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6 Dog Behavior Myths, Debunked

6 Dog Behavior Myths, Debunked

Interpreting dog behavior can be tricky, and there are some strong myths about dog body language. The list below debunks a few common misconceptions about what our dogs are trying to tell us.

Dogs have personalities as varied as humans, and unless you know a dog really well it can be difficult to read what she’s trying to tell you. My dog Jenna, for example, is very high anxiety because of her history before we adopted her. Her cues are sometimes more subtle than more “normal dogs.”

It’s hard to tell at first glance sometimes whether you’re dealing with a well-adjusted dog or not, but knowing how to spot subtle signs can make things go more smoothly for you and for the dog. So often our dogs or dogs we encounter are trying to tell us that they are scared, anxious, or unhappy. When we miss these signals, we tend to blame the dog.

Related Reading: 8 Good Reasons to Leash Your Dog, Why are black dogs adopted less?

Director of animal behavior services at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine Dr. Carlos Siracusa recently shared six common misconceptions about dog behavior. My friend Allison, a professional dog trainer, sent this article to me and suggested that these tips would make a good follow-up to my piece on dog body language. I agree! The more we know about reading a dog’s signals, the better.

Dog Behavior Jenna

That averted gaze and raised front paw means this dog is nervous and needs a little bit of space.

6 Dog Behavior Myths, Debunked

1. Dogs attack without first showing any signs of distress.

Siracusa dispels this dangerous myth, explaining that almost all dogs give signs that something or someone is making them uncomfortable. Those signs may be subtle, like inching away or even just pulling their heads away. Look for other signs like bared teeth and flattened ears. Not all dogs will grown before lashing out, so looking for these physical signs is important.

Why don’t all dogs growl before attacking? Something Jenna’s trainers have stressed with us is to never scold her when she growls. It’s actually pretty easy to train a dog not to growl. The trouble is, you’re teaching her not to give that important warning that she’s reaching the end of her rope.

2. A dog on her back is asking for a belly rub.

When a dog rolls over, she is saying one of two things:

  • “I trust you, you’re the boss, please rub my belly!”
  • “I’m feeling nervous. Please leave me alone.”

Talk about confusing! According to Siracusa, the key is to look at the other signals that dog is sending. Does she seem relaxed with a vigorously wagging tail? Rub away! If her legs are stiff, and she’s holding her head to one side, leave her be.

3. Happy dogs wag their tails.

If I had to pick the most dangerous dog behavior myth on this list, it would be this one. Tail wags can mean lots of things, and not all of them are happy. I’ve noticed that – at least with Jenna – it’s about the way she’s wagging. A slow back-and-forth means she’s uneasy. If she’s wagging so hard that her booty is shaking, she’s feeling fine. We call the latter her “helicopter tail,” and I love seeing her that happy!

If you don’t know the dog, Siracusa says that you should look at other signs, just like with the two myths above. The ears, eyes, and mouth give you a lot of information.

4. The idea of dog training is to teach your dog that you’re the alpha.

This one shocked me, I’ll be honest. We’ve been training Jenna for years, and we always thought of me as the alpha, since I’m with her most and she follows my lead most of the time. Siracusa calls this a common misconception. He says that dog training is about getting your dog attached to you, not establish pack order.

5. When your dog is bad, punish her.

No. No. No. This was one of the first things we learned in training, and changing our mindset about how to modify Jenna’s behavior has done wonders for her. Punishing teaches your dog fear. Instead, you want to entice and reward. There’s no need to hit your dog or shout at her.

I think a great example of this idea in action is the way we are teaching Jenna to interact with our 14-month-old son. She’s a 45 pound lab mix, so she still outweighs him and could really hurt him without meaning to. When she gets too wound up, we don’t shout or hit. We just remove her from the situation for a few minutes, then start again. These little time outs give her a chance to calm down, so that we can bring her back in and reward her for playing safely and calmly with our baby.

6. A calm dog is a happy dog.

Siracuse explains that this couldn’t be further from the truth, and this is a lesson that my husband and I learned quickly after adopting Jenna.

At the shelter, Jenna would sit quietly. We thought at first that this was a sign of a relaxed, well-adjusted girl, and it could not have been less true. She wasn’t sitting calmly. She was so overcome with anxiety that she was completely shut down. A dog like that can be dangerous, and it took years of love and training to get Jenna out of her shell. She is still an anxious girl, but she responds to the commands she’s learned, and she is generally very happy.

If you encounter a dog who’s sitting very still, know that she might be terrified. Terrified dogs are hard to read. Your best bet is to look to the owner for cues on whether to pet her or leave her be.

5 Smart Ways to Prevent Dog Bites

Read more: Behavior & Communication, Dogs, Pets, Safety, , , ,

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Becky Striepe

Becky Striepe is a freelance writer and vegan crafter living in Atlanta, Georgia. Her life’s mission is to make green crafting and vegan food accessible to everyone! Like this article? You can follow Becky on Twitter or find her on Facebook!


