Three Useless Myths about the “Good” Dog

The “Good” Dog

When you think of all the things you have read about dog training and behavior, all the advice you have ever sought (or been given against your will, whether by neighbors on morning walks or the in-laws on holiday visits), what does the conversation usually revolve around? People endlessly debate how to “teach a dog who is boss”; whether one can “teach an old dog new tricks”; the best way to “teach him not to jump”; and which “training methods” are best. We’ve been taught to believe that, with the right techniques and enough determination, we can almost train a fish to fly or a bird to swim.

While we chase the elusive holy grail of dog training techniques that will finally solve all of our problems and make our dog “good,” we are missing more obvious and commonsense facts right under our noses. We often fail to notice the real conditions that make “obedience” to our directions impossible, and end up punishing the dog for what is out of his control.

The dog fails because we are unwittingly neglecting certain factors influencing his behavior. We get frustrated and embarrassed as the neighbors look on, feeling that we are being judged for not being able to control our dog. This is because we have been taught to believe many silly cultural myths about the way our dog learns.

MYTH #1: There is a magic dog training method. We just have to find it, so we can have a “good” dog!

That magic method doesn’t exist. There are plenty of good ideas and practices in dog training, but there’s no magic recipe to follow that will yield the perfectly well behaved dog no matter what. Bummer.

Dog trainers have done little over the years to dispel the idea of a perfect training routine. As a matter of fact, virtually the entire dog training industry revolves around claims and debates about assertions of exactly this idea—that there is a magic wand that can be used to train all dogs, and so-and-so finally found it. An eager, often desperate, public is looking for a quick fix.

When training—“It’s all how you raise them”—fails, the trainer usually tells the client that there is something wrong with the dog or its owner (the fallback myth of a “bad dog” or “bad owner”). Like any other relationship, our relationship with our dog is complicated by a series of factors that all need to be considered. As you now know, learning does not happen in a vacuum; it is vitally connected to environment, genetics, and self.

MYTH #2: We have to be the “alpha dog.” Once we put the dog in his place, he will respect us and be “good.”

Spoiler alert: Our dog knows we are not a dog. Lizards know we are not a lizard, and birds know we’re not a bird. Imitating the ritualized behaviors of wolves or dogs does not convince them that we speak their language. You can’t fool or dominate them through awkward “alpha rolls,” “nose grabs,” “scruff shakes,” and “bites.” (Yes, I’ve actually had clients who bite their dogs because someone convinced them it was a good idea.) Your dog may walk away with a new impression of you if you try these techniques, but it won’t be favorable. You’ll just end up with a bite on the arm or a mouthful of fur.

Some people claim that being the leader of the pack is everything and that one must confidently engage, win every battle of wills, and establish control. The truth is this: Scientifically, dominance is about control of resources, not control of the other. We have effectively confused the idea of dominance with that of being domineering. There’s a really big difference. Bullies are domineering because they have something to prove. Leaders are dominant because they are already in control of the situation, i.e., the environment—and that motivates others to get on board.

When we control the dog’s access to resources that matter to him (e.g., doors opening to the exciting world, food bowls being filled, attention being lavished, balls being thrown), we are being a kind of “key master”—possessing the ability to access everything. That said, most of us don’t intentionally control these things every time; they tend to just happen without us thinking much about it. So we must consider our dog’s perception of these events. A hundred times a day, our dog can perceive us either as a doting servant jumping to meet his every need or as a respectable manager of events. It’s better to be seen as the latter.

When we teach our dog to “ask” for things by offering a behavior like sitting, it instills in him that we are the management. It also creates structure that can reduce anxiety and increase confidence. Plus, like children who use “please” and “thank you” to get what they want, a dog with such etiquette is remarkably more pleasant to live with. When there is an atmosphere in the relationship of order and cooperation for all of the little things, the stage has been set for adherence to instructions when it really counts. Forget intimidation and threats. You won’t need them. Altercations, power struggles, and physical battles are a complete waste of time.

MYTH #3: A “good” dog likes everybody, wants to meet everybody, and wants every person to pet him and every dog to sniff him.

This one really drives me nuts. Dogs are not politicians running for office. They did not sign up to kiss every baby and shake every hand. Why should dogs be expected to enjoy being touched and petted by total strangers? Imagine how you would feel if you walked down the block with your spouse, and a group of strangers said “Ooo, she is pretty! Can I pet her?” and your spouse said, “Sure!” and invited them to stroke and kiss you. I wouldn’t know who to slug first in this situation—the strangers or my husband! But this is exactly what we do to our dogs, standing in awe when they finally bite the tenth guy that we have allowed to fondle a complete stranger.

While some dogs do enjoy interacting with virtually anyone, most dogs don’t. When they tell us, through their body language, growling or snapping, they’re often reprimanded or punished for being a “bad” dog. It is our job to know our dogs, what they like, and what they are comfortable with. It is our job to protect their personal space from invasion by strangers without justification, explanation, or guidance.

Similarly, when it comes to encountering other dogs, if we keep insisting that they socialize with every canine on the street, we should not wonder why it keeps blowing up in our face. We may think that all dogs should stop and sniff each other or play. We might force the issue by warning, “Say hello,” or “Be nice,” when our dog hides behind our legs or lunges, barking Go away! at the big Labrador coming straight for him with outstretched arms. We wouldn’t make our children meet every child they encounter in public, so why would we force our dog to greet every new “friend” we see? It’s unfair, and we shouldn’t be surprised if some dogs behave aggressively or defensively in response to such social flooding.

 

There’s a lot to be said for minding our own business while holding out the possibility that every now and then, there will be someone really worth meeting. We would be wise to provide our dogs with selective social opportunities where there are context-relevant interactions with people and animals, rather than adopt a free-for-all approach to socialization. While some dogs are natural socialites, a great many of them prefer to casually enjoy their walks with their loved ones and only passively smell and observe their human and canine compatriots from a safe distance as they go by.