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9 of the Biggest Dog Myths

Common Misconceptions About Dogs

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Call them legends or even "old wives tales," but don't call them facts. Some of these sayings about dogs have been around for centuries, but in reality many are simply myths that amount to bad advice. Here are some of the biggest misconceptions about dogs that just won't die.

1. A Warm or Dry Nose Means a Dog is Sick

This one is probably the biggest dog health myth around. Somewhere along the line, people came to the conclusion that a cold, wet nose is a sign of a healthy dog and a warm or dry nose is a sign of illness.

How it Began

Like many myths, the origins of this are not definitively known but are likely rooted in fact. Canine distemper is a deadly virus that was once quite prevalent. One symptom of advanced distemper is hyperkeratosis (thickening) of the nose and footpads. Basically, the nose and pads of the feet become hard and dry. Back when distemper was more widespread, a cool, wet nose was considered a good sign that the dog did not have distemper. While canine distemper still occurs, thanks to vaccinations it is far less common today.

The Facts

The temperature and moisture of your dog's nose are not miracle measurements of his health. For instance, a dog's nose is often dry and/or warm if he has just woken up, and this is perfectly normal. However, a nose that is persistently dry and crusted might be a sign of a health problem. If you notice an abnormal appearance to your dog's nose or any other signs of illness, contact your vet right away.

2. Dog Mouths Are Cleaner Than Human Mouths

dog teeth
Photo © GK Hart/Vikki Hart/Getty Images

Some of us may recall hearing this as kids, particularly if a dog licked your face or sampled whatever you were currently eating. "Don't worry about it! Didn't you know that a dog's mouth is cleaner than yours?"

How it Began

The idea that dogs' mouths are clean was probably surmised by the fact that dogs lick their wounds and sometimes heal faster because of it. In reality, if a wound heals faster after a dog licks it, that's because his rough tongue has been removing dead tissue and stimulating circulation, much like a surgeon would debride a wound. On the other hand, licking wounds can sometimes cause more harm than good by introducing bacteria and/or irritating the wound. Guess the people who came up with this myth did not think about the dog wounds that did not heal properly.

The Facts

A dog's mouth contains plenty of germs, not to mention other "icky" things. Think about the stuff your dog eats off the ground and out of the trash, or the things he licks off of himself. Plus, many dogs do not get their teeth brushed as regularly as people, so there is the dental tartar and bacteria to consider (as if doggie breath didn't give this away). Overall, a dog's mouth contains more germs than anyone wants to think about. But the good news is that these germs are usually dog-specific and unlikely to cause any harm to humans. Basically, if you keep your dog healthy, dewormed and up-to-date on vaccines, there is little to worry over. Better yet, take care of your dog's teeth and there's even less going on in that mouth. So, a little "kiss" from your dog is nothing to fret about, but I wouldn't go sharing water bowls or letting your dog lick your wounds.

3. Dogs See in Black and White

It was once believed that dogs could see only in black and white (and shades of gray). Many people still think this is the case.

How it Began

There is no evidence behind the origins of this myth, but it may have to do with old science. It could be that scientists came to the conclusion that dogs see in black and white before they fully understood the canine eye (or even the human eye for that matter) and the functions of cones.

The Facts

Dogs can see color, but not the way most humans do. Based of the types of cones in the canine retina, dogs probably see colors best on the blue side of the spectrum. Canine color vision is thought to be similar to red-green colorblindness in humans, though not exactly the same. It is believed that dogs see primarily in blue, greenish-yellow, yellow and various shades of gray.

4. Dogs Eat Grass to Make Themselves Vomit

dog eating grass
Photo © 3Neus on flickr

It's true that dogs will often throw up after eating a lot of grass. However, this does not mean they ate that grass to induce vomiting, or that it is somehow a sign of illness.

How it Began

The origin of this myth is most likely due to an incorrect assumption by dog owners. People observed their dogs vomiting after eating grass. They assumed that dogs intentionally ate grass when feeling sick to their stomachs in order to make them vomit. When you consider the real reason, this conclusion seems like the long way around.

The Facts

Why do dogs eat grass? Probably because they simply like it. Some dogs like to graze while others chomp. Enough grass in the stomach can create minor irritation and cause the dog to vomit. Some experts believe that a dog's taste for grass goes back to the days when a wild canid would eat the stomach contents of its prey - usually grass, leaves, etc. Regardless of the reason, it's relatively harmless as long as the grass is not chemically treated. That being said, if grass-eating has led to chronic vomiting in your dog, you should probably keep him away from the grass and visit your vet just in case.

5. Dogs Age Seven Years for Every Human Year

Saying that a one-year-old dog is seven in dog years does not really make sense when you consider that dogs can reproduce well before one year of age. That would make 15-year-old dog 105 in dog years, which is not the case. Plenty of dogs live to 15 and are still healthy, far more than the humans who live past 100.

