense. The study found that dogs who had not actually eaten the forbidden treat, but were scolded by their misinformed owners for eating a treat, showed guiltier-looking body language than dogs who had actually eaten the forbidden treat. The guilty look is simply a response of the dog to her owner’s behavior.

10. It’s always the owner’s fault when a dog misbehaves.
False. Most owners are well-meaning, but are simply misinformed or lack knowledge on how to train their dogs effectively. Blaming the owner for all of a dog’s problems makes for good TV, but there are a myriad of reasons why a dog misbehaves, including lack of proper socialization or preventive training, or even the genetic tendencies of the dog. It’s important for pet parents to push past feelings of shame or guilt; instead get started in the right direction with help from a pet professional using positive reinforcement methods.

11. Using treats for training is bribery, and the dog won’t do the behavior later if you don’t give her a treat.
False. It’s true that dogs need motivation to perform a behavior. That said, the motivation doesn’t always have to be a food-based reward. Dogs can be rewarded in many other ways. Reward them with playing, petting or getting to go outside. They can also be put on a random schedule of rewards with a lottery-ticket-like system so they never know when the payout will come. This system helps keep them motivated. For example: learning to walk on a loose leash may be taught in the beginning by using treats, but once the behavior is learned, treats can be phased out so that the only reward becomes getting to go on the walk itself.

12. When a dog chews up shoes or destroys furniture it’s because she’s punishing the owner.
False. Dogs chew on shoes, furniture and other human items not to punish their owners, but simply because it feels good on their teeth, it relieves boredom, releases energy and, in some cases, may indicate separation anxiety.

13. A dog can’t really be happy unless she can run off-leash.
False. Leashes are made for a dog’s safety. They should be perceived as tools that keep your dog from running into oncoming traffic, going up to unknown dogs or people, and prevent them from running way. Although regular off-leash play in a fenced area is essential for a dog’s well-being, while out in public, dogs can learn to be perfectly content on a leash at their owner’s side.

14. Dogs are great judges of people, so if a dog doesn’t like someone, it must mean there is something wrong with that person.
False. In the majority of cases, dogs who react aggressively or fearfully to a person are not doing so out of a negative moral evaluation of the individual, but are responding out of their own self-preservation. With that said, there have been plenty of circumstances where pets have used an apparent sixth sense to pick up on cues that went unseen by their human and actually saved their human’s life. However, the majority of dogs I see in my training practice are unfriendly with a person because they are reacting out of fear to a certain physical attribute, movement or the physical proximity of a person, and are not reacting based on any moral evaluation of the individual.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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