Thursday, 10 September 2015

Your "Fur Baby" Is Just A Dog

Skilled dog trainers and cutting-edge canine researchers are always telling us not to anthropomorphize our dogs.  Bestowing human traits on dogs leads to poor training decisions, as scientific information is subsumed by beliefs about what dogs ought to know and be able to do.  

People like Alexandra Horowitz and Temple Grandin have helped the cause of animal welfare by reminding us to see the world from the animal point of view when deciding how to create the ideal environment for them to thrive.  The more we anthropomorphize our dogs, these trainers and researchers say, the less well we will be able to treat them, at least in regards to training.  So it would be tempting to conclude that if you love dogs, you should try not to see them as human. 

And yet, there is no denying that in recent years there has been an explosion in the use of terms like �fur baby� to refer to dogs.  Just last week, I saw a car with this bumper sticker: 

So why is it that we are so certain of the badness of giving dogs human traits when we�re training them, but so sure that this is the right way to see them when we�re talking about their value and relationship to us?  What could lead to this kind of dissonance?  

I suspect that there is an element of speciesism underlying this juxtaposition.  Speciesism is a kind of prejudice involving the belief that humans are more valuable than other animals simply because they are human.  Like other forms of prejudice, speciesism often goes unrecognized and unacknowledged by individuals, and is best identified through looking at the language we use.  

We love dogs, and we want to do right by them.  When we try to express just how much we love and value dogs, however, we find ourselves resorting to human terminology, like �baby� - never �just a dog�.  This pattern of language suggests that, in our value system, something has more value when it is more like a human.  If we want to express our high regard for something, we tend to use language that points out the human-like traits it has, like �my dog�s so smart�, or �dogs are amazing because their brains process emotions like ours do�.  

But what is wrong with dogs just being dogs?  Why do we have to humanize them to justify the love and care we give them?

I think that the insights that researchers and trainers have given us about training dogs can carry over to valuing them too.  They have shown us that it�s possible to relate to dogs by understanding the world from their point of view as well as from ours.  Although language like �baby� and �furkid� doesn�t necessarily do any harm, we should be careful that it isn�t leading to a distorted picture of what a dog really is.  We can see a dog as an animal without minimizing our love for them or our obligations to the ones that we take into our lives and our hearts. 

Thursday, 13 August 2015

You Don't Have A Contract With Your Dog

It�s common to hear people with a strong interest in dog behavior and welfare referring to �the contract� they have with their dog.  It�s a way to capture their feeling that they have real moral obligations to their dog, based on a relationship of mutual understanding.  It sounds good, like a recognition of equality in a relationship, which is something that promotes the belief that dogs should have more control over their own lives and not be subject to the whims of humans.  Unfortunately, the idea of a contract with a dog makes no sense. 

A contract is a kind of promise with certain features, which creates a set of obligations that were not there to begin with.  It is an agreement between two or more parties for the exchange of goods or services.  If those goods or services are not provided, the contract gives the injured party the right to no longer supply the goods or services in question and to impose some kind of negative consequence.  These can be legal, like being sued, or personal, like the loss of a friend.  

Certain criteria have to be met for a contract to be valid:  
  1. Both parties must be able to understand the idea of a contract, and the terms of this specific contract. 
  2. Contracts can only be entered into freely, not under threat of violence. 
  3. Morally speaking, both parties have to be able to levy consequences for breaching the contract - if you are unable to influence the other party, the contract has no power. 

Our relationship with our dogs is not a contract because it doesn�t meet any  of these criteria. Although it might feel like the relationship you have with your dog is reciprocal and contractual, it�s not.  You are only contracting with yourself, because you are the only person who is free, able to understand, and capable of imposing consequences on yourself.  Your dog has none of these abilities, he can�t hold you to account for your actions, even though it might feel like he can.  

Whether your dog is purchased, rescued, fostered or adopted, he is not usually given much choice in the matter.  You own a dog, you don�t employ him.  If you were to keep a person in your house, refuse to let them leave and then claim to have a contract with them, it�s unlikely that contract would stand up in court.  Dogs cannot freely enter into a contract; all the terms are set by the human, and the dog is not able to leave.  

