5 Myths You Might Believe About Your Dog

 

 

There is a lot of misinformation out there.  Some of the things you might hear about dogs are steeped in old-wives-tales type tradition, some of it has been refuted only recently by scientific research.

Here are five commonly believed myths about dogs:

 

1. A wagging tail means I’m happy.

funny-dog-tail-happy

While a dog wagging its tail certainly can indicate happiness, you’ll need to examine the rest of the dog’s body language to know for sure.  The height of the tail, speed of wagging, and whether the tail is stiff or relaxed can also be indicators of the dog’s mood.

Here are some examples:

ydfarousal

An example of a dog in an “aroused” state.

 

In this example, the dog’s tail is wagging high and stiff.  Look at the rest of the dog’s posture:  he is stiff-legged, ears perked, staring hard.  This dog is in a state of arousal, meaning he is on alert, waiting to see if he should attack or relax.  This is not necessarily a happy dog.

 

An example of a dog in a relaxed/neutral position.

An example of a dog in a relaxed/neutral position.

 

Now look at this example.  Just looking at the tail, which is low and wagging slowly, you could easily think he is not happy.  But when you  look at the rest of the dog’s body language, you see a relaxed, slightly open mouth and relaxed posture.  This is a dog in a “neutral” state who is more likely to allow you to interact with him.

 
2. Dogs look guilty when they know they’ve done something wrong.

guiltydog

Oh, this is one of my favorite myths, because it is rampant all over the internet!  Just do a quick search for “guilty dogs” and you’ll get more examples than you could imagine!  Too bad it’s a myth.

Here’s the truth:  Dogs put on the guilty look when they know you are angry or upset.  This “look” and other behaviors such as grinning or lifting a paw are what are known as appeasement behaviors.  They are exhibited as a pacifying behavior when they see your facial expressions, body language, or hear your tone of voice.  What they are really trying to say is “You look scary, please don’t yell at me!”

For those that will insist their dogs know when they’ve done something wrong because “they look guilty before I’ve even found out what they’ve done”, those dogs have simply made an association that the change in the environment (ex. cotton stuffing on the floor) equals a person yelling.

 
3. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

The truth is, old dogs can learn new tricks, but often their humans have stopped trying to teach them new things!  Old dogs actually benefit from learning new games and commands.  Stimulating their brain in this way actually helps keep them mentally healthy, which is even more important as their physical abilities start to decrease.  Just be sure to use gentle positive reinforcement, and don’t force your old dog to participate if they don’t seem to be enjoying the activity.

 
4. Playing tug-of-war makes dogs aggressive.

dogtug

You may have heard this one, along with the idea that you also have to “win” the game every time to establish dominance in your “pack”.  Sorry, not true!  Recent behavioral research has not shown any evidence to back up these statements.

However, you do want to be sure that your dog learns good impulse control so that the game remains fun for everyone!  Teach your dog a “release” command and give positive reinforcement.  Also, behaviorists don’t recommend rough play with puppies and young dogs, as this could encourage the wrong kind of play as they grow into adults.

 
5. Comforting and petting a frightened dog will reinforce the fear.

scareddog

I’ll admit, this is one that I believed until not too long ago!  However, recent behavioral studies have also refuted this myth.  All dogs have different needs, and some benefit from a little affection when they are afraid or nervous.  So go ahead and give your scared pooch some gentle petting without a lot of fuss.

 

Which of these myths have you believed?  Are there any other doggie myths you’d like me to address?  Let me know in the comments!

Things You Should Know: The Signs of Anxiety and Stress in Your Dog

Do you know how to tell if your dog is under stress or feeling anxious?

 

When I ask this question, most pet owners will tell me that they see their dog:

Cower or hide under a chair

Pee or poop on the floor

Growl when afraid, but he would never bite!

These are certainly signs of fear, make no mistake.  However, the signs that the typical pet owner notices are usually the last in a series of attempts by your dog to avoid whatever is causing them fear or anxiety.  The signs leading up to these are much more subtle, but once you know what to look for, they will become apparent.

