When I first got Frankie, I knew virtually nothing about dogs. Who was I to question the common wisdom that was offered up about how to deal with one? Slowly, after much reading and research, I began to sort out the truth.  But, some five years later, I’ve realized how firmly entrenched a great deal of canine misinformation is in the popular culture, how it keeps getting recycled, glamorized — yes, I’m thinking of a certain TV trainer — and legitimized.

It’s not enough to proclaim these ideas incorrect, however. Some facts are required. So I asked Eric Goebelbecker, Certified Pet Dog Trainer, dog behavior expert, science geek, and blogger at Dog Spelled Forward, to explain why some of the most stubbornly persistent myths about canine behavior I’ve encountered are inaccurate.


1)  If your dog makes a bathroom-related mess, rub his face in it to teach him not to do it again.

The fact is, dogs just aren’t as freaked out about feces as we are.  With noses many, many, times more powerful than ours they actively seek out where other dogs do their business, stick said noses in those places, and then mark over them….except when they decide to eat the mess!

Why would we believe that sticking their faces in poop is a terrible punishment? (Other than because forcibly having your face stuck in anything is aversive…)

Dogs also have a difficult time connecting current events with previous actions. Your best bet for house-training is stopping accidents before they happen.

2)  Mixed breeds aren’t as easy to train as purebreds because you don’t know their temperaments.

Despite what the American Kennel Club, puppy stores, and breeders might want you to believe, breed is no guarantee of temperament, personality, or learning ability. (Especially as many breeds approach tragic and epic levels of inbreeding…but I digress.)

Good training adapts to the individual dog. Knowing how the dog “should” react in advance is a marginal advantage, at best.

3) You can’t let your dog sleep in your bed, eat before you do, or rest on an area higher than you are because the dog won’t respect you as a pack leader.

These ideas are primarily based on a misunderstanding of wolf behavior that is being misapplied to dogs.

First and foremost, dogs are not wolves. They may or may not be a sub-species of wolves — some institutions think they’re not and even changed the etymology to reflect this, but others still use the older designation — but this is really just semantics. Dogs and wolves have many important differences, not the least of which are behavioral.

If you hand raise a wolf, you have a wolf that is not afraid of people. If you hand raise a dog, you have a very nice dog.

Which would you let your child play with?

As Dr. Ian Dunbar once said, looking to wolves for dog training guidance is like looking to chimpanzees for child-rearing advice.

But the real kicker is this: the people advocating these ideas don’t even understand wolves. A wolf pack is a family unit. There is no struggle for power and no constant affirmation or dispute over who is in charge.   “Lower ranked” wolves that wish to run a pack simply leave and start their own.


Part 2, the last 3 myths, appears on Eric Goebelbecker’s site, Dog Spelled Forward.

20 thoughts on “Six Dog Training Myths, Part 1”

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Six Dog Training Myths, Part 1 -- Topsy.com
  2. I think this is great 🙂 I think even though the pack mentality thing is misunderstood as a whole it is important to establish ourselves as the resource/guide our dogs look to…I mean we have to set boundaries whether we snuggle with them or not (WE DO SNUGGLE) or let them eat first last etc…we actually have a pack of dogs and if and when we’re not managing or reading them and one gets in a snit they take it upon themselves to try and get each other in line (it’s not pretty). 90% of the time it’s harmonius, 10% it’s time to get them off the couch and into their crate downstairs for a little time out.

    1. First and foremost the “meat” of the myth was things humans need to do to establish themselves at the top of a hierarchy.

      Myth part #1 – dogs can’t tell us apart from other dogs (or wolves.)

      Obviously I think they can and it seems like that’s not at issue.

      Myth Part #2 – there is some sort of undisputed “pack leader” that maintains control to all of the good stuff – food, beds, preferred seating, first out the door etc. (S)He establishes this by consistently taking control of said things.