Dogs also cannot levy consequences on their guardians for breach of contract.  If I don�t feed my dog, what can she do?  If I stop grooming her, what can she take away from me?  Nothing.  Many abused dogs refuse to resort to violence against their guardians; living in fear, but not running away.  The reverse is true, too - I wouldn�t be justified in stopping caring for my dog even if she started �breaching our contract�.  If anything, I would have to find out why she was acting this way, and invest even more time and resources to addressing her problems.  There�s nothing my dog can do that would justify withdrawing the services I am providing for her. 

The only person that can compel me to hold up my end of the �bargain� with my dog is me.  I can make myself feel bad if I don�t do the things I�ve promised myself I�ll do for my dog, but my dog will continue loving me regardless, and doesn't have the power to trade me in for a more conscientious owner. 

A better way to explain the feeling of obligation we have to our dogs is the duty of care.  By choosing to bring a sensitive, emotional, living creature into our lives, we give ourselves a duty to keep it safe and happy.  In this way, relationships with dogs are like relationships with human toddlers - we don�t make contracts with two year olds because no matter how many diabolical tantrums and capricious acts of violence they perform, we have the same duty to care for them.  They can�t understand the idea of a contract but that doesn�t mean we have no obligations to them. 

Our relationships with dogs can feel reciprocal because of how close the bond is, but the dog doesn�t have obligations like we have obligations. We have a duty to care for our dogs; not because of something the dog supplies in return, but because of the choices we made.  


Friday, 1 May 2015

Why Do Different People See Dogs Differently?

A thread was recently created, and closed almost as quickly, in one of my favorite groups. The topic seemed, to me, to be fairly innocuous: �why is it that different people have such varying beliefs about the right way to treat dogs?�.  Unfortunately, the question was immediately interpreted as a kind of assertion of the superiority of the poster�s own beliefs, and - here�s where it gets really strange - as an example of cultural imperialism.  

Whether dogs should be kept indoors, how long they should be left alone, and even how they should be trained have all been argued as "cultural differences".  Since all cultures deserve equal respect, the argument goes, all the beliefs that are part of a culture also deserve equal respect.  But answers like, "it's their different culture" only accomplish three things:

  1. It moves the question up a level without answering it, from why an individual treats their dog that way, to why their culture believes that about dogs.
  2. It assumes that individuals are their culture, which ignores the intersectional identities that we all have.  We�re not just members of an ethnic culture, we also identify with political, gender-based, sexual, subcultural elements too.
  3. It makes the question much more difficult to answer without straying into disrespectful generalizations, or being accused of imperialism.
It�s pretty clear, then, that moving straight to culture as a way to account for the beliefs and actions of individuals is not useful.  Instead, I�ll propose a way to answer the question without dismissing culture or focusing too narrowly on it, using tools from practical ethics. 

When we ask why people do the things they do, we�re indirectly asking about morality.  Most people do things that they believe to be right, or at least, that they don�t believe are explicitly immoral or damaging to their character.  So, one way to get at the question, �why do people treat their dogs differently?� is to ask, �why do people believe doing what they do to their dogs is right?�

Asking this question takes in much more than culture, because our decisions about right and wrong are based on beliefs about facts as well as values.  We can imagine an individual decision to be comprised of different statements about relevant points, which are like the reels of a fruit machine:  

Reel 1: What is a dog, factually?  What does he think, feel, and know?  How does he perceive the world, and what sorts of things does he need to thrive?

Reel 2: What is a good life? What does welfare mean?  What kinds of things should be considered core to every dog's wellbeing, what is necessary but not sufficient, and what is supererogatory?

Reel 3: How much should we care about non-humans?  How much should we sacrifice for them? Does it make a difference whether they belong to me, or you, or nobody?  How bad should we feel when we fail to live up to our responsibility as dog owners? 

Each reel works in concert.  If you believe, like Rene Descartes did, that dogs cannot physically feel pain, it stands to reason that you won't class avoidance of painful things as good for dogs.  Descartes saw dogs like we see robots, and treated them accordingly - for him, they had no moral standing at all.  If Descartes had been born thirty years ago, however, his beliefs would almost certainly be different.

