Dog and cat behavior myths debunked

Some common misconceptions about veterinary patients’ behavior

A dog lying down and exposing its underside often is misinterpreted as a plea for belly rubs. Usually, it’s the opposite. A fearful dog rolling over wants to be left alone—he doesn’t want to cause trouble or get in trouble.

Veterinary behavior is a relatively new specialty in our profession. Unfortunately, as such, plenty of old wives tales persist. As veterinarians and veterinary nurses, we critically evaluate and use evidenced-based medicine for our patients on a daily basis, and this should apply to behavior and training, as well. Here are some of the most common misconceptions about our patient’s behaviors that still are being propagated, despite scientific evidence to the contrary.

Myth No. 1: The human needs to be dominant to the pet in order to maintain proper structure and obedience.

Common things we hear:

  • “Don’t let your dog sleep on the bed or couch because you don’t want them to think they’re dominant.”
  • “You need to alpha roll your dog to show him who’s boss.”
  • “Once I put him in his place, he behaved perfectly.”
  • “You need to always be the alpha.”

No species in the animal kingdom creates dominance hierarchies with another species. However, dogs do create dominance hierarchies among themselves. This fluid relationship is maintained primarily by the deferential dog and not the most assertive. Take, for example, two household dogs each given a rawhide. The two go to their respective corners. One dog finishes first, then approaches the other and takes the second chew for himself. Through body posturing, the dog taking the item indicates that he cares more about it than the other. The second decides that he is comfortable with this arrangement and allows the other dog to take his chew. Altercation avoided. The next day, the second dog might decide he desires the tennis ball more than the first and “tells” the first dog to leave it. Dominance-submission is a relationship that is decided by both parties, and the positions may change depending on the resource at hand.

When it comes to a dog’s response to its humans, dogs naturally defer to our wishes (i.e., a command to “sit”)—if they understand what we are asking and the outcome is desirable for them. Dogs thrive under structure, predictability, and reinforcement of desirable behaviors. If they don’t do as asked, it’s not due to an unfulfilled dominance hierarchy; they might be confused by its owner’s wishes, too distracted or anxious to comply, or inappropriately trained. If an owner believes a dog isn’t listening and following instructions, they should consider possible reasons why and remove the idea of a “dominant dog” from the list.

Myth No. 2: Misinterpretation of body language

Common things we hear:

  • The dog bit “out of nowhere.”
  • We took the dog to the vet or groomer, and he did just “fine.”
  • The dog was wagging his tail; I thought he was happy to see me!
  • The dog or cat approached me for petting but then bit when
    I tried to touch him.
  • Dogs that roll over and expose their belly want a belly rub!

Reading animal body language is one of the most important skills a veterinary professional and pet owner can possess, yet it’s often poorly understood. Humans communicate, express affection, and teach others in very different ways from animals. Humans show each other affection through physical contact; we even physically touch strangers upon greeting with a handshake. That’s just not how dogs communicate. Dogs’ various body postures and non-verbal signals express their thoughts and intent.

Animals use aggression as a last resort. They use subtle body postures, like looking away, avoiding, pulling back their ears, etc. Escalation occurs when these signals are ignored. When I speak to another human, I start politely first; if you ignore me, I’m forced to speak louder. Dogs are no different. Next they might stiffen and stare, watch intently, possibly snarl or growl; then they bite. Aggression is very costly from the animal’s perspective; a fight could result in injury or death. Dogs use the amount of force they feel is necessary to end a conflict.

It’s easy for humans to chastise a dog that demonstrates any sign of aggression. As far as we’re concerned, it’s inappropriate. However, it’s possible to “punish away” warning signals like growling and snarling. This punishment doesn’t change the underlying emotion driving the use of the aggression, but it inhibits the behaviors typically used as an early warning system. Some of these are the dogs that “bit out of nowhere.” Those warning signals were present at some point. If a dog learns that its non-verbal signals don’t stop an uncomfortable interaction, it will be forced to escalate the next time the target engages in a fear-inducing situation.

Other responses to fear include freezing, also known as learned helplessness, where the animal feels that no matter what action it takes, there is no escape from or option to change the situation. The freeze response, motivated by fear, anxiety, or hopelessness, should be considered similar to aggression. It’s commonly seen in at veterinary offices or grooming salons. The anxious dog enters the building, panting, pacing, whining, and maybe getting a “nippy” when picked up. Once the dog is in our treatment area, away from its owners, the dog suddenly is “fine.” It must have been protecting its owner. (Wrong.) Maybe it was the owner’s obnoxious comforting that made the dog act out. (Also wrong.) Extremely fearful dogs enter a state of learned helplessness. In our behavior practice we often joke: “If you say it was ‘fine,’ it really wasn’t fine.”

