You may have noticed through social media promotions that this is National Animal Kindness Week, so it seems fitting to consider the kindness of how we train dogs and live with them. For, over more than a decade, I have watched what I have believed to be a slow but steady evolution in dog training towards a more welfare friendly future. This can be seen with the rise Dr. Sophia Yin’s Low Stress Handling and more recently of FearFree®. Research groups at universities all over the world are dedicated to investigating the negative effects of using aversive tools and techniques while providing support for methods which protect animal welfare. Overall, dog trainers, veterinarians, and everyone in between seem to be promoting more humane ways of handling and training dogs. In my opinion, it’s a hopeful time for those of us involved in animal welfare education and animal training.
As I worked my way through my undergrad and postgrad education, I was not only an
onlooker to the evolution in dog training that has been occurring, but also a tiny contributor, at least at a local level. Let me just say, it is no small thing to speak out against the use of aversive methods and tools. When people’s beliefs and methods are threatened, their reactions are not always kind. As a result, I have shifted towards providing education and promoting welfare friendly training to those that are receptive while delicately avoiding condemning other methods. This is partly self-preservation in the social media environment but mostly because this is an effective way to promote animal welfare. There will always be proponents of prong collars, shock collars, and every imaginable “technique” that aligns with the promotion of these tools. I accept this and carry on with my work. What troubles me is when those claiming to be professionals in the field of animal welfare and humane training begin supporting aversive tools and methods.
If you follow some of the big names in “positive” dog training, or some local professionals in your area, on social media, you may have noticed something: There are professionals that exuberantly promote positive reinforcement and other humane techniques in behaviour modification then abruptly announce their support for the use of prong collars and other aversive tools/techniques. These announcements often come in the form of success stories in their use of an aversive tool/technique and how their and their dog’s life was improved with no harm done to anyone. Or posts sometimes lean towards the philosophical side where choosing the inhumane way is just a necessary compromise that must be made for the good of humankind. The message is that we just need these brave souls who aren’t afraid to talk about the tools and methods that the radical, “purely positive” people want to hide from us (insert sarcastic emoji). According to this messaging, we can accept without guilt that it’s okay to use prong collars, shock collars, etc., if it helps us to achieve ours and/or our dog’s needs. This appeals to the psychology of humans. These are the messages that make me worry that our advances in animal welfare over the years will be damaged.
For the sake of full transparency, I very briefly dabbled in the world of aversive training tools. I was struggling and I was surrounded by skilled trainers who demonstrated the results I wanted with tools and methods I had always avoided. But the success stories, the promises that no harm was being done, and the warning that people could not possibly be safe with a dog trained primarily with positive reinforcement all helped me justify the tools and techniques despite my better judgement. (In case you were wondering, the tools solved some problems and created others). So, I understand that, sadly, social media posts by educated and/or experienced professionals justifying aversive tools and techniques will work against animal welfare advocacy. Afterall, many of these posters are saying all the right things that we’re told to look for in a professional trainer or behaviourist. And that’s what makes their acceptance of aversive tools and techniques especially powerful, and dangerous to animal welfare.
I want to focus here on tools used in dog training and address the misinformation about them that I’m seeing in abundance on social media. The topic of learning theory quadrants is more than can be properly addressed in a short blog. Now, here is the part in the blog where I am going to be bold.
The use of tools to train an animal that work by causing the animal fear, pain, or distress is unethical and inhumane.
Yes, this is a black and white statement. We must draw some lines when it comes to welfare and the ethics of our interactions with animals. Some people will read this and say, “but some dogs are scared of wearing a harness”. Yes, but a harness is not meant to have such an effect and if it does then we should remedy that through counter conditioning with food or other positive feedback. The other comment might be, “if you use a prong or electric collar properly then it doesn’t cause harm”. By definition, prong and electric (shock) collars can only work by causing pain, fear, or other levels of distress that the dog learns (hopefully) to avoid. If these tools are working in any circumstance, they have absolutely caused an aversive feeling or emotion (pain, fear, discomfort). That is the science of learning, not an opinion. If you’re so inclined, you can begin to learn more about this by reading the work of B.F Skinner, the famous scientist who developed the theories of operant learning.