The Reels also allow us to see that moral relativism in dog training doesn't amount to much, because it's a blanket statement "what is morally right for me, might not be morally right for you and there are no objective standards to judge either of us against".  An individual's set of purported facts about what a dog is (Reel 1) can be proven to be more or less in accord with the real facts as best we know them.  So can data about what kinds of things lead to increased wellbeing (Reel 2).  This means there are ways to make judgements about our moral beliefs; if they depend on falsehoods, they need to be changed. 

If an entire group of people have their facts wrong, their beliefs will be mistaken too.  If an entire group of people believed what Descartes believed about dogs, we wouldn't say that they had an equal right to have this mistake respected, we'd say they needed to change their beliefs. 

Changing the basic facts can have a huge impact on an individual's beliefs about how dogs out to be treated.  For example, my partner became vegetarian overnight after reading about how smart pigs are.  But the issue works both ways. Sometimes people are so sure that their beliefs are right (and they are therefore a good person for treating animals the way they do) that they distort the facts to fit:

Thanks to @ScienceOfDogs for creating this graphic

This means we really can't say that our beliefs are ever completely infallible, but we can say that this is equally true whether they're attributed to cultures or to individuals.  Cognitive distortions happen at both levels - a culture can have conflicts when two values clash, just as an individual can. 

So what of culture?  As ethicists we have to acknowledge that culture plays a role in transmitting people's moral beliefs wholesale (or prereflectively), and of transmitting the facts on which those beliefs are built, but we can't accept culture as a justification or a sufficient explanation for why different people treat dogs differently.  

People are not their cultures, nor are cultures simplistic monoliths that spew out edicts; both are sensitive to context, time, place, micro-scale factors. When we ask why people do things to dogs, we shouldn't allow ourselves to be mired in culturally relativist argument.  
We can't hide behind cultural sensitivity as an excuse not to challenge beliefs about dogs, because there are ways to address the issue without sliding into "my culture is better than yours". 

Monday, 20 April 2015

Euthanasia for Aggression: The Wrong Paradigm

The question of whether dogs that behave aggressively, but are otherwise healthy ought to be euthanized is always divisive.  Every time a video does the rounds on social media, or a story comes out in the press about a dog attack, activists line up to state that no dog ought to be put down for such an act, because dogs are innocent creatures.  But what does this mean?

The argument I am discussing here is that a dog that bites ought not to be euthanized because that would be an injustice:
  1. Euthanasia is the death penalty,
  2. We ought not extend the death penalty to individuals who lack the ability to know right from wrong (are "innocents"),
  3. Dogs lack the ability to know right from wrong,
  4. Therefore we ought not euthanize dogs that bite.
This is an argument about justice.  I'm going to argue that justice isn't the right framework to understand the issue, and the comparison neglects the most important element of consideration: the dog's wellbeing.  I�ll start by examining the key reason given in the argument, which is that dogs are �innocent�.

What does �innocent� mean? 

The first and most obvious definition of innocence is the legal one, which is that the dog did not commit the act it is being charged with. In this article, I�m limiting myself to discussing dogs who have definitely bitten a human.  The conception of  �innocence� at issue has to mean something more substantial about the kind of creature a dog is, rather than about its actions.

Generally, this kind of innocence as a feature of character rather than actions is something we accord to children, animals, and sometimes adults who have some intellectual or developmental disability.  It can refer to the idea that (1) An innocent can't be held responsible for actions because he or she doesn't know what she's doing in a relevant sense; and/or (2) An innocent lacks some type of knowledge about the world as it really is, usually that there are people in it with bad motives.

A dog that bites cannot be classed as (2) since he does know there are "bad" people in the world.  He just bit one of them, or at least he thinks he did.  So, we need to unpack (1) to find out whether there�s any justification for according this definition of innocence to dogs.  Do dogs know what they're doing in a relevant sense?

The relevant sense here is the moral one - whether a dog can know right from wrong.  Dogs only know right and wrong on a practical level, not a moral one.  Moral thinking isn�t something we assume dogs can do - we can train them to perform certain actions and we assume they have certain motivations like getting food, and pleasing people they love, but we don�t imagine that a police dog is weighing up whether she really ought to chase a suspect, or a pet chihuahua is considering whether it's really ethical to steal underwear off the drying rack (were that the case, doggy jail would fill up pretty fast!).

