Thursday July 15th

Our Beliefs About Dogs

 When is the last time you thoroughly examined what you think and believe about dogs?

Unless we specifically and regularly challenge ourselves and our beliefs we will go through life thinking and believing what we have been told.  How many times have you heard an adult say “I was taught to believe…?  When I hear this, I oftentimes think to myself, “yes, but as an adult you do get to choose what you believe”. Without curiosity and self -examination, many may go through life believing what was once proven to be the truth even if that truth is many decades old and there is contradictory evidence.   It is easy to get caught in the trap, however, as adults we are required to think for ourselves. 

Being stuck in outdated beliefs is especially common when people examine their thoughts about dogs. I was once in a consult with a veterinarian that I respected very much. We were discussing the behavior of a mutual client’s dog, and I was questioning her beliefs on the treatment plan for this specific behavior challenge.  I was focused on being respectful and collaborative, yet I could see that I had offended her.  She said, “Look Kathleen, I have been doing this for 35 years” and then she glanced down at her brand new IPhone 12.  It was such an “aha moment”.  When we are relying on information, we learned decades ago as today’s truth, unless it is your great grandmothers famous peach cobbler recipe, we are not utilizing all of the valuable gifts science and research bring to the table.  And by the way, I do believe we put veterinarians in difficult positions.  We expect them to be on top of all the medical science and the current science of animal behavior.  That is a huge ask, and frankly quite difficult for one profession to stay abreast of.  That is a lot like asking your Dermatologist to give you advice on the best hair growth vitamin.  And on a side note any vet that tells you shock or prong collars do not hurt, or to throw a can of coins at your scared dog, well, please, do not trust your dog to their care or outdated beliefs. Your dog is counting on you.   What we knew about dog behavior decades ago is drastically different from what we know today.  I mean really, who is using the same phone they used years ago? Why would we be relying on outdated data on something as important as behavior in dogs?  The main reason, it is easier to continue believing something we always have than to challenge ourselves to reflect and think about new possibilities.  Our brains are hard wired to take the easy road.  It is work, time and effort to consider other options.  And wow when it comes to dogs we do have tons of other options to consider.  Instead of believing what your trusted family members told you about how to house train dogs by rubbing their nose in urine – DO NOT DO THIS, we now have entire institutes and universities studying dog behavior and sharing with us all this wonderful, current information.  Yale University has the Canine Cognition Center a research facility with a team of Yale scientists studying how dogs think about the world. The center is devoted to learning more about canine psychology how dogs perceive their environment, solve problems, and make decisions.   Another big player in the field, Columbia University which hosts the Barnard College Dog Cognition Center where the primary interest is understanding, scientifically, the dog’s experience: what it is like to be a dog.  So what does this mean to us – great news!  We can learn and study the newest scientific findings about dog behavior.  We don’t have to rely on what we think we know about dogs, what was true years ago we can use current scientific findings to guide us on how to implement standardized, fear and pain free training options.  And let’s face it, dogs are a familiar subject matter and people including trainers have strong biases and an intuitive sense that they already know most things about dogs. But do they?  

There are many explanations as to why  we believe what we do.  One being  the illusory truth effect which is the tendency to believe false information to be correct after repeated exposure.[1] . 

Wikipedia reports this phenomenon was first identified in a 1977 study at Villanova University and Temple University.[2][3] When truth is assessed, people rely on whether the information is in line with their understanding or if it feels familiar.   Repetition makes statements easier to process relative to new, unrepeated statements, leading people to believe that the repeated conclusion is more truthful.  

In a 2017 study, researchers discovered that familiarity can overpower rationality and that repetitively hearing that a certain fact is wrong can affect the hearer’s beliefs. Researchers attributed the illusory truth effect’s impact on participants who knew the correct answer to begin with,but were persuaded to believe otherwise through the repetition of a falsehood.  Researches reports Illusory truth effect plays a significant role in such fields as election campaignsadvertisingnews media, and political propaganda.  And I might add the field of dog training.  People have been inundated with statements about dominance theories, dogs needing strong leaders, or dogs exhibiting stubborn behavior, that it is okay to use pain and fear to train dogs.  Prominent people have been saying whatever they wanted with no thought of the consequences or side effects of their statements.   These thoughts have done nothing to improve our relationships with our dog, or the quality of life for dogs, in fact quite the opposite, these thoughts cause deep damage to our relationships with our dogs and the health and wellbeing of many dogs.

There is no scientific data to prove any of these false claims, about dogs needing to understand dominance or leadership.  These theories have simply been repeated so many times that people are believing it to be true.  I wish we could replace the old commercial from Wendy’s that touted “Show me the beef” with “Show me the data!”

Are you feeling overwhelmed yet?  How can you not be?  I really feel for people, working hard to do the best for their dog but confused because there is so much conflicting information.  Conflicting information from vets, from trainers, from family members and the internet.  What is the right answer?  Where to you start? Start with the most current findings. Examine what you believe about your dog. Ask yourself why you believe in a certain way.  The answer of “this is how it has always been done” is not the best answer, even if the source was your wonderful grandmother.   When examining your beliefs ask yourself if there is a baseline belief you can start with and work your way up from there?  Not sure where to start. I suggest starting with empathy and compassion towards your dog and yourself.  Look at your dogs’ behavior with a sense of curiosity and acceptance and leave the judgement behind.  Look to science to find your answers.  Check out Companion Animal Psychology,   current, scientific findings about animals. A  book recommendation, , Wag the Science of Making your Dog happy by Zazie Todd. Both of these resources ar chalk full of data based on science and empathy.  Always keep in mind,  you and your dog are two different species with two different methods of communicating, working to coexist. When feeling frustrated by your dogs’ behavior remember your dog is not giving you a hard time, they are having a hard time. Teach your dog what you want her to do before teaching her what you don’t want her to do. Look at the overwhelming data that indicates pain or fear are never needed for learning, not for any breed of dog or for any animal, ever.  The second thing you can do is to ask yourself questions. “How can I make my dog feel amazing today”? “What can I do for my dog so I am sure my dog is living his best life”?  If you need assistance in your relationship with your dog, reach out to an aversive free trainer.  A trainer committed to both you and your dogs’ comfort and well- being. A solid and happy relationship works because the needs of all involved are considered, on a regular basis.  Don’t rely on what you thought you knew, regularly question your beliefs.  If you will not use the phone you used decades ago, don’t think about your dog using information you learned years ago.  Your dog is counting on you to stay current. 

-Kathleen McClure with The Happier Dog is graduate of the Academy for Dog Trainers also known as the Harvard for dog Trainers, where she earned a certificate in dog training and counseling. She is also a Fear Free Certified® dog trainer with a BA in Psychology.  She has lived with more dogs in her home at any one time than most people will in their entire lifetime. Kathleen has worked with hundreds of families over the years to help them build the relationships they want with their dogs – and that always starts by realizing challenging or “problem” behaviors’ serve a purpose, pinpointing the purpose and devising a plan that works for both the dog and their human companions. Her life purpose is to create empathy for the positions we put dogs in and work with her clients to create your best ever human-dog bond and relationship.

Kathleen McClure is a Certified Trainer and Counselor and  Fear Free Trainer.  She lives with her husband and the large menagerie of foster and rescue dogs and cats.