In my line of work, I hear all kinds of pieces of advice bandied around; some good, some bad, and some downright misleading! In this article, I’ll address ten common myths of dog training and life with dogs and debunk them.
1. Push Your Dog’s Nose Into Indoor Toileting
Why this one persists I really don’t know, but even now you occasionally hear people recommending this course of action, especially with puppies.
The first thing to say on this one is just, “Don’t do it!”
Apart from how cruel this would be, (we’ll come back to that later) the one aim which all training methods should have in common is to communicate effectively with the dog. Pushing a dog’s nose into a toileting mistake is totally ineffective.
Do you know why?
Firstly, he has no concept of cause and effect; “I did a poo, on the carpet, therefore that poo on the carpet is my fault.” That train of thought has never, and will never, pass through a doggy brain. By the time there is a puddle of pee or a pile of poo on the floor, the dog has ceased to have any connection with it in his own mind. Any kind of action involving the dog at that point will therefore not help your dog learn where to toilet, which is what we want to focus on.
It will, however, teach your dog a lesson – that you are unpredictable, and occasionally do horrible things for no reason. I’m hoping this is not an attitude any of us want our dog to develop.
Now let’s take a look at why it’s so cruel. As I’ve just stated, it will lead your dog to view you with uncertainty and distrust, but for a dog, having one’s nose pushed into pee or poo must be downright painful. A dog has up to 300 million olfactory receptors in his nose, and their sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times as acute as a human’s. Imagine how awful it is to have such a sensitive, delicate instrument shoved anywhere against their will.
I hope by now I’ve shown that pushing your dog’s nose onto indoor toileting will not only fail to assist your training efforts but may well damage your relationship with your dog. Let’s look at another myth which is incredibly unhelpful.
2. He Knows He's Guilty
Oh no, he doesn’t!
If you joined in panto style then with, “Oh yes he does!” let me assure you that no dog feels guilt.
Now, of course, we don’t know exactly what goes on in a dog’s head – despite the ability we now have to actually see canine brain activity, thanks to MRI technology – so we have to judge by the behaviour the dog displays in certain circumstances.
So, let’s imagine a scenario, and explore what might be going on. Let’s suppose your dog is left alone with the bin, from which are emanating some very interesting aromas; from a dog’s point of view anyway! Your dog can no longer resist those tantalising scents, and he gives the bin a nudge, then another and another. Eventually, the bin falls over. Your dog is delighted and sets to work pulling out and investigating the contents of the bin.
At some point, you return to the room to find the messy, smelly – chewed up - rubbish is strewn across the floor, and of course, you are not pleased. You probably express your displeasure with an angry exclamation, and certainly, your body language will be speaking of anger, all of which will register with your dog.
Most dogs want to please their owner. Dogs like us – they may love us, but that’s a subject for another whole blog post! – besides which we control all their resources, so it makes sense for them to want to keep us in a good mood. Once your dog perceives you are not happy, he will display behaviours in response. Depending on the dog’s personality and experience, he may “droop”, dropping his ears and lowering his whole body, he may cower, and he may slink towards you or away from you.
This is where the guilt myth comes from because if a human displayed similar body language they probably would be expressing guilt. With a dog, the source is different though; they are showing what we call appeasement behaviour. Their aim is to calm you down and avoid your (from their point of view) random wrath.
The best course of action is the scenario I’ve outlined, is to clear up and forget about it.
And possibly change the position of you bin – but please don’t ever mistake appeasement behaviour for an admission of guilt.
3. Dogs Understand English
This sounds clear and easy enough, doesn’t it, but it’s another tough one, because for humans language and verbal communication is so ingrained and indeed vital, that we can’t completely comprehend that other species can manage without an innate understanding of it.
And the key word in that paragraph was “innate”.
No dog has any concept of any word in any language – until we provide context.
For example, your 8-week-old puppy coming into your home will probably not have any understanding of the word sit. Here’s one way we could provide context. We hold a tasty treat just above the pup’s head. He will probably lift his nose to sniff it, and his bottom will lower, and may even hit the floor. We give him the treat at that point, and we repeat that several times over a few days, each time waiting until his bottom is nearer to or on the floor before we give the treat.
