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.