Top 10 Dog Behavior Myths

“My dog gets spiteful when she doesn’t get what she wants.”

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is ugly :-).  What is undesirable for some may not be to others.  What is intolerable for some, may be tolerable to others.  Some behaviors that are normal to dogs, digging, barking, chasing small furry creatures or objects, peeing in the house (especially if not neutered), chewing your favorite things, etc… are simply not tolerable to humans.  The important thing to remember is that your dog is NOT BEING SPITEFUL.  Noway, nohow.  Dogs are not capable of this emotion. I can certainly understand how some behaviors get interpreted in this light.  If your friend or family member peed on your couch on purpose, what other reason could they possibly have?  And here is the issue, we are applying human psychology to the canine mind.  While there are similarities between the human and canine species, there are many more differences.  Dogs do not rationalize, reason, or obsess.  They react and run on instinct.  They are not capable of spiteful behavior.

The bottom line is, labeling your dog as spiteful will cause further harm and the problem behavior will not get better.  If you are viewing your dog as spiteful, chances are you are getting angry with him/her.  Dogs do not respond well to anger and will often become fearful if approached in this manner.  Most of the behaviors that we interpret as spiteful have roots in anxiety or boredom.


“Puppies should not attend puppy classes until they have received all of their vaccinations because they will get sick.”

In spite of the growing body of data supporting the benefits of proper socialization, many veterinarians, puppy stores, and breeders continue to discourage puppy classes until all of the puppy vaccinations have been received.  This is at 16 weeks of age.  While their intentions are noble, they fail to acknowledge the critical importance of proper socialization.  Classes that are held indoors and that are restricted to puppies of similar age and vaccine status are highly unlikely to lead to the transmission of disease.

A puppy’s critical socialization period is between 4 and 14 weeks of age.  During this time frame, they are best able to form new relationships with other dogs and other species (human, feline, equine, etc…) and to accept new stimuli (sights, sounds, etc…) in their environment.  Unsocialized puppies do not learn to tell the difference between things that are truly dangerous and those that are not.  They are also much less likely to be accepting of new things, such as novel stimuli, people, and environments, as an adult.  Proper socialization is critical if you want a dog that will be happy-go-lucky and friendly when encountering new people, animals, places, and things.

So, how does one properly socialize their puppy?  Proper socialization takes place when you expose your puppy to something or someone in a controlled manner that does not cause fear.  This should be a positive experience and should be enjoyed by both of you.  Taking your puppy to a dog park and turning him or her loose is likely to result in a traumatic experience.  Do not force your puppy into interactions with other dogs if your puppy is showing signs of fear (ears pinned back, tail tucked, dilated pupils, excessive panting, trying to hide behind you).  Forcing any interaction with a puppy that is afraid will only cause them to be more afraid and they will be highly unlikely to accept similar situations as adults.

Appropriately conducted puppy classes are the easiest way to expose your dog to people, dogs, and different situations.  The puppy class should expose your dog to as may things as possible.  For example, small children, people with hats, bicycles, skateboards, wheelchairs, men with beards, noises, flashing lights, umbrellas, and other stimuli that would frighten older dogs.  Puppies should NOT be taught basic obedience in a puppy class.

The bottom line is that behavior problems are the number one cause of euthanasia in the United States, more than all other disease processes combined.  Proper socialization is critical to having a well-balanced adult dog.

For those of you that are local, Levittown Animal Hospital (516 796-2266) hosts puppy classes on Mondays at 730 PM and Saturdays at 12 noon.


“My dog is aggressive/fearful/shy because he/she was abused as a puppy.”

If a dog is acquired at an older age and he is fearful, there is no way of knowing if he was abused.  However, by placing our focus on abuse as the cause, we fail to recognize causes that are much more common and we may actually make the problem worse.  Feeling sorry for your dog and trying to comfort or console him when he is displaying aggressive or fearful behavior reinforces that behavior.  It’s like telling him “it’s okay to be this way, good boy!”  Also, ignoring the problem, especially in an older dog, will almost always cause the problem to get worse.