If you can recognize the early signs of anxiety and stress in your dog, not only can you help your pet relax before they go to the “dark side”, but you might just avoid a dangerous situation.  Dogs who are allowed to progress to the fear stages listed above are the ones who will either be permanently mentally damaged by that situation (leading to behavior problems), or they will bite. 

Allow me to tell you a story:

Once upon a time there was a cute little puppy who had never been to the big doggie park.  Her loving owners decided, when she was about 4 months old, to take her there so she could play and have fun!  When she arrived, there were so many smells and so much noise!  She stopped and sat down on the sidewalk, but her loving owners tugged on her leash and encouraged her to keep walking toward the park.

When they arrived at the gate, it made a really loud squeaking sound that hurt her ears! Her eyes widened, and she laid her ears back; she tried to avoid the big gate, but her loving owner picked her up and carried her through.  When they set her down in the grass, she was suddenly surrounded by big dogs!  They were sniffing her and running around in circles, panting and barking.  The puppy tried to find shelter between her loving owner’s feet, but her loving owner walked a few steps away.

The little puppy didn’t like the big doggie park after all.  And so she growled and snapped at the big doggies who wanted to meet her.  Her loving owner scooped her up – she was safe!  But then her loving owner scolded her, telling her she was a bad dog.  The little puppy was confused and scared, and from that day forward she hated the big doggie park.

Did you recognize the signs of anxiety and stress in the story?  The puppy in the story is a real dog, now an adult; she continues to have problems greeting other dogs, and she NEVER goes to the dog park.  Had her loving owner recognized her initial signs of stress, these permanent behavior problems might have been avoided.

Here are the signs of anxiety that you NEED to recognize in your dog:

  1.  Ears laid back
  2.  Wide eyes (“fish eyes”)
  3.  Brows furrowed
  4.  Panting (without being hot or thirsty)
  5.  Licking lips
  6.  Acting sleepy or yawning
  7.  Moving in slow motion
  8.  Hypervigilant (looking in many directions)
  9.  Moving away
  10.  Pacing
  11.  Suddenly won’t eat, even if they were hungry earlier

Start watching your dog for these signs.  I guarantee that you will begin to see them, and maybe even in situations that you didn’t know were causing your pet stress.  Once you become attuned to your pet’s body language, you can intervene early to help your pet relax!  If your pet experiences the signs of fear listed at the top, the damage is already done.  It’s up to you to be your pet’s advocate!

And here’s a handy-dandy handout for you:

Thank you to Dr. Sophia Yin for all her work in this field!

Thank you to Dr. Sophia Yin for all her work in this field!

 

If you need help understanding your pet’s body language, or realize that your pet already has some fear issues, give Dr. D a call!

 

Puppy Socialization vs. Vaccination: What’s the big deal?

Recent research has confirmed that early socialization of puppies (prior to 16 weeks of age) is very important and pivotal to helping young dogs develop a normal, healthy response to life.

 

DoraPuppy2

A new puppy owner might hear this information and be ready to eagerly pursue this early training, but then the puppy’s first veterinary visit occurs.  The vet might tell these new puppy owners that they should not expose their puppy to any dogs until they’ve finished their vaccine series, which ends around 16 weeks of age.

The new puppy owners are confused… how do they provide early learning opportunities to their dog while keeping them safe from communicable diseases?  It seems impossible.

Take a seat (if you aren’t already sitting), get your cuppa coffee or tea, and let Dr. D clear it up for ya.

First: A quick lesson in immunity.

When puppies are born, they inherit some protection from disease from their mother, depending on her exposure to disease or vaccination.  This protection is known as “maternal antibodies”.  Humans have those, too, when they are babies.

The maternal antibodies only stick around in the pup’s body for about 4 months.  When a puppy is vaccinated, his body tries to make its own antibodies to that disease.  Unfortunately, if his maternal antibodies are still around in high numbers at the time of vaccination, they will counteract the new antibodies and render them ineffective.

As the number of maternal antibodies decreases, the puppy’s immune system is more effective at creating antibodies after vaccination.  Since every puppy’s immune system is different, and we can’t tell when he’s making enough antibodies,  veterinarians administer a few boosters of a vaccine, typically every 3-4 weeks until that pup is 14-16 weeks old.  This vaccine schedule ensures that the puppy can develop his own immunity to a disease once his maternal antibodies are gone.

