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Dog training myths busted

With lots of new puppies and dogs on the block, all sorts of people have opinions on the best ways to train a canine – but it’s essential to only take advice from expert, trusted sources.

When it comes to training your four-legged friend, you may come across varying opinions on how to do it. Unfortunately, some of these ideas and ‘methods’ – from choke chains to dominance – are completely outdated. The best way to get training tips and advice to help dogs feel safe and comfortable in the human world is from tried and trusted sources such as Dogs Trust, PDSA and Battersea. These charities work with all sorts of dogs and use the latest thinking and techniques so that training is a positive experience for both you and your dog.

Dogs Trust advises: “Training your dog is an important part of being a responsible owner, because it can prevent unwanted behaviour problems developing. Through training, you can make sure your dog is rewarded for good behaviours that will enable them to lead a safe and happy life, including settling during quiet times, coping when alone, walking nicely on lead, coming whenever called, meeting people and other dogs calmly and having great manners around food.”

That’s why it’s essential to be aware of common dog training myths that canine behavioural experts would like to see consigned to the dustbin of dog training history.

Canine coach, Holly Leake, writing for Canine Principles, which provides online canine courses and workshops focused on canine health and wellbeing, positive reinforcement and force-free learning, says: “It is commonly assumed that all dog training is scientific and accurate, nevertheless, this is not the case and since the dog training industry is still unregulated, there are many self-pronounced trainers promoting training concepts that are complete myths.”


Myth #1 – Treats are bribery

Holly Leake says: “The myth of using food being equal to bribery, is a very common one and its often promoted by trainers that rely on force and intimidation, rather than behavioural science. Dogs learn through association, so if they learn a certain behaviour results in something pleasant, they will want to repeat it.”

Professional qualified dog trainers use food, toys, praise and play to reward specific behaviours to increase the likelihood of a behaviour being repeated, as Holly Leake explains: “Desirable treats increases the level of dopamine in your dog’s brain, thereby changing their emotional state. This creates a positive association and motivates them to stay engaged. Dopamine also helps to regulate memory, cognition, attention and behaviour, therefore, training with food is the most effective, kind and fun way to train your dog. Thus, it is certainly not bribery if your dog is eager to work and earn that reward.”


Myth #2 – Puppies are too young to learn

Dogs Trust states: “Dogs are never too young, or old, to start training. Because dogs are always learning, teaching a dog that certain behaviour results in good things happening means they’ll be more likely to behave that way again.”

Holly Leake says: “If we start training straight away, you can establish routines, house rules and what behaviour you want from your dog when they reach adulthood. This gives your puppy the best start and sets them up for success.”


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She also warns of the dangers of not introducing training during those first few weeks and months: “Puppies go through two fear periods in their first year; the first of which is around eight to 10 weeks and the second around six months of age. During these stages, they can be sensitive to new stimuli and develop phobias if kind training is not introduced. Secondly, once your puppy reaches six months of age, you are no longer teaching your dog how to behave and preventing unwanted behaviour, you are having to address and undo behaviour that is now ingrained. It is much easier to prevent unwanted behaviour than it is to address it.”

Battersea adds: “We see a lot of unruly young dogs aged between six and 18 months who have had no training as young dogs and have become too much for their owners to handle. A training class can help new owners take the right approach to training.”


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The best approach for dogs of all ages is positive association and repetition. Battersea advises: “Dogs learn by making positive associations. For instance, if your dog is always given their favourite treat when they sit, they will associate sitting with their favourite things. Repetition is key. In order to avoid confusion, any behaviours that you do not want your dog to repeat should be ignored. Instead, you could teach them a behaviour that you can reward. For example, a dog who jumps up for attention could learn to sit to receive attention as an alternative. Rewards come in all shapes and sizes, and it’s important to work out what motivates your dog.”


Myth #3 – Humans need to assert a dominant ‘alpha’ status

Canine behavioural experts agree that the dog/human relationship should always be a partnership. Decades ago, the ‘dominance’ theory formed the basis of much dog training. The theory assumed that dogs are motivated to achieve a higher social ‘status’ relative to other dogs or people in order to achieve control. The conclusion was that, to deal with a problem, dog owners needed to establish ‘dominance’ over the dog. Today, canine behaviour experts and trainers agree that the foundations on which this theory was based are flawed.


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Holly Leake reveals: “The myth of being the alpha is one of the most popular and arguably the most damaging myth to dog welfare. This myth originated from an old theory devised from studying captive wolves in the 1930-1940s, which was conducted by animal behaviourist Rudolph Schenkel. He hypothesized that these wolves were in continual competition with one another, as a means to seek a higher rank in the pack. He also claimed that only the aggressive behaviour of the alpha male, maintained order and kept the pack in check. However, these studies all used captive and unrelated wolves in an artificial environment, which resulted in unreliable and flawed theories.”


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Dogs Trust explains this further: “Unfortunately, there is an outdated but still widely believed theory, that all dogs want to be ‘dominant’ and therefore the owner must be the ‘pack leader’ to train their dog and prevent or ‘fix’ unwanted or problem behaviours. Being the ‘pack leader’ may involve such things as: eating before your dog, not allowing him to go through a doorway before you or sleep on your bed or sofa, not playing games of tug with your dog or tugging sharply on his lead if he pulls while out walking.

“The dominance theory was based on the behaviour of grey wolves, however, the studies were carried out on captive wolf packs that showed unnatural behaviour. Wild wolves live in family groups and go about their daily lives relatively peacefully without constant disputes over ‘dominance’.

“The problem with the methods used to reduce ‘dominance’ in dogs is that they can destroy the relationship and bond you have with your dog. From your dog’s point of view, you are loving and fun to be around one minute but then you are scary, confusing and even painful to be around the next. This undermines his trust in you, makes him confused and this can lead to him becoming nervous, scared and suppressing his personality as he struggles to find ways to please you without getting into trouble. He may even become depressed and withdrawn and shut down to the point he feels that life is not worth living and there is also the big risk that he may become so scared of people that he bites out of fear.

“Rather than trying to dominate your dog, we think it is much better to be a friend to him, train him kindly, interact with him, care for and accept him for the dog that he is. There is nothing wrong with providing some leadership to your dog, but remember that good leaders earn respect and trust through kindness and generosity, not force.”


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Canine expert and presenter of It’s Me or the Dog Victoria Stilwell states: “Dogs are not on a quest for world domination. They are not socialised wolves who are constantly striving to be ‘top dog’ over us, and they are not hard-wired to try and control every situation. Most canine behaviour problems stem from insecurity and/or a desire to seek and maintain safety and comfort – not from a desire to establish higher rank and be the ‘alpha’ over you. Therefore, teaching dogs ‘who’s the boss’ by forcing them into some mythical state called ‘calm submission’ is precisely the opposite of what they actually need in order to learn effectively and overcome behavioural issues.”

PDSA advises: “Your dog doesn’t need to view you as more dominant than them, but they do need to learn to trust you and understand your commands.”


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Holly Leake concludes: Dog training should be based on scientific fact and ethical principles, not personal beliefs that disregard canine welfare and development. Therefore, we owe it our dogs to weed out the falsehoods and use training that has their best interests at heart.”


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