Common Dog Behavior and Training Myths
As a dog trainer, I sometimes cringe when I hear someone spreading myths about dog behavior or training tips. Honestly, though, there are a lot of controversial theories about dog behavior. After all, we can’t know exactly what dogs are thinking until we invent a dog translating device.
All we can do is experiment with different methods, look to the most current research, and use a bit of common sense to avoid harming our pups.
So what are some of the most common myths? Here are my top 5 myths and responses:
- Crating a dog is punishment for a dog.
This is a very common thought that pet owners have when trainers recommend crate training. As humans, we have negative reactions to a cage. We think of cooped up circus and zoo animals, puppy mills, and sad animal shelters. We want our pets to feel part of the family. We want them to feel happy and free to roam and play, and crate training seems to go against that desire.
The truth, though, is that some animals feel more secure in their crate. Their crate becomes their own space. Their home. Their nest. Their place to retreat for a nap while the rest of the family is bustling around. It is where they can hide when they are frightened of a thunderstorm or fireworks. It’s where they can have their personal space when we have guests visiting our house.
Without a crate, your dog will likely hide under the bed, in the back of a closet, or behind furniture when afraid or hurt. The downside to these hiding spaces is that if your pooch pees or poops due to fear or injury, you’ll have a hard time getting to your pet and cleaning it up.
If the cage-style crates make you cringe, there are many modern options for offering your dog a secure space of his/her own. Just look at some of these beautiful furniture options that create an enclosed space for your dog that feel less like a cage and more like a home of their own.
- You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
This age-old saying has actually prompted many research studies to determine whether or not it’s true.
One study with beagles attempted to prove or disprove the theory. They found that, compared to old and senior dogs, young and middle-aged dogs were able to solve training tests more quickly and successfully. Younger dogs were also able to transfer what they learned in one test to another training scenario.
Another study, however, proposed that dogs are, in fact, able to learn new behaviors and concepts in old age. The researchers suggest that older dogs are rarely trained or challenged mentally, though. People tend to get into a routine with their dogs after 5-6 years, and so they rarely spend the time training or offering mental stimulation. Pet parents are also more forgiving of older dog behavior problems. They also don’t want to push their physical limitations for fear of injury or straining joints.
In their study, these researchers used computer training scenarios in which older dogs simply tapped a screen with their nose! Here’s what their studies have shown:
“Dogs are capable of learning even in old age, and constant brain training and mental problem-solving create positive emotions and slow the natural pace of mental deterioration.”
- Dogs are pack animals that require an Alpha personality to behave well in the home pack.
You may have heard commercials, TV shows, or even dog trainers say that your pets need to feel that they are part of a pack hierarchy. People say that, like wolves, dogs look to an alpha male in their pack. Without one, the dog will assume the role himself. His behavior may become more territorial, aggressive, or problematic around the house.
The solution offered in these scenarios is for the pet owner to be more dominant in relationship to the dog. He or she should position himself higher than the dog physically, walk in front during walks, and enter doorways before the dog. Some alpha training models even include punishment or physical dominance with aggressive yelling or barking at the dog or pushing them physically down when they misbehave.
Even though it sounds logical with regard to wolf pack behavior, the reality is that this is a myth being debunked every day.
The concept goes back to 1947 when a wolf researcher named Rudolph Schenkel released his observations of captive wolf behavior.
However, many modern behaviorists and trainers discourage teaching the concept of pack hierarchy in the home due to many flaws in the studies from which the concepts were developed.
For example, a wolf behavior expert named David Mech showed through several series of studies that there were problems with the observations from Schenkel and others’ research. Mech said,
“Attempting to apply information about the behavior of assemblages of unrelated captive wolves to the familial structure of natural packs has resulted in considerable confusion. Such an approach is analogous to trying to draw inferences about human family dynamics by studying humans in refugee camps. The concept of the alpha wolf as a ‘top dog’ ruling a group of similar-aged compatriots is particularly misleading.” (Mech, 2000)
Here are some of the current ideas that bust the alpha male myth:
- Captive animals and wild animals don’t always act the same.
- Wolves and dogs are not the same animal – we cannot assume that the behavior patterns of dogs mimic those of wolves.
- Domestic dogs and wild dogs have different behavior patterns as well.
- Humans are not dogs, so we cannot assume that dogs view us as members of their ‘pack.’
- We cannot assume that pet dogs act the same as dogs (or other animals) in laboratory settings.
- Even within the domestic dog species, there is a wide range of personality traits and instincts from breed to breed and individual to individual.
- It’s not scientifically reasonable to attribute human behavior traits to any animal, including dogs. It’s called anthropomorphism, and it’s one reason why dog psychology discussions can get so controversial.
- Food and treats make the best reward for training.
The most common way for people to learn to train their dog is to offer a treat after a dog does a desirable behavior. Call your dog to you, and if the dog starts coming, you shout praise and give him a tasty snack. Dog is happy, you’re happy, and dog now knows how to come when called, right?
