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USA Dog Behavior Blog

Top 10 Countdown of Common Dog Myths

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©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

There are many frequently repeated falsehoods about dog behavior that most people assume are true. Below are 10 of those myths I hear regularly.

10) Dogs protect their owners. While dogs’ behavior may look like they are protecting their owners in some instances - they aren’t. They’re simply afraid of what’s getting near to them (e.g., people, other dogs, etc.) and trying to scare these things away with aggression. This looks like protective behavior, but it’s not. For more information, see this short video: Do Dogs Instinctively Protect Their Owners?

“Where do all of these “dominance” ideas come from in human/dog relationships?”

9) Dogs bring dead animals home for their owners. They actually are just bringing back their prey to their owners’ homes for nothing more than safe storage. Predators commonly move their prey to a safe place to avoid having it stolen by another predator. They are not thinking of sharing (and quite frankly, aren’t you glad?).

8) Dogs alert their owners to fire and other dangers. Since Bella knows the only way for her to get out of a house on fire is for her owner to let her out, she is therefore quite motivated to wake her owner in the middle of the night. Yes, the owner is alerted to the fire, but that is not the dog’s motivation for waking the owner.

7) Dogs defecate/urinate inside because they are mad at their owner. Dogs, unlike a lot of humans, are not vindictive. They are eliminating inside for a host of reasons, but getting back at their owner is definitely not one of them.

6) When dogs lean on their owners they are trying to dominate them. Actually this behavior is an affiliative, or friendly, behavior. Dogs lean on people they like. Where do all of these “dominance” ideas come from in human/dog relationships? For more information see 3 Words I Wish Dog Owners and Dog Trainers Wouldn’t Use.

5) A dog bite that doesn’t pierce the skin is not a bite. According to the Ian Dunbar Dog Bite Scale (the recognized standard for measuring dog bites) there are six types of dog bites; two of them do not involve teeth penetrating the skin. The intention of the aggressive behavior is at least as important as the actual injury inflicted. A bite that doesn’t penetrate the skin cannot be dismissed. See 6 Types of Dog Bites for more information.

4) Dogs enjoy being hugged. We love hugging dogs, but they don’t like it too much. Most dogs just tolerate it. The only species that engage in and enjoy hugging are primates, and dogs are not primates.

3) Dogs are basically wolves. Repeat after me: My dog is not a wolf; my dog doesn’t see me as a wolf; my dog doesn’t think he or she is a wolf; I am not a wolf and, finally, my family is not a wolf pack. Domesticated dogs are radically different from wolves in the wild. And human owners are really different than wolves in the wild.

2) A wagging tail means a happy dog. A wagging tail in a dog simply means the dog is aroused and is paying attention. It does not imply happy, sad, angry, excited, aggressive, etc. In my seminars on canine body language I show videos of extremely aggressive dogs that are, surprise, all wagging their tails.

1) Dogs that walk in front of their owners are trying to dominate them. This silliness will not die. Actually, they are just trying to get somewhere faster than their owners. Please see number 6 above for more information.

Sadly, this is not an exhaustive list of dog myths. There are many more myths circulating about dogs that I will tackle in future articles.

Why Shock Collars are a Bad Idea for Canine Aggression

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©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

“I then asked the question I always hate to ask in these situations…”

Haley (not her real name) was brought to me with escalating human aggression issues. She was a 1-1/2 year-old gorgeous black Labrador retriever when I first met with the owners. She was a great family pet according to the owners and they loved her like a family member. Haley started showing signs of aggression toward humans around eight months of age and things were getting progressively worse - especially lately.

Haley’s bite history included three human bites with one requiring medical attention. She had been quarantined by animal control one time because of biting. Things were getting worse.

At our first session I asked Haley’s owners what steps they may have taken to manage and address the human aggression. They indicated they had taken her to a dog trainer for the aggression. I then asked the question I always hate to ask in these situations because I know what the answer is normally going to be.

Me: “What methods did the dog trainer use to address Haley’s aggression issues?”

Client: “They used an e-collar and instructed us on how to use it”.

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For reference: e-collar = electronic collar = shock collar. Calling it an e-collar makes it sound less harmful but it still uses electric shock to harm the dog. Customers of these dog trainers are almost universally told by the dog trainer that they didn’t use the electric shock feature in the collar when training; they only used the buzzer to signal the dog. Right. For more information see: Why I Don't Use Prong, Choke or Shock Collars.

Anyone who understands animal behavior knows that using a shock collar to treat the behavior associated with human aggression almost always makes the aggression worse. What typically happens is the aggressive behavior will be decreased for a short period (typically two to four weeks) and then returns with a vengeance. This result is predictable and easily explained by canine behavioral science. Essentially, this result occurs because the dog trainer is addressing the symptoms and not the root cause of the aggression.

Once I learned a dog trainer had used a shock collar with Haley, I immediately understood why the aggression was ramping up so quickly in recent weeks. Haley’s behavioral history was typical of the human-directed aggression cases I see that involve dog trainers who use shock collars as “treatment”.