Once the dog has grasped the behaviour we were looking for, we can add in the word, “sit”. Abracadabra! – we have given the puppy an understanding of the word sit. Or we will have done after some repetitions. After many, many more repetitions, we will be able to take away the lure of the treat and just say the word sit, and the dog will sit. We can then reward him with the treat, and over time even that can be reduced and phased out.
So if you find yourself shouting a word at your dog, and not getting the response you want, remember it’s because your dog simply doesn’t understand you, not because he’s trying to defy you. Which brings us nicely on to myth number 4…
4. He’s Doing it Deliberately
There are situations and times when it can feel as though your dog is deliberately working against you. Toilet training springs to mind. The recall is another time when this suspicion of rebellion can rear its head. Or it could be persistent barking, an inability to settle down quietly, chewing up prized possessions – or almost any behaviour which you don’t like or want.
Dogs do have ideas and preferences of their own, and they do act on them, but as I outlined before, the vast majority of dogs are not seeking to flout our authority or annoy us. So why do they end up doing things which do annoy us? There are many reasons for this, but the most common two are instinct and lack of guidance.
To take the issues I mentioned at the start of this section, with toilet training, with a young puppy it may simply be that they cannot hold their pee or poo as long as is being required. If a dog gets distracted during a recall, it’s usually because his surroundings are more exciting than he can resist. The other behaviours I mentioned may be down to lack of stimulation, either physical or mental - or perhaps even because of inherited behaviours for which (ironically) humans have specifically bred them.
You see, back when dogs had jobs, we shaped each breed to be the best they could be for that particular job. For many of those roles, the job description called for bags of energy, plenty of intelligence, and often a healthy dose of determination too. However, in a modern world, the most common job is that of a family pet, with the consequence that the dog’s drive and natural instinct to work are left unfulfilled.
As you can hopefully now see, that “naughty” behaviour, is not in fact naughty at all. It’s just dogs doing what comes naturally.
So how do we best deal with it?
The best way to resolve an unwanted behaviour is to understand its cause. In the case of toilet training, patience, perseverance and plugging away at the basics will win the day. For a reliable recall, use a really tasty, high-value treat and lots of energy to make yourself the most exciting thing around. For the other problems, give your dog plenty of exercise, both mental and physical; give them a job to prevent them going self-employed, as it were!
And rest assured that whatever your dog does, he’s not deliberately disobeying you, so try to understand the reasons behind his behaviour.
5. Not All Dogs Need Grooming
This is a difficult one to address because while technically not all types of dog coat need to be brushed too often, all dogs do benefit from grooming.
Some of the benefits may surprise you:
Dogs which don’t shed obviously require brushing, stripping, trimming and so on, but those which shed will carry “dead” fur in their coat, and brushing it out will probably make them feel lighter and more comfortable. The bonus for you is that any fur you remove directly from the dog, you won’t later have to sweep or vacuum up off the floor.
Grooming time can become enjoyable, quality time with your dog. It can be therapeutic and soothing for the owner to sit and brush a dog; certainly, most dogs seem to find it calming. Be honest, most of the time we’re either busy working, watching TV or out, and our mobile phones seem to claim our attention more and more. To put all that aside and actually focus on your dog can be a wonderful opportunity to relax together and build the bond between you.
There are unexpected wellbeing advantages to getting to know your dog’s body. By regularly grooming – looking at and running your hand over – your dog, you stay in touch with his physical health. That familiarity with what is normal might just save your dog’s life. For example, a friend of mine found a very small lump on her Labrador’s neck and took him to the vet to be checked out. Despite being of the opinion that the little lump was almost certainly a harmless, fatty cyst, the vet performed a needle aspiration and sent some cells off to the lab to be analysed.
The results were shocking and unexpected; the lump was a mast cell tumour, a kind of cancer often found in the skin. Thanks to early detection, coupled with the vet’s diligence, the dog went on to live several more, happy years. Had the MCT not been discovered it could have been a very different, much sadder story though, and all thanks to grooming.
