Pet Behavior Myths

Pet Behavior Myths

I love this story at DVM 360, "!0 Life Threatening Behavior Myths," by veterinary behaviorist Dr. Valerie Tynes.

It's a particularly well written read but an important one because animals really do lose their lives as a result of these myths.

Behavior problems continue to be the leading cause of relinquishment and euthanasia of pets in the United States. Yet both the general public and also even animal professionals have misconceptions.

In her story, Tynes notes that a recent study shows that 31.8% of pet owners think that rubbing a dog's nose in its feces is an appropriate technique. If the percent is that high, I feel I haven't done my job. to communicate to the public. Having said that, I just took a call on the air - the listener has a cat that's biting her, and her response, take newspaper and "hit the cat so he can learn." Learn what? Not to trust his person is what he learns. I would have guessed around 2o or 25% might think that rubbing a dog's nose is useful, which would be too many -  I am realy saddened the percent is nearly a third of dog owners.

In her thoughtful and science-based story, Tynes discusses 10 common myths about animal behavior, particularly canine, behavior—misconceptions that may increase the likelihood that a pet will develop a behavior problem and, thus, can lead to the pet's abandonment or euthanasia. I offer brief comments here on each of the ten - but encourage you to read Tynes' piece for for her perspective.


"Puppies shouldn't go to puppy classes until they have had all their vaccinations, or they will get sick." The fear would be the parvovirus (and perhaps canine distemper), and that's reasonable (in some places in the country a real significant concern). While these diseases may be deadly, so is being given up to a shelter because of behavior problems as a result of a lack of or inappropriate socialization. There is no vaccination to create proper socialization.

I don't recall the exact number, but it's near 90 percent (for most dogs), that is the percent of protection following two parvovirus vaccines. So what are the odds of a dog getting parvo in a puppy socialization class where all the other dogs are also checked for proof of vaccination? Sadly, too many instructors are lax and don't check for medical records, which is wrong.  That does need to change.

Also, of value in puppy classes is learning some basic obedience, "sit," "stay," "roll over," etc. The most important cue any dog can learn is "come," and dogs can learn this young. "Come" is the word that might just save your dog's life. Dog is running toward the street, it's sure nice to be able to call your dog to you, or if your house in on fire, or who knows...."Come" is the most important word. Also, two species learn each others languages in puppy classes. Even experienced dog owners learn to communicate from one end of the leash to the other, as do the puppies. We don't really talk dog, and little puppies don't understand human language (though they ultimately become expert at reading our body language); puppy classes help to adhere the bond and enhance communication. Still most of all, it's about meeting a variety of people and a variety of other dogs.

Finding the right instructor is key. If the dogs and people aren't both wagging their tails and having fun, go away. You want a positive, upbeat class - perhaps clicker training is a tool. These classes are invaluable to deal with before problems BEFORE they happen. And for instructors to offer appropriate advice is common as problems are occurring, like house training issues or chewing on sneakers, even these sorts of behavior miscues can upset folks enough to give up on their pets. A good trainer can also manage expectations. This is one place, among many others, where the under-rated and undervalued dog trainer, can save lives. And unsung dog training heroes do this daily.

Certainly, early signs of aggression in one example of a more serious concern which can be more effectively dealt with caught early on by a trainer, who may then turf to a certified dog behavior consultant, American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior Veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist.

Unfortunately, some dogs still do get distemper or the canine parvovirus - and a percent of those may not survive. Hopefully, though, most are vaccinated. Overall, dogs are more likely to die as an outcome of being poorly socialized.


"Crazy owners have crazy pets." Hmmm...on this one - I don't  agree that it's always a myth....Maybe Dr. Tynes didn't meet this lady who I met last week. She told me about how she gets up every morning and sings to her cats. Then she does a dance for her cats. Really? And it gets worse...then she takes each cat and offers a daily word of advice from some cat calendar she purchased from 'a cat psychic.' She doesn't leave her cats alone....Two of her six cats (could six be too many for her?) now run away from her. They didn't always.

Truth is, I'd run away too.

