Dogs can be victims of partial knowledge, misinformation, and "quick" answers.
A few days ago, via email, Penelope asked if I was planning to write an essay about domesticated dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) in honor of International Dog Day—August 26, 2020. I told her I wasn't planning to and she suggested I review some recent essays about different aspects of dog behavior, including dog-dog and dog-human interactions, based on my own and many others' ideas and research.
We both agreed that separating what we know from what we think we know—myths that are uncritically accepted and have become memes—is essential for improving the lives of dogs and the many different types of relationships they form with humans.1 Below, in the reference section, are summaries of and links to essays that cover various aspects of dog behavior and dog-dog and dog-human interactions.
Let's celebrate the remarkable diversity among dogs in the world.
I hope this potpourri of topics whets your appetite for learning more about what we know and don't know about dogs and dog-human relationships. It's essential to remember that there really is no "the dog"—no "universal" dog—and to keep in mind that far fewer dogs in the world are homed compared to those who are free-ranging or feral.
It's also important to keep in mind that there are marked individual differences among dogs, even among members of the same breed or mixes and among littermates and siblings. We need to appreciate these differences and try to understand each individual for who they are. Sweeping generalizations often ignore these important and fascinating variations. For many years, part of my own research focused on understanding the development of individual differences in behavior in dogs, coyotes, wolves, and why they evolved.
Many discussions and conclusions about why dogs do or don't do something, or feel or don't feel something, are based on small samples of dogs that don't truly represent the diversity of global populations or the diverse personalities of these remarkable canids. Myths, assumptions, and expectations based on these and other false beliefs about dog behavior and dog-dog and dog-human relationships can harm, rather than help them coexist with their owner and other humans, so we've got to get it right.
It's extremely exciting to recognize how much there still is to learn about dogs. International Dog Day is a great time to begin to honor who dogs truly are—their individuality and remarkable diversity—and to recognize what we know and don't know. When we pay careful attention to what's known and what's not known about what dogs think, feel, want, and need, it's a win-win for all. It's the least we can do for them and for us. Every day should be International Dog Day.
-- Do Dogs Bark Unnecessarily or Excessively? To answer this question reliably it's essential to take the dog's point of view, and ask them why they're barking. Even if we can't understand why they're barking, they usually have good reasons to do.
-- "Are Dogs Really Hard-Wired to Manipulate Us?" No they're not. Sometimes they may try to play us, but there's no evidence at all dogs routinely try to take advantage of people.
-- Dominant Alpha Humans Don't Garner Dogs' Respect and Trust. Dominance "training" causes stress and is a dog's worst nightmare, and dogs do display dominance and do form packs.1
-- Dogs' "Teenage Brains" Evolved for Good Reasons. Dogs, like so many other nonhumans, go through a period called "wildhood," and aren't hard-wired to make our lives difficult.
-- Why Do Some Dogs Fear Strange Dogs and Unfamiliar Humans? Research shows "Inadequate socialisation, inactivity, and urban living" make dogs fearful, and it's not necessarily tied to breed.
-- Do Pets Really Unconditionally Love and Unwind Us? Pets are choosy about who they love and don't always reduce stress, despite uncritical mass media that suggests they're panaceas for lifting one's spirits in all sorts of instances.
-- Are Dogs Really Our Best Friends or Family? An analysis of data from 107,597 dog welfare complaints is very discouraging. (Also see Are Dogs Really Our Best Friends? and Dogs Aren't Hard-Wired "Love Muffins".)
-- Let Your Dog Tell You If They Want to Go to a Dog Park. An essay called "The Dog Park Is Bad, Actually" misleads readers. Dog parks can be wonderful places for many dogs and their humans as long the dogs really want to go there.
-- When Dogs Play, They Follow the Golden Rules of Fairness. Fair play requires dogs to stick to mutually agreed upon codes of conduct, something they usually do.
-- "I Sure Wouldn't Put My Dog in a Puppy Mill, Would You?" Dogs do not want to be incarcerated in puppy mills where they're used as disposable breeding machines.
-- Dogs Live in the Present and Other Harmful Myths. They don't. (Also see Is Everything in a Dog’s Life Really "Pretty Short-Lived"?)
-- Dogs and Guilt: We Simply Don't Know. A widely circulated essay and other uninformed pieces mislead readers, because we really don't know if dogs display guilt.
-- Jealousy in Dogs: Brain Imaging Shows They're Similar to Us. It's time to put aside the myth that dogs don't experience jealousy. When they feel dissed, fMRIs show there's increased activation of the amygdala.
-- Giving Puppies Extra Socialization Is Beneficial for Them. Research shows that varied experiences make significant positive differences for young dogs, so it's perfectly okay to pamper them. (Also see Words of Wisdom on Raising and Training a Happy Puppy.)
-- Do Dogs Know They're Dying? We really don't know, yet there are numerous compelling stories that they know something "different" is happening to them or to other dogs. (Also see Dogs, Dying, and Death—and How to Help Them Cope.)
-- Dog Breeds Don't Have Distinct Personalities. Research shows individual dogs have personalities that can make characterizing a breed dicey. All too frequently "breedism"—convenient, oversimplified, and misleading stereotyping—doesn't serve dogs or their (and other) humans well.
1) Discussions of various myths and why they need to be corrected can be seen in these pieces and here: "Why Do People Make Up Myths and Other Stuff About Dogs?"; Hype and Myths About What's a "Natural Death" For Dogs; Dogs Live in the Present and Other Harmful Myths; The Minds and Hearts of Dogs: Facts, Myths, and In-Betweens; Let's Give Dogs a Break by Distinguishing Myths From Facts; Dogs: The More I Know, the More I Say, "I Don't Know"; Social Dominance Is Not a Myth: Wolves and Dogs; Dominant Alpha Humans Don't Garner Dogs' Respect and Trust; Dominance in Dogs: Owners' Reports Are Scientifically Valid; Dominance, Individual Personality, and Leadership in Dogs; Dominance in Free-Ranging Dogs: Age and Social Tolerance; Dogs, Dominance, and Guilt: We've Got to Get Things Right; Dogs Display Dominance: Deniers Offer No Credible Debate; Dominance and Pseudoscience: Making Sense of Nonsense;
Bekoff, Marc. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. University of Chicago Press, 2018.
_____. Mammalian Dispersal and the Ontogeny of Individual Behavioral Phenotypes. American Naturalist 111, 715-732, 1977.
_____ and Jessica Pierce. Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. New World Library, 2019.