Monday, May 9, 2011

What a Load of Bollocks!

Okay, I say that A LOT on the internet. But never have I come across a site that consolidates all the bullshit into a single page like this one does. And let me tell you, there is a TON of bullshit on this page. In most cases, when I run across a site with less-than-factual information, I just roll my eyes and move on, because if I posted about every single one of them, I'd do nothing but write blogs about all the things that are wrong on the internet. This one merits extra special attention.

Here's the site in question:

I'll give you a few minutes to read through all that (and have a good laugh, if you've done any research into ACTUAL dog behavior). Done? Good, then I'll get started.

I've already discussed at length why I hate the term 'Alpha Dog' a few posts back, which covers most of why the first paragraph is completely untrue. It's also completely ridiculous to link separation anxiety to a dog that 'doesn't know its place'. Separation anxiety, as its name suggests, is anxiety related to being separated from humans (or in some cases, another animal). Dogs with separation anxiety cannot bear to be away from their people, and show signs of great stress when they are left home alone or are otherwise parted from the family. It's not because they're insecure of their 'status', and the destruction caused by a dog with separation anxiety is largely due to the dog trying to get to where they think their humans are. Dogs that suffer from separation anxiety are not likely to rip apart the sofa cushions (that sort of destruction is most often due to boredom and too much energy), but they ARE likely to dig at baseboards, walls, windowsills, or doors- things they see as obstacles between them and their humans. Separation anxiety is often over-diagnosed among people looking for an explanation as to why Fluffy destroyed an antique Persian rug, but to a dog that TRULY has anxiety issues, playing "alpha dog" could be disastrous to that dog's mental state.

1. Walking IS a good means of exercise and bonding with your dog, and walking politely beside the walker is just good manners- but the rest of this point is pretty far off the mark. If the author had read anything at all out there about the way wolf packs or feral dog groups work, they would realize that no one individual leads ALL the time. Even among animals who DO have a strict hierarchy, the leaders rarely actually lead. Why? Because the safest place in any group formation is in the middle. I don't even know where the 'instinct to migrate' comes from. Even wolves have a home range, which can be large in areas where food and competition is scarce, but they don't often just up and move for no good reason.

2. Eating before your dogs might make you feel better, but it doesn't really mean anything to the dog. Again, in studies of wolves and feral dogs, leaders don't ALWAYS eat first. With wolf packs, while the parents (remember, that's all that "alpha" means these days- the breeding pair, or parents) are teaching their offspring to hunt, the pups are often allowed to eat their own kills without having to offer it to mom and dad first. Feral dogs are scavengers, and usually follow "Finders Keepers" rules. If there are two hungry dogs, and only one old hamburger, there may be a scuffle, and one dog will lose- but he sure isn't going to sit around and hope the winner tosses him a scrap. He's going to go sniffing in some other rubbish bin for something else to eat.

3. Table scraps shouldn't be fed to dogs because they can contribute to obesity, not world domination.

4. Schedules are also good, as some dogs are chow hounds who will gorge themselves if left an unlimited amount of food. That's not good for the dog, or for the owner's pet food budget. If a dog can self-regulate, though, there's nothing wrong with free feeding. Neither feral dogs nor wolves eat on a schedule either, if this author insists on comparing the two with pet dogs.

5. See the point above regarding where the leaders actually travel when in a group. Teaching a dog to wait at doors is not a bad thing- many a child or elderly person has been bowled over by a rambunctious large dog bolting through an open door, and many a dog has gotten lost or hurt because of the same lack of manners. But letting the dog go inside first doesn't give them any delusions of grandeur.

6. Some dogs will just as happily ignore YOU when you enter or leave a room. I'm not exactly sure what they think will happen if you scratch your dog on the head within 30 seconds of returning from the toilet, but I will assume it is BAD.

7. Again, these are just good manners. "Nothing In Life is Free" is a pretty popular training philosophy, and there's certainly nothing wrong with making your dog 'work' for treats. However, giving him a pat on the head without making him do every trick he knows first isn't going to send your dog on a spiral of delinquent behavior.

