When humans take an interest in a subject, a generational game of Chinese whispers often occurs. Nonsense becomes received wisdom, which becomes fact and we find ourselves debating the most cast iron 'truths' amongst ourselves until we fall out. We took an interest in dogs a long, long time ago, giving us plenty of time to develop some pretty big myths about our canine companions.
No.1 - Dog attacks can "come out of nowhere"
To the untrained eye, it may seem that a dog attack came from nothing, but to anyone who understands dog body language, there will have been a sequence of signals that the dog was feeling agitated, threatened, or cornered. These signs include yawning, licking lips and a low constant growl.
It is a dog owner's responsibility to understand their dog. There are also lots of situations where it is likely that a dog could attack, such as being touched whilst eating or if injured. One benefit we have when dealing with dog attacks when compared to attacks by humans and some other animals, is that dogs literally have nothing to gain from making an unprovoked attack. They do not deal in bravado and score-settling, they deal in instinct and survival. Their instincts tell them to avoid potential injury at all costs, which means they only react aggressively when they feel the need, not the desire, to do so.
With this in mind is easier for dog owners to avoid man-made situations that can cause a dog to need to become aggressive. Scenarios such as bothering a dog whilst it is eating, which can cause a dog to react protectively over its food, should never occur. Nor should dogs be left in a situation where they have no visible means of exiting. Introducing a dog to a new person or other dog whilst they are shut in a room is a dangerous idea. Anything could happen in the dogs mind to cause it to feel uneasy and it needs to be able to take the option of fleeing the stressful situation. If that option is denied the dog, the next option may be to become defensive.
So dog attacks never come out of nowhere, understand the signs and empower yourself to be pro-active and not reactive to canine aggression.
No.2 - Rottweilers are aggressive
You've heard this a thousand times no doubt. There are many breeds of dog that are tarnished with an unfair reputation. Rottweilers are thought by many to be aggressive or more aggressive than an average dog. This isn't true and many Rottweiler owners would disprove it in an instant. Rottweilers are large and powerful animals, this is due to their former use as a guardian breed where they were required to escort deliveries between trading points in Germany.
As pets, Rottweilers are favoured for their quiet confidence and self assuredness, something which is actually incompatible with aggression. The difference with Rottweilers and other large breeds compared to smaller breeds is that if a Rottweiler is provoked to act aggressively, the damage is likely to higher due to their strength. Like many myths, this one has the potential to become self-perpetuating. If Rottweilers continue to carry the stigma of being aggressive, they will be attractive to exactly the type of people likely to encourage such behaviour.
No.3 - Dogs can smell fear
Of all the myths dogs are subject to, this is the closest one to being true. When humans enter a state of fear, they may sweat more, they may also give off certain hormones that dogs may associate with fear. But fear doesn't have a smell as such, it is displayed through a combination of factors such as body language, heart rate and facial expression. If it's not a smell in and of itself, it is unlikely that a dog can smell fear. Dogs do however, have a highly developed ability to understand body language and even the most subtle indication of fear will be picked up on.
In the wild, dogs can spot submissive behaviour within the pack and will act upon it. In some cases dogs are attracted to the sound of other dogs in distress and may attempt to kill the dog. This is partly due to a natural desire to keep the pack strong and eliminate weak links. This is potentially the root of the myth. When humans are scared and more specifically, when they are scared of dogs, you enter a catch 22 situation. The human is exhibiting signs of anxiety, even by simply stopping dead in their tracks when they see a dog, which can arouse the dog's curiosity. The dog may not be responding to fear, but to a set of signals that indicate a change in that person's behaviour.
Dogs are able to detect the onset of many things - from earthquakes to epileptic seizures, but they do not rely on one criteria to identify these things, they identify a combination of factors such as, in the case of epileptic seizures, heart rate, blink rate and even subtle changes in body chemistry. When put together, these things indicate the onset of a seizure. Detecting fear uses the same process, combinations of factors combine to arouse curiosity in the dog, which can then heighten the anxiety already being experienced by the person.
No.4 - Great Danes are Danish
This one is a classic. Great Danes are German. However, the issue is contentious and some people still maintain that the breed is Danish. It really depends on which way one defines the nationality of dog breed. Traditionally, the nationality is determined by the country in which the breed became standardised or speciated. In the case of the Great Dane, this was Germany. The breed's ancestors are thought to have originated in Egypt and were used across Europe for hunting. Large dogs resembling today's Great Dane were referred to by English aristocrats in Germany as Danish Dogs or Great Danish Dogs due to the presence of similar dogs in Denmark that they had encountered.
No.5 - Dalmatians are stupid
This is a myth that is dying out but used to be common 'knowledge'. The truth is that many Dalmatians were and sadly in a lot of cases remain deaf, so were unable to obey commands. Due to the high level of light pigment in the breed, there is a shortage of melanocytes in the ear, which causes deafness. Deafness is associated with albinism in many animals, including dogs and albinism has a strong link to a lack of melanocytes.
