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Top 5 Behavior Myths

By David Sanders

 1.) “Fido's tail is wagging - he must be happy.”

A dog’s tail indicates his arousal level to a certain stimulus or environment. When his tail is wagging, it does not necessarily mean he is happy. Dogs operate under three basic states of emotion…

1.) Confidence
2.) Insecurity
3.) Fear

With these simple states of emotion come varying levels of arousal from calm hyper-active. Misinterpreting the psychological and communicative function of a dog’s tail will most likely lead to unwanted behaviors such as submission urination, increased fear and displaced aggression. Sadly, negative consequences usually follow this misunderstanding, thus, impeding the learning process. Interestingly, canines with cropped, curled or short tails can have a tougher time communicating their emotional state with humans as well as other dogs. The wagging of a dog’s tail is the most visible indicator on how your dog is feeling about the world around him. The higher the tail’s elevation and faster the movement, the higher the arousal level. This is not necessarily a good thing.

The next time you see a police dog in action, watch his tail when he’s biting the business out of an assailant; one might say he looks pretty happy. The fact is, he is in a high state of confident arousal. In a domestic situation, when an untrained dog is this highly aroused, removal of the stimulus or the dog itself is necessary for everyone’s safety until desensitization training can be implemented.

2.) “Fido just attacked without warning!”

Most dog bites occur when humans are focused on what they want to do, rather than how the dog is feeling about the situation. Not paying close enough attention to the subtle intricacies of your approach, a dog’s facial expressions, stance, gaze, and arousal level can also lead to a bite. If a dog is able to turn and bite in a split second that means something was in his personal space. He could bite out of fear, a new environment, social dynamic or territory and resource guarding. I’m sure you all remember the Colorado journalist who was bitten in the face by a Dogo Argentino. Take a moment to watch the video again; notice the owner’s nervous energy as he abrasively pets his dog. The Dogo was showing clear signs of stress; his ears were back, he was panting, licking his lips and trying to look away. He even gave the journalist a warning nip that she unknowingly ignored. The tell tail signs and precursors for aggression are…

1. Stance: The dog will stiffen up, stick his chest out, lean forward and try to stand over the other dog.
2. Gaze: A direct stare with a low growl, or wide eyed and looking away.
3. Ears: They can be either up, to the side, or back depending on the dog’s level of fear.
4. Mouth: Lips move forward then the teeth are shown.
5. Tail: If he has one, it will be erect with swift whipping movements from side to side or tucked under his legs. 
Sometimes a dog may be sitting or laying down when he decides to bite so his tail may not be in a position to interpret. Therefore, it is imperative to understand all of his facial indicators. Medical issues that cause pain can also lead to unsuspected aggression, so it is also very important to rule out all health conditions before beginning a training regiment.


3.) “Fido must have been abused.”

Not every dog in the shelter has been abused. Owners pass away, dogs bolt, people lose their homes or neglect socializing their pets. If a dog exhibits a fear of cars, skateboards, bicycles, certain people, brooms or vacuum cleaners, it does not necessarily mean he had a bad experience. If he has never ridden in a car before or seen a large man, he may display the same reaction as if he had been maltreated.

Desensitization through positive associations are the key to overcoming fear aggression. Avoid flooding or trying to force the dog to accept the stressful stimulus. It’s all about building his confidence and finding the right distance he will acknowledge whatever he is fearful of while maintaining focus on you. This is called the “behavioral threshold.” Once you are able to calmly redirect your dogs attention to something positive, you can systematically move closer one step at a time. This may take some time so be patient.

4.) “That dog is mean!”

If an only dog is not socialized between three weeks to three months of age, his ability to bond with people and other dogs may be impaired. Dog trainers call this the “Fear Imprint Stage.“ If a puppy has a traumatic experience or no experiences at all, it can alter his psychological development and emotional state for the rest of his life. After about seven weeks, the neonatal period ends and the puppy begins to become acutely aware of his environment. Everything is new and must be investigated. This is also the time when the puppy becomes most impressionable and can develop negative associations. If his first grooming experience is a horrifying one, for example, the groomer accidentally cut his nails too short making them bleed, or nicked his ear and handled him too roughly; he could have a life long distrust for similar situations without behavior modification. Exposure to a multitude of stimuli and environments with positive experiences and rewards are essential to a confident and well socialized puppy.

Aggression is a natural behavior, every dog has this capability. In the wild, aggression is a part of survival. Animals fight over food, territory, and the right to mate. It is only because we have domesticated these animals, they are expected to control their natural impulses and learn new ways. If we do not take the time to teach our pets what we expect of them, they will most likely act on their own accord, jeopardizing their safety and everyone else around them.

5.) “All dogs can be rehabilitated.”

 While most dogs under the guidance of an experienced trainer can overcome serious behavioral issues with extensive behavior modification. Unfortunately, there are some cases where the dog cannot be trusted. If a dog has viciously attacked or killed another dog, even after thousands of dollars of training and countless hours of interactions without incident, there is always a chance that he could revert to old behaviors. DO NOT LEAVE A NEW DOG ALONE WITH CHILDREN OR OTHER DOGS. When a dog is put into a new family dynamic it can be a very anxious situation. Hierarchal positions, resources, and territories need to be re-established. Without trust, positive relationship building, and strong directional leadership, conflicts are eminent. Almost every child dog bite occurs when a child is unsupervised or the adults fail to see the warning signs. Allowing a child to “do whatever he wants“ to your dog is setting them both up for disaster. While Fido accepts having his ears pulled and being petted roughly, he is only tolerating it. What happens when little Timmy does the same thing to the neighbor’s Cocker Spaniel? That’s right, Timmy gets bitten in the face and now the neighbor’s dog is facing euthanasia.

Teaching our children how to behave around animals is the most proactive measure one can take to avoid a potentially life threatening situation. Millions of dogs are euthanized every year because their behavior is not understood. Knowing and understanding the intrinsic nature of our pets and how they communicate, will help you and your four legged friend develop a life long relationship that goes unparalleled.

By: David Michael Sanders
Certified Canine Obedience Instructor
Animal Behavior College


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