Eight Common Myths in Dog Training

Before I delve into the training methods that really work, first I’ll shed some light on commonly held misconceptions about dogs to make sure we’re starting off on the same page:

1: Dogs are domesticated wolves, so you need to establish yourself as pack leader.

Truth: Have you ever heard that the surefire way to be a good dog trainer is to be the “alpha”? I did, years before I became a dog trainer, and even I thought it sounded reasonable at the time: dogs descended from wolves, and wolves supposedly live in hierarchal packs, so it made sense.

Actually, there’s little to no truth behind this idea. No one is arguing that dogs aren’t descendants of ancient wolves—they certainly are. However, dogs are not wolves, but unique animals predisposed to learn very advanced concepts from human beings. We likely first selectively bred today’s domestic dogs at least fifteen thousand years ago to cohabitate with us, provide companionship, and perform certain tasks such as hunting, herding, or alerting us when a stranger is near. To ignore the human influence in the domestic dog reflects a failure to acknowledge why the modern dog even exists at all. Yet many mainstream dog trainers seem to completely disregard this central point in favor of using methods that undermine the intelligence of our dogs.

Also, these trainers are basing their philosophy on an archaic understanding of wolf behavior that has been discredited by researchers who study wolves extensively.1 In the 1940s, animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel found that when wolves are forced into captivity, they fight for top status or what he referred to as the “alpha.” For decades, this concept reigned in the dog training world, and one of the world’s leading wolf experts, L. David Mech, discussed it extensively in his popular 1970 book. However, thirty years later Mech himself completely refuted the “alpha” wolf concept, so much so that he has pleaded with his publisher to stop printing that previous book.2 He had found, through his own extensive research, that the dog training industry was basing their teachings on a highly artificial situation. Yes, when wolves are randomly placed in confinement together, they do fight for resources; however, that happens only when these animals are in a very unnatural environment. “Wolves in the wild—the wolves that our dogs descended from—get to the top of their pack merely by maturing, mating, and producing offspring,” says Mech. “In fact, leadership roles are simply parental roles. The pack is actually a family social structure, a lot like human families.”

It baffles me that many mainstream trainers are still promoting ideas that have long been rejected by the very experts who study this topic most. Any training ideology that relies on your being a “pack leader” or an “alpha” instead of a loving parent to your dog is fundamentally flawed from day one.

2: Domination is the only way to get a dog to listen to you.

Truth: Real teaching is about communication, not domination. Our goal when teaching a dog should be not to make a dog do something by forcing her into submission, but to make a dog want to do something. Trying to dominate your dog by yelling at her, flipping her on her back in an “alpha roll,” or using certain collars designed to create discomfort or pain will only greatly hinder both your relationship with your pet and the training process.

I know this can be confusing because many well-known trainers promote such dominant techniques. However, what we are really communicating to a dog when we rely on these tools is: “If you do something I don’t like—even if it’s something that comes naturally to you, like walking fast or chasing a squirrel—I’m going to make you uncomfortable.” Such training focuses on teaching what a dog shouldn’t do rather than what she should do.

Can these methods be effective? If your definition of “effective” is getting mediocre results, then yes, to some extent they can be. I suppose if I thought I’d experience something unpleasant every time I walked a bit too fast, I’d obey too. But there’s a price to pay for this: your training will not be as effective and enjoyable as it could be for both you and your dog, and such tactics could even undermine your dog’s trust. Furthermore, your dog will not behave consistently when you take those special collars off or don’t use forceful methods. When you rely on an external device to get what you want, it’s simply a crude patch designed to combat the unwanted behavior rather than to emphasize good behavior. And when that patch isn’t there, dogs know the difference and often go right back to the unwanted behavior. It’s as though they think, “Oh, I’m not wearing that unpleasant collar now, so I can do whatever I want.”

