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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.