So what does that have to do with early socialization?

The concern about early socialization has been related to the puppy’s possible exposure to disease before he has the ability to fight it off.  If a puppy is socialized early, starting at 8 weeks of age, he has only had one vaccination.  One vaccination has not given him enough time to create a good immune response to the disease.  He needs at least 2 vaccinations, with no interference from maternal antibodies, to be safely protected.

And, there’s the rub.

What’s the answer to this conundrum?

Here is what we know:

  1. The single most important thing we can do to provide puppies with behavioral wellness is proper socialization during the critical developmental period (before 16 weeks of age).
  2. Behavior problems are the #1 cause of relinquishment to shelters, and over half of the dogs in shelters are euthanized.
  3. Canine parvovirus is the main disease risk associated with puppy socialization before the vaccination series is complete.  Though it is important to assess risk, it should be encouraging that only 2-8% of puppies may not be adequately protected from parvovirus until after their last vaccine at 14-16 weeks old.  In English:  The risk of your puppy getting parvo from a puppy socialization class is very low.
  4. The idea of “puppy class” is fairly novel.  Training facilities who provide genuinely safe opportunities for puppies to socialize are on the cutting edge.  They are progressive among their peers, therefore they are conscientious and often take every precaution to ensure your pup’s safety.

 

So, after taking all this into consideration, what do I recommend?

I believe in the power of early socialization for puppies, as well as ongoing training, to minimize potential behavioral issues later in life.  Behavioral issues such as destructive chewing, separation anxiety, house soiling, dog aggression, fear of humans, etc.  All the behavioral issues that can land a dog in a shelter.

I also believe that this early socialization is so important that the benefits outweigh the very small risk of exposure to disease.  Holding your puppy back until he is done with his vaccination series could seriously inhibit his ability to cope in normal, every day situations.

But I also want to make sure that new puppy owners are taking their pup to socialize in an appropriate place.  A well-run puppy socialization class is the best and safest option for this early socialization to occur.  Here are few things to look for in your puppy social class:

  1. A dog training facility or veterinary clinic with a solid reputation.
  2. Puppies are grouped together by age, and sometimes by size.
  3. Puppies are allowed off-leash and able to play-fight with boundaries.
  4. There is a protocol in place for sanitation and immediate clean-up of accidents.
  5. Puppies should be required to have their first round of vaccines at least 7 days prior to attending their first class.  You will also be required to continue and complete the puppy vaccination series.

Often you will find that during puppy class you will also get some bonus material, such as training tips, an education on dog body language and behavior, and information on other topics that are important to a new puppy owner.  These classes are extremely valuable.

puppies

 

Dog Parks, Pet Stores, and Other Cesspools of Disease

You might have been thinking this whole time that your puppy could just get his socializing done at the dog park.  You would be mistaken.

I do not like dog parks for young puppies.  Dog parks are not a controlled, safe environment for your young pup to learn healthy behaviors, healthy responses to stimuli, and how to properly interact with other dogs.  Not to mention that there are huge health risks involved – you don’t know if the other dogs are vaccinated or carrying intestinal parasites.  Wait until your pup is about 4-5 months old (after finishing the puppy vaccine series) before taking them to a dog park, and keep them under close supervision.

Also, if you want to prevent unwanted disease in your puppy before they are fully vaccinated, don’t take them with you to the pet store.  Wait until they are fully vaccinated.  You have no idea what’s been there.

So, what’s the next step for my puppy?

Find yourself a local puppy socialization class!  And don’t wait!  Don’t worry if you’re starting late; late is better than never.

Trust me.  You’ll thank me later.

DoraPuppy1

 

Looking for a great puppy socialization class in Broomfield, CO?  Check out this one at Rocky Mountain Dog Training!

 

Dr. D used the following resources to help write this article for you.  If you want more information, check ’em out!

AVMA PetCare Page on Protecting your dog, yourself, and others

DVM360 Article weighing risks vs benefits of early puppy socialization classes

AVSAB Position Statement on Puppy Socialization

Are Early Socialization and Infectious Disease Prevention Incompatible?