While we still have much to learn about how genetics affects behavior, it is well documented that fearful or shy behaviors are inherited.  Nevertheless, the degree of fearfulness/shyness is influenced by learning and the dogs’ environment.  Dogs can adjust to whatever makes them afraid by using programs of desensitization and counterconditioning.  The sooner the problem is identified and addressed, the better the chances of success will be.  That’s doesn’t mean it’s impossible to treat a problem that is longer standing, but long standing problems will take much more time and patience.  Ignoring the problem will end up making treatment more costly, difficult, and time consuming.

The bottom line is, complex interactions between genetics and environment (nature vs. nurture) are what determines an animals behavior patterns.  One single event is rarely the cause of the issue or issues at hand.


“This new medication is all I need to fix my dogs’ problem.”

While the development and use of antianxiety or psychotropic medications has greatly facilitated behavior modification, their use alone is not very successful.  Many veterinarians fail to realize that using medication without concurrent behavior modification only produces a 25% success rate, at best.  Fact is that medication alone will rarely, if ever, give you the changes you are looking for.  Sometimes behaviors will be temporarily suppressed, but without concurrent behavior modification they will often return.

A good example of this is with the issue of noise phobias.  If you are around when the noise is likely to be present, say fireworks on the 4th of July, you can give medication to sedate your dog and make him/her less reactive to the noise.  However, over time a higher dose may be required to produce the same affect and the drug may loose its effectiveness all together.  However, if desensitization and counterconditioning are instituted, your dog may not need medication at all.  He or she will learn to cope with the phobia.

The bottom line is, medications are not a cure all.  They can help to decrease levels of anxiety (anxiety inhibits learning) and facilitate learning, making behavior modification protocols more effective.

“Aggressive dogs are always dominant.”

It is much more common for a dog to be aggressive out of fear or anxiety than out of dominance.  This misunderstanding can be detrimental to your dog.  Dominance aggression and fear based aggression or treated VERY differently.  If you treat a fearfully aggressive dog the same way you treat a dominantly aggressive dog, the aggression will become much worse.  Moreover, punishment based techniques are outdated and are inappropriate for treating any type of aggression.

One technique that is outdated, but commonly recommended, is the “alpha roll”.  This is when a person is told to force their dog onto its’ back in an attempt to force him/her into submission.  In nature, social hierarchies are maintained by the subordinate dog submitting on its own, not by the dominant dog forcing the subordinate dog into a position of submission.  Many people get bitten when attempting this technique, and the only thing this will teach a dog is that people should indeed be feared.

Appropriate treatment of dominance aggression involves teaching the dog that the owner is the leader.  It is a process and it does not happen overnight.  It is accomplished by using the Protocol for Deference (nothing in life is free) and the Protocol for Relaxation.  Owners will also have to restructure their normal day-to-day interactions with the aggressor.  The command-response-reward interactions of these protocols will help to develop trust and predictability, therefore relieving anxiety.

The bottom line is, fear and anxiety are far more common causes of aggression than dominance and they are treat very differently.

“He knows he’s done something wrong because he looks guilty.”

This line of reasoning results in many cases of animal abuse.  People feel this way when their dog routinely gets into the garbage, house soils, or is destructive.  Most people will insist that their dog “acts guilty before I even see what has been done!”  There are two reasons for this misconception: #1 owners humanize their dogs and #2 most owners cannot read normal canine body language.  A dog standing with its head lowered, tail tucked, and ears lowered are displaying avoidance behaviors.  Most people interpret these signals as “guilty looking.”  Your dog is actually trying to calm you down by displaying appeasement body postures.  He or she is displaying submission in an attempt to turn off your anger that they are picking up on in your body language or that they have associated with a previous experience in similar circumstances.  They know you are angry, but they do not know why.  If you do not catch them in the act, they do not make the connection between what they did and why you are angry.

Three principles are involved in effective punishment: #1 punishment must come within one or two seconds of the offending behavior;  #2 it must be done every single time the offending behavior occurs;  #3 it must be motivating enough to get the dogs attention, but not so harsh that it will evoke fear.  Punishment will make a fearful or anxious dog worse because it teaches them that people are scary and unpredictable.  It is much easier to reward appropriate behavior than it is to have to perfect timing and consistency that punishment requires.

