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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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Submitted by Lisa | June 17 2011 |

How interesting that the author says dogs don't like to be hugged! I think a lot of people probably aren't aware of that.

I have noticed that my dogs love it when I get down at their level, so that we're face-to-face. My six year old beagle mix's favorite position is lying up against me while I'm in bed, looking into my eyes.

My other dog, a 3 year old Shar Pei, also loves it when I squat down to greet her when I get home at night. She'll give me a few licks on my face and bump her head into my armpit.

It must be frustrating to be a dog and want to say hello, but to be so far away from your owner's face. My beagle runs up the stairs every night and waits for me at the top to lick my face and say hello, and it seems so important to her that I always try to oblige by pausing on the second or third step to let her greet me.

Submitted by heisy | June 28 2011 |

great article :) and this what mr cesar millan teaches ..........!!!!!!!!!!!!

Submitted by Eric R. | June 29 2011 |

My standard poodle loves human contact, but only with me and my son. She'll lie right next to us, but doesn't seem to like being hugged.

Dr. London, I'm curious about your fifth point, socialization. My dog is four years old, and has had some socialization. She is very fearful of other dogs when we go on walks. She was attacked by a Jack Russell Terrier a few years ago, and I think it sensitized her. I would like to hear your thoughts on socializing an older dog.

Thanks.

Submitted by Karen London | June 29 2011 |

Eric,

I'm glad to hear that your dog loves contact with you and your son--that's great! And it sounds as though she's like many dogs who prefer not to be hugged.

I'm being a bit jargon-happy here, but technically, only puppies can be socialized because it's a process that occurs during a specific period of develoment. Once dogs are older, they are not able to learn quite as quickly not to fear new things.

For older dogs who are a bit fearful, the key is not trying to socialize them, but to help them overcome their fears. I'd consider starting with The Cautious Canine by Patricia McConnell, Help For Your Fearful Dog by Nicole Wilde, and fearfuldogs.com.

Best of luck to you and your poodle!

Submitted by Cathi B | February 7 2012 |

Great article! I cringe every time I hear people say they follow the advice of a certain celebrity dog trainer on TV (I'm sure you know who). I'm even more baffled that this person is so popular. My favorite dog trainer is a vet and behaviorist from UC Berkeley, CA. I was very fortunate to be able to take my dog to his puppy training classes in California when I lived there. His methods deliver amazing results. I have a healthy, happy and well adjusted dog to show for it.

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