      This just doesn’t exist in nature with wolves. As I said above, packs are family units and if you don’t like it you don’t try to take away the good stuff: you leave. (In captivity wolves do struggle for priority access to resources but it is, by its very nature, a screwed-up situation.) I recently came across this book that has some great observations about how wolves really act as part of a course I took on canid behavior.

      Second dogs are not wolves. Comparing a domesticated species to a close genetic relative is just not relevant. Dogs are domesticated wolves are not. The most significant difference between domesticated and “un” is behavioral, and using one as a guide on how to handle the other is just plain idiotic.

      Left to their own devices dogs tend to travel alone or in very loosely structured packs. Ray Coppinger wrote extensively about this in his book, and has debunked the pack model repeatedly when I have seen him speak. Luigi Boitani (co-editor of the book on wolves above) et. al observed some free ranging dogs for a long period of time and observed that they tended toward being solitary with sporadic groups of 2 or 3. They also still gravitated toward humans when they could. (Because they are domesticated!) He also cites about a half dozen other papers when he makes these observations. In terms of territory and control of resources he describes the dogs as being very flexible and adaptable to specific situations. There is no innate desire for a leader or structure – they do what works in the circumstances. (Pretty expensive book, sorry.)

      I firmly believe that it’s anthropomorphism that keeps this myth going. People go in with a preconceived notion, fueled by myth and a very primate-driven idea of how they see the world, and then pick out the parts that validate their theory. It’s a very human thing to do. (See “Iraq and WMDs”.)

      Last, there is a difference between establishing boundaries and trying to establish and/or reinforce a hierarchy. I get very annoyed when people assume that I am saying one when I mean the other, but I guess it’s my fault for not being clear.

  3. I think the comparison of dogs to wolf is really of little value when it comes to training or anything else for that matter. Dogs are domesticated and wolves are not. They share biological similarities and similar behaviors. I think Edie makes a wonderful point. If you hand raise a wolf you still have a wolf. Even if you are able to train a wolf you still have a wolf. It is not and never will be a dog. If anything the analysis is completely backwards. The domestic dog gives us a glimpse of what a wolf may look like with thousands of years of domestication and inbreeding. Further when dogs are left alone without human interference they become wild dogs but they do not become wolves.

    1. Anthony, wish I could take credit for the wolf wisdom in this post but it’s Eric who provided the answers; I merely asked the questions!

  4. Thanks, Edie for getting the topic and these questions out there. Eric’s answers are compelling and I laughed when he pointed out the people who are promoting the whole dog as wolf idea don’t understand wolf behavior! I look forward to tomorrow’s post over at the DogSpelledForward site!

  5. Pingback: 6 Dog Training Myths, Part 2 | Dog Spelled Forward
  6. I agree with nearly all of this. The only concern that I have is bashing the AKC, which feels unnecessary to me. But spot-on with the behavioral myths!

    People have to understand what the AKC is, and what it isn’t. The AKC is primarily a registry. That’s it! A record-keeping organization that compiles pedigrees, and, in some cases, health tests and behavior certifications. The AKC does get involved in certain dog issues, sure, like laws that abuse dogs/owners and actively working against BSL. (And they are woefully absent in some issues you’d think they’d be all over, too.) But the AKC is primarily a registry, not an advocacy group. (And much of what people blame AKC for really is the responsibility of the individual breed clubs, who write the breed standards.)

    (Perhaps I am digressing into something that should be a topic for another post; sorry to derail the discussion. But I do get a little irked when I see people bash AKC because they don’t understand what it is. My impression is that because some very, very poor breeders and even puppymills are able to register their dogs through AKC, public opinion has become jaded and confused about what AKC is and does, and have sometimes unrealistic expectations of what they should be doing. They also conveniently overlook some positive things that AKC does for dogs in general in the process. )

    But in the context in which AKC was raised in this post: It can be helpful at times to understand the tendencies and likely health concerns of your breed or breed mix. But knowing those tendencies is not a substitute for training! For example, it might be helpful to know why your dog is so distractable out of doors if he was bred to hunt. Does that mean you have any lesser obligation to train a solid recall? Absolutely not! But it may help you, as the owner/ trainer, to understand your dog’s mysterious behavior as something other than obstinance or as your complete failure; to better prepare for and anticipate situations in which he is going to be highly distractable; to understand things this dog needs in terms of activity, exercise and lifestyle; and have an idea as well of what sort of rewards/activities may most appeal to him.

