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Myth Busters: Separating Fact from Fiction in Dog Behavior

Dogs have been living with humans for thousands and thousands of years. Many of us have dogs that live in our homes, share our lives, and develop close relationships with us. We think we know them, but do we really?


There are many myths about dogs and dog behavior. While these myths were perpetuated before the internet, the ease of communication and spread of information that the internet provides has made them more prevalent. 


Some of these myths are harmless, but unfortunately many of them can cause damage to our relationships and to the dogs themselves at times. Misunderstanding a behavior can result in unfair treatment of a dog, or making assumptions that just aren't true and placing the dog and/or the other humans in danger.


Below are the most common myths about dog behavior that have the potential to do more harm than good.



A wagging tail means the dog is happy or friendly


While a dog’s wagging tail CAN indicate the dog is happy, it can also indicate the dog is anxious, frightened, excited, defensive, or even aggressive.  I always use the example of my dog Whimsy who has chased a squirrel up a tree, and is looking up and barking, while her tail wildly moves back and forth. A squirrel who thinks a wagging tail means she’s friendly wouldn’t live long. 


We shouldn’t gauge a dog’s mood by whether the tail is wagging or not, as that isn’t always a reliable indicator. While the position and speed of the wagging can give us some information, it isn’t always reliable because it may depend on what is normal for that particular dog. For instance, a Pomeranian normally carries its tail curled over its back, while a Whippet typically has a tail that sits just behind its back legs. Some dogs have a wide arc of tail wagging, while other dogs wag their tail a bit more subtly. 


Instead we need to look at the body language and behavior of the dog to get an idea of what the dog may be feeling. I wrote a blog post on dog body language with a fun quiz if you’d like to learn more about how dogs communicate. 


graphic with dog jumping on a tree trying to get squirrel


Don’t comfort a frightened dog or you will reinforce their fear


Unfortunately this particular myth leaves many dogs to experience fear without being able to go to their person for reassurance. 


When B.F. Skinner came up with the learning theory of Operant Conditioning, he defined “reinforcement” as a consequence that results in a behavior being more likely to occur. Note the word “behavior”. Fear and anxiety are emotions, and not behaviors, therefore not able to be reinforced. 


You may be thinking that those emotional states come with behaviors, otherwise how would we know the dog was afraid? Typically fearful behavior is not something an animal chooses to perform. As a matter of fact we know that when an animal is frightened the part of the brain controlling reasoning and judgment becomes impaired. In other words, the behaviors are symptoms of the fear. If we remove the fear, the behaviors associated with that emotion will go away. 


Additionally, dog trainers and behavior consultants use treats and play to counter-condition fear responses all the time. If a dog is afraid of men a common protocol is to give the dog a treat every time they see a man. Over time the dog starts to anticipate seeing a man with getting a treat, and the emotional response will change from fear to neutral, or even a feeling of joy.


We also know from studies that animals that are stressed can benefit from social support by stress reduction and developing better coping skills. 


So go ahead and comfort your dog when the thunderstorm moves in. Better yet, have a play session or treat party every time you hear a boom. 


dog snuggling with person


A dog’s behavior is all in how they’re raised


This way of thinking totally discounts the impact that genetics has on personality and behavior. If genetics was irrelevant when it comes to behavior and temperament, then we should be able to teach a cocker spaniel to herd sheep as effectively as a border collie. 


The fact is that when dogs are born they are not a blank slate. The possibilities of who they will become are encoded in their DNA. 


Additionally, the development of the brain is also impacted by such things as the experience of the mom dog when pregnant, and the experience of the puppies during the period between birth and when they go to their new families. We know that toxic stress during these times is more likely to impact animals negatively and make them more likely to be fearful and anxious adults. 


Of course a dog’s temperament isn’t just affected by nature. Nurture has a role to play as well. But we can’t discount that genetics and developmental experiences may limit just how much behavior can be modified. 


One of the reasons this particular myth bothers me so much is that I know many people  that did everything correctly and still ended up with dogs with serious issues. I include myself in that group! To make the statement “it’s all in how they’re raised” is insulting to people with dogs that have stranger danger or dog reactivity despite having properly socialized and trained from the time the puppy came to their home. 


It can go the other way as well. Having worked in an animal shelter, I saw many animals that were taken from hoarding or neglectful homes that seemingly came through it relatively unscathed. Good genetics was able to cause them to be resilient in the face of adversity. 


Litter of puppys


He knows what he did was wrong 


Picture this. You come home to find that the kitchen garbage was knocked over, and there’s garbage strewn all over the room. When you look at your dog he’s got his tail tucked, ears pulled back, is crouched down to the ground, and avoids eye contact. 


Many times people call this a “guilty look”. Dog trainers would call this appeasement behavior, or even a fearful response. It doesn’t mean the dog feels guilty, it means the dog is worried or even frightened at your reaction. 


Dogs are extremely good at reading our emotions. Even if you haven’t yet said or done anything, the dog will read your body language and facial expression. They may even be able to sense a change in how we smell when we’re upset or angry. 


A study on “the guilty look” found that this response happens in dogs when scolded by their owners whether the dog actually performed the unwanted behavior or not. 


But what about the dog that greets you at the front door with that behavior before you’ve even discovered what happened in the kitchen? It’s very likely that the dog has been scolded in the past after garbage was found on the kitchen floor. It’s not that the dog knows as he’s getting into the garbage that it is wrong, but that the dog has made an association that when there is garbage on the floor they will get yelled at. It’s very likely that if you spread garbage on the floor yourself that your dog would have that same reaction. 


nervous dog


Conclusion


Busting these common myths is key to avoiding misunderstandings that could mess things up for both dogs and their human buddies. Whether it's thinking a wagging tail only means a happy dog or assuming behavior is all about how they were brought up, these myths can throw us off.


Let's ditch the idea that comforting a scared dog reinforces their fear. Proving comfort and even pairing the trigger with treats and play can lessen those feelings.  Understanding that genes and life experiences both play a role in a dog's personality challenges the idea that it's all about how they were raised.


By putting these myths to rest, we're hoping to encourage a more understanding approach to our canine family members. Dogs, with their unique personalities and backgrounds, deserve to have their people truly understand them. 




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