Top 5 Dog Training Myths
Did you know January is national Train-Your-Dog month? And did you know the Association of Professional Dog Trainers is offering a ton of great resources completely free in celebration of this month at www.trainyourdogmonth.com?
To start Train-Your-Dog month on the right paw, let’s first debunk some common myths associated with dog training. I consulted with dog trainer extraordinaire Jodie Varner, owner of Jodie Vee’s Fun Dog Training, to make this list and check it twice.
Jodie and her dogs: Quincy and Levi
#1: Old dogs can’t learn new tricks
You probably know this is not true, but what role does age really play? Well, there are certain developmental stages puppies go through that can certainly impact how they behave as adult, and there are certain things senior dogs might not be able to do simply because of health limitations. A dog with hip dysplasia would probably not excel at flyball, but he might do great at scent detection activities, for which they can even compete and get titles, like in this video:
When it comes to learning something new, age is just a number. When an older person learns to text for the first time, they might not be able to text a million words per second, but they can still learn how to send a text message. Learning something new is extremely rewarding and beneficial for your dog’s well being, so no matter how old your dog is, keep on training!
#2: Training is for dogs with behavioral problems
Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t do any formal training with their dogs until a problem arises: pulling on the leash, jumping on people, barking too much… um… being a dog! As Jodie put it: “all of these behaviors are normal things dogs do, and humans are just trying to get them to do something that is the opposite of what comes natural to them.” So, some training can indeed be focused on changing a behavior that the owners consider to be problematic. And that’s OK! Both humans and canines need to adapt to each other in order to coexist. However, not all training is about behavior modification: you can teach your dog a new fun trick or new sport, even if your dog is the most well-behaved canine in the world (the AKC is probably working on setting up trials for that). Training is about relationship-building, whether it’s to improve how you interact in certain situation, or whether it’s to expand what you two can do together and build a stronger bond.
Plus, some instances of behavior modification don’t necessarily require obedience training but rather human awareness and willingness to change. For example, how you act before leaving your house could affect how your dog handles being away from you. It doesn’t even have to be what you do, but it could even be what you wear: something as innocent as a new perfume can trigger a new behavior. Consulting with a dog trainer can be a good first step, but keep in mind that not all trainers are behaviorists and vice-versa. The ASPCA has a great article explaining the differences among various pet professionals: http://www.aspca.org/pet-care/general-pet-care/behavioral-help-your-pet
#3: Some breeds are untrainable
Everyone knows that Poodles and Border Collies are supposed to be the smartest dog breeds. But did you know that bloodhounds and beagles are among the top 10 least intelligent dog breeds? Yes, the same breeds that work for customs and police departments. That should tell you something: obedience is in the eye of the beholder. Being the proud mama of two adorable beagles, Jodie understands why they tend to make the top 10 least trainable dogs: their noses get them in trouble. Furthermore, some breeds tend to be more independent than others (a lot of sporting and working dogs were bred to work well on their own, so don’t blame them), and when they don’t share our interest for a particular activity, they will make it quite clear.
Not all dogs can learn and master everything they are taught. Newsflash: neither can humans! Some people are great at learning languages, others at playing instruments. I took several years of piano lessons, and I can’t even play the Happy Birthday song. Bottom line, there are no untrainable dogs. All dogs can learn something. Now, what, when, or how fast they learn depends more on the dog than the breed. Even though breeds have certain traits, each dog is an individual. I know of a rat terrier who took a Barn Hunt class and could not care less about finding the rat. Don’t judge a dog by its breed.
And equally important: don’t judge a trainer by their dog! If you think that a trainer’s dog is perfectly well-behaved all the time and has a ton of titles, you’re likely to be disappointed. Jodie gave me a great analogy for this: a mechanic’s car. Do you expect a mechanic to have a car that works great all the time? Just like a mechanic spends more time working on other cars than his own, it’s not uncommon for trainers to spend more time training other dogs than their own. Besides, what clients may want their dogs to learn can be quite different from how a trainer would like their own dogs to behave.
