When What You Think Is True About Dogs Isn’t

Has anyone ever told you

  • you should only foster dogs of the opposite sex from your own dog
  • dogs who get excited by small animals on a walk can’t be trusted to live with a cat
  • if your dog is happy to meet a new dog at the shelter, they’ll get along fine once home
  • dogs need to play with other dogs

And I’m not even touching the bogosity spread by television characters who insist that if your dog doesn’t listen to you, you need to flip him onto his back and show him who’s boss.

Honey the Golden Retriever rolls in the grass.

I flipped myself over my back to show you who’s boss. Now scratch my belly.

There’s a lot conventional wisdom about dogs that just isn’t true. Or it might be true for many dogs but not for yours.

Let’s take a closer look.

Pair Dogs of the Opposite Sex

I’ve read this so many times. You should never have two dogs of the same sex if you don’t want them to fight.

Apparently no one told Chick at Love and a Six Foot Leash.

His people fostered pibbles for a local rescue. On the advice of the staff, they brought home mostly female dogs. Chick has very good manners so he didn’t complain about sharing his home with one girl after another. But what he really wanted was a boy to hang out with.

When they finally brought home the male Snickerdoodle to foster, it was love at first sight. Check out the photographic evidence.

I guess the “experts” were wrong. At least in this case.

Dogs Who Chase Cats on Walks

I’ve read description of adoptable dogs at our local shelter: “Should only be adopted to a house without cats since he shows too much interest in the cats at the shelter.” But can a dog’s reaction in one setting tell you if they’re able to live with other animals at home?

Our former foster and forever friend, Mr. Handsome, goes crazy on a walk if he sees a cat. Or a squirrel. Or a bird. Or a small dog.

Mr. Handsome the chocolate lab plays with Lil Punkin Butt the Boston terrier.

Do you think I’d ever hurt anyone smaller than me? You’re crazy.

He pulls. Then he jumps straight up into the air. Then he starts to bark.

If a stranger asked me if I thought he’d be able to live in a house with a cat, I’d guess no. His reaction is so strong that I can only see him chasing a cat around the house.

But you know what? Mr. Handsome has lived with a cat for years. And the cat has been joined by a new kitten. And he’s as gentle and unconcerned as could be.

Shows you what I know.

Shelter Introductions

If you’re adopting a dog and already have one at home, most shelters will insist on a supervised introduction before finalizing an adoption. But does a leashed introduction at a shelter tell you if two dogs are suited to live together?

Honey the golden retriever puppy plays with a friend.

They introduced us at the shelter. Does that mean you’re coming home with me?


Animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell wonders if shelter introductions predict how dogs will interact at home. And cites her reasons for not wishing to bring her dog to a shelter for an introduction.

More research needs to be done. But the ASPCA has already suggested some reasons mandatory shelter introductions set people (and their pets) up for failure.

I’ve heard stories of dogs who showed no conflict when introduced at a shelter who fought terribly at home. And how many dogs who got “snitty” with each other at an on-leash shelter introduction never got the chance to see if they could live together in a regular home environment?

Maybe the foster-to-adopt method is the best way to adopt shelter dogs if you already have a dog at home.

Dogs Must Play With Other Dogs

A many walked by with his sniffing beagle the other day. Honey gave a slight wag which the beagle ignored. This dog had a nose for nothing but the trail he was following.

His person stopped to chat with us about his dog for a little while. And when the beagle finally looked up, he person started pulling him toward Honey so they could say hello.

It was the last thing he wanted to do and Honey knew it. She allowed him a little sniff and then sat down knowing this friendship was going no further. Lucky for that beagle, Honey and I were able to read that he wasn’t interested in playing. Even if his person was in denial.

How many dogs are dragged to dog parks by their people who insist they’ll love it? Just to have the poor dog hanging out around his people’s ankles waiting until he can go home?

We took our last dog, Shadow, to a supervised play time at the SPCA to help with her leash reactivity. In connection with rewarding her for calm reactions to other dogs on leash, I think it helped her to be near other dogs while having full control of her interactions with them (unlike when she was restrained by a leash).