The bottom line is, dogs form associations between things that consistently occur in association with each other.  If punishment comes greater than five seconds after the event, your dog will not make the connection.  The connection that your dog will make is that you are scary, unpredictable, and should be feared.

“If treats are used in training, you will always need treats to get your dog to listen.”

Positive reinforcement, by definition, is adding something pleasant (i.e. food treat or toy) within one or two seconds of a desired behavior.  Continual reinforcement is giving a reward every single time your dog performs the desired behavior.  Your dog will learn very quickly using continual reinforcement.

However, once the behavior is learned and is attached to a verbal and/or hand signal, the behavior is best maintained by intermittent reinforcement, i.e. rewarding every second, third, or forth time.  It’s the same concept that makes gambling so addictive to people.  Your dog will give you the desired behavior on the off chance that he/she will win (get a food treat).  While food treats become intermittent, praise is continual.  After a while the food treat is eliminated and the only reward that is necessary is praise.

There is a very important point that needs to be made here.  The food reward is given AFTER the desired behavior has occurred.  If the treat is used BEFORE the desired behavior, i.e. “come inside for a cookie”, that is a bribe.  Bribes are counter-productive.  If you bribe your dog you will always need food treats around for him/her to listen.

The bottom line is, food rewards are an excellent way to shape or create new behaviors.  Once a behavior becomes learned (performed perfectly 8 out of 10 times) the food reward becomes intermittent.  Praise, however, is given every single time.

“Dogs chase their tails because they are bored.”

While some dogs may chase their tails out of boredom or because they are in an environment with few toys or avenues for mental stimulation, there are other, more serious, reasons that this behavior takes place.

This behavior is often secondary to an underlying medical condition that is often pain related.  Tail chasing becomes a displacement behavior to get their minds off of the pain they are feeling.  This can also be a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

This behavior can be maintained even after the inciting cause has disappeared if the dog had received attention while performing it, whether the attention was positive or negative.  The behavior may now be maintained with attention seeking as the primary motivator.

The bottom line is, there can be a complicated combination of physical, environmental, and learned factors that contribute to the formation of repetitive behaviors.


“Crazy owners have crazy pets.”

Studies have shown that owner personalities that might be expected to contribute to behavior problems are not necessarily associated with a higher incidence of problems.  Also, studies have shown a strong genetic component to behavior and behavior problems.

A dogs’ environment and life experiences can certainly affect his/her behavior, however they are rarely the sole cause of the problem behavior.  What owners do can affect their dogs’ behavior, but that does not mean that they have caused the issue.

Behavior problems are rarely “cured”, but they can be managed.  Proper management requires knowledge of normal canine behavior as well as a basic knowledge of principles of learning.

The bottom line is, early recognition and appropriate management will greatly increase the chances for success.  An owner’s personality has little, if any influence on prognosis.


“Any trainer can handle any problem.”

Putting your dog in the hands of the wrong person can be as detrimental as not seeking any treatment at all.  Not all behaviorists and trainers are created equal.  Anyone can call himself or herself a behaviorist or trainer without having any formal training or classes whatsoever.  Choosing the wrong person can have detrimental effects on your dog.

Trainers are especially helpful when it comes to basic obedience, i.e. sit, stay, heel, and come.  A good trainer will use mainly reward-based training, will not insist that you do anything unethical or dangerous (i.e. the alpha roll), and is willing to work with other professionals to come up with an overall plan for you dog.

For dogs with more serious issues, such as, but not limited to, fears/phobias, any form of aggression, excessive barking, house soiling, anxieties, OCD/repetitive disorders, etc… a veterinary behaviorist would be a better option.  They will be better able to recognize complex ways in which medical conditions can affect behavior and have a better understanding of how genetics and environment interact to contribute to behavior issues.

The bottom line is, make sure you choose the correct professional for the issue at hand.  An inappropriate trainer can exacerbate the issue and make things worse.



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