The nation was outraged just a few weeks ago when a woman taped her chocolate lab’s mouth shut because she was barking too much. Her face book post, “This is what happens when you don’t shut up… Don’t panic everyone it was only for a minute but hasn’t barked since… POINT MADE.”
As with most people in my profession this instance has weighed heavily on my mind. How could someone have such poor judgment? How could someone be so callous to the mental and emotional suffering of an animal? But something else was on the edges of my thought process, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on… until today.
I’ve been heavy hearted for many months as I’ve watched people who “know better” use unethical training methods on dogs in their care. Today, it all came together for me. The reason it hurts my soul so much when I hear stories like the chocolate lab on facebook who’s mouth was cruelly duct taped shut is because I think it speaks directly to our society’s failing on animal welfare. Here is my professional statement:
Results-based ethics are the chief failing in the animal welfare industry. (Results-based ethics being defined as: Results as the primary criteria for success in behavior modification)
Results-based ethics are a slippery slope. Using a choking correction collar on a dog because a humane option “doesn’t fit correctly” can very quickly turn into using electrocution as a correction because when “used correctly” it “doesn’t really hurt” which can very quickly turn into duct-taping a dogs mouth shut “only for a minute and he hasn’t barked since… point made!” The logic is identical in all three instances. It was “used correctly”, it was only “until he learns”, it “doesn’t hurt that much”, and IT WORKED! Just because something works does not mean it was successful! We, as an animal welfare community, must remove ourselves from this thought process.
Dogs, just like people, are resilient and adaptive. Most will quickly alter behavior to avoid emotional, physical, and mental harm. However, adaptation to avoid abuse always has significant repercussions. Each and every one of us knows someone who has lived or is currently living in adaptation to avoid abuse. They look happy on the outside. Perhaps calmer than they did before avoiding the abuse, smiling more, more put together, and a steadier stream of emotions. Stockholm Syndrome is defined as: hostages expressing empathy and sympathy and have positive feelings toward their captors, sometimes to the point of defending and identifying with the captors. We now know as scientific fact that dogs have the mental and emotional range of a 2-year-old human child. Dogs often deeply love and show love to their abusers, even at a greater rate than they would a non-abusive behavior modification specialist. We often see incredibly fast results from dogs who enter into abusive behavior modification programs. Why? Because abuse is effective! Abuse works. Mental and emotional terror is a very powerful method of altering short-term behavior! We, as an animal welfare industry must say enough is enough! Results are not an ethical criteria for success! We must stop this thinking. We must stand with the scientific facts and stop sugar coating this issue. Punitive method training of any kind, for any reason, is abuse. Every single major leader in our industry categorizes punitive method behavior modification as unethical and undesirable. The fallout from punitive method training has been thoroughly studied and scientific conclusions drawn. Punitive method behavior modification is abusive and undesirable to the overall wellbeing of animals – That is scientific fact.
The threat of abuse is every bit as abusive as physical harm. Whether you are currently asphyxiating a dog with a chain collar or simply having the chain collar on the dog as a threat of asphyxiation, the emotional and mental trauma to the dog is the same. If you are shooting someone with a gun or simply have the gun in your pocket with the threat of violence, the mental and emotional trauma to the victim is the same. In fact, many who have been in threatening abusive situations would say they would have much rather the abuser go ahead and pull the trigger than have the trauma of constant threat of violence.
Primum non nocere – “first, do no harm” must be the mantra of animal welfare for the future of our society. Results cannot and must not be our sole criteria for success. The dog’s mental, emotional, and physical safety and wellbeing must be at the forefront of our criteria for success.
I will end my article by quoting:
Look for a trainer who uses primarily or only reward-based training with treats, toys, and play. Avoid any trainer who advocates methods of physical force that can harm your pet such as hanging dogs by their collars or hitting them with their hands, feet, or leashes… Research shows that dogs do not need to be physically punished to learn how to behave, and there are significant risks associated with using punishment (such as inhibiting learning, increasing fear, and/or stimulating aggressive events). Therefore, trainers who routinely use choke collars, pinch collars, shock collars, and other methods of physical punishment should be avoided.
Dog training professionals will never recommend the use of equipment that is designed to cause pain or discomfort or restrict a dog’s breathing. This includes pinch/prong collars, choke/check chains, spray collars and electric/shock collars. These collars are unsafe for the dog wearing them. Both the collars and the pain they elicit may become associated with people and places in the dogs environment, a pairing that can cause a potentially dangerous behavior.
In a year-long University of Pennsylvania survey of dog owners who use confrontational or aversive methods to train aggressive pets, veterinary researchers have found that most of these animals will continue to be aggressive unless training techniques are modified… using non-aversive or neutral training methods such as additional exercise or rewards elicited very few aggressive responses.