'I'm an Animal Behaviorist, These Are The Biggest Mistakes Dog Owners Make'

I started working at Woodgreen Pets Charity in 1988 on the old fashioned Youth Training Scheme, an on-the-job training course in the United Kingdom. I was taken on as a full time member in the dog section, doing all aspects of care, the following year.

Over the years I gained more experience and worked my way up in the organization, eventually becoming the deputy head of the dog section. All the while I was continuing my education, so I was able to attend all sorts of seminars, talks and workshops and eventually become a qualified dog trainer, and behaviorist.

My role changed slightly and I began training members of the dog section in all aspects of animal care, while also offering behavioral advice to pet owners who might be struggling with their pets. This hopefully means they don't end up going through the heartache of relinquishment and the obvious disturbance to their pets of having to go into rescue and start life again with somebody else.

Sue Ketland
Sue Ketland is a dog behaviour and training specialist who has worked at Woodgreen animal rescue centre for over 30 years. Woodgreen Pets Charity

For a long while I worked in re-homing and would match dogs with owners. During this role I found that people often had a preconceived idea about what breed they wanted based on appearance and not necessarily on their behaviors.

For example, many people said they wanted a cocker spaniel. "Why do you want a cocker spaniel", I would ask. "Well, I think they're really pretty and they're a lovely size, so they're going to be manageable," they would normally reply.

What they didn't consider was that specific breed of dog wanting to be outside across the countryside in all weathers doing what cocker spaniels do; flushing and retrieving, and if not trained chasing after birds—which can cause all sorts of issues.

Pairing dogs with their perfect owners

But some of my proudest moments have been during the matching process. When you're 100 percent sure that you have matched the perfect dog to the perfect home, that its requirements suited somebody's needs, it's lovely.

There was one case where we had got a little Shih Tzu; a gorgeous little girl. I think she was about five or six and she was very gentle, sweet, sensitive and very intuitive to human emotion.

We had an elderly gentleman come in, he was recently widowed and his heart was broken. He was very emotional and needed a friend. Before her death his wife had been talking about getting a little dog to get them out and about and a bit more active, so he decided to pay us a visit.

I too am widowed, so I felt a real connection with him. I was hell bent on finding him the right dog and the sweet little Shih Tzu came to mind. It was love at first sight. She absolutely knew that he needed her and he was besotted with her instantly.

He said how much his wife would have loved her and he and the Shih Tzu walked off together into the sunset. It was such a wonderful moment. In my experience, dogs can be fickle and often love grows with time, but every now and again there is a special connection.

Learning about animal behavior

Just because I'm a behaviorist and a trainer, it doesn't mean to say that all my dogs have been perfect, because there's no such thing. Every dog has individual personalities, characteristics and quirks. And dogs like to make you look stupid— it's just one of those things.

For example, when I got my first Australian Shepherd, Wizard, 15 years ago, I would use him for showing and competing. His training was going well and he was really well behaved. He was about seven months old, so just starting to enter adolescence, and I was walking him along the river bank.

I hadn't noticed a fisherman, but Wizard had. I was minding my own business, watching him go up and down the bank and then all of a sudden, I heard someone shout: "Come back."

I looked over, and my dog was running with a bag of sandwiches in his mouth which he had stolen from the fisherman. So I did what any normal dog owner would do and hid in a bush, pretending he wasn't mine. All these years later it still embarrasses me.

The biggest misconceptions about dog behaviors

So, when it comes to owners I certainly understand that no dogs are perfect. I think one of the most common misconceptions about their behavior in my experience is assuming that a dog who growls is bad.

If a dog growls in a given situation, for example, if someone reaches out to touch it, tries to sit next to it on the sofa, or goes near them while they're eating a bone, many people have the gut instinct to tell them off.

But actually, a dog that growls is a really good dog, because he is saying: "I'm in a really uncomfortable situation right now, and I would really prefer you to give me space."

It's easy to teach a dog not to growl, but you aren't changing the emotional state that caused them to growl in the first place. Therefore, if they continue to be pushed in that scenario, you could end up with a snap or a bite. That's when people say: "He gave me no warning."

Sue Ketland
Sue started working at Woodgreen animal rescue center in 1988. She began her career as a full time member in the dog section the following year. Eventually, she worked her way up to deputy head of the dog section. Woodgreen Pets Charity

Another misconception is that a dog who rolls on their tummy wants to be stroked. A lot of the time when the dog rolls onto its back, it is saying: "I'm actually really uncomfortable in this environment. I don't want to be a threat to you. I'm offering you all of my vital organs to show you that I mean no harm, but please, could you give me space?"

Often a person misinterprets that, goes in for a good old hard tummy rub, then an incident occurs and that person is really shocked.

Tails are often underestimated, people tend to look at the front end of the dog to assess behavior, because we as a species look at somebody's face to read their facial expressions, but with dogs, their tail tells us all we need to know about their emotional state.

For example, a dog with a tail tucked right between his legs is still likely to wag the end of it, but that's usually a sign of a really scared dog. A dog that has a low tail carriage is unsure of a situation and is feeling a little bit overwhelmed. A nice mid-height tail with a nice full wag is generally good. But a dog with a very high tail position and a very staccato type wag is a dog that's very serious and potentially concentrating on something.

Helping dogs stay in their homes

One of the most rewarding things about my role is keeping a dog in a loving home as a result of my advice, turning that relationship that was on the rocks into something really solid. That's just a wonderful feeling.

One example that sticks out in my mind is a gentleman who was having issues house training his Border Collie. He'd owned that specific breed for his entire life and had rescued her from our center. But the dog was really reticent and hesitant of him. She really liked his wife, but was just a bit nervous around him.

Sue Ketland
Sue recently adopted her latest dog, a Golden Retriever called Pixie. Woodgreen Pets Charity

I gave him lots of advice but the main piece being that he was trying too hard to project his love for her onto her and he hadn't recognized that she couldn't cope with that pressure. So, I told him to just back off, give her food and take her for a walk, but almost play a little bit hard to get.

This particular dog loved being out in the garden and I said to the owner: "Do you like reading?" He said yes, so I told him to get a deck chair out in the garden and just sit there and read, and to see how she reacts.

I was checking in with him each week and every time he would say that she would come and lay closer and closer to the deck chair, until one day, he picked his book up and she started dancing at his feet, wagging her tail, knowing that they were going to go out into the garden and read the book together.

In that situation, it was just time. He just needed to stop trying so hard to be her friend. And when he did that and she could take the lead, then their relationship went from strength to strength.

Lessons from my career

It's been 18 months since I lost my last dog. She was my last connection with my late husband, so I was beyond devastated when she passed away. I thought that was going to be the end of dog ownership for me, because owning dogs was always something that my husband and I did together. They were like our children.

I've been fostering on and off since she passed away, however, in February, I have gave in. My heart has been opened to my latest foster dog, so I will be keeping her. She is a Golden Retriever and I have changed her name to Pixie. We couldn't be happier together.

For anybody who is thinking about getting a dog, my biggest piece of advice would just be to be sure you have got the time and the interest to commit to giving them the best quality of life possible.

In my experience, there can sometimes be too much expectation for a dog to come in and fit in around that person's routine. When you take a dog into your life, your routine has to change, because they have needs to. And I think that's really important, so many relationships break down because that doesn't happen.

Sue Ketland is a dog behaviour and training specialist who has worked at Woodgreen animal rescue centre for over 30 years. You can visit their website here.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Newsweek's My Turn associate editor, Monica Greep.

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