Unsticking Myths About Dogs

Common K9 lore that shouldn't be repeated!


So-called “sticky” ideas are concepts that grab our imaginations, pass quickly from one person to the next, and are easily remembered – but they aren’t necessarily true. Advertising executives constantly search for sticky ideas to use in product-marketing campaigns in order to hook customers and increase product recognition and sales. When the idea is good and true, stickiness is a wonderful thing. When the concept is false, stickiness can be very destructive.

There are many sticky myths in dog training and behavior that have the potential to be destructive to dogs and their owners. Here are some of the stickiest myths that need to be unstuck, the sooner the better, for dogs’ sake:

dog shoulder trick

The “Alpha Dog” Myth

This myth is also known as the dangerous “dominant dog” myth, and it comes in a seemingly endless variety of forms, all of which are destructive to the canine-human relationship and the believer’s real understanding of behavior and learning. In fact, it’s probably the all-time king of false and destructive sticky dog-behavior myths. Some of its common variations include:

– If your dog jumps on you (gets on the furniture, pulls on the leash, grabs the leash, sits on your foot, walks ahead of you, humps you), he is being alpha/dominant.
– You must eat before you feed your dog to show him you are alpha.
– You must spit in/handle your dog’s food with your hands before you give it to him to show him it’s yours and you are alpha.
– You must go through doorways before your dog does to show him you are alpha.
– If your dog misbehaves in any way he is challenging you and you have to roll him on his back to show him you are alpha.

This myth goes back decades, and is rooted in flawed research on wolf behavior. While “dominance” is a valid construct in behavior, it refers very specifically to the outcome of an interaction involving a resource. It is not a personality trait.

If two dogs meet in a doorway, Dog A may say, “I would like to go through the doorway first,” and Dog B may say, “Sure, you go ahead.” Dog A was dominant in that interaction. The same two dogs may meet over a bone, and Dog B may say, “I really want that bone,” while Dog A may say, “Oh, I wouldn’t mind chewing on it, but you clearly want it more than I do; you go ahead.” Dog B was dominant in that interaction. Neither Dog A nor Dog B is a “dominant dog.”

In reality, your dog isn’t trying to take over the world or even your household; he is just trying to figure out how to make his world work for him. He wants to make good stuff happen, and make bad stuff go away – just like we do. It has nothing to do with being “alpha” – but when you believe that it does, it sets you up to be confrontational in almost every interaction with your dog. Figure out how to make sure your dog gets good stuff for behaviors that you like, and doesn’t get good stuff for behaviors you don’t like, and you’ll find your dog is more than happy to accept his role as your compliant pal. (See “Alpha Schmalpha,” WDJ December 2011.)

The “Dog Looks Guilty” Myth

Humans naturally ascribe ulterior motives to each other, and given the fact that we live so closely with dogs, it makes a certain amount of sense that we also try to explain our dogs’ behavior with ulterior motives, too. But we give them a lot more credit for remorse than they are probably capable of.

To us, a dog’s normal appeasement behavior (avoiding eye contact, lowering body posture, flattening ears) smacks of “Guilty!” when in fact the dog is just reading the body language of his unhappy/angry/aroused human and trying to avoid any unpleasant encounters with said human.

Let’s say you come home to find the contents of your kitchen garbage can strewn across the floor. Your face tightens, your body tenses, and as you say your dog’s name, your voice has an unmistakably emotional tone.

“Ruh-roh,” your dog thinks. “My human is upset about something. I better be at my most appeasing self so nothing bad happens to me.”

You see his appeasement body language and think, “See? Look at him acting guilty – he knows he did wrong!”

Fortunately, studies have shown what ethologists and educated dog trainers have long claimed: that a dog’s “guilty” (appeasement) behavior is dependent on the human’s body language, not on what the dog did – or didn’t do.

The “Destruction Out of Spite” Myth

The spite myth rears its ugly head most often when a normally well housetrained dog either soils the house or does something destructive when left home alone. The misinformed human thinks the dog did to “get even” with the owner for leaving.

In fact, far more often than not, this is a dog’s stress-related behavior, and frequently is a sign of separation or isolation distress or anxiety.

