After much delay, here is the last installment in the “dog training and behavior myths” series of posts. I’m attaching a warning and apology here: unfortunately it ended up being a long post!
16. “It’s okay to roll a dog on his back to pet him.”
Even though your intentions are good, rolling a dog on his back can actually send a very scary message to the dog. Forcing a dog into this position will very often result in defensive or fear aggression.
Another common mistake we tend to make is thinking that when a dog rolls over on his own, he always wants his belly scratched. This isn’t always the case! Dogs will roll over to signal appeasement or to create distance between themselves and a human! While our instinct is to pet the dog on his tummy when he rolls over thinking he’s signaling “please move closer,” he’s actually signaling “please move away!” Not at all a pleasant situation to be in. When dogs roll over in this way, to help build their confidence, it’s best to encourage them upright and then interact with them.
So how do you know when to pet your dog when he’s on his back? Look for relaxed muscles throughout the dog’s body, open mouths (often with tongues hanging out to the side) and general “wiggliness”- dogs tend to roll over in this way during play. If your dog rolls over and you see any or all of these signs: tense muscles, furrowed brow, closed mouth, tucked tail- it’s best for the dog if you encourage him to roll upright before interacting with him.
Dogs convey and understand intent very differently than we do. Even though dogs will roll over (or roll each other over) as part of play, prior to executing a rough and tumble move they’ve displayed other signals (such as play bows) to let their play partners know that what they’re doing is play. Don’t forget that a lot of what we think of as polite or comforting in our interactions with other people including facing each other during conversation, leaning in to get closer to a another person etc. all convey very different meanings to our dogs. If you happen to make a faux pas, it’s much easier explaining your intentions to another human than to your pup!
There are many sources available that discuss all aspects of dogs rolling on their backs including what it means when your dog rolls over, when it’s okay to pet your dog while he’s on his back, and the “alpha roll.” Patricia McConnell’s The Other End of the Leash discusses many of the topics in this blog and has great information on alpha rolls.
17. “It’s best to take a dog that is fearful of other dogs to the dog park or to a dog class to get over that fear.”
Placing a dog into the situation the dog is afraid of at high intensities (including training classes if your dog is afraid of other dogs!) will most often make the situation worse. Your dog could very easily become overwhelmed to the point of shutting down, (essentially paralyzed in fear) not wanting to do anything but be near you and/or may end up biting out of fear.
Instead, speak to a trainer or veterinary behaviorist about how to desensitize and counter-condition your dog to other dogs or whatever they’re afraid of. Games such as tug of war (with rules properly in place), teaching tricks and even things as plain as working on basic cues with positive reinforcement techniques will also help to build your dogs confidence!
For more information on fearful dogs, visit www.fearfuldogs.com and take a look at Patricia McConnell’s The Cautious Canine and Nicole Wilde’s Help For Your Fearful Canine.
18. “You should be able to take things out of your dog’s mouth.”
Teach your dog “drop it” instead. “Drop it” and “leave it” can be life savers. Imagine looking across the lawn and seeing some sort of carcass hanging from your dog’s mouth! Wouldn’t you like to be able to just say “drop it” without having to race over there?
Trying to physically remove objects from a dog’s mouth whether they are food items, tissues, toys, socks, etc. can be very problematic at best and dangerous at worst. You could actually inadvertently cause resource guarding through taking things away! Dogs should be taught that human hands are not a bad thing around their food bowls, around treasured toys, around favorite treats, that human hands come by their favorite things to give, not to take.
Speak to a trainer or veterinary behaviorist who can walk you through all the steps including ow to teach “drop it” by playing tug (see Dog Training and Behavior Myths Part II). Also, take a look at Jean Donaldson’s “Canine Fear, Aggression and Play” seminar handouts for preventing resource guarding and Jean Donaldson’s Mine! A Practical Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs for help if you suspect your dog may be guarding anything.
19. “Dogs should be punished when they growl.”
This is a very dangerous myth. When dogs growl, they are signaling that they are uncomfortable with something. It’s a warning that if we don’t pay attention to the dog’s level of discomfort, it could escalate to a bite. If we punish for growling the dog may feel the need to escalate right then, possibly to a bite, depending on the situation. Punishing growls could also have long-term effects- if we punish a dog for growling the next time a similar situation arises, he may not growl at all, instead he may go straight to a bite!
While we would of course prefer not to hear growls, the reality is that they are a perfectly normal means of canine communication and it’s very important for us to accept them as such. Every dog will most likely growl at something during his or her life. It’s the equivalent of us raising our voices. Who can honestly say they’ve never done that?
I’m absolutely not saying that if a dog growls, we should just shrug and say “okay, that’s normal.” What we need to do, is to find out exactly what is making the dog uncomfortable and work to change that perception of “this thing is not safe and I will now growl at it” to one where the dog sees the person, place, item, etc as safe. This can be done through desensitization and counter conditioning.
Speak to a trainer or veterinary behaviorist if your dog is growling for any reason. Take a look at Janis Bradley’s Dog’s Bite But Balloons and Slippers Are More Dangerous for an eye opening, informative and witty look at aggression in canines.
20. “Dogs who growl in places like a vet’s office or grooming parlor are being difficult”
A lot of times veterinarians, their staff and groomers get to see a side of our dogs that we never see elsewhere. For some dogs the poking and prodding, need sticks, etc. are no problem, but for many dogs these are two of the scariest places to be. Some dogs a) become so overwhelmed and shut down that they just stand, sit or flop over and can be manipulated every which way (and are usually touted as “good dogs”) while others b) squirm to get away, growl or snap when handled.
Regardless of which of these categories a dog falls into, she is not being “difficult,” “stubborn” or “dominant.” Neither “a” nor “b” are good for pup, both situations indicate fear.
What do we do? We can do our best to desensitize and counter condition our dogs to these places, people, instruments and techniques. This will involve multiple visits when the dog is not being groomed or going in for shots, etc. A trainer or veterinary behaviorist can help you do this.
These are just some of the myths out there concerning dog training and behavior. While they may seem trivial to us, a lot of them have very serious meaning to our dogs. These are not by any means the only myths out there: from the notion that dogs love to be hugged (another very common myth) to the notion that it’s great for dogs to be carried to the notion that when two dogs meet they should be restrained to the idea that when an off-leash dog runs up to your on-leash dog there will be no problems.
Dog training and dog behavior aren’t the only topics surrounded by myths. They persist in every field, in every aspect of life. For example, a friend of mine who is a personal trainer told me that many people believe they are doing the right thing by their bodies when they hit the sidewalk for a jog or a run (think of how many you see out there each day). Yet sidewalks are the worst surface to run or jog on because they cause shin splints!
Despite scientific (or medical, as in the example above) evidence to the contrary there are many reasons for why some of these myths have such staying power. It’s our job to be as educated as possible about what is myth and what is fact. Research and question everything you can to make educated and informed decisions concerning your dog. It’s the best way we can make sure they stay safe, healthy and happy.
If there are any myths that weren’t addressed in this series of posts and you’d like to share, please post them here!