You Aren't a Dog, and Other Surprises of Dog Ownership
Ten tips on modern dog training and how to care for your dog.
Posted Aug 15, 2020
The nature of canine science means we're learning more about dogs and dog training all the time. Here are some up-to-date tips to help you with your dog.
1. You aren’t a dog. It’s okay, I know you know you aren’t a dog. But there’s a lot of dog training lore that starts with the premise that you should act as if you’re a dog. For some reason, this advice is specific to certain aspects of dogdom and tells you to be harsh with your dog. It doesn’t tell you to do the other stuff dogs do, like roughhousing in play or rolling on smelly stuff or sniffing other dogs’ butts. Anyway, in case you get confused, remember you’re a person, not a dog.
2. Your dog isn’t trying to dominate you and you aren’t the pack leader. Although this idea is supposedly based on what wolves do, you aren’t a wolf any more than you’re a dog. Your dog isn’t a wolf either. Plus, relationships between wolves turn out to be a lot more complex and cooperative than this advice suggests. (For more info, see the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior’s position statement on dominance in dog training; and on wolves, see e.g. Dr. Marc Bekoff's post on the wolves of Yellowstone).
3. Confrontational dog training methods risk an aggressive response. The lore of pack leaders tells you to be harsh with your dog. But research shows that dogs can be aggressive in response to methods such as alpha rolls, using force to remove items from their mouth, hitting or kicking them, grabbing them by the jowls and shaking, growling or staring at them, and using a prong collar (Herron, Shofer & Reisner, 2009). Other risks of aversive methods include fear, anxiety, stress, and a worse relationship (Ziv, 2017; Vieira de Castro et al 2019). You got your dog to be your best friend, so don’t risk something that might spoil your special bond.
4. Train your dog with reward-based methods. Reinforce behaviors you like so that you see them more often, and remove the reinforcement for behaviors you don’t like. Positive reinforcement works, it doesn’t have the risks of aversive methods, and it’s appropriate for all dogs. And yes, there is even evidence that positive reinforcement is more effective than using a shock collar to teach dogs to come when called (China, Mills, & Cooper, 2020). So think about what you want your dog to do and use positive reinforcement to train them. That means using food or play or other stuff your dog loves.
5. Model good behavior in front of children. Especially don’t use aversive training methods in front of a child. If this puts adults at risk of aggression, think about what might happen if the child tried to copy you.
6. Dogs and children need to be supervised more carefully than you think, even when it’s your own family dog. Small children are especially at risk when they approach a dog that is resting or lying down (Reisner et al 2011); don’t let them do that, and teach them (with your help) to call the dog over if they want to interact with them. If the dog chooses not to come, that’s their choice. Older children are more at risk of bites from dogs outside, e.g. dogs running out of yards as they walk, run, or cycle by. This is also a hazard for adults. So keep your dog in your house or yard. (Hint: If your yard is not fully fenced, or you leave the gate open, you cannot expect your dog to stay in there).
7. Any dog can bite. Some scenarios are particularly risky. Grabbing a dog by the collar is one. Another is when a dog is amped up and excited and barking at a window or on the end of a leash, as there’s potential for a redirected bite. Taking something away from a dog (sometimes recommended as one of those ‘dominance’ things) risks a bite. Instead, you should train your dog to ‘drop it’. And remember what can happen when using aversive training methods (point 4).
8. Never tell a dog off for growling. That growl is useful information that they are unhappy. Instead, stop and figure out why they are growling. Maybe you need to approach the situation in a different way, or train the dog not to be afraid. A good, reward-based dog trainer can help.
9. Fear, anxiety and stress can be hard to spot until you learn to recognize the signs. But it gets easier with practice, so pay attention to your dog. You already know to look for a tucked tail, a low posture, and the ears back, but also look out for yawning, lip licking, looking away, and sniffing. (You can find a longer list of signs and test your skills in how can I tell if my dog is afraid).
10. You’re your dog’s guardian. It’s up to you to take care of them; provide food, water, exercise and enrichment; give them somewhere safe to sleep at night (and nap in the day); ensure they get vet treatment if needed; and so on (Todd, 2020). If it all sounds like a big responsibility, it’s because it is. And it means that when looking at dog training advice, you need to put your dog’s welfare first. (See: dogs’ happiness, not obedience, is what counts).
Dog training isn’t regulated, which means anyone can call themselves a dog trainer. If you’re having issues with your dog, seek help sooner rather than later, and choose a dog trainer with care. And for any sudden change in behavior, see your vet in case there is a medical cause.
Facebook image: Grusho Anna/Shutterstock
China, L., Mills, D.S. & Cooper, J.J. (2020) Efficacy of dog training with and without remote electronic collars vs. a focus on positive reinforcement. Frontiers in Veterinary Science, https://doi.org/10.3389/fvets.2020.00508
Herron, M.E., Shofer, F.S., & Reisner, I.R. (2009). Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesirable behaviors Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 117, 47-54
Reisner, I.R., Nance, M.L., Zeller, J.S., Houseknecht, E.M., Kassam-Adams, N. and Wiebe, D.J. (2011) Behavioural characteristics associated with dog bites to children presenting to an urban trauma centre. Injury Prevention, 17, 348-353.
Todd, Zazie, (2020) Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Greystone Books.
Vieira de Castro, A. C., Barrett, J., de Sousa, L., & Olsson, I. A. S. (2019). Carrots versus sticks: The relationship between training methods and dog-owner attachment. Applied Animal Behaviour Science.