It makes matters worse when an owner punishes the dog for the behavior. The punishment will not only prove useless, as it is too far removed from the behavior itself to have any effect, but also will make the dog more stressed the next time he is left alone, as he learns to anticipate the bad things that happen to him when his owner gets home. (See “Scared to be Home Alone,” July 2008.)

The “His Tail is Wagging So He Must be Friendly!” Myth

Somewhere in our history, it seems the entire human species latched onto the sticky myth that a wagging tail means a happy dog. As a result, humans across the millennia have been bitten as they attempt to pet a dog whose tail was wagging.

In fact, a wagging dog tail is simply an indication of some level of arousal. Certainly, sometimes it’s happy arousal and it’s perfectly safe to pet the wagging dog. On many other occasions, however, it may be tense or angry or fearful or reactive arousal, and you pet the wagging dog at your own risk!

Here’s a general guide to how to tell the difference:

– Low, fast tail wag, often in conjunction with lowered body posture, and possible whale eye, ears back, and submissive urination. This dog is fearful and/or appeasing; pet at your own risk.

– Half-mast gently swishing tail, combined with relaxed body language and soft eyes. This dog is probably safe to pet.

– Tail mid to three-quarters raised, wagging quickly, combined with some animated body language and happy facial expression. This dog is more aroused, but may be safe to pet. Use caution.

– Tail wags in a circle, combined with calm or animated body language. This dog is happy/excited and probably safe to pet.

– Tail vertical, swishing slowly. This dog may be calm and relaxed and just have a natural high tail carriage, such as the Husky, Malamute, Chow, Pomeranian, and others, or he may be becoming aroused. Since a high tail often indicates a higher level of arousal, it’s even more important to be aware of the other body-language cues of these dogs. This dog may or may not be safe to pet; wait for more information to go on!

– Tail vertical, wagging quickly, often accompanied by tall, forward body language. This dog is alert, tense and aroused. It is best to avoid interacting with this dog.

As you can see, it’s critical to evaluate the whole dog when determining whether his wagging tail means he is happy or not. Be advised, then, that this evaluation is too complex for small children to carry out; teach them not to pet strange dogs.

dog shoulder trick

The “All Breeds are Alike” Myth

This myth is most likely to be promoted by people who are trying to sell you something, whether it’s puppies or breed-specific legislation. If someone tries to make you believe that all individuals of a given dog breed will display homogeneous characteristics of that breed, or that certain characteristics are inherent in any and all members of that breed – well, hey, would you by any chance have any interest in buying a bridge?

While dogs of a given breed may exhibit behavioral tendencies that are common to that breed, little, if anything, is universal in all the individuals of any breed. There are Labrador Retrievers who hate the water and won’t fetch a ball, Border Collies who have no interest in sheep, and Huskies who wouldn’t pull a sled if their lives depended on it.

Breed registries maintain descriptions of their ideal, and people who breed purebred dogs are supposed to be trying to produce puppies who will grow into physical and behavioral manifestations of the breed standard. The problem is, not all breeders are good breeders! Some people are just trying to make a buck, and take little or no care to choose complementary parents for their “purebred” puppies. (And why would you, if you were selling puppies that were going to be sold like interchangeable widgets in pet stores to anyone with the money to spend?) And even educated, responsible breeders who take the utmost care to choose mates for their dogs don’t always succeed in producing perfectly conformed, perfect behavioral clones of the breed standard; it’s impossible!

When a truly responsible breeder produces a puppy who has physical or behavioral traits that are atypical of or aberrant for the breed, they will not only decline to use that particular breeding again, but also will work to find the pup an appropriate home with someone who will embrace it as a fully disclosed, atypical individual.

In addition, responsible breeders and adoption counselors should advise prospective owners who are looking for a dog of a certain breed that all individuals of any breed are just that: individuals. If there are certain traits of a certain breed that most appeal to you, make sure you take the time to look for a dog who exhibits those traits, not just the first representative of that breed that you happen to find in your local shelter.

And if you are set on buying a puppy of a certain breed, take the time to talk to a lot of breeders. Make sure that they understand exactly what you are looking for. Give them as much information about your home, family, and dog experience as they need to make sure they match you with a puppy who is most likely to succeed in your family.

