Part 2: Myths about puppies
From: The 100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs
Copyright 2009 by Alexandra Semyonova -- All Rights Reserved
Myth 25: You can teach puppies to share with each other by
making them eat together out of one bowl.
Copyright 2009 by Alexandra Semyonova -- All Rights Reserved
This is a myth that some (lazy?) breeders like to believe in. This myth is not only incorrect, it can also
One of dogs’ basic social rules is, ‘We enter each other’s personal zone only with permission.’ There
is also the subsidiary rule: ‘You’re allowed to keep what you have in that zone.’ Socially skilled adult
dogs don’t normally take things from each other by force. If it’s in your zone, it’s yours until you
relinquish it. These rules are not instinctive or innate. Dogs have to learn them. Puppies generally
learn these rules with great ease. This learning starts the moment the pup is born. Each pup finds a
nipple on Mum’s belly, and gets all absorbed in eating his meal. If another pup comes along and
displaces him, the pup finds another nipple just a couple inches away. Once the pups are big enough
to accompany Mum to the dump, they find that food is spread about everywhere. They don’t need to
steal from each other to survive. (Remember this: the biggest causes of death among free-living
dogs are cars, parasites, and being shot, poisoned, or otherwise killed by humans — not starvation.)
Given the puppy mortality rate (between fifty and ninety-five percent), they are outnumbered by
adults, who will teach them about social distances right from the start. The seed is planted for
peaceful social interactions even in the presence of food, for willingness to compromise, and for the
willingness to respect the other dog’s personal zone.
If we make the puppies in our household eat from one bowl together, we disturb this natural learning
process. We create a situation in which the pups do have to compete, one in which they do have to
take food from each other in order to eat at all. We force them to enter each other’s personal zone
without permission and take what the other has in order to survive. While they are very small, they
might not notice this, because they all fit easily around the bowl at once. However, once they get big
enough that it gets hard to fit all their heads in the bowl at the same time, then eating starts to
become a kind of war. This situation lays the foundation for two serious problems later in life.
First, there will be a problem with other dogs. The pup learns, at the shared food bowl, not to respect
the other’s personal zone. He must push into the other’s personal zone in order to eat — i.e. to keep
from dying. The other puppies have to do the same. The fact that there’s only one bowl makes
compromise impossible. Because the puppy’s brain is growing its basic structures and neural
connections now, he will also be forming his basic orientation in life. He will end up oriented to
competition instead of compromise. He will not hesitate to enter the other’s personal zone if there’s
something there he wants. He will expect the other to do the same to him. As an adult, this dog will be
constantly getting into unnecessary conflicts — either because he pushes into the other dog’s space
and meets resistance, or because he’s paranoid the other dog will and lashes out in advance. The
poor customer who bought the pup doesn’t know the breeder believed in this myth, and ends up
wondering what he did to deserve such a difficult dog.
Second, there may well also be a problem with humans. The puppy learns, at the shared food bowl,
that the presence of others while he eats forms a threat to getting enough sustenance. The activity
‘eating’ ends up anchored in the pup’s brain as a stressed and competitive business, a fight for
physical survival. Someone else around while he eats becomes a learned signal that loss is
imminent. And the anticipation of losing a necessary life resource arouses aggression. The puppy will
be in an aggressive mood around food, because food is associated with the need to compete with
others and with a fear of loss. This dog will, as an adult, remain tense and sensitive when he’s eating.
He may defend his food fiercely against anyone who happens to walk by. This behaviour tends to
expand itself to inedible objects because the dog is constantly worried about his personal zone. He
growls about a sock he happens to be lying near, or a Kleenex someone left on the floor, and his
human is totally baffled. He wonders what caused this behaviour, and why the dog lashes out at him
about a sock, since he’s never taken anything away from the dog.
Fact: It is a big mistake to make pups eat together from one shared food bowl. They won’t learn to
share the way we want our children to, quite the contrary.
P.S. If the pups eat from separate bowls, you can monitor whether each is getting enough to eat and
whether one of them is off her food for some reason.
Note: Always watch how the breeder feeds the pups before you decide to buy one.
