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From Myth to Science

There are a lot of myths in the dog training world, and they die hard.   One myth is that it’s OK to use that positive training stuff on your Yorkshire Terrier, but if you have a Rottweiler things must be different.  What is it about some people that they cannot believe that a Yorkie is also a mammal, thus learns the same way that other mammals learn?    “Every dog is different and they require different methods,” you’ll hear the correction trainers say.  Well, yes, to a point.  There are many ways to teach a dog the same behavior, just as there are different ways to teach a child the same behavior.  But, there is never a reason to justify the application of painful or fear-inducing stimuli when you can teach a behavior without their use.

Sarah Fulcher, of Barks and Recreation in British Columbia shared this quote with her Facebook friends this morning, and I believe it wholeheartedly: “Those who force, prove they can conquer. Those who ask for and receive, demonstrate they can communicate.” – Emma Massingale  Sarah has a Husky doing agility, so she can speak to the fact that they learn just like Yorkies and Rottweilers.  That, of course, does not mean that all dogs learn as quickly as one another – some kids take longer learning their multiplication tables (does anyone still memorize those?).  But, the way they learn, through operant conditioning, is the same.

Another myth is that when you train a dog you must be its “pack leader.”  That would probably be fine, if only dogs formed packs.  Current studies indicate that they don’t.  Sure, they will form cooperative social groups left to their own devices, but it’s a non-linear hierarchy.  And, while we’re on that subject…here’s David Mech, the originator of the term “alpha,” talking about wolf packs and why his terminology no longer applies:

Another persistent myth is that dogs are trying to dominate us, so we must do all we can to see that they realize their position in the now non-existent pack.  Poppycock!  Dogs don’t want to dominate us, they just want to get what they want.  Once you realize that the dog is seeking resources, not the presidency of the household, it becomes much easier to use resources to control the dog – nicely.  Resources aren’t just food.  Resources can be anything the dog wants.   Food, toys, space, resting places, pig ears, the owner’s attention, getting out a door, are all resources.   So, if the dog is jumping on the owner for attention, instead of pushing the dog away or shouting “off” (both of which are attention!) what if the owner simply made attention contingent upon the dog remaining in a sit?   Dog jumps, owner turns away.  Dog sits, dog gets attention.  Simple – it’s just that most humans cannot commit themselves to doing it for the length of time it takes the bad habit to extinguish!

Perhaps the all time most difficult myth to eradicate is “He knows better.”  I have news for you.  In all my years of training, I have never met a dog that knows better whose owner says this.  What I meet are dogs that are just insufficiently trained whose owners don’t realize it!  The sheepish look that the dog gives you when you walk in to find the couch in tatters, or your best pair of shoes shredded to bits is called “appeasement behavior” and the dog is doing it because he realizes instantly that you are mad about something – trouble is that he doesn’t connect it with the shoe chewing, thus he will still chew shoes while you are away (it’s too dangerous to do it in front of a scowling human) and you will then think he’s being spiteful.  Vicious cycle that usually ends up in a destroyed relationship along with the destroyed shoes.  We trainers wish people would call us when the dog is 8 weeks old, rather than 8 months old, which is when the “second chewing stage” kicks in.   We could easily explain this to you and save your dog so much anxiety and confusion.

Here’s a fun myth: “My dog likes to kiss me.”  Would that it were so.  However, it’s probably just another appeasement gesture, simply designed to show deference or to indicate that the dog is not intending a threat to you.  People spend much less time learning about dog communication than dogs spend trying to learn about human communication.  Perhaps it’s because we have the gift of spoken language.  But, dogs have a spoken language and a body language.  For example, do you know when your dog is trying to tell you that it is experiencing stress?   Most people aren’t fully aware of the many stress signals that dogs use to communicate.

There are more myths about dogs, but suffice to say that we need to stop believing them all, and take a serious look at what science actually tells us about our dogs.  There are canine cognition studies being undertaken at many major universities across the country, such as Harvard, Barnard College, University of Florida, and Duke University.   My dog, Sioux, has participated in several of the Harvard studies, one of which asks whether dogs have a sense of fairness.  (My guess is that they do.)

People always seem to think they know more about dogs than they know.  If people really knew dogs the way they think they do, then the “top ten predictable behaviors which owners consider problems yet rarely do any preventive training for” as delineated in Jean Donaldson’s “The Culture Clash” would not keep happening.  The first step to better understanding of our canine companions is humility – learn about the myths and stop believing them!  Instead, learn about dog body language, operant conditioning, and ethical dog training.  It’ll make your dog way happier than mythical mumbo jumbo does!


About pawsforpraise

I own and operate Paws for Praise. We offer group dog training classes and behavior consultations in a dog and human friendly environment. We think training should be fun for you and your dog. Go ahead - make a tail wag!

One response »

  1. People should stop pretending to be experts and should open themselves to continuing education about their dogs, maybe if they did, then so many dogs wouldn’t be given up for adoption due to behavior issues.

    I really enjoyed reading this, thank you for writing it.


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