Confusion also arises when a dog bites after approaching a person, which the individual misinterprets as a request for affection. Dogs often will approach, in spite of their fear, simply to obtain more information about the subject. The body posture of a friendly dog and a fearful dog are very different. Nervous dogs prone to biting will keep their tail down, ears back, and weight shifted backward. They don’t want to be handled. They also may wag their tails. This doesn’t equate to happiness; it simply means “arousal.” Arousal is the intensity of an emotion; it doesn’t necessarily specify what kind of emotion. The dog that approaches with a wagging tail and then bites when reached for is likely fearfully aroused.

A dog lying down and exposing its underside often is misinterpreted as a plea for belly rubs. Usually, it’s the opposite. A fearful dog rolling over wants to be left alone—he doesn’t want to cause trouble or get in trouble.

Myth No. 3: Misunderstandings with psychotropic medications

Common things we hear:

  • “Acepromazine works great for storm anxiety, aggression, and separation anxiety.”
  • I don’t want to drug my dog or change his personality by using medication.
  • I shouldn’t prescribe medications for aggression because it will make it worse.
  • Any good trainer or behavior consultant can deal with behavior problems. There’s no need to go to a veterinary behaviorist.

Acepromazine is a fantastic sedative. However, that’s all it is—a tranquilizer. Unfortunately it’s often prescribed for use in anxiety and fear-based conditions. Imagine for a moment a dog is in mid-panic attack during a thunderstorm. It will often fidget, retreat to a quiet spot, pace, etc. Now imagine it isn’t able to do those things because it’s in a chemically induced straightjacket. It only can lie still and be trapped in its own mind, experiencing that intense fear. This is exactly what happens with anxious dogs on acepromazine. It does nothing to treat that panic disorder. With prolonged use, we often see dogs needing ever-higher dosages to achieve adequate sedation levels. This is because over time, the panic worsens because the patient is rendered unable to mitigate and diminish its anxiety. Acepromazine should never be used as a first line of defense for these types of conditions.

However, much of the public’s misperception that psychotropic medications can change a dog’s personality stems from human habits of prescribing acepromazine for anxiety disorders. True anti-anxiety medications work to inhibit anxiety and fear (by affecting neurotransmitters like GABA, serotonin, or dopamine) with little to no sedative side effects.

Sometimes, people confuse an animal’s initial relaxation with lethargy. Many anxious dogs never truly relax. When some of their underlying anxiety subsides, they often will be found sleeping more than usual. Don’t confuse normal sleeping habits and lethargy—when awake, they should still be up and interested despite increased rest. Additionally, if a dog truly experiences lethargic side effects while on psychotropics, the prescription should be reevaluated.

Veterinary behaviorists prescribe a psychotropic to aggressive animals as a part of their treatment plan, because aggression stems from fear and anxiety. However, many general practitioners have heard the warnings and may have been instructed to avoid these drugs in aggressive pets because it can worsen the aggression. The phenomenon, called “bite disinhibition,” is very rare and is most often seen in dogs and cats that demonstrate the freeze response. The prescribed product then decreases the anxiety the pet is experiencing so that they are more able to act out on that fear and use aggressive strategies instead. This side effect is a risk with any anti-anxiety product—pheromones, nutraceuticals, and medications alike. Just like everything else in medicine, there is risk versus benefit. We inform the owner to monitor for this condition and contact us if anything unusual occurs. If we see bite disinhibition with one product, it does not necessarily mean it will occur with another.

Only a veterinarian can diagnose and prescribe medications legally or rule out medical disorders as a cause for behavioral changes. If a pet’s condition is mild, trainers and other behaviorists can make significant improvements to the family’s lifestyles through management and teaching the pet alternate behaviors to employ during a fear-inducing situation. However, many pets truly need medical intervention. True neurochemical deficiencies, inadequate levels of neurotransmitters, or even structural abnormalities in the brain all can result in fear, anxiety, and aggression. These special-needs pets, if left untreated, will never relax enough to learn appropriate social skills and responses. Their disease must be managed by a doctor in order to live normally.

Myth No. 4: Training myths

Common things we hear:

  • Puppies shouldn’t go outside and meet other animals until they are completely vaccinated.
  • Rewarding the alternate behavior, such as “off” the counter, rewards the animal for the bad behavior of jumping onto it in the first place.
  • Giving food when a dog is being reactive will reinforce the aggressive behavior.
  • If I use treats to train him, I’ll always need to use treats.
  • He knows when he’s done something wrong.
  • You shouldn’t use punishment because it doesn’t work.