On to part three: myths about aggression
Possession and the personal zone: Touchy dogs
Socially skilled adult dogs normally don’t take things away from each other by
force. However, we’ve all seen dogs at dog parks who don’t seem to know this
rule. The ball a dog’s owner brought to the park rolls away a good distance and
ends up outside his personal zone. Some other dog grabs the ball and runs off
with it. Or the dog’s owner throws the ball and a second dog manages to speed
in and get to the ball way before the first dog has dog-legal possession. In both
cases the first dog pursues this second dog, very angry, determined to get his
ball back, if need be by force. This can be very surprising to the second dog, who
does know the rules and resists having them broken. It can lead to quite
upsetting-looking fights. What is going on?
In my experience, dogs who do this have inadvertently been taught to do so by
their owners. Put more precisely, their owners have prevented them from
learning and accepting this dog rule. The human takes a ball to the park and is,
herself, possessive about the ball. After all, it cost her two pounds and a trip to
the shops, and she brought it to play with her own puppy. When another dog
manages to get hold of the ball fair and square, according to the dog rules, this
human goes over to the other dog, takes the ball back, and gives it back to her
pup. She does this every time the pup loses possession of the ball. She also
does this if the puppy loses a stick he was playing with. After all, it was his stick,
and it’s so unfair that the bigger dog grabbed it just because the pup can’t run
so fast yet. This human taking things back from another dog is step one, where
the pup learns that he always gets his ball, toy or stick back. Step one also
means the pup never learns to deal cheerfully with the frustration of losing the
object fair and square, or to seek some peaceful and dog-legal means of
Step two is that the other dog is quite surprised to have something taken out his
dog-legal possession just like that. He looks around in amazement and sees
that the pup now has it. The dog’s brain isn’t complex enough to understand that
this is the human’s fault and that the pup doesn’t know any better. Very likely he
will jump all over the pup for the pup’s lack of manners. Normally, if the pup had
gone to try to get the thing back himself, he would have got a warning not to
approach too close, and certainly not without all kinds of signals that he wasn’t
considering theft. The pup would have been able to avoid a whacking. As it is,
his owner returned the item to him, so he is back in possession and thinks this
is okay. He is very surprised when the adult dog suddenly jumps all over him.
His brain is not complex enough to understand the human behaviour that led up
to this, nor what the adult dog is thinking. He doesn’t know the chance to be
warned about theft was taken away — skipped — due to his owner’s actions. As
a result, he learns that other dogs jump all over him without warning when he
Step three is that this same owner is concerned about her image in the eyes of
other humans at the park. When her puppy gains possession of another dog’s
object fair and square, she marches over and takes it away from him. She gives
it back to the other dog. After all, this is the only way not to look like she’s
favouring her puppy above others by insisting on her own £2 ball — and to keep
from looking like a molly-coddler total cheapskate. Again, with their non-complex
brains, dogs don’t understand this. The pup just sees that now the other dog
suddenly has the item without any kind of social interchange having taken place,
again a skipped step. His owner took something away from him and now it’s
suddenly over there. He misses the experience of being allowed to keep what
he has. He has no way of knowing this isn’t the other dog’s doing somehow.
By the time this pup is grown up, he expects other dogs to jump all over him any
moment when he has an object. He also thinks the object can disappear
suddenly, materialising in the other’s mouth. He doesn’t know how to get it
back. He has no idea he’s supposed to let the other dog keep an object. Touchy
already while he has the object, frustrated when the other gets it, unaware of the
rules, this is the dog who seeks conflict when another dog takes his object fair
Adult dogs do sometimes take things away from a puppy by growling and
staring at the pup, making her move away and relinquish the object. Sometimes
an adult dog will make a puppy move away from her food bowl. Not all adult
dogs do this. The objects they do it with vary. They won’t do it all the time, just
occasionally. This seems to be a kind of bullying, but it also seems to be part of
the parenting process (production of functioning, non-aggressive system parts).
I have seen many adult dogs bully a puppy this way several times, then leave the
pup alone after that — as if the adult is satisfied the pup will avoid conflict, so
now she can keep what she has.