#4: Human dominance over the dog is key
When I first started going to training classes at Jodie Vee’s, the moment I knew I had picked the right trainer was when she brought out her own dog Levi (a beagle with a tiny mischievous streak), and she said “See? He is not a robot!” as Levi decided to play with a food puzzle instead of sitting like Jodie asked him to (he did it later, don’t worry). Right then and there, my own misconception of dog training was erased. I thought dog training was all about controlling your dog at all times or changing their personality. And sadly, even now, there are still plenty of trainers who believe that’s exactly what training should be about. I recently read a piece on the Whole Dog Journal suggesting that a well-trained dog should be paying attention to the human all the time. All the time?! Can you imagine how exhausting that must be? To me, that sounds like a dog with a case of OCD (or a human with a severe need for attention).
The dominance myth is based mostly on a broad simplification -or misunderstanding- of how packs work. Yes, a pack of wild dogs has a pack leader, but that doesn’t mean that he is a dictator. And in the case of domestic dogs, the picture is even more complex. Jodie sees this as the dichotomy between a business and a family. In a business setting, there are rigid roles: boss, supervisor, employees, etc. In a family, different family members can be good leaders for different tasks. Likewise, dogs can assume the role of leaders in specific situations and within a specific group of dogs, but that hierarchy may change in different situations or in the company of different dogs.
The biggest misconception within this myth is that a human should be the “pack leader.” Dogs don’t see us as another four-legged pack member. Let’s stop insulting their intelligence. As Dr. Ballantyne from the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois states, “there is no data to support the idea that dominance crosses between species” (read the full article here: http://vetmed.illinois.edu/pet_column/dominance-not-root-dog-behavior/). And even if they did, have you ever noticed that an alpha dog sometimes likes to be chased or acts like a submissive dog when playing? So go ahead and let your dog win at tug of war every now and then. Training doesn’t have to be about intimidating your dog. You can have fun with your dog, and they will still respect you.
#5: Some dogs learn faster through physical punishment
This is probably the most harmful myth of all. When trying to pick a trainer, you will probably see that many of them state in their websites something like “all dogs learn differently, so I use a variety of methods.” Although most probably say that with the best of intentions, some sadly do mean to include the use of shock collars or other forms of physical punishment to ‘correct’ an undesired behavior. They might even tell you that “it doesn’t hurt them that much.” Behaviorists -and dogs- beg to differ. Hurting doesn’t have to be limited to physical pain. Shock collars or other forms of physical punishment hurt the dog emotionally and mentally, and instead of fixing a problem, you are creating a worse one. The anxiety of potential physical pain coming at some point can escalate into aggressive or destructive behavior.
So why would people, including trainers, think that shock collars work? Two words: aversive behavior. Getting shocked or hit only teaches the dog to avoid a specific behavior. To avoid pain, the dog stops from jumping on people, let’s say. So the human thinks: he learned! Well, most likely he didn’t, and I know first-hand why. One of my dogs, a Jack Russell Terrier, went through many homes because he was too hyper, and based on the relinquishment paperwork, the only training he ever got was by being shocked whenever he did something that his owners did not want him to do. One of his many previous owners stated that he was collar shocked when he would bolt out the door and eventually learned to wait before going out. After adopting him and getting him home, one of the first things he did -and still does- was bolting out the sliding door to the backyard. He clearly had not learned to wait. He had only learned to avoid the pain associated with the collar he was wearing, in front of a particular door, and when a particular person was around.
Nobody is implying that the only way dogs learn is by being rewarded. Dogs learn best when they’re given a choice, each of which has a consequence. Sometimes removing the reward can be the consequence. This is called negative punishment, which sounds about as awful as it can get, but what it refers to is the act of taking away (“negative” = removing) something the dog wants (treats, toys, attention, playing a game, etc.) when they do something you don’t want them to do. So, for example, it is common for staff in shelters to be trained to ignore dogs who bark by physically turning their backs to them; when they calm down, they get attention.
So, don’t fall for the quick fix of “training gadgets that backfire,” as Dr. Sally Foote (veterinary behaviorist with over 30 years of experience) put it. There are no quick fixes when it comes to good training. Learning something takes time and patience. Jodie’s rule of thumb is that it takes about 30 days for new knowledge to be solidified. Just because the dog did something on command a couple of times while you were holding some yummy treats in your hands, that doesn’t mean they have necessarily learned it. By the same token, if they come when called at home but ignore you at the dog park, you shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that the training classes you took were not good. It just means that you went from 0 to 60 a little too quickly. It would be like expecting a little kid to compete in the Tour De France after being able to ride his bike around the block twice.