Puppy socialization is a sensitive developmental period during which pups are most susceptible to learning what is normal in their environment. This age generally is accepted to be between 3 and 12 weeks of age. If we follow vaccination rules, puppies wouldn’t meet other dogs until they were 16 to 18 weeks old, well beyond the sensitive period. Research shows no greater risk exists of contracting infectious diseases, such as parvovirus, if a puppy is taken to classes before their full series.1 Animals that are inappropriately socialized may grow up to be excessively fearful, sensitive, and potentially aggressive. The risk of behavioral euthanasia far outweighs the risk of succumbing to an infectious disease.

Also, a dog’s human family must teach it skills for success in the home. The best tactics are to prevent undesirable behavior through management and appropriate supervision, and ensuring that desirable behaviors are rewarded.

A common complaint among owners is dogs jumping up on kitchen counters. This is completely natural behavior to dogs; they see something to investigate, and they jump up to do so. We must curb this undesirable behavior through appropriate management and rewards.

The exception is when emotions run high. When a dog is no longer rational and has entered emotional reactive mode, no training or rational learning will occur. This is why many force-free trainers and veterinary behaviorists will instruct families to give treats when a dog is barking at something while on a walk. This technique, known as counter-conditioning, teaches the dog that something amazing happens when they see another dog or person. This changes the emotional response from fear to happy anticipation. It’s a common misconception that fear can be reinforced. Fear and aggression are emotions, not behaviors the dog performs based on learning an operant behavior (i.e., sit, down, etc.).

Treats won’t always necessarily remain the answer. Training with treats helps teach a dog the skill, keeps it motivated to cooperate, and builds a good habit. Focus on the rate of reinforcement. When first learning something, it helps to get positive feedback each time an attempt is successful. Over time, however, that constant reminder becomes less vital, so the treats can be backed off or an alternate reward can be provided, such as “Good job!”

Many owners claim that their dog knows when they’ve done wrong is another misinterpretation of body language. If a dog does something “wrong” and looks “guilty,” it’s often because they are responding to human anger through appeasement. The dog is saying “I know you’re upset; look how unassuming and non-threatening I am. Please don’t hurt me.”

Some force-free trainers claim that punishment doesn’t work, and that we shouldn’t use it because it won’t teach the dog anything. Punishment works, but it must be used correctly in order to be effective. Punishment must occur immediately after the behavior (within 1 second), be intense enough to stop the behavior, and must happen every single time the behavior occurs. These conditions are near impossible to achieve. Also, the punisher has little control over what the animal is actually learning. The dog might be punished for jumping up on the counter, but there’s nothing stopping him from learning “don’t jump on the counter when the human is here.” Furthermore, punishment-training techniques are directly linked to increased anxiety and aggression.2 Many of the patients we see for aggression are worse and more unpredictable after the owners used punishment tools and techniques. Therefore, the argument isn’t that punishment doesn’t work, but rather that it shouldn’t be used due to the consequences of using it.

Treatment for a patient’s behavior problems requires effective and humane training, behavior modification, and potential intervention with psychotropic products or medication. If you are ever unsure of how to proceed, it is a good idea to consult a veterinary behaviorist or other qualified force-free training and behavior professional, because bad advice can be the difference between a lost pet and a treasured companion.

References

1 Stepita M, Bain M, Kass P. “Frequency of CPV infection in vaccinated puppies that attended puppy socialization classes.” Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association. 2013; 49.2: 95-100.
2 Herron M, Shofer F, Reisner I. “Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 2009; 117.1: 47-54.

Dr. Amy Pike is a 2003 graduate of Colorado State University’s School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and a veteran of the US Army Veterinary Corps. She completed her residency in behavior medicine in 2014 under the mentorship of Debra Horwitz, DVM, DACVB. She is a member of the Fear Free advisory committee, a clinical instructor for E-training for Dogs, and is chief of the Behavior Medicine Division at the Veterinary Referral Center of Northern Virginia in Manassas. Jessey Scheip joined Dr. Pike at the newly formed Behavior Division of the Veterinary Referral Center of Northern Virginia, where she acts as head nurse and trainer. Scheip is Fear Free Certified, a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner, is on the board of directors for the Society of Veterinary Behavior Technicians, and is pursuing her Veterinary Technician Specialty in Behavior.

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