8. I'm pretty sure most people who have spent time around dogs have, at some point, witnessed a little dog tell a big dog to get lost. Some of the bossiest dogs I've met have been terriers and chihuahuas. If height determined 'who was boss', Great Danes and Wolfhounds would rule the world (either one standing on their hind legs is taller than the average human). Unless you have a rowdy dog who enjoys jumping all over you, there's certainly nothing wrong with laying on the floor together.

9. Another good manners habit a dog should have. Most guests don't appreciate being accosted by the dog the second they walk through the door. If the dog offers them hors-d'oeuvres before you can, though, you might want to worry about your role as host.

10. Gosh I hope none of the people following this advice have arthritic dogs or dogs who are prone to startle response. If I'm walking my dog in the park, encounter a fallen tree, and I go around it, does that mean I'm lower in the pack than the tree too?

11. Dogs thrive on contact, and yeah, some do get pretty excited at receiving hugs. Some don't like hugs very much, because they feel too restrained or restricted. It has nothing to do with being challenged and everything to do with the dog feeling smothered. Generally, grabbing a dog around the neck is a very threatening thing to the dog (remember that hugging is a human gesture, not a dog one), and THAT'S why some react negatively. Always a good idea to take it slow when attempting to give an unfamiliar dog a hug for the first time.

12. Eye contact is not always a bad thing. Soft eye contact, as one would expect from a dog focused on an owner in a training exercise, is actually a good thing. An obedience trainer WANTS a dog that will look at them, so they can more easily give hand signals or catch the dog's attention in a distracting environment. That's why "Look" is one of the first commands most trainers urge owners to teach their dogs. And there's just no good reason to attempt to stare a dog down. With a reactive dog, it's a good way to provoke a bite. Giving a calming signal (looking away) is not saying "walk all over me", but it is saying "I have no reason to fight with you"- and as the more evolved species, that's the message we should be offering our dogs.

13. You only have to worry if the dog starts protecting the bed/sofa/chair as his own territory, and trying to keep you off of it. A bed/sofa/chair-possessive dog is not a good thing (teaching the 'Off' command early on generally prevents this from happening), but if your dog is happy sleeping in the bed, and you're fine with that, by all means, let the dog drool all over your pillow.

14. Of course they shouldn't! Not because it makes them think they're 'boss', but because dog teeth hurt and no one likes to be mouthed/nipped/bitten. Bite inhibition is a VERY important thing for a dog to learn, and if owners are consistent with taking away play or attention whenever teeth touch skin, dogs will learn very quickly not to mouth during play.

15. Dogs seek human attention for a variety of reasons, none of which include plotting a forceful takeover of the household. Dogs as a species are very tactile- watch two friendly dogs together and you'll see a lot of physical contact from BOTH of them. They're not trying to 'one up' each other, they're just being friends. Same thing with a dog that comes over and leans on your legs or noses your hand. Giving in all the time may make a dog more demanding of attention (after all, dogs repeat behaviors that are beneficial to them, and attention, like a food treat, is a reward), but won't make you less of a leader by doing it every once in a while.

16. Same as above, no one likes a demanding dog. Play has very little to do with social hierarchy (even if social hierarchy DID determine a dog's interactions with people- it doesn't), so tossing Fluffy a tennis ball when she brings you one won't make her think you're a doormat. It might make her think you're an automated tennis ball dispenser, though.

17. This was pretty much addressed already with the bed issue. Of course territorial aggression isn't something that should be tolerated, and if you don't want your dogs on the furniture, train them to stay off it. Rigidly controlling the sofa isn't necessary, though, especially not for dogs who show no signs of territoriality over the furniture. Your dog's probably getting on the furniture without an invite while you're not at home anyway.

18. Tug is good exercise for dogs. If your dog understands the 'Leave It' command, it's perfectly safe to engage in a good game of tug without the risk of giving your dog a superiority complex. I'm definitely a supporter of having rules during tug, as some dogs do get over-aroused and take the game too far- kind of like that one guy who always had to turn gym class flag football into a tackle game. But don't worry if you give up and decide to stop pulling- your dog won't give you a wedgie when you're least expecting it just because he 'won' the game.

