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The 5 biggest dog training myths debunked by science
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The 5 biggest dog training myths debunked by science

Published: 19th June, 2022 at 16:00
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Does your dog know who’s boss? Does the wolf in him need taming? What’s the best way to stop bad behaviours? And when reaching for those dog biscuits, who, exactly, is training whom?

As the fields of animal behaviour, ecology and veterinary sciences continue to evolve, traditional ideas we once had about how best to train dogs are beginning to wobble. Pulling on the expertise of a range of scientists, here are five of the biggest dog-training myths, busted…

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Dogs want to dominate you

The idea that dogs spend every waking moment trying to usurp their human masters and become 'the alpha' in the house is one of the most pervasive myths in dog-training lore. The idea, first introduced by a wolf ecologist in the mid-20th Century, was later debunked after ecologists realised that the original observations of dominance behaviours were based on captive wolves (unrelated to one another) kept in a zoo enclosure.

By the time ecologists had righted the error, the idea was firmly rooted in dog training circles, many of whom continue to promote so-called “dominance theory” when working with dogs.

“It’s hard to know how long it will take to wash out of the dog training community,” wild carnivore biologist Gabi Fleury told me in my book on the subject, Wonderdog.

Treats are bribes

Dog being given a treat
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“I’m especially irritated by the idea that treats are a form of bribery,” says Madeleine Goumas, animal behaviour researcher. Misgivings like these are based on the hard-to-budge idea that dogs should follow requests out of respect rather than by seeking rewards.

“Why should we expect our dogs to repeat behaviours without reward once they have learnt them?” say neuroscientist (and dog-lover) Alice Gray. “I’m paying my dog for their hard work – with treats or play or praise!”

You can't teach an old dog new tricks

Adult dog being trained
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Even I fell for this one. Once our pup reached adulthood, I considered his training regime to be somehow completed. Not at all. The truth is, training is a long-term thing – something that needs reinforcing again and again. Thankfully, through games on walks, we have made training part of our daily routine.

“This is especially important for recall and walking to heel, which are important for the safety of the dog and other people, as well as wild animals,” says Dani Rabaiotti, wild dog researcher.

You have to be the bad guy sometimes

Puppy pulling on the lead
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“Many dog trainers still rely on punishments to get the behaviours they want, but positive rewards work much better,” argues Nicola Clements, animal welfare researcher. Indeed, reward-based training can correlate with greater obedience and a closer human-canine bond, when compared with punishment-led training. It can also help dogs learn new tricks more effectively.

“There’s this popular belief that you need to act like a really mean person when training your dog,” says evolutionary biologist (and dog-lover) Ben Garrod. “You don’t. You just need confidence and continuity, with lots of patience.”

There is only one way to train a dog

In the 1950s and 1960s, long-term behavioural observations of dogs reared in different conditions showed how their personalities in adult life could be influenced both by genetic components (linked partly to breed) and through life-experiences, particularly during puppyhood.

“This means that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all" when training dogs,” says ecologist Charlotte Dacre. “Without wishing to anthropomorphise, every dog has a ‘personality’ that every trainer needs to be mindful of.”

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Those seeking specialist advice on how to train their dog should turn to their vet for advice or seek help from an accredited animal behaviour expert (www.abtc.org.uk).

Wonderdog book cover

Authors

Jules Howard is a zoology correspondent, naturalist and author of more than 10 books including The Wildlife Pond Handbook. He writes for a number of publications including The Guardian, Science Focus and BBC Wildlife Magazine.

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