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Don’t Try This at Home!
Five common misconceptions about dog training and behavior

Since dog training has become so popular that it’s even a form of television entertainment, misconceptions about canine behavior have multiplied. Faulty information entrenched in popular culture means that a lot of what “everybody knows” isn’t actually true. Here are my top picks for myths in need of busting.

1. It’s best to stare down an aggressive dog. To dogs, a direct stare is a threat. Staring at a dog who is already considering an attack is more likely to escalate the confrontation than to diffuse it. Furthermore, fearful dogs who are unlikely to behave aggressively can become so frightened by your threatening stare that they panic and bite in response.

2. Kneeing a dog who likes to jump up on people is a good way to teach him not to do it. Kneeing a dog can cause injury to the dog’s neck or chest even if you don’t use much force. Additionally, when you lift your knee, you automatically lean back a bit, thereby ceding that space to the dog. Dogs respond to the angle of your torso, and when you lean back, they are more likely to jump up on you because you are yielding space to them. Leaning toward exuberant greeters is one way to prevent jumping, and that is the opposite of what happens when you lift your knee into them.

3. Dogs love to be hugged. Putting your arms around a dog’s neck and shoulders may feel loving to humans, but to dogs, this is rude and potentially threatening behavior. Every week, I see pictures in magazines of celebrities hugging their dogs. The human stars look radiant, but the dogs look miserable and display common signs of stress such as tongue flicks, a tightly closed mouth, pulled back ears or a furrowed brow. Hugging is a primate form of affection, but not one that is appreciated by the canine set.

4. Alpha rollovers are a way to teach your dog who’s boss and control his unruly or aggressive behavior. Actually, an alpha rollover, which consists of pinning your dog on his back and staring directly at him, is not a way to discipline your dog or teach him anything. It is, however, a way to terrify your dog and cause him to lose his trust in you completely, possibly inciting rather than preventing aggression. An alpha rollover is an aggressive move that dogs are more likely to interpret as an unpredictable human lunatic picking a fight than as a form of leadership.

5. Fearful dogs should go to classes or the dog park for socialization. Socialization refers specifically to the process that occurs during the sensitive period— between three and 12 weeks—when the puppy is becoming aware of the social world and learning how to behave within it. Proper socialization requires providing a young puppy with many positive interactions during this brief period of development. Taking a fearful dog to training classes or to the dog park is not socialization, and is unlikely to help a fearful dog become less afraid. Many dogs become overwhelmed in a class or at the park, which only confirms how scary it is to be around other dogs and people. A dog who is repeatedly frightened is not learning to like being around people or dogs. Rather, he’s having additional experiences that confirm how scary it is to be around them, which usually makes those fears worse. Neither training class nor the dog park provides a good situation for helping dogs overcome their fears.

Many of the most humane and effective training techniques are not intuitive and may not be the ones most often mentioned. The best information about dog training and behavior comes from people who are highly educated on the subject, few of whom do their work on camera, so when you have questions, seek the advice of a true expert and get the straight scoop!

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 57: Nov/Dec 2009

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

Photograph by J. Mark Weiss

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