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Busting common myths about your dog’s behaviour

Can you read your dog’s mind? As pet lovers, we have a special bond with our pooches, and it’s tempting to imagine we know exactly what they mean when they act in a certain way.

That growl means your pup wants to be top dog. Lip-licking and ears pulled back is a sure sign your dog feels guilty. And if a dog jumps up, they’re being deliberately naughty.

Outdated theories and anthropomorphism (applying human characteristics to animals)

Sadly, many assumptions are based on outdated theories or anthropomorphism. This is easy to see in the language and methods used by some dog trainers and behaviourists who don’t follow an evidence-based approach.

Misinterpreting doggy behaviour

There’s so much unregulated information. It can be very confusing for owners and can easily lead to us misreading our dog’s behaviour and feelings.

Many behaviours that dog owners find problematic actually have an underlying emotional cause, such as fear or anxiety about something in their environment. That means it’s important for us to understand and read our dog’s behaviour and body language accurately.

When we know how our dogs are really feeling, we can respond appropriately, give them the support they need and seek additional help where necessary.

Insights from a specialist in dog behaviour

As you know, at YuMOVE, w’re all about the science.

That’s why we asked Helena Hale, an animal behaviourist and PhD researcher of clinical dog behaviour, to give us the inside scoop on the truth behind these popular myths:

  • The dominance myth
  • The guilty look myth
  • The naughty dog myth

Myth no.1: dominance theory

The first mentions of ‘dominance theory’ appeared in the mid-1900s. This idea was based on a study of a population of captive and unrelated wolves, which was then misapplied to describe wild wolf and domestic dog behaviour.

Ever since, animal behaviourists and welfare scientists have been trying to put this theory to bed. It’s just not backed up by science. It’s also important to remember that dogs are not ‘domesticated wolves’ and we have ever-increasing evidence that tells us why dogs behave the way they do.

Words like ‘alpha’, ‘top dog’, ‘pack leader’, ‘dominance’ and ‘boss’ have become ingrained in everyday language regarding dog behaviour. But sadly, talking about dogs in this way can cause problems for both dogs and their owners.

Your dog might be scared or guarding resources

Growling older dog

Dominance theory leads to people misinterpreting behaviours such as:

  • Barking
  • Growling
  • Biting
  • Over-exuberance towards another dog or person.

Rather than trying to dominate the situation, it’s more likely that your dog is feeling fearful and is trying to find a way to cope when they feel threatened. They could also be worried that a resource that they value highly, such as their food bowl or a toy, is going to be removed.

Behaviours that some owners find inappropriate, such as sitting on the sofa or stealing food, don’t happen because your dog is trying to exert dominance. It’s because they’ve learned how to access resources that are valuable to them!

Beware of averse training methods

When people explain their dog’s behaviour using dominance theory, it often leads to them using training methods that aim to show the dog who’s boss and stop the behaviour. These include averse methods and devices such as using vreverbal punishment yanking on the lead, shaking stones at them or using ‘pet corrector spray’, a prong collar or a choke chain.

These methods will only make a scared or anxious dog more fearful. They add stress to the situation, they don’t teach your dog how you want them to behave and they risk undermining your relationship with your pet.

Get advice from an animal behaviourist

If you’re worried that your dog is acting in any of the ways described here, ask your vet to refer you to a Certificated Clinical Animal Behaviourist. They will be guaranteed to follow an up-to-date, evidence-based approach to dog behaviour and will be able to support you with kind and appropriate behavioural treatment and advice.

If you’d like to know more on the subject, try this:

Myth no.2: the ‘guilty look’

Does your dog ever give you a guilty look? Perhaps you’ve seen them looking shifty after they’ve got mud all over the sofa, ripped a toy apart, or left a tell-tale puddle in the corner of the kitchen.

You might see the following described as ‘guilty’ dog behaviours:

  • Lip licking
  • Ears held back against their head
  • Showing the whites of their eyes, also known as ‘whale eye’
  • Looking away
  • A tucked tail
  • Rolling on their back to expose their belly – an ‘appeasement roll’.

Your dog’s scared, not guilty!

There is no evidence that dogs can feel guilt or that they act to spite us. In fact, this scientific study shows that dogs often display so-called ‘guilty’ looks, whether or not they've performed the associated behaviour.

In reality, your dog probably has a ‘guilty look’ because they’re afraid and want to appease you.

Don’t tell your dog off

German Shepherd being told off

It’s important not to tell dogs off when they’ve done something you don’t like. Sometimes the motivation behind what they did before they looked ‘guilty’ is fear or anxiety. For example, if your dog destroys household items or toilets indoors while you’ve been out, these could be signs of separation anxiety . By scolding your pooch, you could be adding to their fear and make the problem worse. It is also confusing and conflicting for your dog and could undermine your relationship and chances of changing their behaviour.

Ask your vet for advice

Every dog is different and there are lots of potential reasons behind problematic behaviours. If you’re concerned about how your dog is acting, talk to your vet and ask for a referral to a dog behaviourist who can give you a bespoke diagnosis and suggest appropriate treatment. Sometimes a behaviour you don’t like, such as stealing food, could simply be a training issue that a trainer can help you with!

Myth no.3: the ‘naughty dog’

It’s common to hear dogs described as disobedient, uncontrollable, or un-trainable, or more simply put, ‘naughty’ but is there really such a thing as a naughty dog?

The short answer is no. This is another case where people are attributing human-centric characteristics to dogs.

If your dog rips up their blanket, jumps up at visitors or digs holes in your flower bed, they’re not deliberately behaving badly.

Welcome to the human world

Dogs aren’t born knowing how to fit into human lives. It’s up to us to carefully introduce them to our world and support them as they develop and grow.

Dogs’ behaviour is affected by a range of different factors, including:

  • Their genetic makeup, including their unique personality.
  • Their early life experiences in the ‘socialisation’ period when they’re aged 3-12 weeks. At this stage, they learn what’s good and how to get it, and what’s bad and how to avoid it. If they experience any aversive treatment or if training is missed at this stage, it might set up problems for later.
  • What they learn throughout the rest of their life.

Look for the reason behind the behaviour

There’s always a reason for the way a dog behaves, and all dogs are unique individuals. Contrary to many assumptions, it’s not always a lack of training that causes problematic behaviour. Often, the reason why a dog seems to be ‘acting up’ can be emotional.

In this case, your best approach is to seek the help of a behaviourist to support your dog in learning a different way to feel about a situation that’s causing them distress, and an alternative behavioural response.

What’s your experience?

Have you ever thought that your dog’s being dominant, or looks guilty or naughty? Or have you sought advice from a behaviourist to find a better way to deal with problematic behaviour? Please let us know on our social media channels. Find us on Facebook and Instagram.

Meet Helena -
Our expert contributor to this piece. An animal behaviourist and PhD researcher of clinical dog behaviour.

Helena and her dog Briar relaxing in the sun

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