We all start dog training with the best of intentions. Nobody wants to make their dog fearful in the process. However, many dog owners, trainers, and even veterinarians still subscribe to common myths about dog training that can contribute to fearful behaviors. Here are three of those myths, the reality behind them, and some suggestions about how you can do better.
Myth: Dogs need to be dominated in order to make them submissive and obedient.
Reality: Despite what you may have seen on TV, dogs aren’t really wolves, and most undesired behavior isn’t about who’s in charge—it happens because we accidentally reinforce the behavior (usually without even realizing it). Using dominance theory to train dogs means repeatedly threatening the dog with physical force. Some dogs respond to these techniques aggressively—not because they’re trying to be dominant, but because repeated threats are frightening.
Best Bet: Don’t dominate, LEAD. Use positive techniques to reward appropriate behaviors. Reinforce these behaviors with resources your dog loves (treats, toys, etc.).
Myth: Puppies shouldn’t go out in public until they’re fully vaccinated.
Reality: Puppies’ resistance to some infections relies on proper vaccination, but–and this is a huge “but”–the risk of infection needs to be weighed against the dangers of not socializing a puppy during the important period between 4 and 14 weeks of age. Since most puppies arrive in their new homes when they’re 7-12 weeks old, we don’t have much time to expose them to as many pets, people, sights, and sounds as we can while they’re most receptive to new experiences. Careful socialization is critical for preventing fears that can last a lifetime.
Best Bet: Ask your vet to help you find a safe balance between preventing infection and reducing the risk of fearful behaviors related to inadequate socialization.
Myth: Dogs need to be corrected for inappropriate behaviors.
Reality: When it’s used in relation to dog training, “correction” is a socially acceptable word that really means “punishment.” Punishment can be an effective way to modify behavior. The trouble is that punishment has to be delivered at just the right intensity and just the right moment every time a behavior occurs to eliminate the behavior. That’s a pretty tall order. Punishment teaches that there are negative consequences to the “wrong” behavior, but it doesn’t teach the “right” behavior. Used as a first-line training technique, even punishment that doesn’t seem particularly harsh or painful can make dogs fearful of doing the “wrong” thing.
Best Bet: Don’t try punishing undesired behaviors until you’ve mastered the art of rewarding good behavior. Like punishment, positive reinforcement works best when it’s delivered consistently and with good timing. Unlike punishment, however, imperfect positive reinforcement won’t contribute to fearful behaviors.
Would you like to learn more about dominance, socialization, and punishment? Visit the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior’s Position Statements and Handouts page.