But in a year of visiting the play group, I only saw her play once or twice. Both times with Sally, the flirty lab mix.

Shadow plays with Sally.

The closest Shadow ever got to having a dog friend.

Shadow didn’t need to play with other dogs to be happy. She just needed a scent to track and the freedom to follow it at her own pace.

What We Think Is True About Dogs May Not Be

I’m sure you’ll have dozens of examples of “conventional” wisdom about dogs that just isn’t true. Or at least not true for every dog.

Honey the golden retriever puppy wades in the water.

Lots of people say that all golden retrievers love swimming. I think they’re all wet.


We can learn a lot from conventional wisdom about dogs. Many dogs do find it helpful and secure to be crated. Some dogs really do better with dogs of the opposite sex. Most hound dogs will follow a scent right out the back yard and miles away from home before looking up.

But conventional wisdom is just a starting point. Because the only real expert about your dog is you. If you take the time to observe her reactions to the world around her.

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Your Turn: What conventional wisdom have you heard about dogs that just isn’t true?

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  1. Ariella says:

    If someone saw the way Bailey looks at the cats in my neighborhood, they probably wouldn’t believe we have two at home. How Bailey interacts with other cats is completely different from the way she interacts with ours at home. They might not be best friends, but they certainly get along and there’s very little chasing.

    I’m also believe that not all dogs are dog dogs. Our neighbor’s dog (Bailey’s mom) really can’t be bothered with other dogs. She’d much rather be around people. She spends time with one of her pups that my neighbor kept, but for the most part, she’d rather get attention from people than other canines.

    • Dogs can be entirely different creatures in the house and outside it. I’m pleased to hear that Bailey does okay with cats at home despite being excited by them outdoors. It makes me think I’m not crazy.

      Of course now I’m worried. Honey likes cats outside the house. If we adopt one, will she become a cat enemy? :)

      • Not necessarily, especially if you bring in a kitten. We started bringing Bailey by for short visits when she was 4-ish weeks old. It gave the animals plenty of time to adjust to one another. One of my cats makes Bailey very uncomfortable, but that’s because he’s mean and evil. He makes everyone uncomfortable. The biggest problem we have is when Bailey tries to play with the evil cat. The evil cat wants nothing of it.

  2. I suppose there as many myths out there as people and dogs. Every dog is an individual, and will react differently.

    • Robert Ray says:

      I must agree with Mary. Every dog has his/her own personality and I believe it would be easier for we humans to adjust to our dogs than expect them to adjust to us.

      • And yet dogs continually seem to do better adapting to us than we do to them. Just another example of how much we can learn from our canine best friends.

  3. Really good points!
    I see ones about dogs and their sex quite often. “Oh, she’s x, like a typical female.” “He only has that issue with other males.” We even once thought maybe Alma was snippier with other female dogs and started looking for a pattern only to realise there wasn’t actually one. Her response is a reaction to the other dog’s behaviour, not repoductive parts.

    I also see a lot of people trying to justify their dog’s predilections based on breed – especially when it comes to rescues and mixed breed dogs and what they THINK the lineage is. “Oh, he’s probably part GSD, so that’s why he’s protective.” “Oh, they think she’s part lab, hence the chewing…”.

    And I agree that off-leash dog park time should not be considered a right or mandatory for all dogs because it’s not appropriate or necessary for all dogs.

    • If we humans make as many stereotypical comments about each other as we do about dogs, we’d start a sh*tstorm of controversy. But it’s still acceptable to assume things about dogs without any real evidence.

      And yet I catch myself doing it too. :)

  4. You are totally on target here. So many humans seem to have little respect for the individuality of dogs. They enjoy generalizing and stereotyping, maybe because it makes them feel like a superior species. I have found that so much conventional wisdom is seldom wise about much of anything.

  5. Silas reacts to *everything* differently away from home. He’s terrible with cats in the wild, but I think he could get used to living with one if I desperately wanted one. (I don’t.) He doesn’t like new things or surprising things, but he is capable of adapting.

