Doleful eyes, hunched body, drooping ears: Fido must be feeling sorry about something—right? Not exactly, according to Decoding Your Dog, a new book from the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. Drs. Debra Horwitz and John Ciribassi, experts in the field of veterinary behavior, write about what this look really means, and uncover nine more common canine myths, below.
Myth 1: When my dog looks guilty, it’s because he feels bad for doing something wrong.
When your pooch puts on that doleful look, he must be guilty of something, right? Wrong! Your dog knows you are angry or upset and is using that body posture to try in dog language to get you to calm down and avoid punishment.
Myth 2. My dog understands me when I talk to him.
While dogs can understand about 500 words and a very talented Border Collie named Chaser can understand thousands, when we talk to our dogs they focus in on a few words, our tone of voice, facial expressions, and our body language.
Myth 3: My new dog of the same breed will be just like my last one.
Just like two children from the same family will be alike in some ways, they can be completely different in others. So while Johnny and Susie both have blue eyes, one might be easy going and the other very stubborn. Two dogs from the same breed can be very different too.
Myth 4: My dog should tolerate anything my children do.
The reality is that young children often do not know how to interact with dogs in a caring considerate manner. Allowing children to sit on dogs, pull on their body, hit them with toys, disturb them while they eat may actually teach children the wrong lessons. Dogs are living, breathing, emotional beings that need to be treated kindly and with respect.
Myth 5: A fenced yard should be entertaining enough.
Our canine friends live in a very rich world of smells and visual input. The back yard is the same day in and day out. What dogs long for is the smell of a new scent, the chance to check out that next bush or tree and see the world. And when out in the yard all alone they can make bad decisions, become extremely territorial and threatening to others, or even become destructive or attempt to escape.
Myth 6: All dogs who are afraid of people have been abused.
While it is unfortunate that many dogs are abused, many dogs that show signs of fear or anxiety around people and places suffer from another problem: limited socialization. If a dog lives in a very restricted environment during their sensitive time of emotional growth (from 8 weeks to 9 months) they may not have the tools to process, interact, and enjoy new experiences as they come along.
Myth 7: Dog training works best if we rely on dominance and punishment.
Just like people, dogs learn best by humane treatment and showing them the right things to do. Dogs are at a disadvantage—they don’t know the rules of living in a human world. They are not out to dominate or control us, but rather don’t really know what is the right thing to do. It is up to us to teach them how to behave using positive training and kindness.
Myth 8: Dogs that destroy the house when home alone are being spiteful.
Dogs that go to the bathroom indoors bark and are destructive when home alone are most likely suffering from separation anxiety. They are unable to relax and be calm when separated from their human family. They need a behavior modification plan, treatment and perhaps medication to learn how to be home alone.
Myth 9: Dogs that growl and bite are mean.
Dogs that growl are trying to tell people that they are uncomfortable and afraid. What they really want is for the threatening thing to go away or stop. By understanding and respecting the message we can teach dogs the proper responses and diminish the need for aggressive responses.
Myth 10: Dogs and wolves are the same.
While dogs and wolves share a common genetic connection, that is where it ends. Dogs have evolved over thousands of years to be partners with humans and interact with naturally in ways that wolves do not even with extensive training. Two great examples: dogs can follow a human’s pointing gesture and often “ask” people for help; wolves do not without specific training.
Toddlers prefer dogs to cats, study finds, as authors say feline appreciation ‘needs time to develop’
Misty Harris, Postmedia News
At just three years old, children already see cats as playing second fiddle to dogs, suggests a new study of kids’ responses to animals.
Though the research sought to identify the facial features that most appeal to youngsters in pets – specifically, whether baby-like traits play a role – what inadvertently emerged was a picture of cats as underdogs.
Reporting in the journal Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin, scholars find children have a preference for cats with adorable, infantile features, versus cats that lack such qualities. Throw dogs into the mix, however, and the cats get left in the dust, regardless of either animal’s baby-like cuteness. “Children in our study preferred dogs over cats in every comparison, and regardless of their familiarity with this species,” said study co-author Marta Borgi, of the Istituto Superiore di Sanita in Italy. “The appreciation of less-popular animals like cats probably needs time to develop, and appears more dependent on their physical appeal and on our contacts with them.”
The study, co-authored by Francesca Cirulli, draws on 272 children, aged three to six, who were presented with forced-choice tasks pairing different types of images. For instance, an adult dog and adult cat, a teddy bear and a dog, a human baby and a kitten, and so on.
Overall, the kids preferred dogs to cats, although the likelihood of favouring a cat was higher among participants with a cat at home. In the cat versus cat comparisons, those with baby-like features (think big eyes and rounded, squishy faces) were preferred over those without, but the chances of choosing the latter increased with age.
Borgi said a yet-to-be published follow-up experiment, in which both children and adults judged the cuteness of animal and human pictures with manipulated facial traits (more or less infantile), similarly found “no effects of having dogs at home but a statistically significant effect of cat ownership.”
Taken together, these results suggest that children learn to appreciate less popular companion animals – in this case, cats – through age and familiarity. And if they resemble babies, potentially triggering a positive, nurturing response, all the better.
“In species whose young completely depend on their caregivers for sustenance and protection, (this) response has a clear adaptive value, contributing to enhance offspring chances of survival,” said Borgi. “What is interesting for us is the possibility that such a response may be generalized to the human-animal bond.”
