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The Top Ten Dog Behavior Myths

Fairy tales: The top 10 dog behavior myths

October 30, 2008, By Jean Donaldson

There are a lot of myths about dog behavior so I whittled it down to ones that were pervasive and that made myth criteria, which are: a) There is no (zero) scientific evidence supporting the contention; b) There is scientific evidence against the contention and/or scientific evidence supporting alternatives.

1) Dogs are naturally pack animals with a clear social order.

This one busts coming out of the gate as free-ranging dogs (pariahs, semi-feral populations, dingoes, etc.) don’t form packs. As someone who spent years solemnly repeating that dogs were pack animals, it was sobering to find out that dogs form loose, amorphous, transitory associations with other dogs.

2) If you let dogs exit doorways ahead of you, you’re letting them be dominant.

There is not only no evidence for this, there is no evidence that the behavior of going through a doorway has any social significance whatsoever. In order to lend this idea any plausibility, it would need to be ruled out that rapid doorway exit is not simply a function of their motivation to get to whatever is on the other side combined with their higher ambulation speed.

3) In multi-dog households, “support the hierarchy” by giving presumed dominant animals patting, treats, etc., first, before giving the same attention to presumed subordinate animals.

There is no evidence that this has any impact on inter-dog relations, or any type of aggression. In fact, if one dog were roughing up another, the laws governing Pavlovian conditioning would dictate an opposite tack: Teach aggressive dogs that other dogs receiving scarce resources predicts that they are about to receive some. If so practiced, the tough dog develops a happy emotional response to other dogs getting stuff – a helpful piece of training, indeed. No valuable conditioning effects are achieved by giving the presumed higher-ranking dog goodies first.

4) Dogs have an innate desire to please. This concept has never been operationally defined, let alone tested.

A vast preponderance of evidence, however, suggests that dogs, like all properly functioning animals, are motivated by food, water, sex, and like many animals, by play and access to bonded relationships, especially after an absence. They’re also, like all animals, motivated by fear and pain, and these are the inevitable tools of those who eschew the use of food, play, etc., however much they cloak their coercion and collar-tightening in desire to please rhetoric.

5) Rewards are bribes and thus compromise relationships.

Related to 4), the idea that behavior should just, in the words of Susan Friedman, Ph.D., “flow like a fountain” without need of consequences, is opposed by more than 60 years of unequivocal evidence that behavior is, again to quote Friedman, “a tool to produce consequences.” Another problem is that bribes are given before behavior, and rewards are given after. And, a mountain of evidence from decades of research in pure and applied settings has demonstrated over and over that positive reinforcement – i.e., rewards – make relationships better, never worse.

6) If you pat your dog when he’s afraid, you’re rewarding the fear.

Fear is an emotional state – a reaction to the presence or anticipation of something highly aversive. It is not an attempt at manipulation. If terrorists enter a bank and order everybody down on the floor, the people will exhibit fearful behavior. If I then give a bank customer on the floor a compliment, 20 bucks or chocolates, is this going to make them more afraid of terrorists next time? It’s stunningly narcissistic to imagine that a dog’s fearful behavior is somehow directed at us (along with his enthusiastic door-dashing).

7) Punish dogs for growling or else they’ll become aggressive.

Ian Dunbar calls this “removing the ticker from the time bomb.” Dogs growl because something upsetting them is too close. If you punish them for informing us of this, they are still upset but now not letting us know, thus allowing scary things to get closer and possibly end up bitten. Much better to make the dog comfortable around what he’s growling at so he’s not motivated to make it go away.

8) Playing tug makes dogs aggressive.

There is no evidence that this is so. The only study ever done, by Borchelt and Goodloe, found no correlation between playing tug and the incidence of aggression directed at either family members or strangers. Tug is, in fact, a cooperative behavior directed at simulated prey: the toy.

9) If you give dogs chew toys, they’ll learn to chew everything.

This is a Pandora’s Box type of argument that, once again, has zero evidence to support it. Dogs are excellent discriminators and readily learn with minimal training to distinguish their toys from forbidden items. The argument is also logically flawed as chewing is a ‘hydraulic’ behavior that waxes and wanes, depending on satiation/deprivation, as does drinking, eating and sex. Dogs without chew objects are like zoo animals in barren cages. Unless there is good compensation with other enrichment activities, there is a welfare issue here.

10) You can’t modify “genetic” behavior.

All behavior – and I mean all – is a product of a complex interplay between genes and the environment. And while some behaviors require less learning than others, or no learning at all, their modifiability varies as much as does the modifiability of behaviors that are primarily learned

 


Talk Softly and Carry a Carrot or a Big Stick?

Talk Softly and Carry a Carrot or a Big Stick?
By Jean Donaldson, Director of The SF/SPCA Academy for Dog Trainers

Dog training is a divided profession. We are not like plumbers, orthodontists or termite exterminators who, if you put six in a room, will pretty much agree on how to do their jobs. Dog training camps are more like Republicans and Democrats, all agreeing that the job needs to be done but wildly differing on how to do it.

The big watershed in dog training is whether or not to include pain and fear as means of motivation. In the last twenty years the pendulum swing has been toward methods that use minimal pain, fear or intimidation – or none at all.