    Having some ideas about what your dog may be hard-wired to do can make training a less-stressful activity in some cases as you can understand what will be harder to train, what will almost train itself, and where special caution in handling might be advisable. It can help you look at training as problem solving (instead of a contest between you and your dog) and can encourage you at times when you seem to have hit a wall.

    Again, sorry to derail, as the entire mixed vs. purebred, and certainly the AKC in and of itself are probably separate blog topics of their own. I’ve got one foot in both camps, having grown up showing dogs and now owning a shelter mix. 😉

  7. I’m going to invite Eric to come back and address all the issues you (collectively) brought up. That’s not to say I disagree with anything he said, just that he is better able than I to defend/explain what he wrote.

    1. I love Eric’s attitude toward training and dogs. In my opinion, he’s got it right!

      Look forward to his responses and the continuation of this series about behavior myths. 🙂

  8. I understand exactly what the AKC is. Thanks for assuming I don’t though. It makes this so much more fun.

    The AKC says:

    You’re going to be living with this dog for a long time, so you need to make sure he has a personality you can live with. Do you want a dog that is active, or subdued? A dog that is easily trained, or strong-willed? A dog that is friendly to everyone he meets, or one that is loyal to family but aloof toward strangers? A dog that needs a lot of attention from family members, and lots of activity to prevent him from becoming bored and destructive, or a dog that is content to be left alone for periods of time during the day?

    At the top of a page that finishes with a link to an index of breeds where you can read things like:

    Although known to be a quiet dog (they are known as the “Silent Hunter” in Japan), the Akita has strong guarding instincts and will sound the alarm if an intruder breaks into their house. Akita temperament can range from calm to bouncy and aggressive, so the breed should always be supervised around small children and other animals. Akitas like to be “pack leader,” so obedience training is also necessary for a harmonious household. The breed will groom itself like a cat, but daily brushing is still necessary, as is daily exercise.


    This active and energetic Sporting breed can adapt to many different living situations but requires daily exercise. His water-repellant double-coat sheds seasonally and needs regular brushing. With his friendly temperament and striking golden color, this breed is both beautiful to look at and a joy to own.

    Which makes my point about how some, notably the AKC, perpetuate the myth that breed is a guarantee of temperament.

    If I wanted to bash the AKC I’d start with how they consistently lobby and advocate against puppy mill regulations. Maybe then I’d talk about how refusing to open stud books is destroying many breeds. They may “only be a registry” but they are a member-run organization and trying to run away from that, while par for the course, is disingenuous at best.

    1. Wow! I’m not quite sure what to say.

      Apparently I really touched a nerve, inadvertently, and as I believe you to be a reasonable person, I’ll go ahead and say that I must somehow have really worded things very badly in MY posting to have riled you so. And I’m truly sorry if I came off as disrespectful, as I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read of yours! I do think you have a great stance on training and have even pointed others to your site because I like what you have to say! Apparently I really failed here in communicating myself politely, and for that I am really sorry.

      For clarification, and hopefully to dig myself out of the hole:

      -Agree with you completely on the behavioral myths.

      I only sought to make a few basic points, some of which are compatible with yours:

      -AKC is commonly misunderstood, and even when it is understood, it’s not perfect. (uh, we don’t agree here, I see!) I’ve never met a reputable breeder of any breed who says that a breed name guarantees a temperament, behavior pattern or learning ability. (And you apparently at least agree they should not make such claims.)

      -Breed clubs write the breed standards, not the AKC.