    Some breeds are fairly well known for same-sex aggression, so I think it’s something important to think about. Not a guarantee, though.

    • Dogs exist to adapt to the things humans throw at them. I wish I could channel Honey’s adaptability.

      Dobermans are one of the breeds reputed to have same-sex aggression. But people I know who live with them would beg to differ.

  6. Very good points! Every dog has its own personality with likes and dislikes. Even the same breed is very different. Bailie and I are real similar, but we are also very different in many areas.

    • It’s amazing how many people expect all dogs of a breed to be alike. It’s a good thing your mom wasn’t expecting Bailie to be just like you. :)

  7. Great post!

    That I can tell, Elka wants to be Disney friends with every cat she’s ever seen. She’s also tried to withdraw from nearly every dog we’ve ever met (with notable exceptions being super shy dogs we’ve met on walks and who didn’t want to interact with Elka either until they both got over it).

    • It always comes down to the same thing: always listen to your dog. Elka is lucky you understand she’d rather be your best friend than every other dog’s.

  8. So true! I really hate the question “Is she friendly?” posed at me about Blueberry when we are on the trail and someone else’s dog really wants to give her a good sniff. I usually just tell them, “She’s not unfriendly, she’s just busy right now and doesn’t want to stop and visit”. I feel like I have to say something rather than “No” and have them think she’s aggressive. She’s not aggressive; she simply doesn’t give a flying fig about others dogs or people when we are hiking or she is following a really good scent at the park. I once had an older lady tell me Blueberry was very serious about her hike. And that’s exactly it – she considers it the most important task at hand and doesn’t have time to stop and make friends. There is a park (people, not dog) we go to where she will briefly go up to some of her dog acquaintances, sniff and then move on – but that’s usually about as friendly as she gets. She’s the same with people – unless they have treats. But once the treats have been dispensed, it’s time to move on. She’s a dog that knows the fine art of not wearing out her welcome. 😉

    • Because Honey is a known “friendly breed” people always want to introduce their dogs to her. Whether they appear to be interested or not.

      I wonder why people are so invested in having dogs interact with each other? You think they’d be flattered that dogs often prefer human company. Or even find it fascinating to watch a dog who takes her hike seriously (like Blueberry).

  9. I think I’ve been told all those things, and believed most of them! I’ve been afraid to bring home any females because of bossy butt Kelly. Would she really get along? Who knows. And the supervised meeting…don’t get me started! We once took Kelly to meet a dog we were interested in adopting. We met at the park where the foster mom waited with the dog, and her own dominant female dog. Kelly took one look at the dominant female we approached and was set on edge, the fur on her back all on end. The foster mom luckily had her husband there who took the dog away. But Kelly was already excited. Kelly gave the dog a little “greeting” Kelly style- a loud air snip toward the face. The foster mom gasped and pulled back, scaring the dog worse than Kelly did. From then on the meeting didn’t stand a chance. The foster mom tried to keep them separate as we walked (while Kelly showed no interest in the dog, walking nicely and not snipping) and radiated fear down the leash. In the end she told the foster group that it would not be a good match.

    • Arranging greetings between new dogs can be tricky. When we bring a foster dog into the house, we usually start with a side by side walk. Dogs don’t usually approach each other face to face when they have a choice.

      I’m sorry you and Kelly didn’t have a good intro with the foster pup. But I guess it’s a good thing for Ike. :)

  10. really good points! I totally agree on the gender one; the boys we’ve fostered have gotten along no better of worse, on average, with our boys, than the girls we’ve fostered. Another one I take issue with is the “rule” that reactive dogs should *never* get to greet other dogs on leash. Though he makes a huge fuss when viewing them from a distance, Fozzie’s usual response to meeting a dog is to sniff, wag, and walk away…so allowing a meeting is often the easiest way to handle other dogs!

    And yes–fostering to adopt is a great way to make that decision! There is too much pressure on a brief meeting at the shelter to determine anything profound about a relationship.

    • When I first heard about foster to adopt, I worried about the poor dog being shuffled around to home after home “auditioning” for a new family. But the more I fostered and thought about it, I see how many dogs adapt quickly in a home setting. And most people committed enough to adopting to foster a dog are probably not going to be flaky.