I frequently see clients once the aggression returns in their dog after unknowingly subjecting their dog to one of these dog trainers. As you can guess, treating the aggression at that point is much more difficult and the prognosis is less favorable. It is not unlike a surgeon who has to deal with a botched procedure - it is more difficult and the prognosis is poorer. For more information see: Pretenders Who Claim to Treat Aggressive Dogs, Buyer Beware.

Bottom line: shock collars are never a good idea when addressing aggression in dogs. They make things worse. If you see signs of aggression in your canine, please seek the help of an experienced, full-time and independently certified dog behavior consultant. The sooner you properly address the underlying issue in canine aggression the better the prognosis.

Did you know all dogs have a 3rd eyelid?

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©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

You have two eyelids per eye and I have two eyelids per eye - an upper eyelid and a lower eyelid. Your dog, like all dogs, has three eyelids per eye. You may not have known this because normally we don’t observe these eyelids in action. This third eyelid is called the nictitating membrane; it’s also called a haw. It’s found in birds, reptiles and some other mammals (e.g., camels) too.

“…there are other times when you may see your dog’s third eyelids that may need further investigation.”

While all breeds of dogs have a nictitating membrane, there is a variance in the coloration in different breeds from clear to cloudy. These third eyelids serve four purposes:

  • Protect the eye from injury

  • Keep the cornea clean

  • Act as a lymph node which produces antibodies to protect against infection

  • Produce additional tears

When you think of canids in the wild (e.g., wolves, coyotes, foxes), this third eyelid makes complete sense from an evolutionary standpoint. Wild canids’ eyes are constantly subject to inter and intra-species aggression, injury, dirt and infection (from eating carcasses for example).

There are times when you may see your dog’s third eyelids. I usually notice my dogs’ third eyelids just as they are falling asleep or if I am giving them some petting they really approve of. Viewing the third eyelid at these times is not unlike when humans’ eyes roll back in their heads as they fall asleep or from pleasure.

However, there are other times when you may see your dog’s third eyelids that may need further investigation. If your dog’s third eyelids are visible to you in a context where you’ve never seen them before, it could mean injury or illness and may require a veterinarian or veterinary ophthalmologist to take a look. Specific things that could be causing this include allergic conjunctivitis, autoimmune disease and cherry eye (prolapsed gland).

The third eyelid can be useful in protecting dogs’ eyes, but it can also be helpful to canine behaviorists when using psychopharmaceutical medications in dogs (medications used in the treatment of behavior issues such as aggression, separation anxiety, etc.). When using behavioral medications when treating behavior issues in dogs, it is important to properly titrate these medications. Titration is the art and science of properly adjusting the dose of a medication to meet the needs of the patient (i.e., the dog). When the nictitating membrane appears too often when using central nervous depressants (e.g., Xanax, etc.), it can be an early warning that the dosage needs to be lowered.

The bottom line is that if you begin to notice your dog’s third eyelids in ways that you never noticed them before, seek veterinary assistance. Of course, we should always be on the lookout for and seek medical help for other eye conditions that may indicate problems such as vision changes, rubbing eyes, squinting, redness, discharge or cloudiness.

Can Your Anxiety Make Your Dog More Nervous?

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©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

The title of this article is a question I am asked in one form or another almost every day. “Can my anxiety make my dog more nervous?” The short answer to this question is an undeniable “yes”.

“When dogs see their owner with a hard body, it can make them nervous…”

Popular made-for-TV dog training shows and the dog trainer actors on them (e.g., Cesar Millan, etc.) would have you think there is some sort of mystical magic going on that your dog has otherworldly abilities to sense when it comes to their owner’s anxiety. They want you to think there are “vibrations”, “energy”, and “auras” that your dog has special psychic abilities to interpret.

What a crock! Balderdash! Nonsense!

Owners can make their dogs more nervous, but how they do so is not really all that hard to understand. The reasons are explainable, observable and preventable. I’ve listed a few of the more common ways nervous dog owners make their dogs more stressed below. This is certainly not a complete list however.

Command-Crazy Dog Owners

This one actually sucks the life energy out of dogs. It also sucks the life energy out of me when I have to observe dog owners doing it. What is it? It’s those tense dog owners who are constantly giving their dogs rapid-fire commands (or cues). “Sit, stay, look at me, come, leave it…” You don’t have to be a dog behaviorist to know the dogs on the receiving end of this don’t know how to respond to this banter from their owners. All of this non-stop chatter from the owners only serves to make the dog more anxious. It makes me anxious just listening to it too.

Use cues or commands sparingly with your dog and say them softly. For more information, see Should you give your dog a command only one time?

Masters-of-Micromanaging-the-Leash Dog Owners

You’ve seen this a thousand times - maybe you even do it yourself. These are uptight dog owners who are constantly jerking their dog’s leash to guide, correct and punish their dog while the dog is being walked. Can you imagine having a collar around your neck and some giant continually jerking it one way or another for 30 minutes without stopping? Obviously, this kind of physical input through the leash creates stress for the dog. I’ve found that many dog owners do this unconsciously. They’ve been snapping the leash to-and-fro for so long they do it without even knowing it. Poor dogs!