Regular grooming - brushing, bathing, even a wipe over with a damp cloth (a very effective way of removing loose hair) – can be one of the most important and easiest steps you can take to safeguard your dog’s mental wellbeing and physical health.
6. Hypoallergenic Dogs
This is a hobby horse of mine, and it’s one which I am willing to saddle up and ride until there is not one person left in the land still fooled by this unscrupulous – or at least severely misguided – falsehood. There are no hypoallergenic dogs.
This is so important, I’m going to repeat myself; there are no hypoallergenic dogs.
Let’s unpack this a little. Hypoallergenic means less likely to cause an allergic reaction, and I think at the heart of this myth is the misunderstanding that it’s dog hair to which people are allergic. Thus, the flawed reasoning goes, breeds which shed less leave less hair around the place and so cause fewer allergic reactions.
Except it’s not technically dog hair which is the issue here, but rather a protein which is found in the dander (skin cells), saliva and urine of a dog. While clearly, having more shed dog hair around the house can exacerbate an allergy, this effect can be lessened by daily grooming and using a vacuum with a special filter.
Here’s the crux of the problem; allergy is very personal. One dog of a particular breed might set your allergies off, while another of the same breed doesn’t. Within one litter, one of the siblings might not trigger your allergy, while another does. To complicate things, puppies give off fewer allergens (the things that set off an allergy) than adult dogs, so you could find that while you can live – and breathe - happily around a puppy, as he grows into a dog, the situation changes.
It’s a complex matter, and while having an allergy to dogs does not preclude dog ownership, it does complicate it. However, there are no breeds which as a whole are less likely to set off allergies; there are no hypoallergenic breeds. Anyone advertising a dog as “hypoallergenic” is either trying to cash in on this myth, or is misinformed, and either way, I personally would not consider them a good breeder.
7. Dogs Are Dirty
I hear this one a lot, but they’re not dirty at all, and while it’s true we should wash our hands before we eat after touching a dog, that’s more down to the fact that our digestive systems process things very differently.
Dogs are, in fact, very clean. You know all that time your dog spends licking himself? Well if he were a human, that’s time he’d be in the bath or shower because he’s actually cleaning himself. And the reason we can toilet train our dogs so effectively is that dogs have a natural instinct not to dirty their den, but to pee and poo away from where they live.
One thing which could have given rise to this myth is the smell of some dogs. I can’t deny that some dogs do have a natural doggy odour (something I don’t object to actually) especially when wet, but if a dog is unpleasantly smelly, it may be down to his owners rather than to being dirty. Some dogs need bathing to lessen their odour, although to be fair most dogs can live quite happily and healthily without a bath, and in actual fact if a dog smells, it could be his bedding which needs washing.
Think of how often you wash your own bedding. Now compare that to how often the average dog bed is washed. It’s not the same, is it? Yet if we neglected to launder our own bedding, I’m fairly sure that would become quite “ripe” too.
So, far from being dirty or a health hazard, dogs are hygienic given the choice, and are actually very good for us, which brings us on to…
8. Dogs Are Bad for You
This one is so easy to dispel that it seems to me it’s merely an excuse for those wishing to avoid dogs (why would anyone do that???) rather than something anyone truly believes.
If you’ve ever experienced how utterly calming it is to sit and stroke a dog, you may not be surprised to learn that scientific studies have shown that being around a dog is beneficial for human health and wellbeing. The healing effects of canine companionship include slowing a human heartbeat rate, lowering blood pressure and boosting the immune system. In addition, sharing time with a dog makes a person less likely to be depressed, and actually inhibits the production of stress hormones.
For older people, having a dog alleviates loneliness and offers a sense of purpose. Children who have dogs are less likely to develop allergies, have higher self-esteem, process their feelings better and actually take fewer days off school. In between those ages, having a dog around provides a constant loving, supportive presence, and irrespective of age, dog owners get more exercise and are generally fitter than their non-dog owning counterparts.