How it Began

Someone probably looked at the average lifespan of people versus the average lifespan of dogs and made the estimate of seven dog years for every human year. It's really just an over-simplified way of describing the rate at which a dog ages.

The Facts

Obviously, dogs age at a faster rate than humans. However, that rate is faster early in life and seems to get slower with age. For instance, a one-year-old dog is basically like a human teenager, but an eight-year-old dog is like a middle-aged human (the latter matches up more closely with the seven-year theory). Most importantly, the size and breed of the dog has a lot to do with its aging rate and lifespan. Many small breeds are known to live 15-20 years while a lot of giant breeds only live 7-10 years. In a strange twist, young giant breed dogs tend to reach adulthood more slowly than the average dog, despite their shorter lifespans.

6. You Can't Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

Photo © Kimberly Zwaagstra

We hear it said all the time. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” People say it about dogs, but they also say it about people (usually referring to stubbornness). Of course, we all know that people can learn at any age, but sometimes they just don't want to. It's not much different in dogs.

How it Began

People probably noticed that their older dogs had less interest in new activities and were less responsive to training. The saying also refers to adults who are "set in their ways."

The Facts

While it may not be easy to teach new things to an older dog, it can be done. One factor that may go overlooked: old-age sensory changes. A senior dog may not see or hear like he used to. Plus, he likely does not have as much energy as a younger dog. When training an older dog, you first need to be able to get his attention. You also need to make sure the activity is not too physically demanding for the dog. Keep it interesting with his favorite toys or treats. However, be aware that some senior dogs experience cognitive dysfunction (which is basically senility) and will not be able to retain new information well. Perhaps the saying should be "you can't teach a senile dog new tricks."

7. A Wagging Tail Means a Happy Dog

This common misconception could lead to an unfortunate dog bite. Yes, dogs tend to wag their tails when happy and excited. However, they are known to wag their tails for other reasons.

How it Began

The image of the happy, bright-eyed dog jumping for joy with a wagging tail is the way we all love to see our dogs. Tail wagging has been associated with happy dogs for so long it's hard to say how this generalization began, but it is rooted in truth.

The Facts

Canine body language can get pretty complex. Tail wagging is just one of the many ways dogs communicate. While it is true that tail wagging is often an indication of happiness, it can sometimes be a sign of fear, anxiety or other potential precursor to aggression. Rather than looking just at the tail, it is best to pay attention to a dog's overall body language to determine its mood.

8. Female Dogs Should Have One Litter Before Being Spayed

Spay and neuter are controversial topics for many people, and this is an argument often used against spaying dogs. There is no reason a dog should be bred once before being spayed. In general, routine spaying and neutering of dogs is recommended to help control the already huge population of unwanted dogs, a major problem in the world. Yes, there are some valid reasons to choose not to spay your dog, but this is not one of them.

How it Began

There is probably no way to know how this myth really began. Believe it or not, some people think that a dog would feel some kind of void, like she is missing out if she cannot have at least one litter of puppies. This is not true and actually a prime example of anthropomorphism. Other people believe that there are long-term health benefits to completing a heat cycle and/or having a litter.

The Facts

It may come as a surprise to some that dogs do not think like humans. They will not feel "empty" because they never had puppies. In fact, some dogs are not even good mothers. Breeding your female dog and helping to raise puppies can turn out to be a big job for you - is it worth it? In reality, it contributes to pet overpopulation. In addition, there is no evidence that allowing dogs to go into heat and/or produce a litter before getting spayed has any health benefits. In fact, spaying a dog after she has gone into heat and/or had a litter can even raise the risks of surgery. If you want to breed your dog, make sure she is a proven purebred dog and an excellent example of her breed. Then, find an experienced, responsible dog breeder to mentor you. Breeding dogs is more than a simple hobby - it is a lifestyle.

9. Tug of War Can Cause Aggression

dog and owner play tug of war
Photo © Ryan McVay / Getty Images

There has been much debate over playing tug-of-war with dogs. Some feel the game causes aggression or dominant behavior, warning people to never play tug-of-war with their dogs. Actually, the truth is just the opposite.

How it Began

People probably noticed they way some dogs got so into the game - growling and snarling. Naturally, it would seem that playing the game simply reinforces those aggressive behaviors.

The Facts

Many dogs truly enjoy playing tug-of-war, and there is nothing wrong with that. It is a healthy display of their predatory nature and an excellent mental and physical workout. Tug-of-war is also a great way to reinforce the human-canine bond. Over the years, many professional dog trainers have noticed that the game actually decreases aggressive and dominant behaviors in dogs, kind of like an outlet for these emotions. Some experts say the human should always win the game, while others say the dog should always win. In reality, it probably depends on the dog. Winning tug-of-war boosts your dog's confidence, while losing might humble him. If your dog has no behavior problems, you can probably switch up the winning and losing. If you are in doubt, find a dog trainer and ask for advice. The most important thing to remember: if your dog's teeth ever touch your flesh, the game is over for the time being.

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