Mutt Myth Busting
By Joan Hunter Mayer
We’ve all heard them – pervasive myths about canine behavior. Well, let’s take a closer look at three of the most common and often repeated myths, and see how they stack up to the facts we know about the science of animal behavior.
Myth #1: Dogs jump up on people because they want to take control.
Fact: Jumping up to greet people is an example of normal dog greeting behavior. This jumping up could be due to being overly excited and/or lacking impulse control, or they’ve been reinforced for it.
So, before we go down the road of anthropomorphizing intentions, and attaching labels, let’s look at this scenario with a more objective eye.
What does the science say? Animals perform behaviors to either get something or avoid something. Referring to Skinner, Pavlov and our other foremothers and fathers in the study of animal behavior, we know that behaviors that are reinforced are repeated. So, remember to look at what’s rewarding from your dog’s point of view, not your own. If your dog gets rewarded for jumping, with the attention he jumped up to get (even saying “no, stop jumping”), he will jump more! Hey, attention is attention.
Also, if Fluffy has a ‘positive conditioned response’ to (happy association with) the person she wants to say hi to, then she will likely be more excited to greet, which means a higher probability of jumping up - because that’s what dogs do.
Conversely, is a dog jumping and/or barking to communicate fear, anxiety or stress related the visitor(s)? That is a situation where a pet guardian would want to recruit a force-free trainer for help.
Training Tip: Ask yourself if there is something you are doing that is unintentionally reinforcing a behavior you don’t like. Then explore what you can do to make it better. For instance, you can give your dog opportunities to earn reinforcement by offering alternative — and useful — behaviors. Sit, Down, Stay, Targeting a mat or bed and lying down, are all alternate behaviors, many incompatible with jumping up. Teaching life skills and impulse control gives pets structure, helps teach boundaries and encourages them to practice problem-solving by earning reinforcement in productive ways.
Myth #2: A dog bolting out the door before you is being “dominant.”
Fact: Using subjective jargon like ‘dominant’ can be misleading for pet guardians and cloud our perceptions.
Sometimes life is really exciting, and our dogs just want to get to what or where they want to get to, as fast as possible! (Similar to the feelings humans have wanting to get to the roller coaster when they first arrive at an amusement park.) When dogs are excited, impulse control does not come easily or instinctively (see Myth #1).
Training Tip: We can and should help our dogs slow things down and take time to think before reacting to situations that involve their well-being and that of other people and pets. So, rather than worrying about who goes through the door first, focus your valuable energy and limited time on strategic management and humanely teaching your dog the behaviors you’d like to see more of, including waiting at doors, loose leash walking, and recall. Just be sure to also offer ample, safe opportunities for dogs to be the adorable, goofy, impulsive and inquisitive canine companions we all know and love!
Hmmm…on second thought, let’s think about dogs being “dominant” and taking over the world. Would that be such a bad thing? What would it look like? We’d wake up, eat, play, socialize, play, eat, nap, socialize…and repeat. Doesn’t sound like such a bad thing, especially nowadays!
Myth #3: When dogs pull on the leash on walks, they are trying to be the alpha.
Fact: On leash walks, dogs often pull to get closer to things they’re interested in – ‘terrific’ scents, new or familiar places, other dogs, people to meet, and so on. They might even pull to prevent leaving a desired location or to escape something that scares them or that they don’t like. This is all normal!
Understandably, this behavior can be frustrating for us humans. So, consider that assigning once popular (now debunked) terms could be more about a guardian’s own frustrations with their dog’s behavior than the actual behavior of the dog. How can this knowledge be helpful? Well, it can help us approach training with empathy, rather than friction.
Training Tip: Walk a mile in their paws. Think about the real reasons your dog might be pulling. Is Fido frustrated, frightened, anxious, experiencing over-arousal or releasing pent-up energy? Is Fido getting enough mental and physical exercise between walks? Are you just moving way too slowly for his desired pace? Understand that it’s a lot to ask your inquisitive canine to consistently maintain self-control around exciting and/or unfamiliar things while out for a stroll.
Do your best to address any underlying issues. Even if your inquisitive canine struggles with leash reactivity, it’s still possible to get more enjoyment and connection out of your walks together. For these situations, it is advisable to contact a professional, humane, ethical dog trainer to help you and your pup.
Do you want to be a mutt myth buster? It starts with being a critical thinker. Just like it’s unfair when people assume things about us without an understanding of our true motivations, it’s unfair to label an animal with subjective jargon. Rather than mindlessly using language that is confusing, and frankly quite negative in describing loved ones, especially our pets, we should be careful about assuming human motivations for a dog’s behavior.
Until there’s a way to directly ask dogs what they are thinking and feeling – and truly understand the answer- let’s all stick with the science, be objective, and stay inquisitive.
The Inquisitive Canine was founded by Santa Barbara canine behavior consultant and certified professional dog trainer Joan Hunter Mayer. Joan and her team are devoted to offering humane, pawsitive, practical solutions that work for the challenges dogs and their humans face in everyday life. Here’s to barking with the dogs, cheering for the humans, and having fun!