As the fields of animal behavior, ecology, and veterinary science continue to evolve, the traditional ideas we once had about how best to train dogs are beginning to falter. Drawing on the expertise of a range of scientists, here are five of the biggest dog training myths, busted…
Dogs want to dominate you
The idea that dogs spend every waking moment trying to usurp their human masters and become the “alpha” in the house is one of the most common myths in dog training lore. The idea, first introduced by a wolf conservationist in the mid-1920sand Century, was later debunked after conservationists realized that the original observations of dominance behaviors were based on captive wolves (not related to each other) kept in a zoo enclosure.
By the time conservationists rectified the error, the idea was firmly entrenched in dog training circles, many of which continue to promote the so-called “dominance theory” when working with dogs.
“It’s hard to know how long it will take to wipe out the dog-training community,” wild carnivore biologist Gabi Fleury told me in my book on the subject, Wonderdog.
Treats are bribes
“I’m particularly irritated by the idea that treats are a form of corruption,” says animal behavior researcher Madeleine Goumas. Apprehensions like these are based on the hard-to-budge idea that dogs should follow requests out of respect rather than seeking rewards.
“Why should we expect our dogs to repeat behaviors without reward once they’ve learned them?” says neuroscientist (and dog lover) Alice Gray. “I pay my dog for his hard work – with treats, games or praise!”
You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
Even I fell for this one. Once our pup reached adulthood, I considered his training regimen somewhat over. Not at all. The truth is that training is a long-term thing – something that needs to be reinforced over and over again. Fortunately, thanks to the games on the walks, we have incorporated training into our daily routine.
“This is particularly important for recall and heeling, which are important for the safety of the dog and other people, as well as wild animals,” says wild dog researcher Dani Rabaiotti.
You gotta be the bad guy sometimes
“Many dog trainers still rely on punishment to get the behaviors they want, but positive rewards work much better,” says animal welfare researcher Nicola Clements. Indeed, reward-based training may be correlated with greater obedience and a closer human-canine bond, compared to punishment-based training. It can also help dogs learn new tricks more efficiently.
“There’s this popular belief that you have to act like a really mean person when you train your dog,” says evolutionary biologist (and dog lover) Ben Garrod. ” Nope. You just need confidence and continuity, with lots of patience.
There is only one way to train a dog
In the 1950s and 1960s, long-term behavioral observations of dogs raised under different conditions showed how their adult personality could be influenced both by genetic components (partly related to breed) and by life experiences, especially during youth.
“This means there is no ‘one size fits all’ when training dogs,” says conservationist Charlotte Dacre. “Without wishing to anthropomorphize, each dog has a ‘personality’ to which every trainer must be attentive.”
Those looking for specialist advice on how to train their dog should turn to their veterinarian for advice or seek help from an approved animal behavior expert (www.abtc.org.uk).
Wonderdog: How the Science of Dogs Changed the Science of Life by Jules Howard is out now (£17.99, Bloomsbury Sigma).
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