Debunking the Doggie Mythbuster

What is it with people anymore? Ever since Mythbusters began airing on Discovery channel years ago, everyone’s gotta jump on the mythbusting band wagon, and it IS a bandwagon.

Jean Donaldson is a well-respected dog trainer. She doesn’t agree with “Cesar’s Way” any more than I do and she strongly believes in positive reinforcement, which I agree with too. I use positive reinforcement in my daily life with my Labradorks, but there are times when you have to correct behaviors too. It’s NOT all about reward for good behavior and ignoring the bad. Sometimes, you are responsible for creating the behavior in the first place. Sometimes, you have to react immediately to bad behavior before it can escalate into a dangerous situation. Training a dog, and owning dogs is a balancing act, sort of like parenting children. There is no such thing as a single solution that works for every dog and every dog owner, in every situation. There is no primer here. Dogs don’t come with a manual and not even dog trainers agree on how it is that dogs communicate with human beings, or with each other.

One thing I have learned in over 16 years of Lab ownership, is that with every dog that comes along, I am literally starting from scratch. So when I read this post written by Ms. Donaldson that strikes some serious generalizations, it set off several alarm bells. I swear this must have been posted simply for the purpose of getting you to buy her books and attend her obedience classes, because there are things in this list that are flat out wrong, and statements made here, where she debunks things that SHOULD be the habit of ANY decent dog owner, as “myths.” Rather than explaining that her issue is with the way something is stated, she instead dismisses these things completely as though they have no value at all.

It should also be noted, that I traced this article back to its original source and the magazine that published it originally, has removed it from it’s archives.

What does that say?

Anyway, here we go:

1) Dogs are naturally pack animals with a clear social order. This one busts coming out of the gate as free-ranging dogs (pariahs, semi-feral populations, dingoes, etc.) don’t form packs.

Really? They don’t? Where’s your evidence for that? Because… the Australian government, which studies dingoes, thinks you’re full of it. THEY say that dingoes DO live in packs. Just because you may not have seen them living in one doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. Read this for more info. 

2) If you let dogs exit doorways ahead of you, you’re letting them be dominant. There is not only no evidence for this, there is no evidence that the behaviour of going through a doorway has any social significance whatsoever. In order to lend this idea any plausibility, it would need to be ruled out that rapid doorway exit is not simply a function of their motivation to get to whatever is on the other side combined with their higher ambulation speed.

I’ll agree with you, that this behavior may not have social significance. It absolutely has training significance though. Your dog should always be looking to you for direction. How is he going to do that if you’re walking along BEHIND him? How are you going to know he’s not walking into a massive forest fire, or a huge dog fight on the other side of that door and how can YOU protect him, if he goes out first? While technically correct, having the dog exit behind you is GOOD training and should not be “debunked” as a “myth.”

3) In multi-dog households, “support the hierarchy” by giving presumed dominant animals patting, treats, etc., first, before giving the same attention to presumed subordinate animals. There is no evidence that this has any impact on inter-dog relations, or any type of aggression. In fact, if one dog were roughing up another, the laws governing Pavlovian conditioning would dictate an opposite tack: Teach aggressive dogs that other dogs receiving scarce resources predicts that they are about to receive some. If so practised, the tough dog develops a happy emotional response to other dogs getting stuff – a helpful piece of training, indeed. No valuable conditioning effects are achieved by giving the presumed higher-ranking dog goodies first.

I’m not sure where this “rank” issue came from with multi-dog households. It’s really NOT about the “rank”. It’s about who has more rules. Which of your dogs causes you the most trouble? Who steals your bras and runs around the house with them? That’s the dog that gets treats last. He needs to learn to do things on YOUR terms. That means, he has to wait the longest to get rewards. You must always build a rapport with your dog. You reward good behavior, you ignore bad behavior and, if you live with Jet, like I do, sometimes you get frustrated and just start barking right along with him, because well, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

4) Dogs have an innate desire to please. This concept has never been operationally defined, let alone tested.

Anybody who thinks that dogs don’t have an innate desire to please, has never owned a Labrador.

I’m skipping number five on this list, because I totally agree with that one.

6) If you pat your dog when he’s afraid, you’re rewarding the fear. Fear is an emotional state – a reaction to the presence or anticipation of something highly aversive. It is not an attempt at manipulation. If terrorists enter a bank and order everybody down on the floor, the people will exhibit fearful behaviour. If I then give a bank customer on the floor a compliment, 20 bucks or chocolates, is this going to make them more afraid of terrorists next time? It’s stunningly narcissistic to imagine that a dog’s fearful behaviour is somehow directed at us (along with his enthusiastic door-dashing).