I will say that serious behavior disorders are no different that a heart problem or kidney begins with a diagnosis and then prescribed treatment. There are indeed genetic predispositions for some problems. But I personally believe that sometimes owners may contribute to the issue - not necessarily because they are crazy, they've just received poor advice.


"My dog is aggressive/fearful/shy because she was abused as a puppy." Here's one that people love to believe....After all, they just rescued the dog from a shelter, and there's little doubt that he must be hand shy or maybe totally afraid of people because he was abused as a puppy. The good news is that truth - there aren't that many people abusing puppies out there, not that animal abuse doesn't happen. Most this is a lack of socialization (see myth #1) but also some dogs are just shy, or reluctant.

Clearly our adopted Hazel was generally well cared for and by all accounts loved, before we adopted her. We'll never know the real story, but the little white Terrier-mix had been dropped at the shelter just a few hours before I found her - the man said because his mother (who owned her) had recently died. Maybe. In any case, a few days after I brought her home, I went over to the newspaper to find the sports section. Hazel was right there. She cowered when I grabbed the paper. So, I learned at some point she might have been hit by a newspaper.

She also barks and backs up at some strangers. I doubt she was abused....I do think she wasn't exposed to a ton of people, and she's also a small Terrier who expresses herself more than some other dogs might. In any case, we're enrolling Hazel in a dog training class.

For dogs seriously fearful, no matter why, there is help available.


"This new medication will treat your pet's [insert behavior problem here]." There's a pill for everything...right? Well, not exactly. Listen for serious behavior problems, it's wonderful that the current class of anti anxiety meds are available. The medications adjust the neurochemicals in the brain just enough so the animals can (hopefully) learn. After all, to change the behavior they have to be open to learning a new one...A panicked or terrified animal isn't capable of that. The drugs allow for learning to happen. Then, you can employ appropriate behavior modification techniques.  Also, these drugs may lessen anxiety - which may simply be the humane thing to do. Dosed correctly psycho pharmaceuticals rarely have adverse affects (though with any drug that remains possible), and rarely "dopes" pets or changes their personality. Drugs used 20 years did do that....and rarely actually helped to lessen anxiety - pets were sometimes anxious, even terrified but too doped to express it. Today, veterinarians and veterinary behaviorists can do much better - thank goodness. It's a shame though, when owners refuse these drugs because of their misconceptions or at the other end of the spectrum feel that the drug is be like instant soup.


"Dogs that are aggressive are acting dominant." I can't top how eloquently Dr. Tynes describes the truth about this point in her story...I think some people like the idea of "dominance."  We need a human psychiatrist on this one, but I personally believe there's an appeal for some people when dog trainers explain, "You must be dominant over your dog, or your dog will be dominant over you." I think some people want to express clearly how we are better, smarter and dominant over dogs. Truth is dogs don't set out to dominate people, rule our homes, pay our mortgage or run for public office (though dogs would be more honest). As Dr. Tynes indicates, the truth is the reverse of what many think - most aggressive dogs are actually afraid.

Regardless of why a dog is aggressive - the more the dog practices the behavior, the more the dog may excel at it and become increasingly confident. This is one which is tough for pet owners to deal with on their own - getting professional help for aggression is very much suggested. Until you receive the help, so the dog doesn't continue practicing the behavior and to keep everyone safe - management may be the best tool.


"See how guilty he looks? He knows what he did was wrong." Wouldn't that be nice, if dogs or people were that easy to read....Oh but people are! And that's exactly what happens. You come home and either expect a sofa chewed on or see it, and now your dog responds. Or your dog becomes accustomed to you coming home mad, and then what does a dog do? Well, a dog offers appeasement behaviors. We call those same signals 'looking guilty.' Maybe, at some level, dogs are capable of guilt and remorse, I don't know. But I do know when "the dog looks guilty," what we're typically seeing is a behavior described above rather than knowledge of what "I did wrong."


"If you use treats to train a dog, they'll always be needed to get the dog to obey your commands." This is totally not true - but what if it were....I mean how many of you work without pay? No matter, it's not true. Legendary veterinary behaviorist Dr. R.K. Anderson taught me years ago, that you wean the dog off treats intermittently and unpredictably.

