When I think of the evolution of dog training and where we are today it truly warms my heart. However, sadly, there are still many in the animal field that are not so current with their methods.
I asked some trainer friends of mine what common old-school misconceptions about dog behavior they frequently heard from clients. I got a lot of answers, but these are the top 6 myths that they wish they could wave a magic wand and make disappear. It is my hope that this article will help get the correct information to pet people. So, spread the word that. . .
Top 6 Dog Training Myths You May Currently Believe
Myth #1 Dogs should just understand and know what I want them to do.
You and your dog are different species and you certainly do not speak the same language. The dog that instinctively understands you, and can read your mind doesn’t exist. The dog that does exist is an intelligent animal that would very much like to learn your language so he can be part of your family. You, as the human, must teach your dog your culture (house manners, routines, and expectations) and your language (verbal cues such as “sit”, “go potty”, and “come”).
Repeating or yelling words at your dog does not teach him the word. Just as if I repeated “trobhad an seo” to you over and over you would not know what I wanted. Some of you might try really hard to figure out the phrase I just used. While others are just going to blow it off assuming it’s not really relevant. Dogs will do the same. Some try to make sense of it using contextual clues and some will never try at all.
Saying something isn’t the same as teaching it. You must teach your dog your language if you want him to truly understand what you want. This has less to do with the spoken language and more to do with reinforcement. The only way to do this is through training. Whether you do this on your own, or with the help of a professional, is up to you.
Myth #2 My dog pees or is destructive when I’m gone because he is mad at me.
Dogs are not spiteful animals. Years of scientific research shows that while dogs are capable of some emotions such as love, they are incapable of spite or revenge. This is very difficult for some people to accept. I find myself having to repeat this to clients often. They have convinced themselves that they have the one dog in the universe that is actually capable of this. Dogs are not designed like humans because while they live amongst humans, they do not live a human life. While spite and revenge may serve humans well, it has no relevance for a dog, therefore, it is absent from their range of emotions.
If your dog potties inside while you are not home, there is a reason, but it is most definitely not because he is mad at you. The same is true if your dog chews things up while you are gone. You need to seek help from a qualified trainer who specializes in behavior in order to determine why your dog is behaving in this way. Punishing your dog will not make the behavior stop. It may, however, make it worse or create new issues.
Myth #3 My dog knows he was bad because he looked guilty.
Further research shows that dogs do not have the capacity to feel guilt. I know, I know. Your dog definitely knows guilt because when you come home, and she has torn up your pillow again she looks guilty or “worried.” Your dog is very special in many ways, however, this is not one of them. Your dog is actually reacting to your body posturing that is telling her that you are angry and something is wrong. She, in turn, changes her body language to appease you and calm you down. In fact, a recent study showed that if a person displayed body language indicating anger or that something was wrong, the dog would display appeasement body language (a worried look) even if she didn’t do anything wrong.
Your dog doesn’t want you to be upset with her, and if you are, she has no idea why. You certainly can’t punish her for it because she doesn’t know what she did two, three, or four hours ago. If your dog is being destructive or doing something you don’t want her to do, go back to basics and teach her what you DO want. Give your dog options for when you are away and of course, if she’s a young pup, confinement is recommended. Find a qualified trainer that uses scientifically-based training methods and you’ll be on your way to a happy home.
Myth #4 My dog is dominant, so I roll him on his back to show him I’m Alpha.
While the popularity of television dog “trainers” is on the rise, thankfully their outdated and sometimes cruel methods are on the decline. The idea of rolling a dog on its back and pinning it down by the throat was the result of a study in the 1940s. Captive wolves from various geographic locations were forced to live together in packs. Naturally, these wolves had to compete to establish status within the packs. Recent studies on wolves living naturally in nuclear families (not randomly assembled) found that pack hierarchy does not involve fighting and it certainly does not involve wolves pinning each other to the ground to establish Alpha position.
There is also a big jump from wolves to domestic dogs. The American Veterinary Medical Association has released a position statement on Alpha Roll Overs saying that they are opposed to the practice because it is wrong. The premise is wrong and the application is wrong. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior also released a similar position statement against the aggressive-submissive dichotomy. In fact, the top veterinary behaviorists in the country have found that this technique will have unintended consequences, such as dogs lashing out in aggression rather than submission, increased stress to the animal, possible development of fear and insecurities, not to mention the deterioration of trust with the owner.
We now know that human-dog relationships are driven by reinforcement (positive and negative) not by social rank. Your dog is intelligent: you provide the shelter, the food, and access to all things wonderful. Your dog knows you are the leader. There is no need to pin him to the ground to convince him.
Myth #5 Dogs should never growl and should be punished when they do it.
Growling is an extremely important communication tool for dogs. Dogs growl for many reasons including play. However, they also growl when something they are uncomfortable with is too close (unfamiliar person or dog) or something scary is about to happen to them (vaccinations or nail trim). It conveys the dog’s current state of emotion and she is attempting to send a message. If a dog is punished for growling, she will likely stop growling, but she will continue to be uncomfortable with the object or experience, thus creating a potentially dangerous situation if the object gets too close.
Never punish a dog for growling. Seek a positive reinforcement trainer that uses classical and operant conditioning. Better yet, seek the help of a Veterinary Behaviorist, Houston is extremely lucky to have one of only four Veterinary Behaviorists in the State!!
Myth #6 Choke chains are the best way to walk dogs that pull.
If this were true there wouldn’t be countless numbers of dogs dragging their owners around on choke chains. In the short term, choke chains may prevent a dog from pulling, however, the pulling typically resumes once the dog develops a higher pain tolerance, and in some cases, it gets worse. Choke chains were designed to give corrections and to stop undesired behaviors. A skilled trainer may be able to deliver appropriate and timely corrections, however, the average owner can not, and will simply be pulled around by the dog.
Veterinarians treat many dogs with injuries due to these collars. They can cause gagging, gasping and fainting due to the choking effect, disk and neck injuries, windpipe and trachea damage, transient foreleg paresis, and hindleg ataxia. Choke chains are not typical collars. They are complex tools and they are not one-size-fits-all. They must be the correct length and diameter and they must be put on correctly and positioned correctly. The average pet dog owner does not know this, and the sales clerk at the pet store has no idea either.
If your dog is an ardent puller there are humane options. You can feel really good about walking your enthusiastic dog on a variety of head collars and specially designed walking or front clip harnesses. They are safe and can literally change your life.
While there are still other myths frequently used, these are the top 6 that, as a trainer, I see much too often.
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