By: Katie McElveen
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hoto: Fernando Trabanco FotografÍa/Getty Images

More than 63 million of us own a dog. Knowing the truth about these common myths about your best friend could save their life.

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Dog myths
Our understanding of the dogs in our lives has come a long way since their hungry ancestors wandered close to a campfire in search of a snack. For some reason, though, many people still believe that bad breath is normal for dogs (it isn’t) and that their paw pads will protect them from hot pavement (they won’t). Here’s how to separate truths—like these 30 fun dog facts—from fiction.

Dogs don’t feel pain
Gary Yarnell, DVM, a veterinarian with Rye, Harrison Veterinarian Hospital in Rye, New York, says that this falsehood probably stems from your dog’s innate stoicism. “We’re conditioned to cry when we feel pain, but dogs are not,” he says. “But now we know that doesn’t mean they’re not feeling it. A puppy will yelp when she’s hurt, but an adult dog will just keep on going.” So how do you tell if your dog is hurting? “Beyond obvious symptoms such as limping, look for a change in behavior, such as eating less or sleeping more,” says Dr. Yarnell. “This is especially true for pain that isn’t localized.” Here are other ways your dog may be asking for help.

“Scooting” across the floor is just a quirky habit
Our dogs have lots of funny, weird habits like these, but dragging their butts along the floor isn’t one of them. “Scooting is an indicator of a number of issues, some of which can be serious,” says Nori Warren, DVM, a veterinarian at Four Paws Animal Clinic in Columbia, South Carolina. According to Dr. Warren, one common affliction is tapeworm, a parasite that is transmitted by fleas and can grow to be more than two feet long. Another is an infection in your dog’s anal glands, which can be terribly uncomfortable and might require surgery.

Your dog’s paws are tough enough to handle heat
While your dog’s paw pads do offer some protection against the elements, concrete, asphalt, and brick can easily get hot enough to cause third-degree burns on your dog’s paws. In fact, even on a mild, 77-degree day, the pavement can reach 125 degrees. “If it’s too hot for you to take several steps barefoot, it’s too hot for your dog,” cautions Dr. Warren, who notes that beach sand, kennel floors, and the back of a pickup truck can also get dangerously hot. “Your dog will do almost anything for you,” she says. “Don’t ask them to do this.” If you really want to be your dog’s best friend, read these additional things your dog wishes you knew.

All dogs have bad breath
No one knows how this myth evolved, but according to Leslie Brown, DVM, a veterinarian in Marietta, Georgia, it’s entirely false. “Bad breath is caused by bacteria, which is usually a sign of dental disease,” she explains. “Unchecked, it can cause pain and a dangerous infection.” Since brushing your dog’s teeth isn’t something most pet owners are willing to take on, Dr. Brown suggests having your dog’s teeth cleaned every year. “The risk of infection far outweighs the risk of using anesthesia on your dog,” she says. “And we all know how much a toothache hurts. Imagine being in that much pain and not being able to do anything about it.” Bad breath is just one symptom that your dog may not feel well—here are more signs that your dog may be sick.

Inside dogs don’t get fleas
“Nobody ever thinks their dog has fleas, especially people who keep their dogs indoors,” says Dr. Warren. “But they’re actually very common.” Fleas can create serious complications for dogs including tapeworm infestation, anemia, and painful hot spots. “To complicate the problem, all that scratching can create wounds that can easily get infected,” she notes. Not sure if your dog has fleas? If you can’t spot them when you move your hand backward through your dog’s fur, Dr. Warren suggests using a flea comb, which will trap the annoying insects before they can hop away. Another sign: tiny red bumps around your ankles that itch like mosquito bites. Fleas are also notoriously difficult to eradicate, so you might want to try these 12 home remedies to clear them out of your home, then speak with your vet about preventative flea treatment for your pooch.

Chocolate is the only human food that’s dangerous for dogs
Although chocolate is probably the best-known food that can harm your dog, it’s at the top of a very long list that includes grapes, raisins, macadamia nuts, and anything that contains xylitol, a non-caloric sweetener often used in gum and mints. “Dogs process things differently than we do,” says Dr. Yarnell. “Fatty table scraps from steak or other meats, for instance, can bring on pancreatitis in your dog, which is both terribly painful and can be life-threatening.” Signs of pancreatitis can include repeated vomiting and bouts of diarrhea, fever, a bloated belly, and general weakness. Human food isn’t the only thing that can harm your dog: these common houseplants can also make your dog sick.

