Debunking Dogma – Dog Training Myths

Dogma –  a point of view or tenet put forth as authoritative without adequate grounds  (source Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary)

As I grow older, I find that I am less apt to take things at face value, without first having investigated them for myself. The knowledge that I gain because someone or something causes me to question, that which I previously held or assumed as fact… is a great reward for the effort put forth in the investigation. In cases where I prove that which I thought to question, I have renewed confidence in that thought or idea. In the cases where I disprove it, I come away with a sense of expanding my mind with new ideas that I know, have basis in fact.

As a young boy, I was taught that the best way to house break a dog, was to rub the dog’s nose in its’ own waste. That grabbing a dog by the scruff of the neck and yelling bad dog, was a proper correction for unwanted behavior. And that dogs know that they are misbehaving because they act guilty when caught doing something wrong. I never thought to question these methods, even as I became older, until prompted by circumstance.

Sundown, a beautiful tri-color Australian Shepherd, was a surprise for my wife, Jackie, during our first year or marriage. For the most part Sundown and I got along well. Being an Aussie, she was tough skinned and tolerated my training methods without becoming overly sensitive. She was a farm dog and had plenty of room to roam, and was outside working with me or my wife most of the day. So she was easy to housebreak, having decided for herself that outside was the place to do her business. However, there was one thing Sundown and I did not agree on, the proper place for garbage.

I believed garbage belonged in a plastic bag, placed in a pile with other garbage, and ignored while waiting to be picked up and taken away. As she saw it, garbage was best ripped from the plastic bag, strewn about the ground, eaten, and then rolled in. I think if I could have asked her why she ate it first, and then rolled in it, she would have replied that it helped her digestion!

I would always catch her after the crime had been committed. Although the evidence was compelling, trash strewn about, a somewhat queasy but content look on her face, the unmistakable odor of garbage wafting about; I still wanted to catch her in the act. I got my opportunity one day and caught her, head buried in the garbage. I screamed “SUNDOWN” at the top of my lungs, which made her stop dead in her tracks. Then I called her over to me, and she complied by crawling along the ground, a sure sign that she knew, she’d done wrong. When she was within reach, I grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and scolded her, “bad girl, bad girl,” I growled. One of the horse trainers at the farm, Stella, saw this happen and decided to correct me in much the same way that I corrected Sundown. She screamed at the top of her lungs “What in the *#@% are you doing?.”  She had my full attention and decided to use both barrels. I won’t go into detail about the expletive laced tirade she unleashed. But the gist of it was this. To continue to “correct” Sundown for eating garbage like I just did, would result in two things. A dog that would make sure no humans were around when it played with garbage. And a dog that would not come when called.

I took me a while to calm down from the embarrassment of being scolded like this in public, but eventually I did. I decided to research some of the things she said. I started to read about dogs, about how hey learned and how they behaved. I spoke with other people about their dogs, and the training methods they used. I spoke with my vet about finding a good trainer to learn from. In short, I became aware that much of what I knew about dogs, was based on assumptions and methods that were no more valid than the assertion that breaking a mirror brings seven years of bad luck. I learned that there were better ways to train my dog that would lead to a better understanding between us, without using methods that called for bullying and intimidation.

Educating ourselves about dog training and behavior, is one of the best ways we can pay our dogs back for all that they give us. Talk with people who have the kind of relationship with their dogs, that you want with yours. Read books dealing with Positive Reinforcement methods. Find a trainer or class in your area that uses positive methods. The following is a list of resources that can help. It is by no means complete, but it is a good place to start. Your dog will thank you for it. Mine did.

If you know of a good resource on training and behavior, please let us know it by sending an email here. Comments are always welcome. If you would like to leave a comment just click on the comment link at the end of this article.