Some people might argue that while positive training is okay for some breeds, other breeds need forceful, punishment-based training because they are aggressive, powerful dogs. Let me respond to that. First, while some dogs may be more challenging or have aggression issues, that’s definitely not specific to breed. The whole idea that certain breeds such as Pit Bulls have violent tendencies is completely false—when you hear stories of such dogs attacking other animals or people, it’s usually because either they have been trained to do so by a human or they have more serious underlying issues. Of course, if you have a larger dog, it’s particularly important to make sure she doesn’t lunge on the leash or jump up on people simply because she can cause more harm than, say, a Yorkie, due to her size. But that applies to any larger dog—from a German Shepherd to a Goldendoodle—and has absolutely nothing to do with breed.

Positive training works with virtually any dog. In fact, if you do have a dog with aggression issues, studies have shown that using forceful methods will likely make the behaviors worse. For instance, one study in the Journal of Applied Animal Behavior found that confrontational methods such as striking dogs, intimidating them, alpha rolls, and staring them down often led to an aggressive response.3 “In almost all cases, dogs are aggressive because they are afraid and feel threatened in some way,” explains Meghan Herron, DVM, DACVB, lead author of the study and director of the Behavioral Medicine Clinic at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine. “When you use confrontational methods, you are just making yourself more threatening and increasing your dog’s motivation to use aggression against you. It’s like fighting fire with fire.” What about the dogs who do seem to reduce their aggressive behaviors in the face of these methods? “Sometimes people can scare their dogs enough that the animals achieve a state of learned helplessness—they just sit and take it, even though they’re exhibiting signs of panic such as an increased heart rate and panting,” Dr. Herron explains. “Some of these dogs eventually lose this inhibition and their aggression comes back much worse than before, as though they’ve snapped. And for those who don’t, they remain shut down and often live in a state of perpetual fear.” I’d hope that anyone who thinks this is acceptable would strongly reconsider the way they approach teaching dogs.

3: Only puppies can learn new things.

Truth: Apparently this line of thinking has been around a loooong time: In 1534, an Englishman named John Fitzherbert wrote in The Boke of Husbandry, “The dogge must lerne it, whan he is a whelpe, or els it will not be: for it is harde to make an olde dogge to stoupe.”4 Today’s translation: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

I know that clichés often have a good bit of truth to them, but that’s definitely not the case with this one. I have worked with thousands of dogs, and I can attest that you can most certainly teach dogs of all ages just about anything. More than half the dogs I’ve worked with in my career were adult dogs, not puppies. I even had a dog in one of my basic training classes who was fourteen years old—he did wonderfully and passed with flying colors. And to this day, I enjoy teaching new concepts to my own dogs, who are all in double digits now. In fact, I recently taught Alpha Centauri to run outside, pick up a package from my front yard, and bring it back into the house. He doesn’t mind the rain like I do!

Bottom line: Dogs simply love to learn at all ages, and you should always continue teaching them new tricks and concepts to keep them mentally stimulated. No offense to Mr. Fitzherbert, but don’t buy into this old idea for a second!

4: Positive training means never disciplining your dog.

Truth: Just because you’re not forcing your dog into submission doesn’t mean you’re going to let her walk all over you. Positive training does include consequences for unwanted behaviors, but it’s very different from the aggressive methods of traditional trainers.

I have no problem with communicating that you do not like something your dog does. If you catch your dog getting into the garbage, telling her “No, don’t do that” in a calm tone and then removing access to the trash is very logical to me. Or, in the case of jumping on guests, removal from the environment for a few minutes in a good ol’ time-out can be very effective, too. The problem comes when you start saying “No!” a lot more often than you say “Yes.” If this is the case, then you are reacting to your dog’s actions rather than taking the appropriate initiative to teach her how you’d like her to behave. The goal is to show your dog the behaviors you do like so the emphasis is more on the positive. So after you remove the garbage and get your dog to sit and focus her attention on you, then reward the positive behavior. Follow through and go that extra mile! When you learn to snap into training mode and follow through like this, you’ll start to see a dramatic acceleration in your results.