No.6 - Rubbing your dog's nose in his mess teaches him not to do it
Some mis-informed dog owners still do this, believing that the dog understands what it means. Not only is this very cruel and unhygienic, it has no benefit. Dogs learn from association, not from 'revenge'. If a dog goes to the toilet in the house, he will not make the association with the 'punishment' and the 'crime'. Simply because he can not perform abstract associations in his brain, only concrete ones. For example, and please imagine you are a dog for a moment. "Putting my paw on that iron is painful, therefore I am now averse to the iron" or "performing this action (sitting) in response to this stimulus (a command) induces this result (a treat) therefore sitting in response to the command = good times!"
Modern dog training is founded on a theory called Operant Conditioning, none other than Pavlov discovered the process. Put simply, to a dog learning happens like this. The consequence of an action dictates whether the dog wants to repeat that action. Rubbing a dog's nose in his mess after event is not a reaction to an action, because the action has happened. The way to train a dog not toilet inappropriately requires patience and tolerance. Waiting for the moment when the dog may make a mess and then using a voice command is not a bad way forward, nor is rewarding the puppy every time he goes in the right place.
No.7 - Dogs see people as 'dogs in the pack'
One commonly repeated training theory is that dogs see us as fellow dogs in the pack. They don't. Dogs see the family as a pack, but not as a pack of dogs. That is why they react differently to seeing a dog in the street than they do to seeing another human in the street. Dogs are inclined to act as pack animals and by viewing the family unit as a makeshift pack, they are improvising in order to function the best way they know how. A lot of people believe behaving like a fellow dog in the pack will enable the dog to learn. This isn't true, humans are humans and dogs are dogs and our pets know this. If they didn't the whole world would be in a mess.
What is partially true in respect to this myth is that dogs experience the family unit as a pack dynamic. Whilst we see our family as loved ones, irritating younger siblings and daft uncles, the dog sees the pack as a structured regime with a leader and a descending order of members. He knows that he's a dog and we are not and if your socialisation and training have been carried out properly, he'll know he is the lowliest member of the pack. Unless of course there is another dog in the family, in which case seniority will be sorted out between the dogs.
No.8 - A rolled up newspaper on the nose is a good punishment tool
This is a well practiced theory that is completely false. It is perpetuated because it has the appearance of being successful. People use a paper to hit the dog on the nose as a punishment. The dog develops a fear of the newspaper (not to be mistaken for respect for the person holding the paper). When the person reaches for the paper, they see the dog shrink in fear and presume their method is working.
No.9 - Dogs feel guilt
"Oh, he knows he's done something wrong, look at his face". Have you ever heard this one? People often attach human traits to their dog to help them related to the animal. This is called anthropomorphism. In the example, the dog is probably aware that the person is upset (by reading body language) and understands what happens in this situation. They cannot relate a past action to a future response. They won't think, "he's upset because I chewed his shoe earlier". The shoe chewing is in the past and the reaction is in the present. The dog is responding to body language.
We often project our own desires and feelings on to our dogs because it helps us relate to them. Some of us even project voices on to our dogs. In the most part it is harmless fun, but when it leads to a failure of understanding it can be quite problematic. A dog is governed primarily by his own survival instincts. Pack harmony is an indirect part of this, as it relates to security for all pack members. This is why dogs may become agitated when they sense disquiet. This is not be mistaken for guilt or sorrow.
No.10 - Pedigree dogs are 'better' than cross or mixed breeds
For years the mutt, the mix or the mongrel has been viewed by many as an inferior animal, a poor relation of the handsome purebred. Without politicising, it is patently untrue that mixed or cross breeds are in any way inferior. In fact, many of the most popular purebred pedigree dogs we see today started life as cross breeds. The Doberman is a good example of this.
There are advantages and disadvantages to owning a non-pedigree dog, but if we were to compare and contrast the health issues associated with pedigree dogs against the relatively minor problem of the undetermined ancestry associated with non-pedigree dogs, we can quite quickly put this particularly silly myth to bed.
No.11 - Man domesticated the dog
Man domesticated the wolf and lived with him for a period of time until varying types of wolf emerged leading to the speciation of 'the dog'. Dogs as we know them are man made, in that we put wolves together to generate offspring that helped us in our evolution. Many people think that the dog was a wild animal until heroic man tamed him and taught him to fetch. Not true, our ancestors actually did something more daring than that, they tamed the wolf and taught him to fetch, herd, protect, hunt, fish and eventually to detect cancer. Well done Neanderthal man.
No.12 - Your dog wouldn't hurt a fly
No matter how gentile or placid your dog may be, no matter how small, old, blind or lazy he is, it's dangerous to labour under the misapprehension that he is incapable of doing harm. Many people trick themselves into thinking that their dog's good nature is a permanent fixture and applies in all situations. Whilst dogs are in the main, absolutely fine with people, it is essential that all dog owners remember that if there dog is in possession of teeth or claws, they can "hurt a fly".
Many people who fool themselves into thinking that their dog isn't an animal, with animal instincts and no sense of right or wrong, are the ones that don't take the right precautions to protect their dog and the people it associates with. Leaving a dog unattended with a child is never a good idea and it is something that people who understand what their dog is, namely an animal, rarely do. Those that believe in the heart of hearts that their dog is incapable of causing harm to anyone or anything are more likely not to take these precautions.