Canine Myth Busting

Humans have had a love affair with dogs extending over many, many thousands of years, and our passion for dogs continues to blossom. More households than not include a companion dog, and nearly everywhere you go dogs will be there, too. Dogs have never enjoyed so much attention from the media, either, and books and articles appear almost daily on one aspect or another of dog behavior or the human-dog relationship. Nonetheless, it seems we still don’t have a firm handle on who dogs really are and what they need from us. Persistent myths about dogs appear time and again and they undercut our ability to interact successfully with our canine friends. 

In award-winning scientist Marc Bekoff’s new book, Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do, he takes stock of the current state of scientific knowledge about dog behavior, cognition, and emotion.  He carefully lays out what we know about dogs and, perhaps even more important, what we don’t know. In the process, he challenges some common misconceptions about dogs. Here are 6 canine myths that Bekoff busts. (His book is full of even more, and should be on every dog owner’s reading list.)

1. Dogs don’t display dominance.

As Bekoff explains in chapter 4 of Canine Confidential (“Dominance and the Society of Dogs”), the “D” word has become a flashpoint in the world of dogs and dog training, all because of the perpetuation of incorrect information and the uncritical use of language. All animals—human and nonhuman alike—display dominance; it is a fundamental aspect of social behavior. 

Why some people are so uncomfortable with the idea of dominance in dogs can perhaps, Bekoff suggests, be explained by the profound harm to dogs that can result from misuse of the D word. Which brings us to the corollary dominance myth:  

   1a. Dogs do display dominance and we need to dominate them in order to get the behavior we desire.

Some people mistakenly believe that dominance is the same as aggression or bullying. So, to “dominate” a dog, you might grab her scruff and throw her to the ground and growl at her. This is cruel and ineffective (and also makes the human look ridiculous). Unfortunately, the idea that we need to dominate our dogs in order to make them pliable has had a certain traction among trainers and dog owners. Which has led some people to want to just deny that dominance is a thing. Although well-intentioned, this then makes it difficult to understand and talk clearly about dog behavior.

The upshot: Dogs display dominance. Training methods that rely on intimidation, fear, and punishment are scientifically ungrounded, unnecessary, and unethical. (For more on dominance, see Bekoff’s Psychology Today post here.)

2. Dogs feel guilty when they eat our expensive shoes.

When it comes to dogs and guilt, confusion has blown around like dandelion seeds in the wind. As Bekoff explains in chapter 6 (“Emotions and Heart”), the original notion that dog don’t feel guilt comes from an overzealous reading of Alexandra Horowitz’s research, which found that humans are not good at reading dog communications related to possible guilt feelings. She never said that dogs don’t feel the emotion of guilt, nor did she say they do. For now, we simply need to remain agnostic and wait for additional research (though Bekoff says he has a good deal of confidence that we will discover that dogs do feel guilt). (Also see his PT post on guilt.)

3. Dogs live in the present.

Sometimes this is uttered as a scientific fact; sometimes it is an anodyne cliche about how “zen” dogs are, just being happy with the here and now and not always fretting, like we do, about what happened yesterday or what might happen tomorrow. Either way, it isn’t true. We know from a whole range of studies that dogs anticipate and plan for the future and that they have thoughts about and memories of the past. Anyone who lives with a dog rescued from an abusive or neglectful home knows this well: past experiences shape who a dog is, and trauma leaves a mark. (See Bekoff’s PT blog on dogs and time.)

4. Dogs love us unconditionally.

The problem with this statement is that it gives the impression that love is a one-way street. Our dogs love us no matter who we are or what we do or how poorly we treat them. Actually, no. Dogs have conditions. Just like we do. (On dogs and love, among other things.)

5. All dogs need is a soft bed and food in a bowl.

A soft bed and nutritious and tasty food are essential basics. But as I argue in my book Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets, dogs need a lot more from us than this. Dogs rely on us for intellectual and emotional stimulation and for social support. In order to really give our dogs what they need, we must understand who they are. To do this, Bekoff says, we must all become ethologists-in-training. All of us can strive to become more observant of our dog’s behavior and can make a concerted effort to learn about the natural history, biology, and behavior of our best friends. We need to try to see the world from our dog’s perspective, so that we can provide them an interesting and meaningful life. As a small example, we may think of a dog walk as providing physical exercise to keep our dogs fit and slim. But dogs also need to be able to exercise their senses, particularly their sense of smell. On average, a dog will spend about a third of her time sniffing, if given the choice. So we might consider making about a third of each dog walk about letting our friend explore with his or her nose. 

6. You shouldn’t hug a dog.

The New York Times has a certain cachet, so when the Times tells readers not to hug their dogs, people listen. The Times article claimed that hugging dogs makes them uncomfortable and can increase the risk of bites, especially for children. Fine. This much is true: some dogs don’t like to be hugged and we should respect their personal space and find other ways to show our affection. The problem, notes Bekoff, is that take-home message of “don’t hug” only applies to some dogs. Some dogs DO like to be hugged, and some dogs like to be hugged under certain circumstances but not others or by certain people but not others. There is no such thing as The Dog and we can’t generalize about what dogs like and don’t like because each dog is a unique individual. Know your dog. (On giving dogs hugs.)

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