Do I physically correct a dog from time to time? You bet I do, but only in rare circumstances. Here are the criteria I apply when putting my hands on a dog or forcing her to do something: Would I correct a three-year-old child in the manner I’m about to correct this dog? If not, then I don’t do it. Here’s an example: Let’s suppose I’m standing on a street corner with my dog on leash sitting next to me. Suddenly, there’s a distraction across the street and my dog attempts to run into the street toward it. I certainly will restrain my dog and walk away from the distraction abruptly, in the same way that I would grab a child’s hand and pull her away from something that put her in harm’s way. By definition, this is a physical correction. However, I limit physical corrections to when I’m preventing my dog from potentially being injured or causing harm to another being. Keep in mind, however, that a correction like the one I just described is a far cry from a restrictive, aggressive pop with a metal collar around a dog’s throat. There’s really no comparison.

Lastly, keep in mind that even the physical correction I just described is not ideal. As you’ll learn throughout this book, when you effectively prepare your dog for certain situations, then for the most part no physical correction will ever be necessary.

5: Once you use treats, your dog will never listen without them.

Truth: You can definitely wean off treats. However, people often expect that once their dog has demonstrated she understands a particular concept or trick with a treat, she should immediately start doing it without one all the time. That usually doesn’t work. If your dog refuses to do something without a treat, this likely means you have attempted to cut treats out of the equation too early and your dog doesn’t get it yet.

Your dog will certainly learn to listen without treats, but you’ll probably need to use them longer than you intuitively might think, possibly up to six months after she first learns a behavior. However, I’m talking about your dog knowing a skill completely. For her to do that, she’ll need a lot of repetition and have to practice under various circumstances. For instance, say your dog sits for you when you are home alone even if you don’t give her a treat; however, when you take her to a park where there are lots of distractions, she doesn’t. That’s because dogs don’t generalize well. In fact, the single biggest thing you can do to throw your dog off is to change her environment or other variables. When you do, you’ll need to reteach her that skill or trick in the new environment. Using a lot of treats or other rewards with sincere encouragement simply motivates your dog to do the behavior under a variety of circumstances those first several months, which is more important than insisting she does it without a treat right away.

Also, once you think your dog knows a skill completely, don’t just cut out the treats cold turkey. Instead, I recommend following the principle of intermittent reinforcement. You might notice that after first teaching your dog something new, a time when you should reward heavily, that you might be able to get a “free one” without treating. That’s because you are keeping your dog guessing—dogs really excel when you randomly reward, and the goal is to make sure yours can’t decipher a pattern—so you avoid a pattern by mixing it up. Perhaps give a treat for a particular behavior, then skip the treat the next two times your dog does it, and then treat three times in a row.

People may argue that using treats is bribery, but I promise you it’s not. Remember, one of the most important elements of my training program is learning how to communicate with your dog, and treats will help you do just that. They are a catalyst that helps keep your pet’s attention on you and encourages her by letting her know she’s on the right track. On top of that, researchers who have studied dogs’ brains found that while food does motivate dogs, they are also greatly influenced by social interactions with humans.5 I couldn’t agree more! While you still need the treats at first to ingrain the particular behavior you’re looking for, combining that with lots of love and genuine sincerity will only encourage your dog further. So my goal isn’t to get my dogs to sit when I ask them only because they might get a treat. I want them sitting because they are listening to me, respecting me, enjoying my attention, and trusting that I have their best interests at heart.

Truth: This one really gets me! Your dog is not attempting to initiate a coup when she jumps on you after you return from work. Look at her body language. Her ears are probably pinned back, her tail is wagging, and if she could talk, she’d probably say, “I missed you so much! Let’s go do stuff together!” I call this enthusiasm and joy, and I’m not really sure how this is so commonly confused with dog-to-human dominance.

6: Behaviors such as jumping indicate that your dog is trying to control you.

When dogs exhibit behaviors such as tugging on the leash or jumping on guests, it’s not because they are trying to assert dominance as part of their overall strategy aimed at achieving a higher status in the family. Also, doing things such as letting your dog through the doorway first, allowing her on your bed, and feeding her before you eat is certainly not going to make her think she’s now in control. These are ideas based purely on myths.

