How Things Work:

When I was a young man, working in the humane movement, I was offered mounds of information about dogs. It seemed that I was the one person on the planet who was ignorant of the beasts. Every person I talked to seemed to have a great-uncle, aunt, cousin or sister who was a master dog trainer. The various great nephews and nieces would announce their familial relationship, swell up with pride and tell me the secret to understanding the canine psyche. I soon learned to either listen politely to these gems of canine lore or wear protective gear. People who know everything about dogs have very short tempers.

My discovery of this cultural phenomenon came slowly. In my innocence, I mistakenly tried to integrate the information into a logical framework. For instance, I was once told that if a dog is afraid of men, it is an indication that the dog has been beaten by a man. In my ignorance, I attempted to make that bit of wisdom work for me elsewhere. I then proposed that if a dog was afraid of thunder, it must therefore have been beaten by a cloud. I was promptly told that “it doesn’t work that way.”

With my limited knowledge of “how it works”, I continued to make blunders of reasoning about dogs. I was told, at length, that dogs are descended from wolves, and therefore we should train dogs the way that wolves train each other. One of the ways dogs intimidate each other is to growl and bare their teeth. I thought I had finally discovered “how things work” when I suggested that one need only buy a used pair of dentures and a set of those googly-eye glasses to intimidate a dominant dog. I was promptly told to “get serious.”

Another wolf like maneuver is to force a dog onto its back, as a display of dominance. This time I was sure I had the information correct, so I offered the thought that it would be much less trouble to merely teach the dog to lie on it’s back, rather than wresting around on the ground. This, it turned out, was also “not the way it works.” It isn’t the act of lying on the ground that is important, but the way the animal is forced into the position. I was instructed to grab the dog by the sides of the neck and roll it to the ground. At this, I was really confused. I could not figure out how wolves grab each other with their “hands” as they have no opposable thumbs. I assumed that I should grab the dog using only the fingers of each hand. That didn’t work very well – the dog kept slipping away and laughing at my attempts.

My learning about the secret ways of dogs was not limited to natural behaviors. I once watched a trainer give a very harsh correction to a dog, with a choke chain. When I asked if that was painful or dangerous to the dog, I was told that a choke chain is not painful, but merely “gets the dog’s attention. When I asked if I could put a choke chain around the trainer’s neck if I needed to “get his attention”, I was promptly told to mind my own business. (In reality, the trainer should have said, ‘It is intended to be unpleasant but is not harmful. The inhibition created is necessary though this is by no means the only way to teach an inhibition. By the way, mind your own business.’)

Another training secret that was revealed to me was that you can get a dog to stop barking by banging pans together, or shaking a tin can filled with pennies. The loud noise is meant to startle the dog into silence. When I remarked that frightening a dog with a loud noise seemed to have the same effect as “beating a dog with a cloud” I was told that I really didn’t understand the process.

While my casual education yielded little of substance, I did learn ways to evaluate training and behavior advice. My lack of understanding of these methods and practices prevented me from experimenting on my dog — I think he appreciated that, even if the advice givers were disappointed by my reluctance to share in their wisdom. Though I somehow never seemed to understand “how it works”, I did learn a few important questions about how to weigh training advice. Here are a few simple questions that can help you examine a training method on a fundamental level — before you experiment on your dog.

* How does this method work? Dogs possess a few simple motivations. Beware of explanations that do not stick to basics. The real question is whether it motivates through some form of avoidance or attraction. Another key element is whether individual behaviors can be strengthened or stopped immediately.

Is it safe? Techniques that rely on pain can cause damage if used incorrectly. Stepping on a dog’s paws may stop jumping behavior but can easily break bones in the dog’s foot. Likewise, using treats to ‘stop’ a dog from blasting out the door does not create an inhibition and leaves the dog at risk. One ‘open door’ accident when the dog sees a running cat can be fatal. Giving treats to bribe a dog to sit doesn’t stop them from jumping on people and takes constant, perpetual monitoring – something nobody is going to do.

Does it work? Rubbing a dog’s nose in feces or urine will not teach it to eliminate outdoors. It does teach the dog to avoid you when eliminating, however. The dog can avoid you in several ways. He will go behind the couch, or simply leave the room and do it elsewhere.

Is there an efficient alternative? There is a growing awareness that pain and fear are poor motivators. Inquire about alternatives before you smear pigfat on your dog’s nose or tape his mouth shut to prevent barking. Likewise, someone who uses no aversive control is selling you snake oil. Positive reinforcement and the absence of punishment for anti-social or dangerous behavior is the formula that causes the greatest amount of tragedy for animals and their owners. Consider people who let their dog run free. The purpose is to provide positive reinforcement, often called ‘fun’, which strengthens behaviors like chasing cats, jumping fences or knocking over garbage cans.

After 20 years of working with dogs I am still hearing the theories of popular trainers — only now I am hearing them from a crop of great-grand nieces and nephews. I am still trying to find dogs that have been beaten by clouds, hate dentures and know how to wrestle like Hulk Hogan. While I haven’t yet found any of those remarkable canines, I have found many thousands that didn’t read the books written by the gurus.

One thought on “How Things Work:

  1. I think that you have hit on the answer. As we know the trainers are not wrong, just try telling them you disagree. The problem is no one has informed the dogs that “this is what works”.
    So the problem is uneducated canine.

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