Begin by rewarded the pup each time, not only with a cookie but also praise. That praise never needs to necessarily go away. Over time, begin to wean off the cookies - but offer them on a random schedule, one cookie every other time the behavior occurs, then every fifth time, then every eight time, then every other time. For starters, intermittent reinforcement is the most powerful reward.  Never knowing when you're going to get that reward is exciting!

Also, no one wants an overweight cookie fed dog, so eventually only offer the cookie on rare occasions. Instead continue to provide praise. Sometimes, people simply assume their dog knows something he or she doesn't yet know, or really never has...and also, remember, for some dogs toys are more motivating than treats.

Remember we KNOW dogs (and cats, and parrots, horses, doesn't matter)....learn using positive reinforcement methods far more efficiently than aversive training methods.


"Dogs chase their tails because they are bored." Actually...maybe. And might even chase tail  so for attention. Say the family laughed a few times when the dog chased tail, now the dog learns it's a way to receive attention (something most dogs are all about). There may be a physical explanation such as fleas or impacted anal glands. If it's a new behavior (tail chasing or anything else), see your veterinarian. Maybe the most important truth of this story - sometimes when owners read about behavior issues in my columns or elsewhere, they the assumption of a dog chasing tail is compulsive behavior or a bored dog is a good assumption. But it may not be the right assumption. Anytime, there is a change in your pet's behavior, see your veterinarian.

If the tail chasing can't easily interrupted by the owner, it may be a compulsive behavior. There seems to be a genetic predisposition in some dogs (the outlet of the specific type of compulsive behavior may even vary from breed to breed). Boredom may have indeed played a role in manifesting the behavior. But if a dog truly has a compulsive disorder, while increased exercise and enrichment to alleviate boredom are considered necessary, so may a psycho pharmaceutical medication.


"Any trainer can handle all behavior problems." Unfortuantely, some dog trainers who have no certification in behavior maintain they can deal with behavior issues, and even market themselves as behaviorists. In my opinion, that borders pretty much on being ethically wrong. they are NOT behaviorists. When you hire a behaviorist, ask about certification.

What's far worse are those trainers who then use antiquated techniques which are not science based, which no applied animal behaviorist or veterinary behaviorist would ever conceive of using. Using techniques, such as telling owners they must dominate their dogs  is actually likely to create more problems, and may even break the human/animal bond. Or trainers who want owners to make funny noises, physically roll dogs over or intimidate them in other ways. And try doing any that with a cat, and the relationship may be instantly over.

A bit different than Dr. Tynes' suggestions, I prefer this list of animal behavior certifications approved by the Association of Pet Dog Trainers.

Professional Designation Approved Organization
CPDT-KA - Certified Professional Dog Trainer - Knowledge Assessed Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers
ACAAB - Associate Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists Animal Behavior Society
CAAB - Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist Animal Behavior Society
CABC - Certified Animal Behavior Consultant International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants
CDBC - Certified Dog Behavior Consultant International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants
CCAB - Certified Clinical Behavior Consultant International Association for the Study of Animal Behavior
DACVB – Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists American College of Veterinary Behaviorists

What's really nice is when a certified pet dog trainer or certified member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants works with a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorist. Their combined expertise may be most beneficial. The other issue, there simply aren't enough veterinary behaviorists or certified applied behaviorists (the PhD's) to go around. With well over 150 million pets, there are plenty of professionals to go around, in fact there aren't enough...which is one reason why people without proper qualifications market themselves are "behaviorists." though they are not.

MYTH #10

"I don't have time for behavior cases." Dr. Tynes' story was authored primarily for veterinary professionals. For consumers my messages:

- Don't assume about any change in behavior, see your veterinarian and sooner than later!

- Bad behavior doesn't just disappear, don't be ashamed or embarrassed - you likely didn't do anything wrong, or at least not on purpose. Work together with a professional to improve the situation.

- I'm painting behavior issues with a broad stroke in this piece, briefly mentioning separation distress or fearful dogs (as examples); these dogs are not happy - why not make life better for them (and for your family in the process?)

- Help is available!!!!! (But be sure to ask your veterinarian about Qualified help).

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