Let's Give Dogs a Break by Distinguishing Myths From Facts

While we know quite a lot about dog behavior, numerous misconceptions exist.

Posted May 12, 2018

​"Thank you for giving me permission to hug my dog, because he loves to be hugged and I'm sure I'm depriving him of feeling loved."

When one pays careful attention to what we know and don't know about the behavior of dogs, it's clear that while solid research has revealed quite a lot about these fascinating beings, there also is a good deal of behavior about which we still don't know much at all. Yet, this lack of knowledge doesn't stop people who have never studied dogs from writing books with titles such as The Truth About Dogs: An Inquiry Into the Ancestry, Social Conventions, Mental Habits, and Moral fiber of Canis familiaris. I mention this book only because years ago I was asked to review it and discovered so many errors of fact that I was frankly appalled by how misleading it was and how it contributed to serious misconceptions about who dogs truly are. (For more details, please see "If Dogs Truly Were Human They Would Be Jerks," an essay that is based on a longer piece highlighting numerous errors.) And, after repeatedly misrepresenting dogs as if all were the same, the author, Stephen Budiansky, concluded, "Let’s face it: If dogs truly were human they would be jerks. As dogs they are wonderful" (page 238) and "Dogs are 'biological freeloaders' ... have got us exactly where they want us, and we, idiotic grins fixed to our faces, go along with it all." (pages 6–7) "They also '... play us like accordions'" (page 13).

All in all, Mr. Budiansky offered downright mistruths about the behavior of dogs through the repeated use of combinations of cute phrases, slippery and slick writing, recycled and convoluted arguments, and uncritical evaluations of available data. Budiansky also claims —and he often states his beliefs with unyielding authority purportedly "as a brutally objective observer" (page 9) —that dogs are constructed by humans’ need for connection and love and that dogs really do not do much for humans other than to create an image that they really care and that they are truly there for us unconditionally. However, Budiansky also notes, "No one has actually done a study of this..." (page 6).

Free images, Stockvault
Source: Free images, Stockvault

I came to realize then, and I still would argue now, that the only real truth about dogs is that while we know quite a lot about their behavior and how they interact with other dogs and with humans, there still is much to learn about these amazing beings. I can well see the dog to the left asking something like, "Who am I?"

Canine myth busting

In a previous essay called "Canine Myth Busting" by Psychology Today writer, Dr. Jessica Pierce, six such myths are discussed in light of available evidence I discuss in Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do and using data from other sources. Here, I further expand her list. Dr. Pierce wrote about:

(1) Dominance. Dogs do exhibit dominance, but we don't have to dominate them when we try to get them to adapt their behavior to living with and around humans.

(2) Guilt. While we're not good at reading guilty behavior in dogs, current data do not show that dogs do not feel guilt. We simply do not know if dogs feel guilt.

(3) Dogs live in the present. They don't, and research and common sense show that this is a prevailing myth that doesn't have any credence at all.

(4) Dogs love us unconditionally. They don't, and anyone who's rescued a dog who has been abused knows that they are rather selective in choosing the humans around whom they feel comfortable and might love.

(5) All dogs need is a soft bed and food in a bowl. Not true at all. Dogs need to be loved and feel it from their humans and others, and many, if not most, dogs want and need much more than they usually get from us.

(6) You shouldn't hug a dog. This is not so at all, but hugging a dog should be done on their, not our, terms. If they like it, do it, and if they don't, don't do it. A rule of thumb before hugging a dog is to pay very close attention to individual differences, your relationship with the dog, and the situation at hand.  A misleading essay in the New York Times sent many people into a tizzy when they were told not to hug a dog, but this isn't good advice all. I gave a talk a few weeks ago and discussed whether or not people should hug dogs, saying that they had to do it on the dog's terms. A women came up to me afterward and thanked me for giving her permission to hug her dog, because he loved to be hugged and she was sure she had been depriving him of feeling loved. I was stilled and realized just how powerful popular media can be and how it can easily perpetuate myths that people think of as facts. 

Some more "facts" that really are myths

There is a being called "the dog."  Dogs, even young siblings, show incredible individual variation and explanations of behavior patterns that might work for one, two, or even 10 dogs, might not work for many others. One of the most exciting aspects of studying dogs centers on their marked differences in behavior, personalities, and how they adjust to living in a human-dominated world. And, it's their individual variability and differences in the varying situations in which they're studied, that's often responsible for differences in the results from experiments that focus on similar questions. 