Add to all this, the fact that being out and about with a dog means you socialise with more people than you otherwise would, which is hugely positive for us. Interestingly, studies looking into the effects of taking a dog into a nursing home found that not only did residents who spend time with a dog enjoy the benefits of interacting with it, but after the dog had left, they spent more time interacting with fellow human residents than before.
All in all, dogs are amazing for us, so any time spent with a dog is time well spent. (No wonder I’m such a happy, healthy, chap!)
9. Old Dogs Can’t Learn New Tricks
This has become ingrained into popular culture to such an extent, that the adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, is often applied to situations which in no respect relate to dogs or dog training. Which is a pity, because it’s incorrect.
Older dogs can definitely learn new behaviours, though it may take them longer to pick them up than younger dogs. In our youth, whatever our species, we’re programmed to pick things up quickly, but as time passes, mental processing gradually slows down – but it doesn’t stop.
The saying really should be, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks without patience and perseverance,” because that’s the real truth. When introducing new concepts to an older dog all we need to do is take more time, go slowly, keep the rewards flowing and be prepared to repeat the reward many times to really reinforce the new trick.
Of course, it may be true that older dogs can’t learn physically demanding new tricks. For example, if an older dog has mobility issues, we wouldn’t ask him to keep getting up and down, or run or jump. There are lots of behaviours we could teach which don’t involve much movement though – hand touches spring to mind, where we want the dog to touch his nose to our hand.
The marvellous thing about training an older dog is that you are helping to keep his brain active, and delaying any mental decline as much as possible. We know now that humans can ward off dementia by learning new skills, and there’s no reason to believe it’s any different for dogs. In my experience older dogs can not only benefit from but enjoy training and learning, so don’t assume anything about your older dog. Give some new training a try, and they may just surprise you.
10. Dogs Should Have a Litter Before They Are Spayed
Oh my goodness, this is perhaps the saddest myth of all, because it leads to so much unnecessary suffering.
First, there is no evidence at all that dogs “need” – physically or mentally – to breed. That is a human projection and a very misguided one at that. There is evidence that to be the healthiest possible, bitches should be spayed before their first heat.
I wonder how many people who take this reckless approach know the costs – financial and emotional - they are taking on. And how many look back and wish they had done differently?
The risks of a pregnancy and birth for a dog are considerable, and depending on their breed should be left in the hands of an expert, or avoided completely. Labour is a time when the bitch should be monitored carefully, and a vet should be at least consulted, if not visited, at the first sign of trouble.
In the event of the bitch dying, raising the litter becomes an immense task, and one I would find totally daunting. However, if mother and puppies make it through labour, there is still a huge amount of work to do. To borrow a phrase from Harry Potter, “constant vigilance” is the name of the game, as the owner must ensure all the puppies receive sufficient food and are not squashed accidentally by their own worn out mother.
Any health issues with the puppies must be dealt with, but should they all be paragons of health, there is still the issue of socialising and providing enrichment for the puppies. Dogs nowadays have to deal with so much, and producing a well-balanced dog starts from earliest puppyhood; or it should.
Having negotiated the health and behavioural minefields, new homes for the puppies must be found – and checked out to make sure they will carry on the good start, and offer the puppy socialisation, health care, training and so on. Good breeders support every puppy they have bred for life, being there at the end of the phone to offer advice, possibly providing holiday care, and if necessary, having the puppy back if rehoming becomes necessary.
If the owner is unable to find homes for the pups, they can find themselves in the nearest rescue shelter, and I think we can all agree that that isn’t the best start to a life.
Bringing a litter of puppies into the world is a time consuming, expensive, nerve-wracking, sometimes heart-breaking undertaking, and not to be done lightly as a throwaway aside before spaying.
Phew! Ten myths can consider themselves well and truly busted!
What’s the worst myth you’ve come across?
Or have you been told a “fact” which you suspect is not quite right? Let me know and I’ll tell you whether it’s doggy or dodgy!
Credit: Julie Hill.