5 Common Mix-Ups We Make With Dogs

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Tommy BahammaA couple weekends back, I had the pleasure to attend a lecture presented by Sarah Kalnajs. She has over ten years experience working in canine behavior, training, and research. She’s also the owner of Blue Dog Training & Behavior in Madison, Wisconsin. In addition to her private practice, Sarah’s the president of the Wisconsin American Eskimo Rescue and produced a highly praised DVD series, “Language of Dogs” and “Am I Safe”.

A popular speaker and freelance writer, Sarah presents seminars nationwide on topics relating to dog training and behavior. She has been interviewed by BBC radio, NBC television, Wisconsin Public Radio, Women’s Health & Fitness magazine, and Honolulu magazine, and has written articles for APDT Chronicle of the Dog, Madison Magazine, Allpets, and other publications.

Sarah covered five different areas of human misunderstanding and appropriately titled the presentation, “The Five Faux Paws”. Here’s her list of the common mix-ups we make that can lead to behavior problems with our dogs:

  1. Lack of understanding of a dog’s body language and their sensory system
  2. Terminology troubles
  3. Freedom vs. control
  4. Lack of understanding of how dogs think and learn
  5. Inappropriate or excessive use of punishment

As a participant of this talk, I sat in on 12+ hours of discussion, but then again I find dogs to be really cool and fun to learn about. To unpack these points now would be a lot to consume so I thought I’d give the broadest sense of the what each bullet meant and in the comments below we could dive into more detail or we can add any of these topics to our blog at a later date.

Poor Understanding of a Dog’s Body Language
Sarah used a ton of video to illustrate all the ways we improperly greet dogs but her demonstration with stranger from the crowd was super effective at kicking off this conversation. She brought a volunteer up front, then welcomed her and pulled the stranger towards herself, putting her arms around the guest, taking the opportunity to sniff and twirl the volunteer’s hair through her own fingers. She moved her arms down around the unknown person’s hips and swayed with her. She rubbed the strangers shoulders and back and even kissed her face. Got me rethinking some of my recent interactions.

Terminology Troubles
Kiki, our favorite dog trainer, once said, “Labels create circular logic that gets in the way of behavior change.” This was exactly Sarah’s point.

Freedom vs. Control
Sarah equated dogs roaming free without supervision to a couple of teenagers alone with a six-pack of beer, some cigarettes, a box of condoms, and four pounds of candy. Here’s where I learned the three key things a dog DOES need: predictability, choice, and control.

Not Knowing How Dogs Think and Learn
A lot of time was spent breaking out the pros and cons of anthropomorphism as it relates to our dogs. And I learned a new word: umwelt. In psychology, umwelt means the environmental factors, collectively, that are capable of affecting the behavior of an animal or individual. Ever been to a dog’s birthday party? Have any of you seen Chauncey’s closet? (Rover-Timer newbie’s: Chauncey is my dog.)

Inappropriate Punishment
What is a dog understanding or learning when you’re flipping them over at the dog park? How does this behavior impact the bond you have with your dog? Sarah discussed the compounding effects of stress and arousal when inappropriately and excessively punishing a dog.

Here are my take aways from Sarah’s seminar:

  • Balance adequate activity with adequate rest
  • Create an environment that has routine and stability within limits
  • Use different positive reinforcements to achieve acceptable outlets for any dog’s energy
  • Keep learning! Understanding a dog’s sensory system will exercise the dog’s mind

Throw this blogger a bone. Comment below! 

What did you learn from this overview? What do you want to learn more about?

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Comments (1)


Great post and great takeaways, Julia! To give credit where it's due, I must point to the work of Dr. Susan Friedman and her professional course on applied behavior analysis for animal professionals. She actually heads up a campaign called Unlabel Me, an effort to get unhelpful interpretive terms out of the process of analyzing and changing behavior and encourage behavior professionals to look objectively at the behavior and the environmental conditions around it: https://sites.google.com/site/reticentarts/unlabel-me And in case you were wondering, yes, there's an app for that! http://behaviorworks.org/htm/downloads_appinstructions.html

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