There seems to be a moment in a pup’s life when the pup decides the grown up
rules apply to her too, and she doesn’t have to take it anymore. As far as I can
tell, this is a fairly reliable behavioural indication of the onset of adolescence.
The pup (who is now five or six months) starts to growl when an adult dog
approaches while she chews on her ball or while she eats. She may suddenly
lash out if the adult dog grabs the ball they were both chasing right out from
under her nose for the millionth time (which she never got annoyed about
before). She air-snaps, or she symbolically jumps all over the other dog (whose
size she now nearly equals or even surpasses). Many people are taken aback
when this happens. They worry that their always-sweet puppy is undergoing
some mysterious change and becoming a fighter. The adult dog can
sometimes be amazed too, because the script has suddenly changed. But the
adult dog will understand what’s going on and will leave this young dog (who
has announced that she’s no longer a pup) alone in the future, allowing her the
respect of the adult dog rules.
Watch out for observing only your own dogs
Some people live with a group of dogs in which one is always taking things
away from the others. They conclude that this is normal behaviour. Because
their other dogs tolerate it, they think the Grabber must be the dominant dog and
the leader. They then think that all dog groups will have a Grabber — that all
groups will tolerate having a bully around.
When the Grabber gets out into the wider world, he is suddenly having
arguments with lots of other dogs in the park. His behaviour upsets them. It
might scare them. If he’s small, he gets jumped on or even chased off the
playing field. If the Grabber is a big and pushy dog, other dogs might try to stay
as far as they can from him, or even flee the field when he arrives. Big or small,
others start to avoid the Grabber or make him avoid them, refusing one way or
another to interact with him.
You can’t generalise about normal domestic canine social organisation just by
watching your own group of dogs, nor in fact by watching any single group that
has no choice but to live together, or who pretty much interact only with each
other. An isolated group of dogs may arrive at some comfortable or
uncomfortable equilibrium, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve done it by
universally normal canine means. It doesn’t tell you how theirs fits into general
canine behaviour. The rules they follow may not be universal rules, nor will
those rules necessarily work with strangers. Some of them may be human-
generated rules. Other dogs in the world may not know these rules. Before you
can draw conclusions about the behaviour of dogs in general, you have to watch
many, many dogs interacting. Dogs who do and dogs who don’t know each
other, who were raised by other people in other situations, and who are free to
leave the space if they want or need to.
The best measure of whether a dog’s behaviour is normal is by watching how
other, well-socialised dogs react to it.
Myth 28: Commands are the most important thing my puppy
will ever learn.
The truth is, the most important things your puppy will ever learn are impulse control and bite
inhibition. We’ve invented all these myths about dogs being wolves and wolves (thus dogs) living in a
kind of fascist system, in which everyone has to do what the higher-up says, and in particular what
the creature at the apex of the pyramid says. Others have drawn whirls and swirls and criss-cross
lines, still basically drawing a system of bullying (see Myth 15). Having read this far, you now know
that dogs are not wolves but dogs, and that they live in complex, highly flexible, self-organising
systems, without a central authority, and that their systems are based on building predictability and
trust. These dog social systems preserve peace by finding mutually acceptable balances for all
participants (see Myth 11). It’s not a dictatorship or a bully system, but a complex web of mutually
chosen compromises, arrived at one-on-one between all present.
In order to participate in this dog system, a puppy has to learn a number of things. He has to learn to
be reticent about using aggression. He has to learn that social peace and companionship are
resources to be valued, which he can lose if he impulsively goes for the purely material stuff in life.
He has to learn the rules dogs live by (no real aggression, don’t approach without permission, and
respect each other’s preferences where possible). In Myth 12, we saw that dogs’ body language is all
about expressing and exchanging information about dogs’ inner states, so they can take each other’s
feelings into account as they interact. In Myth 13, we explained how even ‘fights’ are (normally)
actually about trust-building between dogs.
Impulse control is the first, main cornerstone of how the whole thing works. This means that a dog
learns not to just follow any old impulse he has, but that he first runs it past the parts of his brain that
dampen the impulse and conceive a socially appropriate and acceptable plan of action. This means
taking that nanosecond to consider the consequences of an action, and to adjust it accordingly
before your muscles even have time to move.