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4:24PM PDT on Jun 30, 2014

Thanks for sharing

3:25PM PDT on Jun 30, 2014

Thanks for sharing

11:19PM PDT on Jun 9, 2014

Bruno, sorry, but while I don't think Cesar Milan knows it all, nor do I agree with everything he does, he does what he needs to do better than most. If anything, he's a good "communicator". If he has little formal education, SO WHAT? The list of millionaires who never made it out of grade school is a mile long. It doesn't take a college degree or a "PhD" after one's name to work with a dog and "train" it. He also doesn't "tame" anything. You went on and on about what you don't like about an animal having to show respect to his/her handler, and bash Milan for not having an education, yet your verbage is very lacking. I'm sure English may not be your 1st language, but you know the saying about "the pot calling the kettle"? Anyway, good for you if you are content with your dog being equal to you or not having to show respect or consider YOU his/her "pack leader". Even a "familiar" dog needs to understand discipline and have respect for his/her handler, NOT just hunting dogs. Why should your dog have fewer "boundaries/rules" than your children, or do you allow your kids to do whatever THEY want as well? I hope it all works out for you.

11:11PM PDT on Jun 9, 2014

Jeanne, I never said I considered Cesar Milan to be an expert. If you can show where I did, I'll post a "retraction", but all I said was that he has been one of the more well-recognized trainers, and even saying that, in all actuality, HE says he does NOT train dogs, he "rehabilitates" dogs, he trains PEOPLE. I like some of what he does, as it is just plain common sense. I do not like some of his methods, and like any other professional, he has some good techniques and some "not-so-good" ones. I haven't read his book, and I wouldn't waste the time. Not sure why you think because I haven't read it, I am not qualified to post my opinion about him. I have watched dozens of his TV shows. I also have watched Victoria Stillwell, and she falls into the same category as Milan, although I've yet to see her work with a dog that has had as many issues as some of the ones Cesar takes on. You ask WHO I consider an expert? Geez, hard question. There are many good trainers out there, and nobody is an "expert". Same applies to horse trainers, wildlife "experts" and the list goes on. Okay, so you disagree with my opinions so YOU think I'm abusing my dog because I demand respect from him? So, tell me, what is YOUR expertise? What are YOUR credentials? Oh, and BTW, I never, EVER said Milan and Stillwell did what they do "the same way".

9:28PM PDT on Jun 9, 2014

How did a human child knows that he hurts somebody without the Informations from the victim? he didnt know...i did the same with my dog learn him how strong he can play with his mouth. never had some problems with violence from any of my animals. any animal have an othe character. methods that works by a dog maybe didnt work for an other. some animals just reacting by instinkt but this instinkt need to be learned correctly---> @ all that talks about alpha/leader tecnics...this is good for hunting not for familiary dogs. leader tecnics provoques once you get weak attacks against owner! just think a bot with logic!...btw Cesar Milan is Brainless just a DOGTAMER! dont trust hes tecnics!

3:12PM PDT on Jun 8, 2014

Interesting discussion. Thanks.

8:55AM PDT on Jun 7, 2014

Actually, Diane, who do YOU consider an expert?
Funny you would consider Cesar Millan an expert - that indicates you haven't even read his book where he brags about no formal education and says his knowledge is "innate". That's not just "LOL" - it's knee slapping hysterical.
Oh, and how you could say that Millan and Stillwell approach training the same way? Equally nutty.
As Dale suggested, try Google. Also check out the position statements from the AVSAB.......and please stop abusing your dog.

8:55AM PDT on Jun 7, 2014

Actually, Diane, who do YOU consider an expert?
Funny you would consider Cesar Millan an expert - that indicates you haven't even read his book where he brags about no formal education and says his knowledge is "innate". That's not just "LOL" - it's knee slapping hysterical.
Oh, and how you could say that Millan and Stillwell approach training the same way? Equally nutty.
As Dale suggested, try Google. Also check out the position statements from the AVSAB.......and please stop abusing your dog.

1:36AM PDT on Jun 7, 2014

Oh, and BTW, dog may bite me accidentally at some point in time, but it will never be intentionally. MY dog respects me and does what I ask of him. He's not afraid of me, although he'd BETTER be afraid of what may happen if he repeatedly disobeys, which he most definitely does not. He's still a puppy (he's 9-1/2 months of age) so it's bound to happen for some time and I understand that very well. Dog "training" is not a "science". It's common sense, which you seem to lack. Your "clients"? I shudder to think.

1:31AM PDT on Jun 7, 2014

Lori, I can only guess your rambling, babbling tirade towards me is because I won't allow my dog to DOMINATE me or be MY "pack leader". If that is the case, like I said, I feel sorry for those who have the belief that the human in the household should demand respect from his pets and yes, they should be "subordinate" to the extent that they do not set the standards or the rules.

Sorry, Dale, but you don't have an open mind, even though you apparently think you do. You state that "most" experts do not agree about "dominance" so I'd like to ask you just who you consider to BE an expert, besides the one person you referred to? How many "experts" does it take to be "MOST"? Many of us have seen Cesar Milan or Stilwell and they both get results, and they approach many things alike, yet other things very differently. Who is better? As for someone who trains wild animals vs. domesticated dogs, there is a world of difference there. While dogs evolved from wolves, they are NOT wolves, yet have similar characteristics and respond to similar stimuli and yes, ORDER. I never, EVER suggested that a person/human has to dominate or force a dog to do a single thing, but paramount is to have that dog's respect, and to allow a dog to walk ahead of them, do whatever the DOG wants vs. what he's asked to do, is leading to utter chaos. A wolf pack would never survive if the lower members of the pack were allowed to do as they wanted. Same with animals that exist in herds. There is al

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