Stop fake news! Debunking pet behavior myths

December 23, 2018
Julia Albright, MA, DVM, DACVB

Dr. Albright is an assistant professor of veterinary behavior and PetSafe Chair of Small Animal Behavioral Research at the University of Tennessee's College of Veterinary Medicine.

Does Max know hes been naughty after pooping in the house? Will socialization in the dog park cure Daisys anxiety? Set the record straight with your veterinary clients by correcting some common misconceptions.

While it's tempting to ascribe all kinds of domestic dog behavior to their descendance from wolves, such thinking is often erroneous and can harm the human-animal bond, says Dr. Julia Albright. (Cloudtail/stock.adobe.com)Let's talk about fake news. Not the political stuff cluttering up your social media feeds, but the kind surrounding canine and feline behavior. False behavior beliefs come from many sources: misguided TV “experts,” conversations at the dog park, online message boards, and simple urban legends that have been handed down for decades. Correcting these myths with your clients (gently, without shaming) can go a long way toward enriching the bond between pet and owner. Let's take a closer look.

Myth 1: Dogs are little wolves

The myths and misconceptions surrounding canine origins, social structure and communication are the stuff of legend-great for movies and television, not so great for your patients and their owners. Yes, dogs are descended from the gray wolf, but the domestication process has drastically altered canine genetics, resulting in a creature unique from any other canid species.1

For one thing, dogs don't form packs like wolves-the word ecologists use for alliances of dogs is actually “groups,” and the ties are much looser and more transient. Dogs also rarely hunt cooperatively like wolves, and they can digest starch, something wolves can't do. And finally, dogs don't raise their young together, with the alpha male and female breeding while everyone else plays a supporting role.

So the “experts” who talk about dominance and pack hierarchy being at the root of all dog behavior are just wrong. When humans try to assert dominance through actions like “alpha-rolling” or physically forcing the dog down, we aren't mimicking natural relationships but likely scaring the dog, conditioning an aversion and increasing the risk of a bite. A structured human-animal relationship can successfully be formed through nonconfrontational methods, such as teaching the dog to say “please” by sitting.

Myth 2: Dogs are little people

The human-animal bond is equally at risk when we assume animals think like people, especially when we believe they feel guilt or remorse about past actions. Animals do not have complex language or thought processes that allow them to connect a past act with a current consequence. When your clients arrive home to find poop on the rug and the dog is hiding, it's erroneous (though perhaps understandable) for them to conclude that the dog “knows he's been naughty.”

When a dog looks “guilty,” evidence strongly suggests that he's actually fearful. In other words, the last time there were feces on the carpet when the human came home, the human became very angry. Now there are feces on the carpet again, and the human has returned, so there may be yelling and physical discomfort again. Not only does punishing the dog at this delayed stage fail to correct the undesirable action, it also increases anxiety by making correction and the person unpredictable in the dog's mind.

Cognition research confirms that a consequence must occur within one second for the animal to pair the consequence with an action. Bottom line? If pet owners don't witness a specific behavior, they cannot successfully reward or punish it.2

Myth 3: Stress in pets is obvious

Most of us humans don't recognize that a dog or cat is distressed until we see overt body language-crouching, extreme tail tuck, refusal to move, elimination, growling, snarling or hissing. Therefore, many aggressive instances seem to come “out of nowhere.” In reality, the animal was likely displaying many subtle (to us) behaviors indicating apprehension or fear long before the aggression occurred. Signals we can learn to recognize as signs of stress displacement include lip-licking, yawning, eye aversion, and slow or stiff body postures in dogs-even mounting. And then we can change the situation to keep the peace.3

For example, veterinary team members can try a different type of approach if a dog stiffens and licks her lips in the exam room. Clients can be advised to remove the dog from the room if she yawns and averts her eyes when kids are roughhousing close to where she's resting on her dog bed. Cat bites can often be avoided if the owner stops petting the cat (or approaching altogether) when it gives a tail lash, stiffens or moves slightly away.

Myth 4: We should reach out to a new dog

Many instances of human-directed aggression in dogs are a direct result of the way the person approached the dog. For decades we have been taught to stick out a hand to let the dog sniff us when we first meet it. But most dogs consider it a threat, at least to some degree, if another creature reaches out and over it. Many become nervous simply being approached. Let's teach our veterinary clients a better way: When they meet an unfamiliar dog, they should adopt an unthreatening body posture-turning to the side, kneeling down, avoiding any outward motions, using food to lure-and allow the dog to approach them. This can make the difference between an aggressive and friendly encounter in any setting.4,5

Myth 5: Training is how you solve all behavior problems

Animal training is the process of changing the behaviors we can observe. Various techniques can be used to get pets to voluntarily change their motor pattern (for example, to stop jumping, pawing or counter surfing)-a process called operant conditioning. Almost all of these techniques involve the animal learning how to gain a reward or avoid something unpleasant. Decades of research demonstrate both approaches work.

 

However, many behavior problems result from an animal's poor emotional state or an association it makes with a person, place or other environmental trigger. Relying on typical “training” completely ignores this emotional basis. And many aversive techniques that appear to stop the unwanted behavior actually don't solve the problem because they don't improve the underlying association.

The good news is that we can teach simple associative learning techniques (as elucidated so well by Pavlov's dog) to help clients improve many behavior problems. And we can do this without in-depth dog training or the high risk of side effects-such as increased fear and redirected aggression-associated with aversive tactics.

