7 Myths About Dog Training
7 Myths About Dog Training(and how they can ruin your dog)
We’ve all heard them. It’s true that if you hear something enough you believe it, no matter how outlandish. When it comes to dogs, just like kids, it seems everyone is an expert and they have no problem parroting any “tip” they saw on t.v. or read “somewhere”. Your neighbor, your kid’s soccer coach and your hair dresser all will tell you what you how you should be feeding, training or caring for your dog. After 2 decades as an Animal Behavior Consultant I think I have heard them all. But seven myths keep coming up over and over again. I want to finally put these to rest. It all comes down to education, if you have the right information you can make the right choices for you and your dog. So, here are the 7 myths about dog training in no particular order.
1.) Food should only come from a bag. The truth is, the less processed and closer to nature your dog’s food (and your food for that matter) the healthier it is. Many commercial pet foods are over processed and full of filler. Pet food is big business. Big corporations are more interested in profits than quality. The result is the numerous pet food recalls. Not ony are many commercial pet foods lacking in nutrition, some are downright dangerous.
Home cooking for your dog is one way to ensure safety and quality. However homecooking can be time consuming, especially for large breeds. Good home recipes are available on-line and from your vet. Raw food is another option. Raw diets can be purchased frozen and ready to feed but are still suseptable to safety concerns and recalls. The first 3 ingredients listed on the label are the most important. One of the first ingredients should be a protein. It should specify chicken or turkey not just poultry. Meal is o.k., it just means all the fat and water have been taken out of the food. You also want to make sure the food does not contain wheat, corn or soy. Those are the big 3 foods most dogs are allergic to. If you notice your dog scratching or licking himself a lot, be on the look out for one of those 3 in his diet. Barley, oats and brown rice are o.k. as very digestable and nutrient rich sources of carbohydrates.
As a bonus a good diet should have enzymes, omega 3, essentail fatty acids as well as a probiotic. Of course artificial food coloring and preservatives are deal breakers. Immediately put the food back if it contains any of those. For more info on how to read a dog food label or to order the brand I use, please go to www.my-zen-do.com. I suggest using a really good treat for training. Food is like money to your dog, so a piece of their dry food is worth maybe $2 to them where as a piece of chicken may be worth $1,000 to them. The higher the value the higher the motivation and the faster the learning. “But we never feed people food to our dogs,” is something I hear all the time. My response is if you eat it why not give it to your dog? Giving him a piece of chicken will not teach him to like it, he doesn’t have to learn that. It will not teach him to beg either, unless of course you feed him at the table or while you are eating. It’s all about the context.
2.) Start training your dog when they are 6 months of age. The old myth was that you had to wait until your dog was 6 months old to do any training. This just isn’t true. In fact the best time to train your dog is before the are 4 months old. Developmentally little puppies are just sponges soaking up information. That is the best time to teach them their formal obedience commands as well as socialization and housetraining. As your dog gets older it becomes more difficult to learn new things. A 2 month old pup can pick up something new in a matter of minutes whereas a 6 month old may take hours. A 6-year-old dog may take weeks or even months to learn the same behavior. As long as they are healthy you can teach an old dog new tricks – it just takes longer. Also, by training a dog early you are preventing bad habits from ever starting. Why wait till the dog is jumping to stop it? Teaching him to sit for attention at a young age prevents the jumping from ever starting. The 6 month age was typically when training started because that was the age you could start using a choke chain. Put a choke chain on a small puppy and you can do some very serious physical (not to mention mental) damage. Of course using training collars on any dog of any age can do damage but on a small puppy it can be lethal.
3.) Choke chains are necessary training equipment. It used to be the first item you bought for your dog was a choke chain. I remember back in the 1980’s Barbara Woodhouse and the Woodhouse Method was all the rage. She was an older British lady who showed the world how to pop a leash correction on a dog’s neck while saying “walkies” in a sweet voice. It was about this time veterinarians started using the term “Woodhouse neck” to describe their canine patients with nerve and muscle damage to their necks, legs and other regions. Punishment training for dogs started back with the world wars and their use in the military. Dogs were expendable. If the dog couldn’t take the training or turned aggressive it was just collateral damage. The long-term effects on those dogs that did respond to the heavy-handed training and saw active duty didn’t matter much. Thankfully our ideas and techniques have improved since them, but the old choke chain myth still pervades. The reality is that dogs are very shrewd animals. They know when they have on the choke chain they have to behave a certain way. The collar comes off and the behavior changes. When this happens the dog is said to be “collar wise”. Many shock collar manufacturers also make dummy collars with no shock mechanism to fool the dog into thinking they are wearing the real collar. Punishment doesn’t work. It just teaches the organism to avoid the punishment. It does not teach the correct behavior. If your training efforts focus on teaching the correct behavior the bad behavior naturally dies out, no matter what collar they are wearing.