      -Sometimes having a rough idea of what your dog was bred to do might help an owner in planning training and handling. If you know your dog is likely to love water or chase a scent until he drops, that knowledge could help you, as the owner/trainer, to approach problems with some idea of your dog’s likely motivations. Rather than saying to yourself “I’ll never be able to teach a recall!” or “My dog is hopeless!”, you might say to yourself “I need to make sure my Lab has a bullet-proof recall away from water before I expect him to recall reliably near a body of water, as he’s highly motivated to leap into water to do his breed job. Being near water may be his highest distraction, and not the place to start my recall training.” Honestly, I thought that was a sort of insight we’d be in agreement upon? Perhaps not. I may have misunderstood or maybe I just really expressed myself very poorly.

      In any event, I do agree that a breed is not a guarantee of temperament, and that most breed standards are woefully lacking and vague in describing the ideal temperament for the breed.

      Again, sorry that I apparently voiced my thoughts so badly that you felt personally insulted, as that was certainly not my intent. I had no need nor desire to insult you and I’m genuinely sorry that I did.

      1. I’ve had a bad day (well, week) so my response was a little more limbic than it should have been. My fault at least as much as yours.

        But. 🙂

        Breed clubs write the standards, and most likely the marketing copy in that breed guide. BUT the AKC has put it up on a page that probably ranks near the top in a whole bunch of searches. They can’t dodge the responsibility on this, at least not in my book.

        Let’s look at sequence of events:

        1) Family decides they want a dog.

        2) They decide to try to do the right thing and do some research.

        3) They come across “With his friendly temperament and striking golden color, this breed is both beautiful to look at and a joy to own.” on akc.org and decide they want one.

        4) They e-mail the breed club via akc.org, and after a while figure out they are not going to get answer, or get pointed back and forth between breeders and clubs because, after all, no respectable breeder will sell a dog online, dontcha’ know. (This happened to me, BTW. I spoke to a few breeders before finally finding Buddha.)

        5) So, they go to the store and buy a dog. They know he’s good because he has papers!

        How exactly does the AKC not generate sales for puppy mills?

        I did say the knowing a breed’s tendencies provides a marginal advantage. Maybe I could drop the marginal. But poke around the AKC’s website, look at their literature and look at how purebreds are sold. They make it a big selling point. A selling point that is often parroted back to me by pet owners.

        1. Glad we’re OK! I think we both really love dogs and, now and then, our passion (or a bad day!) can obscure the honest attempts of two dog lovers to communicate about very real issues in the dog world. 😉

          But I suspect that the entire AKC discussion is probably better had in a different post topic. It’s an important discussion; I’m just not sure if this is the place and time for it. This began as a post about behavior myths, and we’re getting far afield. 😉

          I don’t want you to lose the impact of the insight you kindly gave about behavior myths, nor do I want to disrespect the time and space that Edie’s so kindly offered. Your original post topic of commonly held behavioral myths deserves space to breathe and to be discussed. Dispelling those myths will save many owners a great deal of heartache and frustration and may even keep a dog in the home he already has! It’s quite important!

          If Edie (or you, on your blog) ever make a post on the pros and cons of AKC, I’m sure we’ll both be there to discuss!

  9. Pingback: Dog News Update – May 21, 2010 | Dog Spelled Forward
  10. Pingback: Dog myths
  11. You are totally right. The whole thing of not letting your dog sleep on the bed is a myth. Our lab pup sleeps on the bed and she has no issues with “authority”. Our Akita / Black Shepherd mix has never slept on the bed and he’s had some “authority issues”, so I really don’t think it has anything to do with that.


  12. This is great post and I love the humor. I can echo your comments about rubbing the dogs nose or face in it’s own poop. Why would anyone even consider it some people do this and then a few minutes letter let that same dog lick their face. Yuk! . My experience is cross breed dogs tend to be easier to train. I am sure it depends on the breed but if you watch many dog shows where mutts are allowed they are usually the best. Certain breeds are easier to train than others but I guess that’s a whole different issue.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *