Dog Myths—Debunked!

Should you yelp when your puppy nips you? What does it mean when your dog sits on your foot? If you give your dog table scraps, are you teaching him to beg? And are dogs really wolves? The Dog Trainer debunks 4 popular myths.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
6-minute read
Episode #157

How I wish there were a Snopes.com just for dog-related rumors and myths. But since there isn’t one, I do my best to reality-check and debunk myths whenever they come up. This week, four myths or part-myths, ranging from the laughable to “Well, I can kind of see why this seems reasonable, but …” Just to kill the suspense, the world won’t end if your dog sits on your foot.

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1. To Teach Your Puppy Not to Nip, Yelp When He Does It

Some dog myths are eye-rollingly stupid, but this is not among them. Watch littermates at play; if one nips hard or otherwise gets too rough, his play partner may yelp and briefly break off the interaction. It seems reasonable and natural to try to communicate with our puppies in the same way – the yelp is familiar and they’ll understand it.

Except that for a significant percentage of our Puppalinis, the human yelp seems to have exactly the wrong effect. You yelp, and Puppy Excitable reacts by making a big thought balloon of YAY and nipping you again. Harder, because apparently that squeal was just such a thrill.

Why is this so? It’s been suggested that human yelps sound like prey, but as far as I know nobody has ever done a sound analysis comparing human yelps with the cries of animals that dogs might actually eat. As long as we’re guessing, my guess is that among puppies, the yelp is part of a whole communicative package that includes body posture and facial expression. A yelp on its own might be like a single syllable without the rest of the long word it belongs to. As for replicating the rest of your puppy’s body language, go look at yourself and him in a mirror to see why this is a lost cause.  

Some canine signals do translate – direct eye contact, for instance, is a threat behavior between dogs. Most pet dogs appear to have learned that human stares are not a threat, but plenty of skittish dogs will bark and lunge if your gaze lingers on theirs. For your nippy Puppalini, though, try a calm “Oops” and immediately fold your arms, go still, and look away for a few seconds. And preempt nips by offering her a legal chew toy to mouth whenever you play with her.

There is no end to the number of dog behaviors that human beings have decided are signs of a palace coup.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).