"In my defense, Your Honor, they were delicious"

Although research has suggested that dogs can experience a sense of jealousy and "inequity aversion", which points to them understanding some concept of fairness at an emotional level, unfairness is only a problem for dogs if they�re the victim.  There isn�t evidence that dogs care that other people are getting a raw deal on their behalf, which would be suggestive of a moral understanding of fairness rather than one based in self-interest.  Fairness, of course, is only one element of morality.  As far as we know, it�s safe to say that the realm of moral oughts, of justice and ethics, is only accessible to the humans in the relationship.  That�s one of the reasons why we bear such a weight of responsibility for our companion animals.

In this way, dogs are �innocent�, because they do indeed lack some level of understanding of the world.  The fact that an aggressive dog doesn't don�t know what they are doing in a moral sense, however, is not an overriding reason to avoid euthanizing them.  It�s rank anthropomorphism to base life and death decisions about what we ought to do with our dogs on whether they can understand human concepts.  We have to decide whether aggressive dogs ought to be euthanized based on considerations of this dog relative to other dogs, not relative to humans.  Is this dog more dangerous, less happy, less able to be rehabilitated than other dogs?

Justice and responsibility

What about the claim, often made by defenders of the argument I�m discussing, that dogs are only provoked to bite because humans have done something to that dog - either through abuse, breeding, or poor training?  If a dog has been bred to have minimal impulse control and maximum aggression, or if he's been subjected to training for dog fighting - aren't his actions really caused by these things?  Doesn�t that mean it�s unjust to euthanize the dog, since he can�t help what�s happened to him?

In human law, opinion has been divided on whether direct evidence of biological compulsion counts in a defendant�s favor.  Brain scans and genetic tests have discovered certain biological features of individuals that puts them at much greater risk of committing crimes, but some judges have taken this as a reason to be more lenient, whereas others have concluded that such individuals are a higher risk of re-offending and should be punished more severely.

There is not a clear legal precedent that could be extended to dogs who might have similar risk factors, but there doesn't need to be, since dogs are already not seen as morally or legally responsible.  A biological or psychological risk factor, however, might lower his chances of being successfully rehabilitated.  If anything, the claim that dogs that have bitten have been caused to become aggressive by factors outside their control tips the scales in favor of euthanasia, not against.

At this point, it should be clear that justice is an insufficient concept for determining whether a dog ought to be euthanised for aggression.  It simply doesn't matter whether a dog can understand right and wrong, or whether their genes, environment, or past gave them their current set of dispositions.  For a complete account of what the right thing to do is, we need to focus on individual cases, and bring in considerations of welfare.

Welfare considerations

Euthanasia for a biting dog shouldn't be seen as the death penalty, it should be seen as the last in a line of options that maximize welfare without sacrificing safety.  Whether euthanasia is the right thing to do should depend on what kind of environment an individual dog would need to live in if other animals (humans included) are to be kept safe.

In turn, this depends on the available resources; is it practically possible to create an enriched, happy, safe life for this dog without taking the same away from other dogs that might be in the rescue organization or the owner's home.  There are undoubtedly times where owners choose euthanasia when they should not, but equally I believe there are times when it is the kindest thing.

If we wanted to carry on the judicial metaphor, we could call "crate and rotate", poor-quality sanctuaries, or a life of never interacting with others or leaving the owner's yard "life imprisonment" for aggressive dogs.  If being the sort of creature who cannot understand right from wrong entitles a dog to not be punished by death for biting, then surely punishment by life imprisonment is equally unjust.

Justice is simply not a profitable way to capture a complete picture of the morality of the situation here. We should look to measures of expected quality of life to determine the best way to proceed with dogs that bite, and avoid the emotional baggage that comes with the word "innocence".