If, on the other hand, you don’t have a specific breed in mind, write down the qualities that are most important to you in a dog, and then go out and start looking at individuals of any breed until you find one who best matches your list of desired traits. You should neither assume that any Golden Retriever you find will love your children nor that any Pomeranian you find will be too barky to endure. Be observant and deliberate. (See “Pick a Winner,” April 2009.)

The “The Best Dogs are Eager to Please” Myth

This is one of my pet peeves – the myth that dogs exist to please us. It’s such a commonly used descriptor that dogs who aren’t perceived as “eager to please” are often seen as flawed in character.

Dogs exist to please themselves, not us. It just so happens that for some dogs, the things that please them also please us. The dogs that we label as “eager to please” tend to find it reinforcing to be in our company, happily sitting for petting, fetching toys, and participating with us in whatever activities we’re engaged in.

Dogs who are perceived as “eager to please” are most often those who have been bred to work closely with people, such as the herding, working, and sporting breeds. If these working dogs are typical of their heritage (see previous myth), it will likely please them to engage in activities that involve humans.

We’ve created a number of breeds (including hounds and terriers) to do unsupervised jobs, such as chasing game through the woods, or killing rodents in barns and fields. It used to please us if one of those dogs took the initiative to do one of those jobs well, but today, it’s just as likely that a dog who pursues one of these activities without permission will be accused of being stubborn, willful, dominant, or disobedient.

The “Pack Mentality” Myth

There is enough truth to this myth to make it extra-super sticky. The part of this one that gets dogs into trouble is their humans’ assumption that because dogs are a social species, they should be able to get along with (and play with) every dog they see. I always remind my clients that we humans are a social species, too, and we certainly don’t all get along with each other!

In fact, while wild wolves may live in close family groups we call “packs,” there is a growing body of evidence that where groups of feral dogs exist, they live in loosely knit social groups that don’t even begin to resemble a wolf pack.

Besides, a pack of familiar friends and close relatives isn’t at all the same as a bunch of ill-behaved strangers. Not unlike small children, most reasonably well socialized puppies will happily play with any other behaviorally appropriate puppies all day long. But as your dog matures he is likely to be more comfortable engaging with a limited number of dogs he knows well. This is normal, and a lot like we humans, who may enjoy wild parties as teenagers but as mature adults are more likely to be found enjoying relatively sedate dinner parties. (That said, there are always exceptions, and there are some dogs who continue to behave as the life of the dog park well into their senior years.)

Listen to your dog, not the mythologists; your dog doesn’t have to play with other dogs if he doesn’t enjoy it. If he tells you he’s having a blast at rowdy canine romps, go for it. But if he tells you he’d rather not, heed his wishes!

Resist Dog Myths and Stereotypes

These sticky myths can damage your relationship with your canine family member, and prevent you from having the fulfilling and enjoyable life experience that every dog – and every dog-loving human deserves. Don’t let them.

Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, is WDJ’s Training Editor. She lives in Fairplay, Maryland, site of her Peaceable Paws training center, where she offers dog-training classes and courses for trainers. Pat is also the author of many books on positive training. Her two most recent books are Do Over Dogs: Give Your Dog a Second Chance at a First-Class Life, and How to Foster Dogs; From Homeless to Homeward Bound.

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Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, grew up in a family that was blessed with lots of animal companions: dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, goats, and more, and has maintained that model ever since. She spent the first 20 years of her professional life working at the Marin Humane Society in Marin County, California, for most of that time as a humane officer and director of operations. She continually studied the art and science of dog training and behavior during that time, and in 1996, left MHS to start her own training and behavior business, Peaceable Paws. Pat has earned a number of titles from various training organizations, including Certified Behavior Consultant Canine-Knowledge Assessed (CBCC-KA) and Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA). She also founded Peaceable Paws Academies for teaching and credentialing dog training and behavior professionals, who can earn "Pat Miller Certified Trainer" certifications. She and her husband Paul and an ever-changing number of dogs, horses, and other animal companions live on their 80-acre farm in Fairplay, Maryland.