Myths and Legends

I’m going to be blunt: there’s a lot of rubbish out there about how to correctly treat and raise dogs. And it’s generally the same rubbish! I hear the same things repeated from client to client, person to person. Much of my job involves dispelling the myths that people believe about their dogs. I will discuss the most common myths that I hear from dog owners and shed some light on the truth of each, and hopefully the word will be spread so that all people can become better dog owners.

-“It’s too late to change my dog’s behaviour; he’s too old.” – The saying ‘old dogs can’t learn new tricks’ is completely false. Behaviour modification works in dogs of any age.

-“She should have her first heat/litter before she’s spayed.” – In actual fact, female dogs should be spayed before their first heat. Spaying prevents or eliminates the risk of certain health problems such as cancer and uterine infections. You may think it’s a good idea for a dog to have a litter, either because it’s ‘good’ for her or because your children should see the miracle of birth or simply because you want to. Leave breeding to the breeders; it’s not as simple as just allowing a dog to mate. Also, millions of dogs are euthanized every year because there are not enough good homes for them so it is not fair or moral to bring more dogs into the world

-“If I walk my dog every day he’ll get fitter and have more energy to be naughty.” – Indeed, your dog may become fitter and healthier, but he’ll also be more relaxed and content if he is walked regularly. Walking actually prevents or lessens many behavioural problems.

-“Two male dogs will fight, but two females won’t.” – Having two female dogs is just as likely to result in aggression as having two male dogs. It is usually best to obtain dogs in a male then female (or vice versa) order to diminish the likelihood of gender-related aggression.

-“My dog is sexually frustrated: he/she humps the other dog and people’s legs.” – Firstly, both male and female dogs may become ‘humpers’. Secondly, this usually has nothing to do with sex. Dogs hump each other and people as a way of displaying their dominance.

-“If I sterilise my dog they’ll become boring.” – Sterilisation should not alter your dog’s personality in the slightest. They may become calmer, but they will not turn into a different dog and they will definitely not lose their individual character.

-“If I sterilise my dog they’ll become fat.” – Sterilisation can slightly slow a dog’s metabolism. However, if your dog is being fed the correct amount of food and receives regular exercise, they will not get fat. Dogs get fat because they’re fed too much, not because they’ve sterilised.

-“If I sterilise my dog he’ll be useless as a watchdog.” Not true. Sterilisation does not affect guarding ability. In my experience, sterilised dogs are better watchdogs than unsterilized dogs.

-“I have to walk my dog on a harness otherwise he pulls too much.” – The harness gives the illusion of control because you’re connected to the dog’s entire body. Here’s the tricky part – harnesses were designed for sled dogs; they were designed to allow and encourage dogs to pull. Your dog pulls just as much on a harness as they do on a collar, probably more so in fact because it’s easier for them to pull on a harness. You have more control over your dog when you walk them using just a collar. The problem is not the collar – it’s how you’re walking your dog.

-“My dog knows when she’s done something wrong; she looks worried or hides.” Not true. You have about 2 seconds to discipline your dog when they’re doing something wrong because dogs live in the moment. After that, you’re disciplining whatever they’re doing in that moment. Dogs may appear ‘guilty’ but they’re actually just nervous, either because they can sense your frustration or anger, or because they know that they get disciplined randomly.

-“I can’t discipline my dog because he gets upset.” – Simply, you’re disciplining your dog incorrectly, or you’re transferring your guilty emotions onto your dog. Discipline should not upset a dog – it’s used to correct behaviours, not punish them. If your dog responds negatively to discipline, you’re probably doing something wrong.

-“My dog licks her lips when she sees another dog; she wants to eat them.” – Dogs lick their lips when they’re unsure about something. It’s a sign of stress or anxiety; not a sign that your dog wants to eat another dog.

-“My dog thinks that cats/small dogs are rats and he tries to hunt them.” – I can assure you that your dog knows the difference between a rat and a cat or small dog. They all have very specific smells that your dog understands. If your dog is hunting cats or small dogs they have very high prey drive and will chase any small animal, regardless of species.

-“My dog is racist. She hates black/white/Indian (etc) people.” – Your dog is not racist. She can differentiate between different ‘colours’ of people, that’s true. But she may not be comfortable around certain races because she has not been socialised with them, has had a bad experience with them or is reacting to your feelings about them.

-“My dog doesn’t have anything to be stressed about – she’s got the life!” – This is the one that really gets me because almost every dog I see is suffering from stress. Dogs have plenty to be stressed about: they’re effectively prisoners at our mercy. If you were locked in a house all day with nothing to do, fed once a day, randomly showered with affection and then randomly disciplined, and only occasionally allowed out into the world, you’d be stressed too. A dog is an intelligent and emotional being that can suffer from stress and frustration very similarly to us. They have needs, both physical and mental, that must be addressed to ensure that they are not stressed.

These are just a few of the myths out there. The most common relate to sterilisation and an underestimation of a dog’s mental and emotional faculties. Make sure that you are thoroughly informed about your dog and how you’re raising them. If in doubt, contact your vet or a dog behaviourist.

Katherine Brown BA HONS PSYCH (UJ)

Dog Behaviourist

Copyright Katherine Brown 2011