Over the years, there has been considerable research done to demonstrate that these tools do in fact objectively cause psychological and/or physical harm. Cortisol levels, heart rate changes, intraocular pressure, eye temperature, cognitive bias, learning rate, and behavioural indicators are among the measures used to test dogs’ responses to aversive tools compared to humane methods. Not a single peer reviewed study (to my knowledge based on an extensive lit review) has shown that aversive tools benefit animal welfare. But all studies have shown some level of negative physical and behavioural effects.
Many people, especially professionals, acknowledge that prong collars and shock collars are aversive. This is perhaps unsurprising given all the available scientific evidence. However, people counter this with the opinion that these tools do have benefit and are sometimes a necessary progression when humane methods haven’t worked. Most distressing to me are comments that we can’t always put the needs, feelings, and even welfare of the dog first above human wants and needs. This is a utilitarian based ethical reasoning where the interests of some are considered more important than the interests of others. Incidentally, utilitarian ethics have been the rationalization behind some of the most awful abuses in this world. Such ethics are not used in veterinary or human medicine because they are incongruent with the ethical principle of doing no harm. Many professionals point to Susan Friedman’s Least Invasive Minimally Aversive (LIMA) hierarchy for training and behaviour modification as justification for their choice to use aversive tools. LIMA is a framework for several North American animal behaviour consultant and pet training certification organizations.
In a review article in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, Dr. Zazie Todd writes about why aversive tools continue to be used despite the evidence against them. Dr. Todd goes on to say that LIMA does not imply acceptance of the use of aversives but it is incorrectly used as such. This shows a flaw in the certification programs that appear to provide loopholes allowing certified professionals to validate their use of aversive tools. Most veterinary behaviour organizations and all European animal behaviour consulting and training certification organizations do not follow LIMA and go further with an absolute ban on their members recommending or using aversive tools. Their ethical premise is that all parties deserve equal consideration for their welfare and that our job is to do no harm to animals. This is a result of implementation of research findings in the education of behaviourists and consultants overseas as well as in animal welfare legislation. North America desperately needs to follow this example, but I digress.
Back to arguments of efficacy. There is an emerging body of research to compare the use of aversive tools and humane training methods. In every case, skillful use of positive training methods is more effective than even a professional’s use of aversive tools. I believe there needs to be much more research and teaching on effective, humane behaviour modification protocols to guide professionals and dog guardians. Some researchers suggest that when positive training methods appear to fail, it is due to insufficient trainer skill, or lack of recognition of deeper behavioural issues. In complex cases, the skilled use of positive methods is much more than delivering treats.
So, if it has been relatively well established that aversive tools don’t work better than positive methods, and that aversive tools do cause harm, then why are they being recommended by professionals? This brings us back to ethics and whose needs, wants, and wellbeing is most important when it comes to our lives with our dogs. Accepting the responsibility of being a behaviour professional or the caretaker of a dog means protecting animal welfare. Perhaps this is a reminder that animal trainers need. At the most basic of animal welfare requirements is the Five Freedoms, which states that animals require freedom from fear and pain. With this in mind, it is unacceptable to use a tool that works through pain, fear, and distress. Although it may be inevitable that our dogs will experience these things, we, as their guardians, should certainly not willfully cause them.
The supporters of using aversive tools often appeal to a spirit of inclusivity and acceptance by claiming that, unlike us “extreme positive” trainers/behaviourists, they won’t judge. But non-judgement is not the issue here. Effective, compassionate teaching is a learned skill and has nothing to do with one’s position about the training tools one may choose to utilize. If you are someone that has used an aversive tool or is using one on your dog, or perhaps you are considering it because you are struggling with your dog’s behaviour, my goal is not to shame you. This approach will not likely effect change. But I will try to point you in the direction of scientific evidence-based information on the harm these tools cause and encourage you to objectively consider this information. I will attempt to show you the importance of animal welfare both in the context of your relationship with your animal and as part of a bigger picture. And on a practical level, I will help you to find humane solutions to the struggles you are having with your dog. Sometimes this is providing an in-depth understanding of dog behaviour that gets to the root of an issue, connecting with a veterinarian, implementing an evidence-based training protocol, or managing your dog in a way that considers their individual needs. This is what an ethical trainer, behaviour consultant, or behaviourist should aim to do.
I truly believe that advocating for animal welfare is a way to promote kindness and empathy for all. Using pain, fear, and distress to make another being submit to our will is a scary path. It doesn’t matter how one tries to excuse this when it comes to dog training.
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