I’m reading this and my brain is just going, “What?” I’m guessing this woman has never owned a fearful or anxious dog in her life. First off, dogs are not people. Should we treat them with the same respect that we give human beings? Absolutely! But do not assume that they THINK the way you and I do and make the same associations that we do, because they don’t. If they did, I doubt we’d have an overpopulation problem. Dogs are very simple creatures in terms of their mindset. Their interaction with you shapes future behavior, that is WHY training is effective. Anxiety dogs get this way by being rewarded for behaving in an anxious manner. Dogs with separation anxiety get this way, by having the humans come home and make a HUGE fuss! “OH! Did Mommy’s little baby miss me! I’m so sorry I was gone for so long!” this causes that association of missing you when you were gone, to be reinforced, positively. Positive reinforcement DOES work and it is particularly powerful on fearful dogs. If you pet a dog when they cry during a thunderstorm, what happens the next time there’s a thunderstorm? The dog cries, because they got praised for it the last time. You are positively reinforcing the behavior. You are encouraging them to act in a fearful way and actions DO translate to very real emotions for dogs. Cesar is wrong about a lot of things, but my experience tells me that if I am confident, so are my dogs. If I am fearful, so are my dogs. What you put in is what you’re going to get back out. If you’re not confident and positive, they won’t be either. Petting a dog for your own comfort in a thunderstorm, is neither confident, nor positive.

7) Punish dogs for growling or else they’ll become aggressive.

Ian Dunbar calls this “removing the ticker from the time bomb.” Dogs growl because something upsetting them is too close. If you punish them for informing us of this, they are still upset but now not letting us know, thus allowing scary things to get closer and possibly end up bitten. Much better to make the dog comfortable around what he’s growling at so he’s not motivated to make it go away.

I have spoken to many dog trainers over the years. No one agrees on how growling should be handled. Everyone has a different reaction to it. Everyone has a different answer. Growling at something out the window is completely different behavior from your dog growling at you, his owner/handler/trainer. It’s not even in the same ball park and if your dog is growling at you or a family member, rather than relying on some top ten list on the internet, you NEED to get yourself and your dog to a trainer and you need to do it today.

8) Playing tug makes dogs aggressive. There is no evidence that this is so. The only study ever done, by Borchelt and Goodloe, found no correlation between playing tug and the incidence of aggression directed at either family members or strangers. Tug is, in fact, a cooperative behaviour directed at simulated prey: the toy.

Agreed. That’s two that I agree with so far. Two.

9) If you give dogs chew toys, they’ll learn to chew everything.

This is a Pandora’s box type of argument that, once again, has zero evidence to support it. Dogs are excellent discriminators and readily learn with minimal training to distinguish their toys from forbidden items. The argument is also logically flawed as chewing is a ‘hydraulic’ behaviour that waxes and wanes, depending on satiation/deprivation, as does drinking, eating and sex. Dogs without chew objects are like zoo animals in barren cages. Unless there is good compensation with other enrichment activities, there is a welfare issue here.

This argument, intended to refute the statement in bold, makes the same mistake that the “myth” makes. It assumes that every dog reacts and behaves one way. Because dogs have a hive mind, I guess. I have owned dogs that can differentiate and have had one that could not. He swallowed everything that he could get in his mouth. However, I agree, that dogs without sufficient enrichment activities are not being treated well and deserve better, but there are some cases where chew toys are not always the answer and in some households, chew toys can cause more problems than they solve, particularly in a multi-dog household with a dog that claims chew toys.. and again, if you are having a resource guarding or “claiming” problem in your multi-dog household, rather than reading a book, or a post on this, or any other blog for that matter, get thee to a trainer immediately!

10) You can’t modify “genetic” behaviour.

All behaviour – and I mean all – is a product of a complex interplay between genes and the environment. And while some behaviours require less learning than others, or no learning at all, their modifiability varies as much as does the modifiability of behaviours that are primarily learned.

There is NO magic wand for dog training. None at all. The source of the behavior isn’t really relevant to that discussion. That’s just muddying the waters. The reality is, that ANY behavior can be modified, if you care enough to do it. My key issue with this “top ten list” aside from the fact that it’s a “top ten list” and we all know how accurate those are, is that there are some assumptions made here that are completely fallacious. It also seems to ignore the fact that no two dogs will be trained with the same techniques every time. It doesn’t matter how the message is conveyed, even if it’s technically incorrect. The important thing is the end result is that of a dog that is living it’s life with ONE owner and ONE family that loves them, takes the time to train them at all, and is devoted to making that relationship work in a way that makes both owner and dog happy.

Now quit reading top ten lists on the internet and spreading their “wisdom” as gospel, and go walk your dog!