Without impulse control, there is no bite inhibition. And a dog that doesn’t (or can’t) inhibit his bite
can’t take part in any canine social system. He’s just too dangerous for the others present, too likely
to destroy the system by destroying its participants. A dog also needs impulse control to take part in
the back-and-forth of signals by which dogs arrive at trust, compromise and social stability. A back-
and-forth can only take place, after all, if you’re willing to stop and listen to what the other says
before doing anything. He needs impulse control as he moves on a field (or any space) where other
dogs are, keeping an eye on the individual personal zone each other dog needs to feel okay. You
can whizz by within three inches of Patch, but Prince needs three feet, and when Rover has a
ball the whizzing dog had better give him three times as much space as when he doesn’t. If the
whizzer does bump Rover when Rover has a ball, both of them need bite inhibition (thus impulse
control) to work out the argument without hurting each other or their relationship. It’s impulse control
that is behind wanting the ball Rover has, but trying to wheedle it out of him rather than just take it,
and behind deciding the friendship is worth more than the ball after all.
You don’t have to worry about how to teach your puppy these things, because they are part of
learning how to be a dog. Only dogs can teach a pup how to be a dog. So it is of essential
importance that you allow your puppy not only to play with other puppies, but also with socially skilled
adult dogs. It’s essential that you allow the adult dogs to do parenting behaviour with your puppy,
which means sometimes giving him a symbolic whacking (see Myth 6). Now, don’t go thinking, ‘That’s
all well and good, but those are things he’ll need with other dogs. For life with me, the commands are
the most important.’ Because impulse control and bite inhibition are essential doggy characteristics
that make it possible for a dog to live with us. No matter what other obnoxious things you won’t mind
your dog doing, if he doesn’t learn to control his impulses and inhibit his bite, your life with him won’t
be safe, either. Not all of his behaviour will be dangerous. He’ll bounce around the room, reacting to
whatever stimuli come in and the impulses they arouse in him. Much of this will be harmless, though
annoying. The trouble is, if a conflict arises, he may well impulsively lash out — unable to consider
the consequences, unable to wait and watch your own signals first. When he lashes out (even if you
just step on his toe on accident), he’ll bite too hard — not because he necessarily wants to, but just
because he never learned to control it. Even giving him a treat can be dangerous to your fingers and
The third most important thing your puppy will ever learn is trust in human beings. This is something
only humans can teach him.
When dogs threaten, they are telling the other party that they feel unsure of his or her intentions. If
your pup learns to trust humans — and that means that you and everyone else you allow near him
have to behave in a trustworthy way — he won’t feel the need to threaten when a person approaches
him. Behaving in a trustworthy way means respecting the dog rules. It means not approaching without
signalling somehow that you have good intentions, and stopping in your tracks to reassure him if you
see your approach is worrying him. It means not taking things away from him and not using violence
with him. In a nutshell, it means allowing your pup to feel safe with you and other humans.
A dog who has learned the things I name in this myth will not bite you too hard because you step on
his toe by accident. He won’t grab your food off your plate and then bite you for objecting. He will
incline to be tolerant of various mistakes you make or things you do that bother him. This dog will be
looking to preserve the relationship with you and the social peace, keeping the little social system the
two of you occupy together stable and safe, and he will be willing to compromise (i.e. sacrifice much)
to do so. If for some reason a human does make him very worried about what’s coming next, he will
use all the warnings he knows to give the human a chance to avoid a direct confrontation. If he
lashes out, he will do it reticently, controlled, dosing it exactly according to his estimation of the
danger the human presents.
Though it’s important to his safety that he eventually learn to come when you call him, and though it’s
convenient if you can ask him to sit or lie down somewhere and even to stay that way for a while,
these things are trivial by comparison.
Fact: What it comes down to is that the most important thing your pup will ever
learn is to be a dog according to the rules dogs follow, and that humans will follow
these reasonable and peaceful rules, too. The cornerstones are impulse control, bite
inhibition and trust in us. Aside from making sure he learns these essential things,
you can also teach him a command or two.
On to part three: myths about aggression