Staying Inquisitive Helps Bust Mutt Myths

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Do dogs know when they’ve done something “wrong?” Do inquisitive canines instinctively want to please their humans? Do you need to be your dog’s pack leader? No, no, and no. And here’s why.

Aussie Standing Outdoors Smiling

Myth #1: Dogs understand the concept of right and wrong.

Fact: Dogs understand what is safe and what is dangerous — what works and what doesn’t work.

The concept of understanding right and wrong is a matter of abstract thinking. Abstract thinking is characterized by the ability to use concepts to make and understand generalizations, such as the properties or patterns shared by a variety of specific items or events. A dog’s brain isn’t developed to the point of being able to think in this manner. 

Not to say dogs aren’t smart; on the contrary, dogs are quite capable of thinking, learning, assessing situations and problem-solving. However, because of the way their brains develop, it’s pretty safe to say that dogs do not understand the concept of right and wrong. What they do understand is what is safe and what is dangerous — what works and what doesn’t work. 

Training Tip:

Teach behaviors you would like to see repeated. 

A highly effective way to teach dogs, or any animals, is to use rewards, such as food, toys, attention or play, to reinforce desired behavior. Behaviors that are rewarded are repeated. So, when dogs are rewarded for behaviors we do want (‘right’ in human terms), they are more likely to perform those behaviors, while less likely to perform the unwanted ones (‘wrong’ in human terms). 

Note: Dogs are learning all the time. Whether we are actively training or not, they are learning. So, remember to reinforce behaviors you like and want, even when you didn’t ask for them.
Sleeping golden retriever puppy outdoors

Myth #2: Dogs want to please us.

Fact: All behavior has a function. Animals offer behaviors to get something they want or avoid something they don’t want (refer to Myth #1). Over time, with repetition and consistency, dogs figure out how to get more of what they want, and to avoid what they don’t want.

The whole “dogs want to please us” fallacy needs to be replaced with objective data. If we place all that responsibility on our dogs and they don’t magically do what we want, we take it personally. That’s normal human behavior, but it sets us up for disappointment.

Training Tip:

It’s more important to pay attention to what your dog is doing than to try to figure out what they’re thinking. 

If you want to change your dog’s behavior, first describe what it is you see. What is your dog doing? Observe your dog’s behavior – the details, the triggers. Then ask yourself, “How and/or why is this behavior being reinforced by me and/or the environment?” Then paint yourself a picture of what you want the behavior to look like instead. What is it that you want your dog to do? 

Next, explore the management and force-free training strategies that will set you and your inquisitive canine up for success in reaching those observable, objective goals. Keep in mind, help is available; perhaps it’s time to reach out to a certified professional canine behavior consultant for added guidance.

Two dogs standing outside in yard

Myth #3: Dogs are pack animals and humans need to be pack leaders.

Fact: Dogs are companion, social animals because they have been bred to be.

Dogs are social animals and applying dominance theory or pack theory to animal training is outdated. 

Training tip:

If you are very attached to the concept of hierarchy, think about what traits actually make a great “leader.” Leaders who are respected are not the ones being bullies. They are those who teach and encourage independence and self-confidence. They reinforce and model behavior they want to see in others. Think Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; think Gandhi. 

Now back to dog training. If you are constantly giving directions, telling your dog what to do, when to do it, how to do it, then they will always rely on you for instructions. 

However, when they learn, and are encouraged, to think for themselves instead of always relying on you to tell them what to do, they build much-needed resiliency skills, along with independence and confidence!

Using interactive food toys and hunting/seeking games, dog-specific sports and dog training classes, encouraging them to entertain themselves where it is safe, playing with other dogs, and practicing social skills with other people can help teach them to rely on their own ability to make good choices, instead of depending on you to do the thinking for them. 

If your goal is to share your life and home with a family dog who is eager to listen to you and offer desired behaviors, you can start by building and maintaining a mutually trusting canine-human relationship. 

Chocolate lab sitting -inquisitive canine

Myth #4: Alpha rolls and/or other physical corrections are necessary to teach a dog when a behavior is unacceptable.

Fact: Fear-based techniques are outdated.

Thankfully, a grasp of the fallout of coercion and aversives, along with education in animal learning theory and science-based techniques have led to progress within the pet care industry. 

Management or training techniques that risk injury should raise a red flag. Using physical corrections and aversive training tools such as choke, prong, shock and Citronella collars, and squirt bottles can result in injury, pain, fear-related behavioral side-effects, decreased learning (stress can lead the dog to shut down), and can harm your relationship with your pup. 

Regardless of the overall goals, from basic life skills to advanced manners to canine sports, training should be fun throughout the process — for everyone.

Training Tip:

Opt for training methods that enhance the experience for both dog and handler. 

A force-free approach utilizes whatever motivates a particular dog to want to participate in the training plan, focusing in on rewarding wanted behaviors, and teaching the dog what the best behavior choice is — without instilling fear.

Whether it’s food, toys or real-life rewards, the common denominator is that providing positive reinforcement (that your dog finds rewarding) helps establish an enjoyable learning environment.

Positive reinforcement training is safe and effective, whereas correction-based training can be dangerous. Plus, punishment-based training places emphasis on the behaviors you don’t want; it doesn’t tell your dog what you do want. 

Please note: Combining the two methodologies, rewards and corrections, in an attempt to be somehow ‘balanced’ simply adds unnecessary confusion, stress, and risk. You and your inquisitive canine, and the bond you share, deserve better.

Similar to alpha rolls, so many outdated ‘mutt myths’ have been debunked time and again. Want proof? Type “alpha dog myth” into your search engine. You will see at least 20 pages – approximately 10 articles per page – of entries – that’s over 200 articles you can research to decide for yourself. 

To live in a world where dogs are encouraged to romp, bark, play, and enjoy life with their people, we can start by thinking critically about canine facts versus fiction. After all, the key to myth busting is staying inquisitive.

Thank you for being an inquisitive dog guardian!