Your dog’s fur is all the protection she needs against the cold
While a dog’s fur coat and baseline body temperature of between 100.5 and 102 degrees does allow them to tolerate colder weather a bit better than humans, Dr. Warren says that if it’s below freezing and your dog doesn’t have adequate shelter, she should be indoors. “The thinner the hair coat, the more protection they need from the cold, especially if they don’t spend a lot of time outside,” she says. Of course, if your dog’s a diva—or just particularly cold natured—you might want to splurge on one of these adorable dog coats to keep her cozy all winter long.

Eating grass is bad—or good—for dogs
Although 68 percent of dog owners report that their dogs ingest plants on a weekly basis and that 22 percent of those dogs vomit afterward, veterinarians are split on the subject of grass. Some, like Dr. Yarnell, discourage it. “Eating grass is an easy way to pick up parasites or grab a mouthful of harmful chemicals,” he says. “It can also exacerbate diarrhea and, if the grass is growing near poisonous plants, make your dog very sick. It’s just not worth it.” Dr. Brown suggests watching your dog—and the grass they’re eating. “On its own, grass isn’t necessarily bad, and some dogs seem to really enjoy the taste,” she says. “But if your dog uses it as a way to vomit, it may be a sign something else is wrong.” One of those problems might be food poisoning. Here’s how to know.

Successful dog training requires you to position yourself as the alpha dog
According to Meaghan Ropski, DVM, veterinarian and clinical behavior resident with the Animal Behavior Wellness Center in Fairfax, Virginia, this fallacy got its start with a wolf study performed in the 1930s and 1940s by a team of Swiss researchers. “We know now that leadership doesn’t require dominance,” she explains. “Your goal is to create a bond, not an adversarial relationship.” One way to do this is to establish a routine for your dog, so she’ll know what to expect. From there you can work on impulse control and other important behaviors. “With enough information, your dog will learn to make good decisions, like keeping all four paws on the floor when someone comes to the door,” says Dr. Ropski.

Your dog knows to stop exercising before she overexerts herself
If you own a lab or golden retriever who just can’t seem to stop begging you to throw the ball for them, it’s up to you to take charge and let them know when they’ve had too much. “Dogs live in the moment,” says Dr. Brown. “They’re unable to think about the future. That means you, as their owner and advocate, need to watch for signs of heatstroke, exhaustion, and even abraded paw pads. Many breeds will literally go until they drop.” One way to keep your dog’s energy level manageable without risking injury is to break up exercise time into short sessions held every day. You might also consider keeping your dog busy by engaging their brain with one of these ingenious puzzle toys made especially for dogs.

Scratching is just an annoying habit
Ever wonder why your dog spends so much time scratching themselves? If you’ve ruled out fleas, your dog might be afflicted by something that affects more than 50 million Americans: allergies. The challenge is determining exactly what is causing the reaction. “Everything from a food or inhalant allergy to dust mites can cause itching,” says Dr. Warren. “Unfortunately, one allergy increases the likelihood they’ll be allergic to other things.” HEPA filters and a hot-water wash of your dog’s bedding can help with dust mites; determining a food allergy requires figuring out the trigger. “We can alleviate symptoms with steroids or other medications, but it’s important to get to the root of the problem,” says Dr. Warren.

A growling dog is an angry dog
Just like a new mom grows to learn the difference between her baby’s cry of pain and a cry of frustration, dog owners know that their dogs use growls to communicate a variety of emotions. “Before you get upset, take a moment to assess the body language, the situation, and the tone of the growl,” suggests Dr. Brown. “Your dog may simply be trying to get your attention.” By the same token, Dr. Brown notes that a wagging tail doesn’t always indicate that a dog is happy. “It’s really important to learn to speak your dog’s language,” she says. “They can be quite communicative.” Curious? Here are 12 things dogs communicate with their tails.

Making your dog spend time in a crate is cruel
Your new puppy may howl and bark the first few times you place them in their crate, but be patient: dogs, by their nature, need—and want—a space of their own. The key is to never use the crate as a form of punishment or let your dog out of the crate to get her to stop barking. “Dogs are smart, and they’ll put together pretty quickly that barking equals getting out of the crate,” says Fred Zorn, a New Jersey-based dog trainer and owner of Pipe Cleaner Pups, which offers video-based dog training lessons for kids. Another reason to make your dog comfortable in a crate is in case of an emergency. “Dogs who are not crate trained often injure themselves and our staff when we crate them before or after a surgical procedure,” says Dr. Brown. Ready to get started? Here are ten crate-training basics.