Desexing male dogs (and perhaps females) will have positive effects on their behavior; it's a panacea for getting rid of unwanted behaviors. This isn't so. Veterinarians disagree about whether routinely desexing male dogs is desirable, and we need more data for females as well. While some dogs respond well to being desexed, others don't respond as humans would like them to when they're castrated. So, once again, it's essential to pay attention to the particular dog and the dog's relationship with his or her human. 

-- Dogs are confused when they play, and that's why the behavior looks like a hodgepodge of different activities borrowed from different contexts, including aggression, predation, and reproduction. Detailed research has clearly shown that dogs are not confused when they play. Many, but not all dogs, love to play, and by studying dog play we can learn a lot about fairness, empathy, and trust. Based on extensive research, we’ve discovered that there are four basic aspects of fair play in dogsAsk first, be honest, follow the rules, and admit when you're wrong. When the rules of play are violated and when fairness breaks down, so too does play. Dogs keep track of what is happening when they play, and fairness is the name of the game. "Moral mutts,"  they can read what other dogs are doing and want to continue doing, and they trust that they want to play rather than to fight. This is why play among young and old dogs only extremely rarely escalates into injurious aggression.

Play-fighting frequently escalates into serious aggression. Shyan, Fortune, and King (2003) reported that fewer than 0.5 percent of play fights in dogs developed into conflict, and only half of these were clearly aggressive encounters. Their data agree with our own observations on wild coyotes and free-running dogs at play and also with data collected by Melissa Howse on free-running dogs at an off-leash park in Newfoundland. It's true that when play-fighting gets rough it attracts attention, but available data do not support the belief that serious fighting will typically follow.

Dog parks are dangerous. While dog parks work for some dogs, they don't for others. It seems pretty simple: If your dog doesn't like going to dog parks, don't go. They have to agree that's it's a good place to hang out with other dogs and humans. In her study, Ms. Howse never observed serious aggression, reporting that, “indeed, aggression in dog parks may be unlikely...due to the personality characteristics of dogs brought by owners to the dog park, owner intervention, and/or other factors." She also noted that their observations are consistent with Lydia Ottenheimer Carrier and her colleague's findings at the same dog park and also with those of Shyan, Fortune, and King's observations at another dog park.

Dogs don't have a theory of mind. While we don't know if this is so, some people offer up something along the lines that dogs simply don't have the cognitive capacities to know what other dogs are thinking and feeling, and they don't have a Theory of Mind (ToM). There really is no reason to assume that they don't, and social play is an excellent arena in which to collect data centering on this question, especially as dogs fine-tune play on the run, carefully paying attention to their play partner(s). All in all, fair play by dogs reveals many aspects of what they know and feel. They need to know what playmates want, and data show that they mind-read one another accurately. Without mind reading, empathy, and trust, fair play wouldn’t happen. Of course, more research is needed. 

Dogs shouldn't sleep in bedrooms or beds. One again, as in the case where people are told not to hug dogs, it's simply wrong to tell humans that their dogs shouldn't sleep in their bedrooms or in their beds. This myth was perpetuated by an essay in the New York Times called "Out of the Doghouse, Into the Bed" in which we're told "Some dogs may not belong in the bedroom, such as very young or old pets who may not sleep through the night, a sick pet or a reactive pet who might become aggressive when startled or woken up suddenly." As I point out in a piece titled "Should Young, Old, and Sick Dogs Be Banned From the Bedroom?" young, old, and sick individuals are the very dogs who likely really need the company of their humans and a little more TLC than they usually receive. We also know that young dogs benefit from extra socialization (please also see "Giving Puppies Extra Socialization Is Beneficial for Them"). One of my friends helped her reactive dog calm down by allowing her to sleep in her bedroom on a dog bed. During this training period she had to be very careful about how she got in and out of bed, but she told me it was well worth the inconvenience and effort from which they both benefited. And I'm all for giving senior dogs whatever they need to be comfortable and feel loved ("What's a Good Life for an Old Dog?"). The Times essay is far too human-centric for my liking, and it's essential that humans take into account what their canine companions need. 

It's not a good idea to "get down and dirty" with your dog. Of course it is—but only if your dog or another dog also likes to engage in these activities. In an essay called "Get Down and Dirty With Your Dog: Bow, Hug, and Tug" I began with the following disclaimer: It's okay to do all of these things as long as it's okay with your dog. They must be done on their terms, not yours. So, when you hang out with your dog, feel free to get down and dirty and play, hug, and tug to your dog's and your heart's delight, as long as it's on their terms. You have to pay very close attention to who each dog is as a unique individual and what they want and need. But, if she or he likes it, throw in a few play bows, run wildly here and there, wrestle with them, and hug and tug and enjoy it all. Getting down and dirty with a dog is an incredibly special time filled with frivolity and unbounded joy. In her book called Play With Your Dog, dog trainer Pat Miller wrote, “Tug to your hearts’ content,” and don't worry if your dog growls. It's all “part of the game,” and if the dog's other behaviors are appropriate, “let him growl his heart out!” Tug-of-war between humans and dogs also is not necessarily about dominance. Not only can it be fun, but it also can be important in bonding and maintaining a positive and friendly relationship and training experience with your dog. It can be a win-win for all. 