Sunday, 29 March 2015

LIMA vs. The Humane Hierarchy: Principles for Decisionmaking

The concepts of LIMA and the Humane Hierarchy are gaining in popularity amongst dog trainers and professional organizations; something I believe is more than past due.  For example, in January 2015 the APDT and the IAABC have put out a joint position statement supporting a Least Invasive, Minimally Aversive approach to decisionmaking in behavioral interventions for dogs.  In both these statements, the concept of LIMA was illustrated with a picture of the Humane Hierarchy.

I believe conflating LIMA and the Humane Hierarchy - seeing both as two  elements within the same concept - is a mistake.  It is an extra step in describing LIMA that seems logical and necessary, but actually can cause problems for the concept.  In fact, it is possible to call oneself a LIMA trainer without subscribing to the Humane Hierarchy.  This is because the Humane Hierarchy is substantial and prescriptive, and LIMA is an abstract principle.  

Defining the terms

LIMA is a principle that states that, for any dog, any situation and any desired outcome, a trainer should always use the Least Invasive, Minimally Aversive intervention possible.  Invasiveness is usually defined both as physically interfering with the dog�s body and personal space, and as altering his routine and diminishing his opportunities for enjoyment.  Aversiveness is defined as anything the dog would seek to avoid if he could - usually punishment and negative reinforcement.

The Humane Hierarchy sets out possible interventions, and groups them according to how �humane� they are, as shown in this roadmap:

At the bottom, there are the most humane interventions; the ones that cause least impact on a dog�s wellbeing.  These are changes in the dog's physical and psychological health, and interventions in environment so that the dog is no longer in a situation where he wants to perform an undesirable behavior.   Next comes positive reinforcement without eliciting any unwanted behavior.  After that, differential reinforcement, where a dog is taught to perform a more desirable behavior instead of a less desirable one, by giving that more desirable behavior a really strong history of reinforcement.

At this point, the Humane Hierarchy starts to move into more controversial territory, with the inclusion of negative punishment, negative reinforcement and finally, positive punishment as a way to change behavior.  Positive punishment is considered the least humane intervention because it is often both invasive and aversive for the dog, and so it is placed right at the top of the roadmap, with several �stop signs� in the way.

It may seem that defining a more humane intervention as a less invasive and/or aversive one just is defining LIMA in terms of the Humane Hierarchy, but this would be an incomplete view of what LIMA can mean as a principle.  In fact, LIMA can exist without the Humane Hierarchy; other sets of possible interventions can be used instead.

LIMA and force-free training

Some advocates of force-free training have criticized LIMA because it supposedly allows for the use of positive punishment and negative reinforcement, thus being a haven for �shock collar apologists�.  The idea is, a LIMA trainer could feel that she is ethically permitted to use an e-collar if she believes that it is the least invasive, minimally aversive option at the time.  In contrast, force-free advocates believe that it is never ethically permissible to use a tools like prongs or e-collars.

One of the main reasons force-free advocates conclude that e-collars are never the right ethical choice, is that they argue that no dog need ever be trained using tools and protocols geared towards positive punishment or negative reinforcement.  They claim that, applied correctly, positive reinforcement-based methods can be effective in every case, so if a trainer is resorting to an e-collar, she either must be deliberately rejecting reward-based methods that would have worked instead, or lacking the necessary education in these methods to have them work effectively.  Any framework that allows the use of positive punishment is allowing something that is, according to force-free trainers, inherently unethical.  Therefore, the framework itself is unethical and ought to be rejected.  

However, force-free advocates who argue that e-collars are never necessary do not need to reject LIMA as a framework - their issue is with the Humane Hierarchy, as I will show.

LIMA simply states that a set of possible interventions ought to be tried in a certain order, it does not stipulate what these interventions are.  Any such set can be ordered in a LIMA way, no matter what it contains.  LIMA just means, use the least invasive, minimally aversive option first.  If there is never a need for a trainer to use an e-collar, as the force-free advocates claim, then an e-collar will never be the LIMA option because something else will work first.

A LIMA trainer does not have to use every tool; they can use any set of tools they believe might be effective.  Force-free trainers can leave out e-collars and tools aimed at causing positive punishment from their set of potential interventions and still use the LIMA principle.  Their problem really lies with the Humane Hierarchy, which includes e-collars, prongs and similar tools as potential interventions even if they themselves would never use them.