The force-free movement has been partly driven by improved communication from the top. Applied behaviorists, those with advanced degrees in behavior, and veterinary behaviorists, veterinarians who have completed residencies specializing in behavior problems are in greater abundance than in previous decades, and there is much more collaboration between these fields and trainers on the front lines. These two professions are quite unified on the point that the use of physical confrontation and pain is unnecessary, often detrimental and, importantly, unsafe.

On a more grassroots level, trainers have found more benign and sophisticated tools by boning up on applied behavior science themselves. Seminal books like marine mammal trainer Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoot the Dog made the case that training and behavior modification can be achieved without any force whatsoever.

But dog training is currently an unregulated profession: there are no laws governing practices. Prosecutions under general anti-cruelty statutes are occasionally successful but greatly hampered by the absence of legal standards pertaining specifically to training practices. Provided it’s in the name of training, someone with no formal education or certification can strangle your dog quite literally to death and conceivably get off scot-free.

It’s not a complete wilderness: three sets of dog training guidelines exist, one in the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) Mission Statement, one published by the Delta Society and one by the American Humane Association (AHA). All state that less invasive (i.e. without pain or force) techniques must be competently tried and exhausted before more invasive techniques attempted. Such guidelines are not yet mandatory but they’re a start.

And so the current professional climate is one laden with some remaining fierce debate. There’s an ever-expanding group of trainers that train force-free (ad. literature will be some variation on the theme of “dog-friendly” or “pain-free”), trainers that still train primarily with force (ad literature: “no-nonsense” or “common sense”) and trainers that employ liberal use of both force and rewards (ad literature: “balanced” or “eclectic”). From a consumer’s standpoint, the choice in methods is wide. You can hire a professional to train your dog pretty much any way that suits your fancy and it’s all legal.

The force-free movement gains momentum every year and a sure sign of this is that many trainers in the other camps resort to murkier and murkier euphemisms to disguise their more violent practices and retain their market share. Stressed dogs aren’t “shut down,” they’re “calm.” It’s not strangling, it’s “leading.” As a committed devotee of the “dog-friendly” camp, I am therefore, along with my colleagues here at The San Francisco SPCA, somewhat agog at the stunning success of “The Dog Whisperer”. This is pretty ferocious stuff by anybody’s standards. The National Geographic Channel even runs a disclaimer banner at the bottom of the screen admonishing people to “not try this at home,” a warning notably absent on home improvement shows or “Nanny 911”. Many have suggested that the cloaking of corporal punishments and hazing in mystical language, promise of instant results, high octane telegenicity of Cesar Milan and lucky connections with Los Angeles celebrity clients are sufficient explanation for the Dog Whisperer phenomenon. The one with the best buzz words wins. But I don’t know.

Janis Bradley, my colleague here at The SPCA, sagely points out that the positive reinforcement trend has become a big enough juggernaut to warrant a backlash and Milan represents exactly that. Like the frazzled Los Angelinos in the film “Crash” (which, notably, took Best Picture honors at The Academy Awards last year), people are fed up with having to be politically correct in a chronically frustrating and disconnected world. Couldn’t we just “get real” and stop being kind and tolerant all the time?

And here we positive-reinforcement oriented dog trainers are now telling everyone they have to be nice and politically correct to the dog? Well, yes.
(Jean Donaldson’s article was first published in The Woofer Times, September 2006)

Posted with permission as original article link no longer works


Top Dog Training Tips From Renowned Expert

Expert advise from Jean Donaldson

Jean Donaldson, author of The Culture Clash and Dogs Are From Neptune.  Jean Donaldson speaks frequently in the community about dog behavior, dog training, and evolution.

  1. Expect your dog to act like a dog. Don’t take it personally when he exhibits typical canine behavior. He’s not being “bad,” he’s just being a dog.
  2. No more free lunch. “Dogs are happiest when they’re exercising their predator skills,” she says. “Make them work for their food, like stuffing it inside chew toys, hiding it around the house, or teaching them tricks for food rewards.”
  3. Start off “tight” and slack off later, rather than letting him run wild for the first few weeks and then clamping down when the behavior isn’t so cute anymore.
  4. Don’t wait for him to develop bad habits, like chewing the furniture or urinating on the area rug or carpet, before you intervene. Assume this behavior is likely to happen, and act preemptively to manage it before it develops.
  5. Supply your dog with acceptable outlets for his doggy behavior, rather than punishing it.
  6. Don’t lay guilt trips on your dog. “Dogs are neither moral nor immoral,” she says. “They’re amoral, meaning that they respond to what they understand to be the consequences of their behavior. So manipulate those consequences.”
  7. Get involved in organized dog sports or informal activities, such as agility, Flyball racing, tug-of-war, fetch, or a fun game of hide-and-seek.
  8. Provide a wide variety of social interactions every day. “What’s the worst punishment a person can get in prison?” says Donaldson. “Solitary confinement. Dogs are social animals, too.”
  9. If you have a puppy, handle him endlessly. And make it as pleasant an experience as possible, so he’ll associate being handled with good feelings.

Enroll in a good training course.

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