As a dog trainer and behaviourist at Rainbow Dogs in Brighton I hear lots of old wives tales regarding dogs and their training; many are harmless but some can cause real damage.
These are some of the myths:
- A dog “knows” when he has done wrong. This one, like so many other misconceptions is an anthropomorphism – applying your beliefs about humans to another species. In this case we think dogs “know” something is wrong because we think it is wrong. In reality dogs are amoral, i.e. they have no conception of right and wrong. They may show submissive body language when they do something we think is wrong, which we perceive as looking guilty, but this is just done to appease us.
- You should rub your dog’s nose in it if he goes to the toilet inside. This is also based on the idea that the dog knows he has done wrong. In reality he either does not understand where you want him to go to the toilet or he just couldn’t hold it.
- You should always go through the door before your dog. This one is just plain silly. It is based on the myth that if a dog goes through the door before you then he is trying to dominate you but in reality he is just excited to see what is other the other side of the door.
- My dog loves it when little Johnny rides on his back. This seems to be based on the idea that because the dog has not bitten little Johnny then he must be having a great time. In reality he is probably just suffering little Johnny and his breaking point is not far off at which point he will bite.
- Dogs that wag their tails are happy. A dog wagging its tail is aroused i.e. adrenaline is running through his body. This could mean he is happy or ready to fight. A wagging tail should always be read alongside the rest of his body language.
- Dogs that chase their tail are having fun. In reality they are stressed and performing an OCD behaviour. They often catch they tail resulting in the need for a partial amputation.
- One dog year = seven human years. Yes, we live longer than dogs. However dogs often live to be 15 years – you do the math! Smaller dogs have a lot greater life expectancy that the largest breeds; almost twice as long. The 1:7 ratio is therefore a very rough figure.
- Dogs just need to eat meat because that’s what wolves eat. This one might appear to make sense but the meat that we feed it likely to be “leans cuts” as opposed to what the wolf would eat which also includes the bones, hair, internal organs, and stomach contents i.e. vegetable matter.
- Dogs need regular baths. Dogs only need occasional baths, if for example they roll in fox poo. Frequent bathing can dry out your dog’s coat causing skin problems.
- Dogs only see in black and white. This used to be the understanding of dogs’ vision. Your dog’s visual perception is different to yours but he can in fact see a limited range of colour.
- Bitches need to have at least one litter in order to feel content. A bit more anthropomorphism here. She will not reminisce about when she had puppies and will not sit and contemplate about what it will be like to have puppies. Dogs just live in the here and now.
- My dog must be hungry since he will eat as much as I will feed him. Dog obesity closely mirrors human obesity and it is going in the wrong direction. You are putting pressure on a dog’s joints and internal organs when he is overweight and therefore potentially taking years off his life.
- I’m sure the last time I had a puppy it was not this much hard work? This is what’s known as selective memory. The last time you had a puppy was 15 years ago giving you plenty of time to try to block out the memory of all that chewing, mouthing, weeing and pooing!
- You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. This is another silly one. Dogs can in fact learn all through their lives.
Moral of the story
The moral of the story is that if your vet, breeder, trainer, or behaviourist tells you something about your dog then ask them to explain it. If they can’t then they are probably just repeating an old wives tale.
Mike Garner is a dog trainer and behaviourist at Rainbow Dogs in Brighton & Hove, Sussex.
Follow Rainbow Dogs on Facebook.