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Cry wolf: a major misunderstanding about dog behaviour

02 September 2022
9 mins read
Volume 13 · Issue 7
Figure 1. Rather than being status-driven, dogs simply do what might work out well for them.


The notion that dogs are naturally ‘status driven’ and will use aggressive behaviour to gain recognition as ‘top dog’ within the human families they live in is based on outdated research, which has been shown to be significantly flawed. However, the concept has been historically so well-received by society that it continues to drive human—dog interactions that involve using aversive, punishing ways to control pet dog behaviour, with damaging consequences on welfare. Veterinary nurses play an important role in client education, particularly around the alternative approach of reward-based training, however client communications might be jeopardised should they feel neither acknowledged nor connected to the clinic team, and do not believe the veterinary nurse credible. Simply refuting another's long-held belief risks alienating them, as well as them perceiving veterinary professionals to be ‘crying wolf’, presenting oppositional information for their own purpose. Understanding dog behaviour and how human beliefs are formed and strengthened can positively impact welfare, while establishing positive, ongoing client-clinic relationships.

Many veterinary nurses will have experienced owners who, whether aware or not, cite dominance theory (also known as pack theory) regarding interactions with their dogs. Historically, positive punishment — introducing such unappealing consequences for behaving in a particular way it is unlikely a dog behaves this way again — has been used to control unwanted dog behaviour (Cooper et al, 2014). This method of dog training has been widely represented across media platforms for many years, helping it become ingrained within much of society as an effective means of controlling behaviour. Elements of human society have also been created around the psychological threat of punishment, with a range of increasing unappealing penalties incurred for engaging in activity society has deemed unlawful. The concept of using punishment to control behaviour is therefore prominent within human experience.

But dogs do not share our human moral code — they simply behave in ways which work out well for them (Figure 1). So why do many owners still use punishing techniques to train their dogs, and how can veterinary nurses influence alternative forms of interactions with dogs that result in significantly improved welfare?

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