Sure. But what if your dog is battling obesity? What if your dog doesn’t care much about the treats? What if your dog is more distracted by smelling the fire hydrant or chasing the neighbor’s cat?
All of these are very valid concerns for training a dog in a real-world situation.
The good news is that treats are not the only way to reward a dog, and it’s not always the best reward for some dogs.
For example, most working dogs are trained without food reward at all. Search-and-rescue dogs, explosive detection dogs, drug detection dogs, and police dogs are rarely offered a treat as a reward for completing a training task.
These dogs are rewarded with something they prefer even more than food – playtime, tug of war, and chasing a tennis ball. I’m serious.
Labrador Retrievers make excellent candidates for search and rescue work due to the fact that they will climb, jump, and trudge through almost anything to find a tennis ball to play with. Their fearlessness is a necessary trait for the dangerous conditions they must work in to find people buried under rubble from tornadoes or earthquakes. And if they were to stop and enjoy a snack that happened to be in the debris, those 5 minutes could be the difference between life and death for someone trapped. That’s why these dogs are never rewarded with food.
German Shepherds make excellent police dogs, but they are also notoriously fussy eaters and treat-takers. They are typically rewarded in training sessions with a round of tug-of-war, which plays on the traits they were bred for: desire to bite, pull, tug, grab, catch, and hold! Otherwise, bad guys would learn to just carry dog treats in their pockets to put a stop to their pursuit.
This doesn’t mean that only pure-bred dogs trained professionally can be trained without treats. The next time you train your dog, wait for your pooch to do something good, and then squeal praise while suddenly darting off in the other direction to initiate a game of chase. Or hide a squeaky ball behind your back and give it a squeak and a toss. If timed well and used appropriately, play time and toys can sometimes be a better reward than food.
- My dog poops in my shoes out of spite for me leaving her home every day.
Have you ever had a dog that seemed to get revenge on you for leaving him home all day by pooping in your favorite shoes? Over and over again?
A lot of people are quick to tell stories about their spiteful dog that pooped in the house on purpose to prove a point about being lonely or angry at being left alone.
First, your dog’s guilty look isn’t always guilt at all. A study found that participants were likely to describe a dog's demeanor as "guilty" if they believed the dog to have behaved badly—even if the dog had done nothing wrong.
Dogs are MASTERS at reading body language – it’s literally part of their DNA to notice tiny muscular differences in faces and body language of other animals. That includes the moment you open the door and smell poop or see the garbage can has been ransacked. Your eyebrows lift, your eyes register that moment of angry realization, and your hormones may even cause a tiny shift in your personal scent. If dogs can smell cancer cells and diabetic attacks, they can smell your hormonal changes.
This means that your dog’s posture and behavior might just be a reaction at you being upset. This especially goes for any dog who has experienced punishment immediately after those signals coming from his human in the past.
Second, a dog might naturally poop or pee when he or she is stressed. Many dogs experience legitimate separation anxiety when left alone at home. Anxiety can trigger bowel movements quite easily in a dog. They may spend their day in your closet just to be around your scented clothes and shoes. The dog isn’t necessarily seeking out your favorite shoes on purpose.
Here’s a personal example. I have a dog named Luca who went through a phase of pooping in my living almost daily for a week. He was 3 years old and well trained. He had never had an accident in the house since being potty trained as a puppy. I found out about a month later that there had been a string of daytime home burglaries on our street at that time. I absolutely believe that Luca saw some of the burglaries in progress through the window. Perhaps the thieves had even walked the perimeter of our home, too. He probably was barking his head off, attacking the window, and getting himself worked up. Either he was pooping to mark his territory, or he was pooping from stress.
Boredom can also trigger bowel movements. Many dogs don’t get the exercise or mental stimulation their body and brain need to be healthy. They might enjoy sniffing your shoes for something to do. After all, your shoes walk all over the big outside world. They are covered in the scent of other dogs, cars, food dropped in the street, and who knows what else? Your dog probably loves finding out what scents you’ve walked through recently, and then poops or pees to mark his territory against the foreign ‘invaders.’
I hope you have a better idea of what research and information exists now on each of these common myths about dog behavior. New information is always coming out, too, so always keep an ear out for new myths to bust!
Liz London is a certified dog trainer through the Certifying Council of Professional Dog Trainers (CPDT-KA) & the Karen Pryor Academy (Dog Trainer Foundations Certification) with regular continuing education courses from the top animal trainers from all over the world, including Michele Pouliot, director of training for the Guide Dogs for the Blind. She has trained zoo animals, search & rescue canines, gundogs, and helped people raise happy, healthy, and well-behaved canine companions for over ten years.
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Elizabeth Head3, Bruce A. Muggenburg4,Carl W. Cotman3, and Norton W. Milgram1,2,5
Learn. Mem. 2003.
Elsevier. "What Really Prompts The Dog's 'Guilty Look'." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 14 June 2009. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090611065839.htm>.