About the book
As an animal officer I was shocked to find how accepted information about dogs actually led to trouble for dog owners. Bad things were happening to responsible dog owners and their "good" dogs. It wasn't until after the injury, after the lawsuit, after the dog was euthanized that dog owners called, often in tears, wanting to know why. With People Training for Good Dogs you can avoid the most common pitfalls for dog owners just like you and your family. Using real life case stories, you will have the information to navigate safely through your life with your beloved companion.
Click here for Melissa's discussion about the book!
By Laurie Higgins CONTRIBUTING WRITER March 04, 2012 Dogs are such a popular fixture in most homes that it's surprising how little most people actually know about them. Pet owners tend to choose a breed they are familiar with or find attractive, but the generalizations that breeders and the public make about the different breeds perpetuate myths that are not only incorrect, but also dangerous.
Dog handling instructor Melissa Berryman says that she shared some of the common misperceptions about dogs before she was the animal control officer for the town of Falmouth from 1993 to 1998. But those five years changed the way she thought about dogs and their owners. She now believes there are no bad dogs, just untrained owners.
Correcting Misperceptions about dogs 1. When greeting a new dog, you should extend your hand for it to sniff. Truth: Dogs don't sniff each other's paws. Instead, tap your hand on your thigh in a motion to simulate a friendly wagging tail.
2. Hugging means "I love you" to a dog. Truth: Dogs don't hug each other. To a dog, hugging means domination.
3. Dogs are protective of our homes and vehicles. Truth: Dogs do not know your wallet or shopping purchases are in your home or car. Dogs are simply trapped in homes or vehicles and will fight if threatened.
4. Breed dictates temperament. Truth: Dog are dogs. What dictates temperament is the role you play in the group and the rank of group members.
5. Dogs act the same with everyone. Truth: Dogs are constantly assessing rank and will behave differently with people they perceive to be of a higher or lower rank than themselves.
6. Neutering makes a dog docile. Truth: In the wild, canines regulate their own populations by limiting breeding. Only the top-ranking male and female can breed and they will keep the rest from doing so. Neutering won't change a dog's temperament if he thinks he is in the top ranking position in the group.
7. Dogs are friendly or unfriendly. Truth: Dogs are as friendly or unfriendly as the people they meet.
8. People can't prevent dog bite injuries. Truth: People can develop skills dealing with dogs that will put them in charge and prevent injury.
9. When a dog charges there is nothing you can do. Truth: When a dog charges you, it's trying to decide if you are friend, foe or prey. Act like a friend and pretend you are not afraid. Stand facing the dog with relaxed body language, tap your thigh with your hand and use a high-pitched voice for a friendly greeting like "good girl."
10. Posting a "Beware of Dog" sign will protect your liability. Truth: A sign actually makes people react to your dog in a fearful manner that is more likely to cause a dog to consider visitors prey and bite them.
11. Only bad dogs owned by bad people bite. Truth: The truth is that any dog will bite when it feels personally threatened or thinks that someone lower in rank threatens its resources, such as food, toys, bedding and the attention of its owner.
12. If you socialize your dog you won't have any problems with it. Truth: Even if you socialize your dog, you can not predict what other people or dogs will do. It's important to have a relationship with your dog where your dog knows it can rely on you to pay attention and keep it safe.
13. Breed books tell you how your dog will behave. Truth: Breeders are marketers of their breed and naturally want to promote them, but all dogs herd, all dogs hunt and all dogs protect themselves. Dogs are dogs.
14. Once a dog bites, it always bites. Truth: A dog only bites when it feels threatened or if it is a "general" type and believes a lower-ranking individual has been insubordinate.
That led her to start a training program called "People Training for Good Dogs," and she recently wrote a book with the same title (iUniverse, 234 pages, $19.95).
"People consider dogs like their children," Berryman says.
"You've got people who are empty nesters and the dog gets the child role or somebody who's testing out the waters of being a parent with the dog first, forgetting that in society, legally, the dog is a piece of property."
One of the biggest problems with that kind of thinking is that people forget that dogs do not reason like humans do. Instead, they behave and react like the pack animals they actually are and all their behaviors, including biting, are just instinctual responses to the environment, not an indication of a "bad" dog.
