Canine Behavior – Myths and Facts – Part 1, Where do we get our knowledge about dogs?

< A version of this article was published in the May 2016 issue of Down East Dog News>

Don and Muppy-Fall 2015-1I recently asked listeners of The Woof Meow Show to email me questions that we could answer on the show. A dog training colleague who listens to the show asked: “What is the one thing you wish every dog owner knew about dogs? My answer was that I wished people knew more about canine behavior, specifically what is factual, and what is not.

According to the American Animal Hospital Association’s 2015 AAHA Canine and Feline Behavior Management Guidelines,Behavioral problems affect more dogs and cats than any other medical condition and are one of the most common causes of euthanasia, relinquishment, or abandonment of pets.” This document posits that mistaken or misinformed beliefs about canine behavior are a major reason for these behavioral problems, This column is the first in a multi-part series where I hope to educate readers and dispel some of these myths. However, first, I think we need to look where we get our information about dogs.

Interestingly, society has many misconceptions about dogs and what constitutes normal canine behavior. Many of those misconceptions go back to what we “learned” about dogs as children. For some of us, that goes back to Rin Tin Tin and Lassie. Both dogs were portrayed as canine perfection; however, whether it was a book, movie, or television show or all of the above, it was a marvelous, heart-wrenching piece of fiction.

In my case, in addition to fictional stories, I was also greatly influenced by two dog training books we purchased when Paula and I brought our first puppy home. The Monks of New Skete How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend was published in 1978 and Mother Knows Best by Carol Lea Benjamin was published in 1985. These books were very popular at the time. Both authors insisted that dogs are essentially wolves and thus the best way to train a dog is to treat it the way a mother wolf would treat a wolf pup. This “motherly love” often involved lots of intimidation, fear, and pain. [see Gus and the Alpha Roll below for my experience with how these techniques worked.]

For some, their knowledge of dogs is based on what a family member or friend has told them about their experience with dogs. This is may be someone with no formal training but who will tell you that they have been training dogs since “Pluto was a pup” and know all that they need to know. They often insist that this is the way they have always done it and scoff at doing anything differently for any reason, even if it is easier or offers other benefits. Sadly this approach is also often counter-productive to our relationship with our dog.

Today, many people reach their conclusions about canine behavior based on “reality” television which in reality is not very real. The Dog Whisper, broadcast by the National Geographic Channel, involves “self-credentialed” “dog psychologist” Cesar Millan solving serious behavior problems while using force, intimidation, and pain because that is all part of being the pack leader. It is the same misinformation from the two books I’ve mentioned, formulated for television. Because the National Geographic brand has a long standing reputation as being based on solid science, it gives the show an aura of credibility that it does not deserve. Since its inception, it has been challenged by experts in the field of canine behavior. For example, Dr. Nicholas Dodman, a veterinary behaviorist credentialed by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists and director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at Tufts University said this back in 2006: ”My college thinks it [The Dog Whisperer – Cesar Millan] is a travesty. We’ve written to National Geographic Channel and told them they have put dog training back 20 years.” Yet versions of the show continue to air today.

Lastly, there is the internet. I know of very few professionals that do not have mixed feelings about the “Dr. Google” and the misinformation spread via the internet on a daily basis. Sharing information is great when the information is factual and reliable; however erroneous information can be very harmful. And as State Farm Insurance has taught us, just because it is on the internet does not mean it is true. Unfortunately, too many people think otherwise.

The fact is, much of what we think we know about dogs, is incorrect. Sadly, this misinformation has done a great deal of harm to the dog – human relationship and the dog’s wellbeing. To repair that damage, in future columns, I will examine the most significant and damaging myths about dogs, and then discuss the facts that counter those myths.

Gus and the Alpha Roll

My experience in my first puppy class with “experts.”

Gus and Don on lawn-croppedThe instructors in the first dog training class I attended advocated training that viewed the dog as a wolf. Gus, our Cairn Terrier, was about 12 weeks old our first night in class and had no prior training. I was told to ask Gus to sit and when Gus failed to comply, remember he had never been trained to sit, the instructor told me that Gus was being dominant and that I needed to alpha-roll him.

The Monks of New Skete described the alpha wolf roll-over as the ultimate punishment for the most severe disobedience. It involves grabbing the dog by the scruff of their neck, and firmly and rapidly rolling the dog on its back and pinning it while making eye contact and yelling at the dog. In their book the Monks asserted that these disciplinary techniques are what a mother wolf would use in the wild to discipline her pups.

Not being a dog trainer at the time, I did what I was told to do and alpha-rolled Gus. Gus reacted immediately, wildly thrashing around, growling and snapping his teeth. It was at this point the instructor told me to grab Gus’ muzzle and hold it closed. This did not sound safe or smart to me, but I believed that the instructor would not tell me to do anything dangerous, so I did what she said. Instantly Gus’s canine teeth pierced the flesh of my palm; I instinctively let him go, and we both pulled away from each other. Gus and I were wary of each other for several weeks. The trust we had built in the few days we had him was destroyed in one senseless act of violence.

Years later I learned that by alpha-rolling Gus’ I had probably caused him to fear for his life. How this was supposed to make him understand “sit” means to sit, is still unclear to me. We now know that those professing to treat dogs like wolves really did not understand either species. Sadly, these methods are still popular and recommended by some breeders, dog trainers, and even veterinarians. They are clearly responsible for much of the misinformation about canine behavior.

Gus and I eventually reconnected and became pals, but to this day, I regret the damage I caused because I blindly followed the advice of an alleged expert.

Recommended Resources

Articles on Don’s Blog (

Dog Training – How science and reward-based training have pulled dog training out of the dark ages –

 A Rescue Dogs Perspective on Dog Training –

Canine Behavior – Understanding, Identifying, and Coping with Canine Stress –

Dog Behavior – Dominance: Reality or Myth –

Dog Training: A Holistic Approach to Dog Training (Parts 1 & 2) –

Dog Training – The Four Essentials For A Great Dog – Part 1 –

Dog Training – The Four Essentials For A Great Dog – Part 2 –

Dog Training – What Is Clicker Training? –

Green Acres Kennel Shop Position Statement on Pet-Friendly, Force-Free Pet Care –

Green Acres Kennel Shop Position Statement on the Use of Dominance and Punishment for the Training and Behavior Modification of Dogs –

The Unintended Consequences of Shock Collars –


Podcasts from The Woof Meow Show (

<Click on the title to listen to the show>

2015 Dog Training Classes at Green Acres Kennel Shop

Canine Behavior: Myths and Facts

The Four Essentials to A Great Dog  

Dog Training Questions for Don and Kate with special guest host Dr. Mark Hanks – part 1

Dog Training Questions for Don and Kate with special guest host Dr. Mark Hanks – part 2

Dog Training Questions for Don and Kate with special guest host Dr. Mark Hanks – part 3

The Dominance and Alpha Myth

Don Hanson is the co-owner of the Green Acres Kennel Shop ( in Bangor. He is a Bach Foundation Registered Animal Practitioner (BFRAP), Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (CDBC), Associate Certified Cat Behavior Consultant (ACCBC) and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA). He produces and co- hosts a weekly radio show and podcast, The Woof Meow Show heard on The Pulse AM620 WZON and streamed at every Saturday at 9 AM. A list of upcoming shows and podcasts of past shows can be found at Don also writes about pets at his blog:


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