4.) Rub your dog’s nose in potty accidents. I’m not really sure where this one came from. Probably someone, somewhere got frustrated and did it to make themselves feel better. But let me tell you it does not work. First of all, dogs live in the now. If your dog is sleeping in the corner and you drag him over to a pile of poop in the next room, you just punished your dog for sleeping in the corner. You have also just taught him you hate poop. He still has to poop, so now he won’t do it in front of you. Punishment does not teach the correct behavior, it teaches the organism to be sneaky to avoid the punishment. If your dog has a potty accident and you did not catch him in the act, there is nothing you can do about it. Except learn from that mistake to prevent it from happening again. The most effective way to potty train your dog is through positive reinforcement. Teach them where you want them to go. The better the reward (i.e. treats) the faster they will catch on to what you want.
5.) Your dog will outgrow behavior problems. “Oh, it’s only a phase. He’ll grow out of it.” I’m frequently told by owners that their dog is chewing just because he is a puppy and once he’s a year he’ll stop. I also hear a lot from owners of dogs who have reached a year and are still chewing or peeing on the carpet and they are about ready to get rid of their dog because of it. Behavior is always changing, it never stays the same. Either the behavior is getting better or it is getting worse. Why put up with bad behavior for a month or a year? Most unwanted behaviors are fairly easy to correct. You don’t have to put up with it and hope for the best. Do something about it.
6.) Temperament is not hereditary. I studied genetics in college and I’ve studied dog breeds throughout my career. But it was having kids of my own that really taught me just how much is inherited. My older son not only looks just like his dad but also has the same mannerisms. He holds his head and walks the same way. Sure some of it can be attributed to learned and modeled behavior. But that doesn’t explain why my youngest son acts just like his grandfather who died just 6 weeks after he was born. No possibility of modeling there. When it comes to dogs it’s important to remember that they are not a naturally occurring species. We, humans, created them. We selectively bred them to look and act a certain way. The dog is species with the most variety. The fact that the Chihuahua and the St. Bernard are the same species is incredible. Look what we’ve done. If you have a herding dog you can not fault it for having a lot of energy. You cannot blame a Labrador for running through your sprinklers. You can know that about your dog and redirect that natural love of running or water into a positive action. Fearful or aggressive dogs tend to have fearful or aggressive offspring. This is why it’s important to see your dog’s parents and relatives if possible. It gives you a better idea how your puppy will behave as an adult. This is one thing that separates a great breeder from bad one. A nice looking dog is fine but it’s the one with a great temperament that’s what you want.
7.) All training is the same and can be guaranteed. I can’t even guarantee my behavior. How I will act in a certain situation is unknowable. I can be fairly certain about it, but I can’t guarantee it. There are so many variables when it comes to behavior. Most importantly I can’t guarantee the owner’s behavior let alone the dog’s. I can, however, guarantee that the more consistent the owner's behavior is the more consistent the dog's behavior will be.
With the use of positive reinforcement we can increase the likelihood of a behavior occurring and reoccurring consistently. The more the behavior is rewarded the more it will become a habit. But there is just no way of guaranteeing anyone will behave a certain way consistently. This is only 7 myths in dog training. Unfortunately, there are so many more. I did not even discuss the most popular myth right now which is the whole dominance theory popularized by a particular t.v. trainer. That is the subject for a whole book. Basically dominance theory is based on some outdated research that has since been proven to be incorrect. It was based on research from a captive wolf pack. It does not reflect true wolf behavior and, besides, well, dogs are not wolves. There are many types of trainers out there. Some base their training on handling and control and using a variety of collars to gain compliance. Personally, I prefer to base my techniques on science. Since my background is in Psychology I want to know why AND how it works. Operant and classical conditioning are not as sexy as the whole dominant pack thing, but hey, that's me. I don't train for my ego, I train for the safety and well-being of your dog. My best advice is in navigating through the plethora of conflicting canine information is to talk and build a great rapport with your veterinarian. They are such a great resource. Their knowledge and experience is crucial in making the right decisions for you and your dog. They went to veterinary school, not your breeder or your trainer or that guy writing a blog post. And of course, do your homework. But the bottom line really is to go with your gut. I'm a firm believer in your intuition is always right. Regardless of what some so called expert thinks, if it feels wrong - don't do it. Every dog and every family is different. There is no "one size fits all' in dog training. Do what feels right for you and your dog.