Some dog training wives’ tales boggle my mind.
Many years ago I worked with George, an elderly man who had cerebral palsy. Because he had very limited use of the left side of his body, he could not hold a leash with his left hand and his left leg dragged behind him when he walked. When I met George, he was struggling to work with his Jack Russell Terrier, Emily. Another trainer told George that he had to walk Emily on his left side. (Some trainers require dogs walk this way because walking on the left is a requirement in obedience and/or confirmation competitions.) This was very difficult for George, and it led to extreme frustration when he tried to walk Emily. I immediately suggested that George begin to walk Emily on his right side instead. Not only was he stronger on his right side, he was also more confident. The relief George felt was clear on his face. George appreciated that I made training Emily easier and his walks with Emily were more enjoyable.
As we learn to understand the animals that we love and care for, we also need to understand the difference between the truth and old wives’ tales. As a veterinary technician and dog trainer, I have heard many myths about dogs. The more we study and learn about dogs the more we understand them and can see the mistakes in many of our myths.
Dog’s Hold a Grudge or Stay Mad at Us
People also think that dogs hold a grudge or get mad when they are left alone, because the dogs bark or are destructive after their people leave. More often than not, the dogs are actually experiencing anxiety when their people leave. Telltale signs of anxiety when left alone are that a dog will destroy something, urinate, or defecate or will become vocal only when the people leave.
Sadly, people often think that their dogs are holding a grudge when they are actually experiencing a panic attack when they are left alone. If you have a dog who does an undesired behavior when you are gone, you should get help from a professional who has worked with dogs that have anxiety when left alone. This type of behavior problem is challenging and may need medication from a veterinarian to be completely resolved.
If I Use Food to Train My Dog, I Will Spoil Him and Always Have to Carry Food to Bribe Him
I commonly hear from people that they don’t want to use treats to bribe their dog into behaving because it will spoil the dog and the handler will always have to carry treats. It is true that when using positive and force free training, we usually use food as the paycheck to motivate our dog to want to learn. Food and treats are primarily used for teaching a new behavior. Once the behavior is learned well, the treats are decreased or eliminated.
For my dogs, I like them to understand the new behaviors and respond like a reflex before I start to remove the treats. For example, if they hear or see the cue for “Sit,” they respond instantly like we respond by breaking for a red light when driving a car. At this point, my dogs will do just about any of the cues they have learned with or without treats. Once they know behaviors well, I occasionally give them rewards just to keep the behavior strong.
Of course, the same criticism is said of traditional based training. If I use a leash pop or shock to get my dog to listen, I will continually have to inflict or threaten pain to get them to obey in the future.
When Dogs Wag Their Tails, They Are Happy
An extremely common misconception with dogs is that if their tails are wagging, they are happy. A tail wag just means that the dog is aroused. It is more important to see how and where the tail is wagging. If the tail appears tucked, the dog is experiencing stress. If the tail is erect and almost facing forward over the dog’s back, he is overly assertive and may become aggressive.
Additionally, there are subtleties of how dogs wag their tails that we may not even perceive. An Italian team of researchers investigated how study dogs reacted to other dogs wagging their tails. They showed 43 study dogs videos of other dogs whose tail wagging was more pronounced either to the left or the right. When study dogs observed other dogs wagging more towards the left, their heart rates increased and they became more anxious indicating they perceived some kind of threat. When the dog’s wagging was more to the right, the study dogs stayed relaxed. Of course, some dogs do not have a tail at all. In this case, it is important to look at more than one body part to determine the emotional state of the dog.
In the last ten years, scientists have started to research more and more about how dogs think and learn. I expect we will find many more misunderstandings about dogs as time goes one. I only hope that people are open to changing their believes as that occurs.
 Ellie Zolfagharifard, How the direction of a tail wag could reveal your dog’s MOOD: To the right and they’re happy – but to the left they could be scared, Daily Mail, 31 October 2013 Updated: 1 November 2013. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2481634/How-direction-tail-wag-reveal-dogs-MOOD.html; Marcello Siniscalch, et al. Seeing Left- or Right-Asymmetric Tail Wagging Produces Different Emotional Responses in Dogs, Current Biology, Volume 23, Issue 22, p2279–2282, 18 November 2013.
Shannon has been a pet lover all her life and a dog trainer for over 20 years. She has spent her life observing, caring for and training animals of all kinds. She has worked in the Bird Department at Marine World Africa USA, and worked as an handler and trainer for an African Serval Cat at Safari West, a private zoo in Santa Rosa, California. She has participated in behavior studies including observations of bald eagles and addax antelope through the San Francisco Zoo and Safari West.
Her education includes a Biology Degree, specializing in Zoology from Sonoma State. She is a Registered Veterinary Technician, a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (Knowledge Assessed), a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner, a member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers and a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants.
Shannon is currently serving as President for the Society of Veterinary Behavior Technicians.
Shannon’s dog training philosophy revolves around force free, positive reinforcement, however, her ultimate goal is for healthy happy relationship between pets and their people. Diet, exercise, environment and training all play a significant role in achieving this goal.
Shannon is currently the owner of Ventura Pet Wellness and Dog Training Center in Ventura, CA where she works with anxious and fearful dogs privately as well as teaching agility classes (Venturapetwellness.com). Shannon has also started a training website called Truly Force Free Animal Training (trulyforcefree.com).