19. Yeah, dogs SHOULD be taught 'Leave It'. That's Basic Puppy Commands 101. But the reason behind it is for your dog's safety (in the event of picking up something dangerous, like chicken bones or rat poison) or the safety of your belongings (if Fido gets hold of an expensive shoe, for example).

20. This is pretty much the same as point 19. Guarding behavior SHOULD be addressed through desensitization training for the safety of people in the household. Guarding has nothing to do with social status, though- any dog can develop possession aggression, and the more an owner just walks up and takes something away, the more justification the dog has to hold on to whatever it has.

21. Teaching a dog to loose-leash walk is, again, a manners issue. Of course it's dangerous to let a dog drag you around, or let a dog go running up to strange dogs, or let a dog take off after a squirrel. I don't know how many times I've seen the word 'dominant' attached to a dog that just doesn't have any leash manners. Dogs aren't born knowing how to walk politely- they have to be taught. As long as the owner isn't getting dragged, though, it really doesn't matter if the dog is behind, in step, or a few paces ahead of the owner. As long as the dog is under control, there's no problem with letting the dog walk ahead. Can you imagine a foxhunt where the dogs run BEHIND the horses? Or a hunting dog pack that FOLLOWED the hunter? Yeah, pretty useless.

22. Another manners issue. Teaching a dog to sit politely for his food is certainly better than the alternative of being jumped on. It's also true that dogs are MASTERS at reading body language- they're far better at reading us than we are them, but they're NOT always looking for signs of 'weakness' or opportunities for advancement up the social ladder. Some dogs never do settle when food is in the picture, and I would hope this 'advice' isn't supporting the idea of withholding food indefinitely if the dog doesn't sit. Unmannered does not mean 'preparing a hostile takeover', it just means the owner hasn't worked with food bowl etiquette.

23. I think I've driven 'well mannered' into the ground by this point. I'm certainly getting tired of talking about it. Same with creating a demanding (demanding does not equal 'dominant') dog.

24. This is simply common sense. There are all sorts of ways a dog can hurt a child, even accidentally. Since 'maintaining leadership' has very little to do with who is biggest or strongest, children are capable of teaching dogs to respond to them WITH SUPERVISION, just as well as adults are. With humane, non-confrontational methods of training, dogs are far less likely to respond aggressively, so there's no reason at all that a child couldn't work with the family dog when teaching basic obedience (in fact, children old enough to understand what to do should be involved, since consistency is key).

25. Dogs have the cognitive capabilities of a 2-year-old child. When's the last time you successfully got a toddler to stay in one place for a full half hour? A dog who has been trained to Sit-Stay, or Down-Stay, can indeed do so reliably until it's released from the position, be it 30 seconds or 30 minutes...but what's the point? The answer is, there isn't a point. It's a useless exercise that creates unneeded stress when the dog inevitably fails.

26. In fact, it might be easier for you dog owners out there to become robots. This will prevent you from accidentally feeling anything where your dog might see. Robots are also harder to take control of, in the event that you mess up even one time and do something on this list, allowing your dog to enact the nefarious plan he's been concocting from the day he was born. If this sounds ridiculous to you, it should.

The long and short of it is, dogs are NOT out to rule the world. Or the household. If you spend every waking moment with your dog stressing about how you might appear to him and putting rules on your interaction and worrying that you might screw up, you don't have much of a relationship. I can't imagine having that sort of relationship with my dogs. They follow my commands because I teach them that there's a reward in doing so. I teach them manners not because I'm worried about them taking over but because, as with a child, manners are good to have. I give them affection and attention because we both enjoy it.

I'm a human, and with my gift of opposable thumbs, I control the resources (food, water, affection, and play). That makes me the default leader, and I see no reason to elevate a dog to human level (or more accurately, lower a human to dog level) because I have something to prove. I have to believe that these owners out there obsessing over these meaningless rituals, trying to imitate dogs, look pretty silly to their pets. It must be similar to dressing a chimp in human clothes- no one would mistake that chimp for another human, even if he's doing a fair imitation.

If people spent half as much time training their dogs as they do worrying about BEING a dog, the world would have a lot fewer behaviorally screwed up dogs.