It can be challenging to distinguish science and fact from dog training fiction. This Certified Professional Dog Trainer is on the case—debunking the worst offenders and pointing you in the right direction with your own pet. Here’s the truth behind eight common dog training myths.
Dog Training Myths Debunked
1. You must be the ‘Alpha’ in your relationship with your dog
The concept of the “alpha” dog is based on the work of wolf researchers in the 1970s. Prior to the 1970s, we actually knew very little about wolves and domestic dogs, so this was some of the first work on the subject, and it claimed that male wolves struggle for dominance over the pack.
In the last 40 years, a whole slew of research has come out debunking the “alpha” wolf concept. Even the ecologist L. David Mech, whose 1970 book The Wolf helped popularize the concept of the “alpha” wolf (and, ultimately, the “alpha” dog), has repeatedly tried to have his book pulled from the shelves because its outdated initial research has now been disproven.
Just like wolves, dogs don’t look to a leader to dominate them, but they do require communication in order to understand how to act in a variety of situations.
Intimidation and physical or verbal punishment to establish dominance is not helpful, unless your goal is to end up with a fearful dog that is afraid to act without permission.
2. Your dog won’t respect you if they sleep in the bed with you
This myth is also rooted in the “alpha” dog concept, which says that your dog sleeping in your bed makes them think you are equals. What hogwash!
First off, you’re both sentient beings and deserve respect. And if you want your dog to sleep in your bed, doing so will not harm them in any way. In fact, it may even make your relationship better.
3. Playing tug-of-war with your dog will teach them to be dominant
Are you starting to see a theme? Some people feel that allowing your dog to win at tug-of-war teaches them to be the “alpha.” Others think that playing tug-of-war at all, even if you “win” every time, will teach dogs to be disrespectful.
Remember, the “alpha” concept is false. Tug-of-war is just a game, and if your dog enjoys it, it’s a great way to burn energy and provide stimulation. Tug away!
4. If your dog walks ahead of you, they’re establishing dominance over you
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That “alpha” dog myth just refuses to go away. When walking your dog on leash, the only thing about them walking ahead of you that should be of concern is a) their safety and b) whether they’re uncomfortably pulling you with them.
If your dog is walking loosely on leash, they are walking with you—it doesn’t matter if they’re ahead of you, behind you, or off to your side. Similarly, the only problem with your dog going through a door ahead of you is that it might put them in danger (for example, rushing into a busy street).
Teaching your dog to wait at the door until you give them the okay will keep them safe. As long as there is no danger, your dog walking ahead of you out the door should be of no concern.
5. Allowing your dog to follow you around will give them separation anxiety
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Dogs are social animals and the vast majority prefer to be with their guardians whenever possible. This behavior is not an indication of true separation anxiety and, without a traumatic event or change in lifestyle, it is extremely unlikely it will develop.
Forcing distance between you and your dog or ignoring them completely, however, can cause some trauma or uncertainty on your dog’s part—particularly if it’s a sudden change in your behavior.
For most dogs, close attention to their family is ultra-normal and doesn’t need “fixing.” If you’d like to teach them more independence, building a strong “go-to-mat” cue and introducing them to shaping and puzzle games that teach them to think critically may help.
6. If your dog has an accident in the house, you should put their nose in it
By the time you find an accident, even if it’s just a couple of minutes after your dog has gone, they’ve forgotten what they’ve done. Putting their nose in their urine or feces will not help them to connect the dots that going in the house is unacceptable.
Instead, it will teach your dog that you’re scary sometimes, and it might even encourage them to potty when you aren’t watching. The result? An increase in accidents.
If you don’t catch your dog in the act of having an accident and clearly communicate the preferred behavior, they won’t understand what they’ve done wrong.
7. Your dog knows how they’ve misbehaved because they’re giving you a ‘guilty look’
Instead, it’s because your dog is responding to your body language. In many cases, even if they could remember what they did, your dog may not realize it was “wrong.” For example, they may not realize the soft slipper on the floor is any different than a plush toy.
8. Your dog misbehaved while you were away to get back at you
Dogs simply don’t have the ability to plan ahead or to act out of spite. This is beyond their cognitive ability.
If you find an accident on a day that you previously scolded your dog, it’s either a coincidence, a fear-based response, or for some other logical reason. Your dog wasn’t trying to get even!
The bottom line? Positive behavior support will get you a lot further in dog training than intimidation.