Dog and cat behavior is something that both delights and perplexes pet owners. No doubt all of us have heard a number of different opinions from well meaning observers about our pet’s behavior. However, how do we know with certainty what is true and what is false? Unfortunately many wives tales exist when it comes to pet behavior. In veterinary medicine, information is critically evaluated. Evidence-based medicine is applied in the care and treatment of physical ailments in pets. Critical evaluation and evidence-based information should apply to our pet’s behavior and training as well. Throughout the next few weeks, we will address three of the most common misconceptions regarding cat and dog behavior.

One of the most commonly heard and shared myths is humans should be dominant in the pet-human relationship. Common misconceptions include not allowing a dog to sleep on the bed or couch. Many believe doing so will allow your dog to believe they are dominant. Another misconception is the advice to alpha roll a dog so they understand who is boss. In that same vein, pet owners are often advised to behave dominantly over their dog to encourage them to behave and understand who in the relationship is the alpha.

The truth is dogs create dominance hierarchies only among their own species. They do not do so with other species. Dominance among other dogs occurs due to one dog being more deferential and not assertive. For example, if two household dogs are given a rawhide, they each retreat to their own corner of a room. The dog who finishes first approaches the other taking his chew. Through body posturing, the first dog signals to the second dog she cares more about the rawhide. The second dog decides he is okay with this arrangement allowing the other dog to have it. No altercation is necessary because both dogs have established a hierarchy agreement.

Let’s consider the next day, while fetching a ball the second dog decides he desires the ball more. Through body language, the second dog signals his intentions. The first dog is okay with this arrangement. This is dominance-submission and is agreed to by both parties. Positions may change depending on the circumstances.

When it comes to the human-pet relationship, dogs naturally defer to their pet owner. For example, you say, “Sit.” If your dog understands your command and the outcome is desirable for them, they will comply. Structure, predictability, and reinforcing desirable behavior are key in establishing an environment where your dog can thrive. If your dog doesn’t do what you ask, chances are good they simply do not understand your command. Their refusal is not because they wish to show they are dominant. More likely, they are confused, distracted, anxious or simply not appropriately trained. Therefore, if your dog is not listening and following instructions, consider possible reasons other than the myth he or she is displaying dominance in your relationship.