Liz Marden owns and runs Nature’s Therapies, offering animal behaviour and training as well as Reiki therapy for both people and animals. Liz has worked in the animal industry for over 10 years with a wide range of animals and in a variety of roles, from a kennel supervisor and behaviourist for the RSPCA to an FE Animal Management College Lecturer. Liz has a passion for understanding animal behaviour and uses only positive reinforcement methods. She has also been a Reiki practitioner since 2013, trained in Jikiden and Sekhem Reiki. Liz helps us to put us straight on a few 'myths' out there surrounding dog behaviour...
1. Is it true that… you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?
No, you can absolutely teach any aged dog or animal new tricks! The only difference is that an old dog may take slightly longer to learn the behaviour than a puppy. This can be due to life experiences and behaviours that have been ingrained in the dog all of its life – it may take a little longer to break an undesirable behaviour for example, as it has been practised for years. Dogs of all ages can enjoy learning a whole new range of skills and tricks. Just be mindful of the reward in terms of nutritional content.
2. Is it true that… humans must position themselves as ‘alpha’ in the household?
No this is false and a real bug bear of positive reinforcement trainers and behaviourists. The term 'being alpha' came from a wolf pack hierarchy system which was coined by Dr David Mech known as the Dominance Theory. It stated that wolves used a hierarchy in order to maintain a healthy pack, it has an alpha male and female who are the leaders and in charge of the whole pack and who use aggression and force to maintain control and subordination from the others. As dogs were an evolutionary relative of the wolf it was deemed that this was the most natural and best way to train your animal, and if you did not demonstrate alpha characteristics to your dog they would try to dominate you instead and you wouldn’t have control in your house. Unfortunately comparing a dog to a wolf is the same as comparing humans to chimps. Yes they are classified in the same branch, however dogs have moved so far along the evolutionary tree to wolves that their behaviours cannot be compared in the same way. Also, and in my view most importantly, Dr Mech actually came back later and disproved his own theory. The Dominance Theory has been disproved in wolf packs. There is not one ruler as such, each wolf has strengths and weaknesses and the pack switch around depending on what skill is required at that moment in time. They work as a family unit, rather than a dictatorship. Your dog doesn’t plot your demise while you are out at work and they are not trying to take over the house by sitting on your sofa or bed. The truth is those places smell like you as you spend a lot of time there and this can be comforting to your animal. Yes you should not let your dog run out of the house before you, but that is for safety reasons – you don’t know what is out of the door, there could be a car or someone standing there who doesn’t wish to be bowled over by an excitable ball of fluff!
3. Is it true that… a dog is happy if it’s wagging its tail?
Unfortunately this is a misconception that can be quite dangerous. People assume that all dogs wag their tails when they are happy and so if you see a waggy tail dog then they are safe to touch. This can lead to a huge amount of stress if the dog is in fact asking for space and dog bites can occur. Behaviours – such as wagging a tail – are context specific and so the whole picture needs to be taken into account, looking at the whole dog’s body language rather than just one individual part to ascertain how they might be feeling. Yes dogs do wag their tails when they are happy, but they also wag them when they are feeling other emotions.
4. Is it true that… rescue dogs are more difficult to train?
No, this question links well to the first question. Rescue dogs can be all shapes, sizes, breeds and ages and they can have experienced all kinds of different things in their lives depending on how and why they ended up in the rescue centre. They are not harder to tra