Learn how to properly manage the leash with your dog. For more information, see What Is Leash Frustration? and Free Preview Available | My Dog is Out of Control on the Leash.

Statue-of-Liberty Dog Owners

These jittery dog owners are so nervous around their dog that they look like a statue in the eyes of their dog. Dogs are very good at reading human body language. One of the biggest cues they look for is how “hard” or “soft” our bodies are. Think about it for a second; when people are uptight or nervous, their body movements become rigid and mechanical (i.e., hard bodies). Conversely, humans who are relaxed and confident have soft bodies. Most experienced dog owners know that dogs also have hard bodies when they are stressed and have soft bodies when they are relaxed and happy. When dogs see their owner with a hard body, it can make them nervous because they interpret this to mean their owner must be stressed.

Learn to relax around your dog both mentally and physically. For more information, see Why Your Dog Likes Some People and Not Others and Free Video | Understanding Dog Body Language.

As guardians of our pet dogs, it’s important that we don’t project our anxiety on them. This is a good habit as dog parents because it enables our dogs to not only experience less stress, but it allows them to be more comforting to us.

How to Reduce Your Chances of Being Bitten by a Dog

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©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

As much as we love dogs, they do sometimes bite humans. I really hate when that happens because it hurts a lot, even when small dogs bite. Know that most dog bites can be avoided, but not all. Here are some quick general tips to help you reduce the chance of being a casualty of the business end of an angry dog.

“We hear all the time to “…put your hand out and let the dog smell you first.””

Maybe not all that friendly after all!

Maybe not all that friendly after all!

  • Never approach and pet a random dog that you know nothing about; I’m including dogs on leash too, not just unleashed dogs. Even the sweetest looking little 10 lb. Shih Tzu can do some pretty serious damage to your hand. I’ve worked with hundreds of human aggressive dogs and I can tell you unequivocally that a dog’s appearance and “cute factor” are not reliable predictors of whether he or she is going to bite.

  • Don’t bother a resting or sleeping dog. Dogs are animals and animals can be primal in their instincts. Startling a resting or sleeping dog can bring out those instincts which frequently include biting the first thing they see.

  • We hear all the time to “…put your hand out and let the dog smell you first.” Nothing could be more incorrect! I don’t know how or where this misconception started. A hand coming toward a dog that might be afraid of this kind of approach causes thousands of dog bites every year in the US. When meeting an unfamiliar dog for the first time, including those owned by family/friends/neighbors, let the dog come to you while not extending your hand. This applies to dogs that are being held by their owners too - don’t extend your hand to dogs while their owners are holding them.

  • Don’t let small children play with dogs without proper adult supervision. If the children are very young, the adult needs to be physically next to the child when a dog is present to prevent dog bites.

  • When dogs are eating or playing with bones and toys, leave them alone. I have no idea why some dog owners feel the need to put their hands in their dog’s food bowl while they are eating. Ironically, this may ultimately teach the dog to bite when someone gets near his or her food bowl or other resource.

  • Never put your face directly in a dog’s face. This is true even if it’s a dog that you are very comfortable with and appears to tolerate this behavior from you. Most dogs do not appreciate this invasion of their space and it is exceedingly easy for them to bite you (in the face) if they want to send a message.

  • Most people really have difficulty accepting that dogs do not like being hugged, or more specifically, entrapped. Only primates (e.g., monkeys, gorillas, humans, etc.) enjoy and practice hugging in the animal kingdom. This is the number one reason small children are bitten by dogs; the child confuses a dog with a stuffed animal which can result in biting.

  • While not widely known by most people who don’t professionally work in canine behavior, dogs don’t like being hovered over. Many dog bites occur when someone is hovering over a frightened or anxious dog. It’s not always obvious why the dog bit to the casual observer, but in many cases this is why.

  • Never, ever, reach in the middle of two dogs fighting in order to separate them. This is probably the best way I know to get a bad dog bite. What you will receive is a redirected bite from a dog that is not necessarily meaning to bite you, but biting the thing that is getting in the way of the altercation with the other dog.

Parents, all of the guidelines above are super important for young children who represent the majority of bad dog bites and the resultant visits to hospital emergency rooms.

I want to wrap up this blog article with a very important cautionary note. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve worked with hundreds of human aggressive dogs over the years. In the majority of cases, owners underestimate, and sometimes grossly so, the bite risk their dog poses to others. Their dog never shows any aggression to them and they can’t understand why anyone would need to be cautious around their dog even if their dog has bitten a few humans in the past. Because of this, good dog bite prevention starts with never assuming an unfamiliar dog is 100% comfortable with you - even if the dog’s owner says the dog is.

To learn more about avoiding dog bites, see my video Understanding Dog Body Language.