When I was a young man working in the humane movement, other individuals offered mounds of information about dogs. It seemed I was the one person on the planet who was ignorant of the beasts. Everyone seemed to have a great uncle who was a master dog trainer.


The various great-grandnephews and great-grandnieces would announce their familial relationship, swell up with pride and tell me the secret of understanding the canine psyche. I soon learned to listen politely to these gems of canine lore or wear protective gear. People who know everything about dogs have 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 were afraid of thunder, it must therefore have been beaten by a cloud. I was promptly told it did not work that way.


With my limited knowledge of dogs, I made many blunders reasoning about them. I was told, at length, dogs are descended from wolves; therefore, we should train them the way wolves train each other. Wolves establish dominance by forcing another onto its back.


This time I was sure I had the information correct, so I said it would be much less trouble to merely teach the dog to lie on its back. But it isn’t the act of lying on the ground that is important; the way the animal is forced into the position is. I was instructed to grab the dog by the sides of the neck and roll it to the ground. I could not figure out how wolves grab each other with their “hands.”


Another training secret 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 noise seemed to have the same effect as beating a dog with a cloud, I was told I really didn’t understand the process.


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.


While my casual education yielded little of substance, I did learn how 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. These questions can help you examine a training method on a fundamental level before you experiment on your dog.


How does this method work? Dogs have a few simple motivations. Beware of explanations that do not stick to basics. A statement that a technique “just gets their attention” is not accurate enough. The real question is whether it motivates through pain, fear, comfort or pleasure.


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.


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. It will go behind the couch or leave the room and do it elsewhere. The real secret to housetraining is to use food treats for correct potty behavior while avoiding any punishment for accidents.


Is there a safe, efficient alternative? Pain and fear make poor motivators. Keep calling trainers until you find one who prefers to get your dog’s attention with treats and affection.


After 20 years of working with dogs, I still hear the theories of master trainers, and I am still trying to find dogs that know how to wrestle like Hulk Hogan or have been beaten by a cloud. While I haven’t found any of those remarkable dogs, I have yet to find one that couldn’t “get my attention.”