So what are behaviors such as excessive jumping or leash lunging really all about? I know that when dogs act out it almost always has to do with a lack of the kind of exercise that engages both the mind and body, like fetch or other dog sports. Here’s an example: I once worked with a dog named Lafitte, a very energetic dog who had the unusual habit of, well, lunging at and attacking full-size trees. Lafitte is no small dog, either, and when he did this it was a sight to see. I know that many trainers would simply say that Lafitte is a dominant dog, slap a choke chain on him, and yank away until he was defeated and exhausted. However, I figured Lafitte was a dog with a lot of pent-up energy who didn’t have a regular outlet to release it. While his primary person, Rachel, certainly tried, it was hard to keep up with his demanding needs all of the time.

Lafitte didn’t care about achieving dominance; he just wanted to do something, anything! Even if it meant that the best way to release some energy was to use the closest tree as a toy. Sure enough, after spending some time with him, in a single training session I was able to teach Lafitte the concept of not attacking trees. Rachel also started playing with him on a more regular basis and has reported that his behavior has improved greatly. I elaborate on the specific issue of leash pulling , but the bigger point here is that I taught Lafitte without trying to dominate him or cause him discomfort. I simply took the time to first understand why he was behaving in a certain way and then took steps to preempt that behavior by communicating in a way that encouraged him to listen to me.

7: Dogs can’t understand that much, so speak in very simple terms.

Truth: This is one of my biggest pet peeves. Most trainers advise you to keep your phrasing very simple and limit your requests to one word at a time. They say that dogs can’t understand all that much, so the fewer words you use with your dog, the better. There’s certainly validity to this when introducing a brand-new concept like “sit,” but there’s nothing wrong with evolving your language after the first few weeks of basic training. Saying “Sit down please,” “Have a seat,” or whatever else you want to say to your dog can actually help broaden her vocabulary. Personally, I love being able to interact with my dogs by using everyday speech.

Several studies have clearly shown that dogs can have a huge vocabulary, comparable to a toddler’s. Stanley Coren, PhD, a leading expert in canine intelligence and author of How to Speak Dog: Mastering the Art of Human-Dog Communication, among other titles, has found that the average dog can learn at least 165 words. Highly intelligent dogs can learn 250 words, or even considerably more. One Border Collie named Chaser holds the current known record, at more than one thousand words, and she most certainly understands some sentences and grammatical semantics.6 I know she’s an outlier, but her story shows that dogs are a lot more capable than most people think they are.

I can verify that dogs can understand simple sentences, provided you speak this way often. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t use one-word requests such as “sit” and “stay.” But you don’t have to always limit your phrases to one word at a time. You also don’t have to worry that you are going to confuse your dog—they understand slight nuances in language and context just as we do. My own dogs very clearly know the difference between “let go” and “let’s go.” Also, years ago when I used to perform with my dogs in stunt dog shows, I would say “Down please” to tell them to get off a platform they were standing on. This did not confuse them when I’d later ask them to lie down by saying, yet again, “Down please.”

There’s also no need to dumb down your grammar. If your dog is barking, for instance, you can abandon phrases such as “No bark!” Instead, use proper grammar by saying “Stop barking please,” and teach your dog your language as you would teach a young child. Feel free to speak in a way that comes naturally. You’ll be shocked by what your dog can understand.

8: You can teach your dog only one thing at a time.

Truth: Dogs are remarkably intelligent and capable of “walking and chewing gum at the same time.” Just like humans, your dog can process many concepts simultaneously. Of course, I’m not saying to go crazy here and expect your dog to master ten tricks or skills in one day. There’s a fine line between covering multiple concepts and confusing your dog. You’ll have to find that line with your own dog, but a general rule of thumb is between two and four simple tasks at a time.

As for me, I like to introduce the concepts of “sit,” “down,” “up,” and “stand” in the same training session with most dogs . That’s four things! You are not only encouraging your dog to multitask mentally, which is great exercise for her brain, but also planting the seeds for more intermediate or advanced skills down the road that require more than one step.

Most importantly, don’t think you have to completely perfect a concept before moving on to the next one. Many people assume they need to, say, master housetraining before they move on to basic training, as though it’s sequential. Again, I want to make sure that this is not your mind-set. While you’re housetraining your dog, you should work on other basic skills. Dogs want to work with humans, and by encouraging your dog to learn lots of things, you’re only speeding up her success.