As part of my studies into Canine Behaviour, I am often invited to view webinars with influential people in the dog world, and more recently the ISCP were lucky enough to put on a webinar with Marc Bekoff.
Marc is professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and is a Fellow of the Animal Behavior Society and a past Guggenheim Fellow.
More recently, he published the fascinating book "Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do", which delves deeper into canine behaviour and the reasons behind specific behaviours.
During this webinar, Marc attempted to dispel some of the more common myths about our canine companions and so I decided to delve into this further and include some of my own thoughts on the subject alongside Marc's expert opinions.
"Dogs don't display dominance"
A display of dominance doesn't necessary mean threatening or fighting with another dog. It's not all about mounting each other or rolling each other over. Dominance can be much more subtle. Something as simple as one dog influencing another dog's behaviour. Though fighting and aggression are often perceived as the biggest signs of dominance due to their ability to quickly grab the attention of owners, it is actually more uncommon that the more subtle signs, which can include guarding, nipping and even simple eye contact.
Dominance is one of those issues that dog owners and trainers are often reticent to discuss as it can be easily misunderstood - I've spent longer writing this section than any other! If a dog displays dominance to another dog and that makes the other dog back down, then surely we can use this technique with our dogs right? Wrong! Dog to dog interaction is a whole different ball game than dog to human interaction. Dogs cannot perceive a different species as a leader of a pack and therefore dominance in terms of social hierarchy only really works with members of the same species.
So in short, dogs do display dominance in their canine relationships, but it does not mean we can or should use punishment and/or harsh training methods to try and replicate this within our canine-human relationship, because that's just not how it works.
"Dogs don't feel guilt"
According to the expert, there have been no formal studies on whether dogs actually display guilt. Whilst there have been studies to suggest that we as humans are not good at reading guilt in dogs (facial expressions, body language etc) this has been misinterpreted and reported by many outlets as a study that proves dogs don't feel guilt, when in fact there are actually no studies that prove that.
Research as recent as 2018 looking at brain imaging and jealousy in dogs showed that in the presence of another dog being given food, the same parts of the canine brain lit up as would in a human experiencing jealousy, so it is possible for dogs to experience emotions in this way.
Marc's suggestion is that perhaps the future in finding out if dog's do genuinely feel guilt, is also in brain imaging.
"Dogs live in the present"
The behaviour of abused rescue dogs proves that past experience can influence behaviour and therefore dogs cannot simply live in the present. The way our dogs act when they watch us in certain scenarios also suggests that they have comprehension of what will happen in the future too e.g. if we are getting ready to go on a walk, they may begin to get excited, or go to fetch a lead. If we sit down at a desk ready to work etc they may get comfortable on their bed, knowing we need quiet time.
"Dogs love us unconditionally" and "Dogs are a man's best friend"
Though we would love to think they do, Marc argues that dogs actually don't always love us unconditionally. Many rescue dog owners will know that it can be very difficult to interact with a previously abused dog in the early stages of rehabilitation, and depending on what has happened in their lives, they may not ever show any signs of affection or love to the human who rescues them. It's likely that over time they may grow a relationship, but as a species, Marc argues that dogs are not unconditional lovers by nature. Certain situations in a dog's life can lead to a distrust in humans that will outweigh their love for them, no matter how much their life improves after meeting their new carer.
Obviously it's likely some dogs will be our best friend, I certainly feel my dog is mine! However, Marc's argument is that we cannot refer to them as such, because largely across the board, they are not. Some humans don't know dogs, understand them, or care to, and therefore are not close to them in a way that dog lovers might be.
"We shouldn't hug our dogs"
A New York Times article in 2016 argued that we shouldn't be hugging our dogs and should simply pat them instead.
Marc's opinion is that this is dependent on the dog's personality and I am inclined to agree. I'm of the opinion that you can hug your dog if they like to be hugged. If hugging your dog makes them uncomfortable and they show you even the smallest signs of discomfort, such as looking away or licking their lips, then obviously find a more appropriate way of giving them the affection they enjoy. Contact is usually important for reinforcing and maintaining the social bond dogs have with us, so by not hugging them at all when they like it could damage that relationship. But equally, forcing your dog into a hug they don't want isn't ideal or advised either.
"Talking about 'The Dog' "
Marc argues that 'The Dog' as a whole isn't a thing. As an example, trainers, owners and dog walkers alike will know, what works for Fido, won't work for Bailey. The simple reason why is that they are uniquely different individuals. Marc's own research on wild wolves and coyotes showed that even littermate personalities varied right after birth. Pups had marked differences in behaviour despite having the same parents and having lived in the same hole in the ground for many weeks before coming out into the open. Some pups were shy, some were bold and at this point in their lives, nothing else could have influenced the differences in their behaviour.
"Play fighting always or frequently escalates into serious aggression"
Having spent much of his time collecting informal data at dog parks and studying play between dogs, Marc argues that even in wolves and coyotes, as well as dogs, it is rare that play fighting will escalate into serious fighting. When studying at dog parks, Marc found that play fighting escalated in real aggression in approximately 2% of cases. The only formal study into this kind of behaviour found approx 0.5% of the time, play fights would escalate into real dog fights.
So why does the myth exist?
Any kind of fighting grabs attention. Owners will stop in their tracks when they hear a bark, a growl or a whine. Due to many owners not fully understanding dog behaviour and canine body language, it's easy for people to focus on the negative side of allowing dogs to engage in rough play. Marc believes that though it is an area that needs more study, a lot of the time the escalation into serious fighting only occurs when there is human interference and largely, the play will break off naturally before it gets too rough.
"Dogs shouldn't sleep in bedrooms, on or in beds"
For this myth, Marc referenced an article in the New York Times that said if dogs keep you up in the night, including young dogs, old dogs and sick dogs, then they shouldn't be in the bedroom full stop. He argues that if anything, those dogs need us more than other types as they can be more vulnerable. For example, many owners who read this article defended their position on having dogs in the bedroom, especially ill dogs who could've passed away without quick intervention, and being in the room with them actually allowed them to act quickly and save their lives.
My personal position on this is that if a dog wants to be with you and you're happy for that dog to be there, then why not. Research into mental health and depression have found that having a pet of any kind in bed with you can be beneficial to mood and alternative research has shown that having a dog in the bedroom does not necessarily compromise sleep quality.
At the end of the webinar, Marc concluded that we need to use what we know about dogs on their behalf. After all, I haven't managed to teach my dog to read yet!
He said that we need to use the science we have responsibly and that we don't need to embellish the emotional or intellectual lives of dogs, as some articles do. He argues that there are things we know about dogs and things we don't and what we do know is that they are highly evolved mammals who do in fact care what happens to them in life. They are not just here to please us, they are not always our best friends and don't necessarily love us unconditionally, but if you work hard to learn who they are as individuals, you can develop a meaningful and mutual relationship and tolerance for one another.