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Do You Really Understand Your Dog?

The profession of dog training has become immensely more educated over the past decade, and has tossed aside many outdated training methods. However, much of the general public is still using these outdated methods since that’s what they learned growing up. When you search “how to train your dog” on Google, a ton of information comes up, and a lot of it is inaccurate and/or inhumane. When people look for a dog trainer, the businesses that advertise as getting them ‘quick results’ catch their eye. I have worked with clients who unknowingly sent their dog to places such as these, and it was a place where they ended up being abused mentally and physically. The dog comes back home emotionally damaged, and they are left with more problems than before. Beware if anyone is offering ‘quick results’ with dog training, as they are typically using aversive methods (choke, prong, and shock collars) along with punishment, which causes the dog to suppress their true emotions and display more undesirable behavior.

While there are many well-known organizations that practice positive reinforcement (R+) training, there seem to be just as many (or even more) businesses that do the opposite. This blog post will address just a few of the most common misconceptions that people have about dog behavior, and dog training in general.

1. Anthropomorphization: “to attribute human form or personality to things not human.”

This happens all the time, as typical dog owners are uneducated on how dogs think and learn. People assume that dogs think and learn the same way that humans do, and that they should inherently know things such as what is a dog toy vs. what is not, where it’s okay to go to the bathroom vs. where it’s not, etc. Dogs learn by association, whether it is positive or negative. We as humans need to TEACH them what we expect from them. For example, if your dog bolts out the door and you are angry, yell at them, or grab their scruff when they come back, this creates a negative association with coming to you, and they’re likely to run away from you more often. If your dog bolts out of the house and you reward them with pets or treats when they come back to you, this creates a positive association with coming to you, and they’re motivated to come when called. Dogs do not do things “out of spite”, such as chewing up your furniture or peeing on your bed. Dogs have no way of knowing the difference between your expensive, new chair and the old, dirtier one that you wouldn’t mind them peeing on. Your dog doesn’t destroy the house because they get mad when you leave them; they rip up the pillows and dig in the trash due to separation anxiety or boredom. As Jean Donaldson describes in “Culture Clash,” if your dog is reprimanded each time they chew on the furniture, they learn that it is not safe to chew furniture when the owner is home. When you leave, it is safe to chew on furniture because the dog will not be reprimanded in the moment, and chewing helps to pass the time. When you come home angry, your dog displays appeasing behaviors because they can tell that you’re upset. Donaldson wonderfully describes the “Eager to Please Fallacy” with this quote: “...we also misinterpret their regard for us. When are we going to put to bed once and for all the concept that dogs have a ‘desire to please?’ What a cavuous, dangerous idea.” Dogs do things out of motivation, and we as humans need to provide proper motivation and clear instruction.

2. Dogs want to be the “alpha”.

People misinterpret common dog behaviors as the dog trying to be “the alpha dog”. For one, dogs do not mistake humans for dogs. How are you supposed to be the “alpha dog” when you and your dog are two different species? Here are just a few of the myths surrounding the dominance theory in dogs:

Myth: Dogs who walk out the door in front of you are trying to be “the alpha.”

This is false. Dogs use their nose to explore the world, and it gives them information. Think of it as a dog’s way of reading the news or newspaper as humans do; dogs sniff and explore the outdoors to see what’s been going on in the world. Your dog is walking ahead of you because they’re excited to go on an adventure. If your dog is constantly pulling you out the door, they have poor impulse control skills. To learn more about dogs’ sense of smell, check out “Being a Dog” by Alexandra Horowitz.

Myth: Dogs hump people and dogs to show that they’re “the alpha.”

This is false. Humping can be due to general over arousal/excitement, and is frequently a display of anxiety. Dogs hump if they are unaltered, because they have a multitude of hormones rushing through their body. We cannot blame them for humping; if they are anxious, we need to look at the situation and see what is stressing them out. If they are over aroused, they need a break from playing so that they can relax. If they are unaltered, we need to spay and neuter them when they are of appropriate age. (Not just to get them to stop humping, but to significantly reduce their chances of getting cancer.)

Myth: Dogs display aggression to show that they’re “the alpha”. Therefore, we need to let the dog know that the human is in fact, “the alpha”.

This is false. Aggression in dogs is caused by genetic or environmental factors, or both. These factors include: lack of socialization when they were a puppy, negative associations with certain people, dogs, or objects, generalized fear, or medical issues causing them discomfort or pain. Dogs can display dominant behavior in specific situations, but dogs are not trying to overrule you or prove that they are “the alpha.” Dr. Sophia Yin was a prolific Dog Behaviorist who continues to be a very influential force in the dog training world today. According to Dr. Yin, “Dominance is defined in animal behavior as a relationship between individuals that is established by force, aggression and submission in order to determine who has priority access to multiple resources such as food, preferred resting spots, and access to mates.” Simply put, dogs can be dominant over certain resources such as food, toys, and water. Dogs may display dominant behavior in certain situations that involve access to resources, but dominance is NOT a personality trait.

3. Dogs need punishment when they make errors, in order to learn.

This is false. Dogs are not like humans, who speak our language and can comprehend why they’re being punished for a specific behavior. If your dog pees on the floor and you find it later then rub their nose in it, you are doing absolutely nothing educational for them, and are likely stressing them out for something that they do not understand. Unfortunately, we can’t say to the dog, “you need to pee outside next time,” since they don’t understand our language. We as humans need to be better about paying attention to when the dog needs to go to the bathroom. The dog begins to associate pee in the house with the owners being angry, and is more likely to try and hide where they go to the bathroom inside next. Dogs do not have the capability to understand why you are punishing them when they don’t even remember eliminating in the house. Dogs need to be caught in the act and then rushed outside to teach them to eliminate outside. They should be positively reinforced every time they do eliminate outside. When doing obedience training, dogs need to be reinforced when they do what we ask of them. If you find yourself giving them a cue and constantly saying ‘nope, you’re wrong’, it becomes discouraging for them. This tells us that as the owner, we need to change something to set the dog up for success. The same goes for working with reactive or aggressive dogs; if you tell them they’re wrong in the middle of a barking fit, it is satisfactory for the human. The human may feel like they’re correcting their dog’s behavior, when in reality they are adding to the stress by raising their voice, and essentially that does nothing for the dog. When your dog is over their stress threshold, they need to be taken out of the situation and calm down in order to learn. Being yelled at to ‘stop barking, no, stop, no barking’ while they continue barking is not effective. Using prong, shock, or choke collars may suppress your dog’s reactive behavior, but does not address the root of the problem which is either overarousal, aggression, fear, stress, or anxiety, etc.

The common theme with all of these myths is that they could be prevented with proper education and research before getting a dog. Dogs will be dogs, meaning they will bark, they will pee in the house, among many other normal dog behaviors. If you are thinking about getting a dog, reach out to a professional, positive reinforcement based trainer for advice. I will list some helpful resources below.


Donaldson, Jean. “The Culture Clash.” Wenatchee. The Academy for Dog Trainers, 1996, 2005, 2013.

Other helpful resources:

“The Perfect Puppy in 7 Days” by Sophia Yin

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