This is a popular time of year to add a pet to the family. But once all the holiday sweaters have been put away and the squeaky toys have been destroyed, the phone begins to ring for animal trainers. As an early Christmas present, animal behaviorist Faye Owen of Atlanta offers several common misconceptions about dogs, along with how to solve the bad behavior.

Misconception No. 1: Dogs respond best when you are 'leader of their pack.'

Plenty of dog trainers have gained popularity by teaching a "pack leader" approach, which calls for people to assert dominance over their canine companions. Owen, who is certified by the Council of Professional Dog Trainers, says this method can do more harm than good, particularly if your dog is already fearful or sensitive. She adds that punishment-based training methods such as prong collars can increase a dog’s stress level, leading to a more anxious pooch over time.

Instead, try this: Introduce structure and routine to help dogs learn house rules. For example, she doesn’t mind allowing a dog on the couch, as long as the animal heeds everyone’s command for it to get down. Also, make sure everyone in the family is consistent about applying the rules.  

“I look at it more as a parenting role,” Owen says. “We don’t need hierarchy because the dogs know we aren’t dogs; we don’t need to communicate in dog language, just provide rules and routine.”

Misconception No. 2: Dog parks provide the perfect environment to teach dogs good socialization skills.

Owen acknowledges that dogs benefit from socializing with other dogs, especially when they are very young. But resist the temptation to let your dog run wild at the park until it has shown good manners around other dogs. Otherwise, you could be asking for trouble.

“The dog park should be a place for well-socialized dogs to go and play,” she says. “Do not take an unsocialized, 2-year-old dog to a dog park to learn how to play. That’s not going to happen there.”

Instead, try this: Start with small playgroups in the backyard, starting with one dog at a time. Go slowly and monitor the dogs’ interaction, keeping each session short and sweet. Over time, you can add dogs to the mix.

“If you have a shy child, you don’t just go to a playground on a Saturday afternoon,” Owen says. “Do the same with a dog. Start with one dog at a time.”

Misconception No. 3: Don’t have a dog park? Dog daycare is just as good.

Dog daycare facilities provide a great option for well-socialized pooches to play with their furry friends. But Owen notes that not all dog daycares are created equally. Unlike childcare facilities, dog daycares are not regulated or licensed in the United States. Anyone can open a facility without having any experience with dogs, and some daycares have as many as 50 dogs playing at a time.

“Dogs don’t roam in packs of 50,” Owen says. “If 50 dogs are running wild — eight hours a day — that’s an unnatural environment, especially if [the dogs-to-people] ratio is off. They cannot intervene if there is a bully or a dog is overly aroused.”

Try this instead: Seek referrals from pet owners and visit facilities before dropping off your dog for the day. Owen prefers facilities that maintain smaller numbers or groups dogs based on age, size and temperament. Also, pay attention to the number of adults monitoring packs throughout the day.

“If you have one person monitoring 10 dogs, they have no chance once a multi-dog fight happens,” she says. “It can quickly become a gang mentality.”

Misconception No. 4: With a big backyard, you can take fewer walks.

Schedules change, people get busy and those daily walks frequently get cut from the to-do list once things get busy. When people replace daily walks with backyard time, dogs don’t always get the message. Owen gets calls about inappropriate potty habits or destructive behavior that are generally caused by boredom. It’s a common issue that can be difficult to correct.

“Just because you have a backyard doesn’t mean [the dog] knows the backyard is the place to go and not the house,” she says, adding that most dogs do not run around the yard to exercise by themselves.

Try this instead: Start by establishing regular house training rules, then reward the behavior you want to see. Some dogs may simply need a little company in the backyard. Most people let the dog out and then offer a treat when it returns after a potty break, says Owen.To the dog, that’s a reward for returning rather than a reward for doing its business. For dogs that are accustomed to relieving themselves during walks, the leash may serve as a trigger that it’s potty time. Escort them to the backyard on a leash, and have plenty of treats handy for the moment when the dog gets the message.

Even if you do manage to turn the backyard into potty time, Owen stresses the importance of those daily walks through the neighborhood. Not only does it stave off boredom and possibly destructive behavior, those walks serve as a social communication outlet. Dogs interpret and leave messages — in the form of urination — for other dogs. Make sure your dog stays connected!

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