      I thought Fozzie did great walking with Honey. It’s always nice to have a job and not always have to entertain other dogs. :)

  11. All so true. Love your observation about Shadow. Neither Jack or Maggie play…with each other or with anything. Jack will once in awhile take a toy and run around a little and then chew it up. Maggie…nothing. We can’t GET them to play even if we run around acting like idiots they look at us like we are nuts. Sometimes I feel bad about it – wish they could enjoy themselves…but I guess if they wanted to play, they would! It’s not like I’m stopping them.

    • Y’know, one of my favorite things to do is to read. It probably doesn’t look very fun to an outsider. But it’s fun for me.

      Maybe Jack and Maggie feel the same way about their favorite activities. After all, sniffing doesn’t look very exciting to an outsider. But I’m sure it’s very stimulating to our pups.

  12. Great points. We had a beagle who didn’t really like to play past a certain age. We’d take her to beagle meet ups and all she wanted to do was sniff the perimeter. All the other beagles were running and chasing and having fun… But I guess that was her idea of fun!

    • Like I said to Slim Doggy above, I probably don’t look like I’m having fun when I’m reading either. But it’s my favorite activity–better than dancing, drinking, or eating.

      And as a writer, you should be happy for people who read for fun. Just like we appreciate our dogs who play in their own ways. :)

      • Yes! I do love it when folks read for fun. I love to read as well (of course) and you’re right – it probably doesn’t look like i’m having much fun. Wow though – even better than eating?? I’m not sure I’d go that far… I do loves me some chow.

  13. You nailed this one, Pamela! How true on all counts. I’ve come to know Sage and what pushes her buttons quite well. Which is why we DON’T go to dog parks or do doggie day care. And if there’s a squirrel or cat outside? Well, those cats sure are different species than the ones that live with her. Fortunately, she just stares at them–I guess trying to see who blinks first! :)

  14. Yep, so far not one of the 5 Golden Retrievers or Labrador Retrievers I’ve raised have been terribly interested in swimming. We took Adelle to a fun doggy water park this past weekend. She was a little hesitant to get into the water, but eventually got the hang of it on the shallow side. The only time she actually went swimming was when she slipped and fell into the deep end. The good news is she knew how to swim…and just in case you think all dogs know how to swim my friends Bassett Hound got excited when we were playing in the pool, jumped in, and sank straight to the bottom.

  15. A brilliant post and I have nothing to add, other than to say you’re amazing and I hope to one day be as wise as you!!

  16. I love this post! You know what I’ve been told – never adopt littermates – and it’s worked out great for us. I’ve also been told that our dogs need to interact with dogs outside their pack. Why? It’s just easier for us to keep them safe at home – we have the space and they love each other. We have fun every day.

    I’ve learned to relax and treat each dog and each situation as something independent from what I’ve experienced. Experience is always great for guidance, but it’s not dogma.

  17. Great post. Here’s another “myth” I learned about a couple of summer’s ago. All dogs don’t instinctively know how to swim. So many people just assume they do, and then they run into trouble on summer vacations when they take their pup into the ocean and let him/her go. I remember when we first took Harley to the beach, we introduced him to the water at the day camp he attended and allowed his first experience to be a pleasant one, it was, and he’s been loving the water ever since. Thanks for the interesting read. Please keep blogging :)

  18. We’ve broken every single one of those rules! :) Three boys, added the cat with high-prey-drive Lucas, didn’t introduce E or L to Cooper before bringing him home at all, and Emmett does. not. play. with other dogs. I think all of those “rules” can be ok as guidelines, but every dog is an individual. Dog “rules” feel to me the same as saying all kids must run at recess to recharge for the second half of the school day. Some would rather sit and read to recharge! Also, I have to second Cathy’s comment above. I failed at that one. I assumed all dogs knew how to swim… until Lucas nearly drowned. John jumped in after him and has scars across his stomach from lacerations he got from trying to pull Lucas out while he thrashed. Horrific.