It’s notable, for instance, that girls were likelier than boys to prefer a dog with infantile traits than a dog without them. Across all the children, however, researchers didn’t see the overall bias for baby-like dogs that was seen with baby-like cats.
Borgi believes the study sheds light on the most efficient ways in which companion animals can be selected for kids – especially those who have deficits in social domains (say, autism) and could benefit from pet interaction.
Steve Dale, Special for USA TODAY 7:07 p.m. EST January 5, 2014
Though they write for scientific journals, this is the first time veterinary behaviorists have written a book for the public. Experts address pet problems from jumping to fear of thunderstorms
When it comes to animal behavior, everyone is a self-professed expert.
"You must be the 'alpha dog' in your house, showing your dog who's boss," is one common misconception, say veterinary behaviorists.
That belief is not based in science, and it may even be downright dangerous.
Setting the record straight is one reason the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists has written the new book Decoding Your Dog: The Ultimate Experts Explain Common Dog Behaviors and Reveal How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones, out this week (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27). It's edited by two veterinarians who specialize in pet behavior, Debra Horwitz and John Ciribassi, and myself.
It might be that more dogs die as a result of perceived bad behavior than all cancers combined. When a dog has cancer or another illness, the human/animal bond is often intensified. But when a dog has a serious behavior problem — say the dog is barking non-stop and chewing on the baseboard when the family departs, with the landlord and neighbors complaining — the human/animal bond may fracture. When that happens, the pet may land in a shelter.
In fact, behavior may be the most common explanation for giving up pets, particularly young animals. Avoiding behavior problems, or having appropriate tools to deal with them, will save lives, which is the goal of this unique book. Though they write for scientific journals and books for veterinary professionals, this is the first time veterinary behaviorists have written a book for the general public. The 21 contributing authors offer science-based methods to deal with a wide array of problems, from dogs happily jumping up to greet guests at the door to dogs not so happily lunging at other dogs on walks.
Here are some of the book's nuggets of knowledge and advice:
Q: Do dogs bite their owners or other familiar people because they are competing for "alpha status"?
A: This is untrue. Most often dogs bite for defensive reasons that are not related to a social hierarchy.
Q: Do dogs get on sofas, rush ahead on walks or jump on people to be dominant?
A: Again, no. Dogs favor couches for napping like we do, because they are soft, and because they smell like their favorite people. Dogs rush ahead on walks because they're eager to explore the world, those smells are exciting, and people are too darn slow. Dogs are happy to greet people and like to jump because it's the only way to greet them face to face, and because they are beyond exuberant.
Q: Do dogs purposely urinate in the house or otherwise behave badly because of separation anxiety?
A: Like all behavioral problems, dogs with separation anxiety aren't being spiteful. They're not intentionally punishing you for your departure; they are just attempting to cope with your separation. Like many behavior problems, an appropriate diagnosis is most important.
Without veterinary input, people may assume the problem is separation anxiety, when the dog might be under-exercised and/or bored. Perhaps the dog is piddling in the house when you are away primarily due to an undiagnosed medical condition. Some dogs were never reliably taught to be home alone (despite what their owners believe). If this is a senior dog, has the dog "forgotten" house-training? Or does the dog actually suffer from separation anxiety? And suffer is the right word — these dogs are suffering. Often pharmacological intervention, combined with behavioral therapy, is most helpful and most humane.
Q: If dogs are anxious or fearful, do they need better training?
A: Fears and anxieties have nothing whatsoever to do with how well a dog is trained or intelligence. In fact, if you have a dog who is pacing (perhaps a dog is fearful of an oncoming thunderstorm), and you tell her "lie down," and she does, while she may no longer be pacing she may still be very anxious. Anxiety doesn't go away just because you're not seeing it. One of the most potentially damaging myths is the idea that a dog should be punished for anxious or fearful behavior. The idea stems from the beliefs that the dog is "being bad" or "trying to be dominant" by not listening when you try to tell the dog to stop a certain behavior (pacing, whining, etc.). Using punishment will only make the animal more anxious and fearful in the long run.
Q: So what can you do if your dog is afraid of thunderstorms?
A: Generally dogs who exhibit signs of anxiety during thunderstorms don't just "get over it." In fact, typically without intervention, the anxiety worsens over time. The following are among a list of tips that may help many dogs, but not all dogs, as one size doesn't fit all. Create a cozy place to "escape" the storm, offering a "zen" mood there with classical music. Plug in an Adaptil diffuser (which emits a copy of a calming pheromone). Also, potentially helpful is a body wrap called the Thundershirt. Some dogs can be distracted with games or tricks. Of course, close the blinds and pull the shades on windows. Ultimately, the most humane action may be medication, which lowers the anxiety just enough so the above suggestions (and others) can be implemented.
Q: My dog almost seems like he has Alzheimer's sometimes. What's going on?
A: Senior dogs can suffer from a condition similar to Alzheimer's disease in people, referred to as canine cognitive dysfunction syndrome. To determine if a dog has CCDS, the first step is a medical exam to rule out a medical explanation causing or contributing to the problem. While there is no fountain of youth, the good news is that old age is not a disease. Especially when discovered early, there are things that can be done to help slow the disease progress, including nutritional supplements, appropriate exercise and teaching an old dog new tricks.
Steve Dale is a nationally syndicated pet journalist, radio host and certified animal behavior consultant who has written numerous books.
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