Myths About Dog Behavior That Just Won’t Go Away

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© 2018 Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

I’ve witnessed too many dogs unnecessarily suffer because of misunderstandings about dog behavior. These misunderstandings are seen everyday in dog owners and even some dog trainers. It’s just a lack of knowledge about dogs for the most part; the following might shed some light on some of the most common misconceptions.

Myth 1 – Made for TV Dog Training is Real

Cesar Millan plays the role of “The Dog Whisperer” on TV; he is not certified or recognized by any organization as an animal or dog behaviorist. Simply stated, his shows are for entertainment only.  Applying his “advice” in the real world of canines would cause more problems than it would remedy. For another perspective, please see Cesar Millan’s Animal Cruelty Investigation Is a Wake Up Call for Dog Trainers.

Myth 2 – Dogs Show Guilt

I’ve worked with literally thousands of dogs and I can say with certainty that none of them show guilt. This “guilt” is actually fear of the owner’s reaction when the owner spots an accident in the den or damage to furniture caused by the dog in the owner’s absence. For more information, see Is your dog intentionally bad?

Myth 3 –Veterinarians Know Everything About Dog Behavior

Veterinarians are medical experts in relation to our dogs and we, of course, defer to them in that area. However, they receive limited training regarding dog behavior in vet school; it’s unfair to expect them to be a one-stop-shop for all issues associated with dogs. Veterinarians can frequently help you identify behavior issues that need to be addressed and can steer you to the best resources. They also can play an important role in your dog’s overall behavior treatment plan. For more information, see 10 Ways Veterinarians Can Contribute to Your Dog’s Overall Behavior Treatment Plan.

Myth 4 – Exercise Will Remedy All Behavior Issues

While exercise is critically important for dogs and is frequently part of a behavior treatment plan, it is not a single solution panacea for all behavioral issues. For more information, see I Let My Dog Run Around the Back Lawn – Is That Enough Exercise?

Myth 5 – Dogs Think Like Humans

Dogs don’t think like humans or think they are humans for that matter. They have no ability to understand human spoken language in the way that humans do.

Myth 6 – Don’t Expose Puppies to Other Dogs Whatsoever Before they are 16 Weeks Old

The old-school thinking was that puppy owners should keep their pups away from other dogs before they were fully vaccinated at 16 weeks to prevent disease. The problem with this practice is that research has shown it actually causes more of these pups to die later from lack of socialization (i.e., aggression issues leading to euthanasia) than from any potential diseases the vaccinations prevented. For current thinking on this, please be sure to consult with your veterinarian.

Myth 7 – Using Treats to Train Dogs is Bad/Wrong

This one has always been a bit of a head-scratcher for me. Using positive rewards when training creates more durable training results in dogs, doesn’t crush the relationship with the owner and is more mentally stimulating for the dog. Punishing dogs to train them seems to be in our cultural DNA and hangs around even though animal science has made it exceedingly clear this is not a best practice. For more information, see “I shouldn’t have to reward my dog with treats.”

Myth 8 – Dogs Need to Be Dominated by a Pack Leader

Quite frankly, this one wears me out – we’ve learned a few things since the 1970s. Please see the following for more information, Dominance and Dog Training.

Myth 9 - All Dogs Need a Job

I have yet to see a dog bring home a paycheck. Seriously, what does this myth even mean when it comes to pet dogs? Putting backpacks on pet dogs and loading them with bricks is absolutely not a job for a dog – it’s an annoyance. (Yes, people actually have been told to do this – see Myth 1 above for the source of this advice). Dogs have no concept of a “job” as seen from a human perspective. However, pet dogs do understand structured mental and physical exercise (e.g., leash walking, fetch, agility, etc.) and that is how this should be approached.

Myth 10 – Dogs Protect Their Owners

Dogs don’t protect their owners. They protect themselves in the presence of their owners which looks as if they are protecting their owners.  Sometimes they might resource guard their owners; this is similar to how dogs resource guard food which they certainly aren’t trying to protect from danger since they’re about to eat it! For more information, see Do Dogs Instinctively Protect Their Owners? (Lassie lovers, please don't read this).

Myth 11 – My Dog Just Really Wants to Meet Other Dogs and People, He’s Not Aggressive

Dogs that appear to be aggressive when approaching people or dogs are most likely fearful, overly aroused and frustrated in the presence of these triggers. Adult dogs should normally walk by these triggers and show only mild interest. In short, yes, these dogs are probably showing signs of aggression.

 Myth 12 – Shock Collars and Prong Collars are Okay Training Tools

My shorthand expression for these “tools” is, “short-term gain, long-term pain.” These devices cause so many long-term problems for dogs and dog owners that I wrote an article earlier just to cover them. To read this article, see Why I Don't Use Prong, Choke or Shock Collars.

Myth 13 – Dog Training is Permanent

I used to be able to do algebraic equations when I was in school. I haven’t done them in years and I’m not sure I would even know where to start. Dogs are no different. Once they learn something, it must be constantly reinforced. Dogs used by the military, DEA, TSA and law enforcement are normally trained/refreshed at least once a week in the tasks they perform for the entire time they are in service.