It's okay to give dogs as surprise gifts. It's not, despite what some people and organizations claim, and there are numerous good reasons why dogs (and other animals) should not be given to other people without being absolutely certain that they really want to share their homes and hearts with a nonhuman companion. 

Dogs shouldn't eat "people" food. Why not? Although dog advice columns often decry giving dogs people food, (whatever that is), there is no scientific evidence that the foods we humans eat are necessarily bad for dogs. Indeed, the distinction between dog food and people food often is more of a marketing gimmick than anything else. Many commercial dog foods aren't all that good for dogs, and many dogs do well living on people food or having their meals supplemented by table scraps. Once again, it all depends on the dog and the relationship she or he has with her humans. The dogs with whom I've shared my home lived long and healthy lives and loved some of my meals, which I happily gave to them, always balancing what they consumed. There's a wide range of human foods that are safe and that dogs do well on, so if your dog likes them and they're safe and don't make them sick, there seems to be no credible reason why dogs shouldn't enjoy them. 

Dog trainers have to be certified. This is not so. In the United States, dog training's dirty little secret is that anyone can legally do it. I was shocked when I learned this, and of course it's a huge secret, not a little one. I also was surprised by how many people with whom I spoke didn't know this either. Dog training is an unregulated industry—anyone can do it—and because of this, dogs and their humans suffer when people go to trainers who know little or nothing about dog behavior and dog-human relationships. Different people have different needs, and dogs are unique individuals, so it's essential that a dog trainer/teacher be well versed in dog behavior and various principles of ethology/animal behavior and psychology. They also need to be able to assess the nature of dog-human interactions. 

My simple advice is that people should choose a dog trainer as carefully as they would a surgeon. All dogs who need training depend on their humans to make the best choice possible. We owe it to them to do the best we can and to be sure that when we entrust our dogs' well-being and life to anyone who claims to be a trainer, that he or she really is qualified to work with these highly sentient beings and their human guardians. For more discussion on this topic please see Brent Crane's essay called "How to Find a Qualified Dog Trainer."  

Some other myths about which I frequently read: Dogs always circle before they lie down (they don't); dogs don't have a sense of time (we don't really know much at all about their sense of time); dogs don't have a sense of self (depending on how one defines "sense of self," there are good reasons to argue that dogs do have some sense of self; for more discussion please see "Hidden tales of yellow snow: What a dog's nose knows—making sense of scents"); peeing is always marking (sometimes dogs pee simply because they've got to go); and either that service dogs aren't all that happy about what they're asked to do or that they are typically content (some aren't and some are, and we need much more research in this area as it's highly unlikely that any sweeping generalizations about the well-being of service dogs will be credible, thanks to individual differences among dogs and variations in the relationship they have with their humans). 

Using science responsibly and avoiding sweeping and misleading myths and generalizations will benefit dogs and us.

Sweeping species-wide misconceptions fail us, the dogs, and the relationships we form with them. 

I've intentionally gone into some much-needed detail in this essay because the bottom line is that there is no being whom we can call "the dog." Normative conclusions that go something such as "dogs do this" or "dogs don't do this" are typically misleading because of marked individual differences. All in all, these sorts of sweeping species-wide misconceptions fail us, the dogs, and the relationships we form with them. 

We are most fortunate to have dogs in our lives, and we must work for the day when all dogs are most fortunate to have us in their lives. In the long run, we’ll all be better for it. My humble suggestion is that we need to give dogs a break and distinguish between beliefs and facts about who they truly are. If something works both for an individual dog and for you, then do it. And, if something works more for them than for you, it might also be a good idea to allow them to engage in the activity. When we do this, it will be a win-win for all

Please stand by for more discussion of research on the cognitive, emotional, and moral lives of dogs and other animals. What an exciting time it is to conduct these studies and to learn more about dogs and the other fascinating nonhuman animals with whom we share our homes and our lives. 

References

Bekoff, Marc. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018.

Serpell, James. (editor) The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behavior and Interactions with People (2nd Edition). New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017. 

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