At the heart of associative learning, also known as classical conditioning, is the process of pairing something the pet doesn't like with something it does like. For example, many dogs are reactive to other dogs while on leash walks, and half of cats show severe aggression when first introduced. If we adopt some common-sense safety protocols (head halters, baby gates, adequate distance) and give treats just before and during the interaction without any stern correction, the pet will start to associate the trigger with the reward. This tactic addresses the core emotional motivation and not just the surface-level behavior.5

Myth 6: ‘Socialization'will help adult pets learn to cope

The socialization period, which is approximately 4 to 14 weeks of age in dogs and 2 to 7 weeks of age in cats, is the critical stage during which the neural system is primed to receive input about future stimuli. Socialization is critical, as evidenced by extreme fear and fear-related aggression in many poorly socialized animals. Unfortunately, some people falsely assume that socialization of adult animals can solve existing behavior problems, and they put their pets in dangerous situations as a result.

Dogs showing aggression to other dogs should never be indiscriminately exposed to unsuspecting dogs and people in dog parks, day care or shopping areas. Not only is this unsafe, but it could also sensitize the animal or worsen the negative emotion. Educate your clients about implementing some solid foundation behaviors, taking appropriate safety measures and practicing body language interpretation before exposing the dog to public situations. For example, the pet should master a redirection cue for a reward (“watch me”; “leave it”) in increasingly distracting situations before a walk through the pet store.

Myth 7: Vaccinations are more important than early socialization

Socialization of puppies and even kittens is extremely important for a behaviorally healthy animal.6 Behavior problems are a factor in almost every case of rehoming or relinquishment, and 16 weeks of age is past the critical socialization period, so it's a mistake to limit a young pet to environmental stimuli until all core vaccines have been completed.

Recent studies have shown that puppies from diverse areas that received one or two rounds of vaccines and attended puppy socialization classes were no more likely to contract infectious diseases than those that didn't attend a class. Of course, it's important to ensure that other animals in the area have been properly vaccinated and that the facility is using proper biosafety standards. For this reason, reputable private facilities (including veterinary clinics!) are the best choice for socialization classes, and public dog spaces should be avoided.

Myth 8: Avoidance will make a behavior problem worse

Just as indiscriminate exposure to triggers can cause more problems, avoidance of triggers can help an animal and its owners live a more peaceful life. As veterinarians, we need to say this to our clients! Their safety, and that of our patients and the public, is our top priority, and our assurance that avoidance is not making the problem worse can provide great comfort to the family-and possibly make the difference between life and death for that pet. On an emotional and biological level, avoidance prevents the problem from worsening by keeping the animal in a calmer state and not strengthening the negative association. Exposure to the trigger can then occur on a gradual level.

Myth 9: Psychoactive medications should be a last resort

The prevailing public sentiment is that psychoactive medications should only be used as a “last resort.” But would you take this approach with an antibiotic or pain control? The goal of most psychoactive medication usage is to provide anti-anxiety effects. And although the use of these drugs should not be taken lightly, early intervention with all behavioral therapies, including medications, can limit the damage and improve success. Most of us would not hesitate to institute pain medications or antibiotics early in the treatment of injury or disease, yet many of the same practitioners wouldn't consider psychoactive medications until the problem is at a very severe stage. Mental health should be considered part of overall health. You can decrease your clients' fears that commitment to start medications is somehow a lifelong commitment to keep the patient on medication for the rest of that animal's life.

References

1. Axelsson E, Ratnakumar A, Arendt M-L, et al. The genomic signature of dog domestication reveals adaptation to a starch-rich diet. Nature 2013;495:360-364.

2. Horowitz A. Disambiguating the “guilty look”: Salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour. Behavioural Processes 2009;81:447-452.

3. Herron M, Shryer T. The pet-friendly veterinary practice. Vet Clin N Am: Small Anim Pract 2014;44:451-481.

4. Kuhne F, Hössler JC, Struwe R. Emotions in dogs being petted by a familiar or unfamiliar person: Validating behavioural indicators of emotional states using heart rate variability. App Anim Behav Sci 2014;161:113-120.

5. Landsberg G, Hunthausen W, Ackerman L. Behavior problems of the dog and cat, 3rd ed. New York: Elsevier, 2014.

6. Stepita ME, Bain MJ, Kass PH. Frequency of CPV infection in vaccinated puppies that attended puppy socialization classes. J Am Anim Hosp Assoc 2013;49:95-100.

Suggested reading

1. Schilder M, Vinke CM, van der Borg J. Dominance in domestic dogs revisited: Useful habit and useful construct? J Vet Behav: Clin App Res 2014;9:184-191.

2. Bradshaw JWS, Blackwell E-J, Casey RA. Dominance in domestic dogs: A response to Schilder et al. J Vet Behav: Clin App Res 2016;11:102-108.

3. Firnkes A, Bartels A, Bidoli E, et al. Appeasement signals used by dogs during dog-human communication. J Vet Behav: Clin App Res 2017;19:35-44.

4. Rugaas T. On talking terms with dogs: Calming signals, 2nd ed. Legacy by Mail Inc., 2005.

5. Friedman S. Behavior fundamentals: Filling the behavior-change toolbox. J App Comp Anim Behav 2007;3(1):36-40.

6. Yin S. Low stress handling restraint and behavior modification of cats and dogs. Davis, California: CattleDog Publishing, 2009.

Dr. Julia Albright is assistant professor of veterinary behavior and PetSafe Chair of Small Animal Behavioral Research at the University of Tennessee's College of Veterinary Medicine. This article was adapted from a session Dr. Albright led at the Fetch dvm360 conference in 2018.