LIMA can also be developed as a principle to ground an obligation for trainers to continue their education, as the position statements from the APDT and the IAABC state.  Trainers ought to refine their skills in order to be able to use less invasive and aversive interventions with maximum effect.  If it is true that reward-based methods will work for every dog, anyone using any other methods must be suffering from a lack of education.  Given that there is ample opportunity for trainers to become educated about force free methods, that lack of knowledge can be seen as a contravention of the principle of LIMA training.  For a trainer who is committed to this principle but faced with an inability to find a reward-based method that works for a particular client, the least invasive and minimally aversive thing to do might be to refer to someone she thinks might be better able to help.

Force-free training and LIMA training are therefore not opposed in principle, as the arguments force-free advocates use do not rule out using the LIMA principle to make decisions.  Force-free training can be seen as opposed to the Humane Hierarchy, on the other hand, because of the inclusion of tools that they believe to be essentially unnecessary for behavior modification.  

This is not to say that the Humane Hierarchy does not have a place, or that it is not useful for trainers using LIMA - it is a model decision tree, and without a framework for applications, LIMA would be little more than a wish.  Any application of LIMA will need a set of interventions to reference; it just does not have to be specifically the Humane Hierarchy.  In abstract discussions of the ethics of dog training, LIMA also ought to be considered by itself, as a guiding ethical principle rather than a list of �if this, then that� interventions.  

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Metta and the Shelter Environment

I'm going to do something a little different in this article, and share some personal experiences. In particular, how my practice of Zen Buddhism (on which I am no expert, but I'll try to explain the concepts as best I know how) has informed my volunteer work.  I've been working as a volunteer dog socializer at the Humane Society of Silicon Valley for just over a year, and the experience has taught me a lot about dogs, ethics, and applying Buddhist principles to everyday life. In this blog I'll be focusing on one principle: metta.

Metta is probably best described as "equanimity in compassion".  It means sincerely opening yourself to the feeling of wishing that everyone be happy and free from suffering, without conditions on who they are.

"What do you mean, you can love other dogs??"

Metta isn�t one of the classical area of focus in the Zen schools of Buddhism, but Zen can color the practice of metta by bringing attention to the idea that it's not meant to be practiced with a goal in mind - not to create good feelings for yourself, or to achieve some kind of "enlightenment" or to make your life easier. 

By attending to and trying to develop the experience of metta, we try to bring to mind the essential community of all living beings, and extend feelings of loving kindness without attachment to judgements of who deserves what.

I've found volunteering in an animal shelter a true benefit to my personal practice of metta.  It's really highlighted the roadblocks I face - the conditions I put on how open I am to sincerely wishing others well, which are limiting and damaging.   I'll try to describe two of the main ways spending time at the shelter has deepened my understanding of what it really means to wish happiness for all life equally.

The Difference Between Happiness and Metta

It's easy to wish a living being well, and feel empathy for it, when you see that it has some feeling towards you.  In fact, loving a dog that loves you is almost impossible to resist!  It's much more difficult to give the same love, however, when you're faced with a living being who has no interest in you, or wants to cause you harm.

The feeling of being loved or needed by an animal gives rise to good feelings, and these inspire what I thought was a state of metta, but was actually just attachment.  This feeling of reciprocal love depends on something the other creature is doing.  Metta, by contrast, is ideally universal and independent of context; love for everyone no matter who or what they are.  The difficulty I noticed myself having, in maintaining the same level of compassion and openness towards the dogs that don't care about me and the ones who love me dearly makes it clear where I am falling short in my practice.  Extending openness and love to only those beings who offer me something is the opposite of metta!

When I feel myself closing down, and wishing the interaction to be over so I can go and spend time with my favorite companion, I try to force myself to reopen my mind and remember that the dog in front of me owes me nothing, and deserves everything. 

Love Without Attachment

Another benefit to the practice of metta in shelters for me, is that it has forced me to focus on non-attachment.  Love without attachment is really important in Buddhism, because we believe that attachment causes the world to be full of suffering, and fails to recognize that everything in the universe is transient. 