Understanding a dog's nature is the key to having a good relationship with your pet and being a responsible pet owner. Since dogs are pack animals, rank is very important to them. In the wild, rank is what determines which animals in the pack can breed. All dogs are aware of rank both within their family group, which includes the humans they live with, and in outside groups when they meet strangers and other dogs.
Berryman identifies three types of dogs. Most people choose what she calls "privates" or low-ranking dogs that are fairly eager to please and won't question authority. Low-ranking dogs are more oblivious to our mistakes, but that does not mean that a low-ranking dog can always be trusted in every situation.
"Generals" or high-ranking dogs believe their role is to be in charge and protect the group. High-ranking dogs require their owner to always be a firm leader, and they can be more challenging for the untrained dog owner.
The third type of dog is a "flight dog." This type of dog is skittish around newcomers and needs a lot of reassurance from its owner and repetition of positive experiences over time.
"Most people have experience with one pack position, and that has come to embody what they think dogs are," Berryman says. "If we're only exposed to the lowest-ranking dogs, the ones who can't wait to do anything for us, then our skills and abilities are really low."
Berryman says the easiest way to help people understand dog-handling is to describe it in terms of how people handle horses. When one person in the family learns how to ride a horse, no one assumes that the whole family knows how to ride. For that reason, Berryman believes that all family members should attend classes in dog-handling.
Likewise she points out that when a rider has been thrown off a horse, conventional wisdom is to climb right back on that horse. Nobody blames the horse. It just means that the rider's skills and abilities need improvement. Yet when there is a problem with a dog, especially if the dog bites, the message is to get rid of the dog. Berryman has seen too many animals unnecessarily put down in situations that were completely avoidable.
"Society has set people up to fail," she says. "It's not just that people are being ignorant. It's the way we craft dogs as a companion and romanticize them."
One important safety tip that she stresses is that people should never leave children and dogs alone together without supervision. Even if you trust your dog, Berryman says, you can't always predict the behavior of the child. Children who think they are being kind by hugging a dog can actually be seen as insubordinate by the dog.
Dogs perceive hugging as domination. If you are above the dog in status, the dog will allow it, but many dogs think they are above children in status, so a hug is perceived as insubordination.
"In dog family groups, if you act out, somebody will put you in your place," Berryman says. "And the dogs do that by snapping and biting and nipping and for them it's OK because they do it to each other. That's the way they normally would deal with insubordination. But when a child gets bitten in the face, it's more of a big deal than when a puppy gets nipped," she says.
Human behavior is a much better predictor of how a dog will react in any given situation than a dog's breed. For example, demonizing certain breeds of dogs creates fear of that breed that actually causes people to react in ways that don't serve them well. If people act in a fearful manner, the dog sees them as prey.
The same is true of strange dogs who charge you, perhaps on the beach. How you react will determine whether you are friend, foe or prey. It's important to keep your body facing the dog and act friendly. Instead of putting your hand out for the dog to sniff, tap your thigh to simulate tail wagging, which is the way friendly dogs greet each other. A high-pitched voice and relaxed body language show the dog you are a friend.
"You can spot a Melissa trainee a mile away because we all do the same thing," says Falmouth resident Annie Holden.
"When we meet dogs we pat our thigh, we talk in a high voice and say good girl."
Holden first met Berryman over seven years ago. She had adopted a 4-year-old black Labrador Retriever and took her to obedience school where Cleo learned to sit and heel on a leash. But Holden was frustrated that Cleo still wouldn't come when called when they were outdoors. A neighbor told her about Berryman.
"The greatest thing that Melissa teaches is off-leash training," Holden says. "To me that was the critical thing because I like to be outdoors and I like to be in the woods or on the beach and my dog would just run off. I would pray that she would reappear and it just was not good. It was nerve-wracking."
Holden discovered that any age dog could be trained and soon Cleo was able to go on walks off-leash and she and Holden joined Berryman and a group of other dog owners and their pets for weekly Sunday walks.
Debra Cusolito of Falmouth and her twin sister, Lisa, also trained with Berryman along with their six Australian Shepherds, and now all of her dogs can be trusted off-lead on walks. They also learned how to handle two dogs that don't always get along.
"Really the training is for you, not the dog," Cusolito says. "The dog is programmed to do what dogs do. People need to understand that they can't humanize dogs and that they have individual and unique needs as a species."