There is a constant flow of animals through the shelter I volunteer at, which is of course a good thing - it means we�re doing our job well.  This high turnover can be emotionally draining; as soon as you build a bond, they leave with their forever family, their room is filled by someone else and you're faced with building a whole new bond.  It can feel like a repeating pattern.  After this happened a few times, always leaving me feeling sad, I realized that seeing a pattern is itself a mistake and a failure of metta - to the dogs, this is all new of course, and each dog is an individual with its own point of perception.  

Extending the same loving kindness to each dog, approaching the long term resident who covers me with kisses and the stranger who shrinks into the corner or bares his teeth, with an equally open heart can be draining, but it also forces me to recognize that metta cannot be conditional.  Everyone deserves happiness, everyone deserves to be free from suffering.

The first thing I do when I meet a new dog, is to tell them, quietly, "May you be happy. May you be free from suffering".  Extending this wish sincerely to every living creature is a daunting aspiration, and highlights the pettiness and flaws in my character, but it's something I'm committed to, and something I believe will benefit the dogs I am trying to help.  

Thursday, 12 February 2015

The Conflation Game - How Misunderstanding the Differences Between Homeopathic and Natural Remedies can Cloud our Thinking

Homeopathy and natural and herbal medicines are not the same thing, but they are often conflated - mistakenly seen as two parts of a single concept.  In this blog, I'll explain the differences between homeopathy and natural medicines, and then discuss why getting clear on these differences is important for making ethical decisions about how we treat our dogs. 

What is Homeopathy? 

Homeopathy was invented in Germany in the 19th Century, by Samuel Christian Friedrich Hahnemann.  He believed that illnesses ought to be treated by restoring the patient�s �vital force�. 

The first principle of homeopathy is that "like cures like". If your dog has a fever, you should treat him with something that is also known to cause fever, in order to balance out his "vital forces". If the dog is itching, we should treat him with something that causes itching, and so forth.

The second principle of homeopathy is that the potency of an ingredient is increased the more times it is diluted using a special shaking method. This is based on the idea, roughly speaking, that "water has a memory". In practice, this means that some homeopathic preparations contain a handful of molecules of the active ingredient listed on the bottle. Some have been shown to contain, on average, less than one molecule - nothing at all that could work, even if the principle of "like cures like" made sense. 

We should all hope that water doesn't have a memory, at least not in the sense of being able to cause effects in the body because of what it "remembers". I wouldn't want memories of velociraptor pee, elephant tears and spawning trout to get into my glass of water!


What are "natural medicines"?

Using plants, animals, and fungi as medicine is a practice as old as human civilization itself. Even our companion animals have been said to administer natural remedies to themselves - most people believe that dogs eat grass to induce vomiting or settle their stomachs somehow, although this is disputed!

Natural remedies are also supposed to contain significant and measurable amounts of their active ingredient.  To make a natural remedy, the drug company takes the plant source, treats it to make the active ingredients available, and then encapsulates the desired dosage of the ingredient into a deliverable form, like drops or a pill.

Information about which chemicals found in nature are good for which ailment has come down from a variety of sources - different cultures, experiments and so on. This means there is no single underlying principle, like the homepath's "like cures like", determining which substances to use.

Some systems, like ayurveda and naturopathy, are based on beliefs that are as far-fetched as homeopathy, involving mysticism and other spiritual practices, so consumers should take care that they are informed about the reasoning behind the claim that such and such a herb will cure something.  However, it is possible to use natural remedies without subscribing to magical thinking.

The data on whether natural remedies for dogs are effective is patchy, which is something I have discussed in an earlier article.*  However, whether you believe a particular remedy or formulation is effective or not, at least nothing in principle rules out some remedies being effective.  We don't have to give up on commonsense beliefs, like water just being water.

Why does it matter?

The reason this is important is that studies have shown homeopathic preparations not to be effective. There is ample scientific proof that the principles of homeopathy are unsound, and that medications based on those principles are ineffective.  

In contrast, many preparations derived from natural sources like fungi and plants are effective.  Many poisons and recreational drugs are obtained from nature's larder, as well as more conventional remedies.  There are issues around just how safe and effective commercial natural remedies are, as the recent story about unsafe herbal medicines for humans shows, but the principle that a dose of a chemical derived from a plant, animal or fungus can treat or cure diseases in dogs makes sense. 

The difference in potential for efficacy is one reason why we should be clear about getting the distinction right.  Homeopathy simply cannot work.  Natural remedies could work, even if some of them don't.  In arguments, conflating homeopathy with natural medicine leads advocates of homeopathy to give critics a false dichotomy.  Either they accept that "alternative medicine" works, or they should reject the fact that many medicines derived from plants are well known to work, and even prescribed by "allopathic" doctors.  If you've been prescribed St John's Wort for depression, or peppermint oil for digestive discomfort and you've felt any benefits from them, you "have to" believe in homeopathy too.  As we've seen, this is clearly not the case.  I can keep downing my peppermint oil capsules every time I eat Indian food whilst simultaneously claiming that all homeopathic products are useless and should be removed from drugstores.  There's no incoherence in this position once we get clear on the distinction.  "Alternative medicine" encompasses everything from herbal supplements to crystal healing, and there's no need to believe in all of it or none at all. 

Another reason is that if we equate homeopathy with naturally-derived supplements like Zylkene or Anxitane for our dogs, and we want to try these supplements, we might automatically assume that we should see a "homeopathic vet".  This is not the case.  Many "allopathic" vets and veterinary behaviorists are knowledgeable about supplements like Zylkene and Anxitane, indeed many will sell them to you without prescription.  They are also widely available online and in pet stores, so there's no need to give up on your family's vet.

When we are looking at supplements, it is because our dog has a problem and is suffering.  If a dog is suffering, the most ethical thing to do is choose those options that have the best chance of working.  There is a lot of evidence that homeopathy doesn�t work, and as we have seen, the principles it is based on don�t fit into common sense or science.  Natural remedies, by contrast, at least could work, so if you have a commitment to trying over-the-counter remedies, it seems ethical to choose the path with the most chance of having some effects.  Conflating homeopathy and natural medicine is inaccurate, and it gives homeopathy false credibility.

* SkeptVet blog has also generated a lot of information on natural supplements for dogs, a list of articles can be found here.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Shock Tactics: Why Banning E-Collars is a Poor Solution to the Problems in Dog Training.

The use of electronic collars ("e-collars") is one of the most divisive issues in world of dog training and welfare.  The collars are already banned from sale and use in some countries, particularly in Europe, and recently they have been banned in Wales, which marks the first ban in an English-speaking country.  Both sides of the debate over e-collars are entrenched, and vociferous in their criticism of the other. Those in favor of the ban claim that e-collars are "barbaric" and those who use them are de facto animal abusers. Those against claim that their opponents have a sentimentalized view of dogs, seeing them as babies to wrap in cotton wool, and that they lack adequate knowledge of how the collars are supposed to work.  

Tools designed to be painful or frightening to dogs should never be used as a first-line approach in behavior modification.  This is the position of the AVSAB, the IAABC, and the CCPDT. For that reason, I believe that shock and prong collars should not be widely available in pet stores or online. They should not be as easy to pick up as a bag of treats, and we should work to make them less available by lobbying wherever they are sold. But banning them entirely won't work. 

I am going to argue against calls from the UK Kennel Club, among others, to place an outright ban on the sale and use of e-collars.  This does not mean I am arguing in favor of their use - I have never used an e-collar on my dog, or anyone else's. I am merely arguing that banning a piece of equipment as an attempt to change the way dog trainers operate would be a mistake. 


Obviously, electronic collars are not the only way to cause physical suffering to a dog.  Other kinds of corrective collar are not covered by the proposed ban by the UK Kennel Club.  Kicking the dog is not covered by this ban.  By delivering a short, sharp sensation to the dog, e-collars are more likely to be associated with the undesirable behavior.  To contrast, jerks on pinch collars, alpha rolls and kicks in the ribs are less easy to get the timing right and more likely for the dog to associate with the owner or trainer as well as, or even instead of, the behavior.  By focusing on one item, the "ban the shock� lobby risk taking the best tool out of the compulsive trainer�s toolbox, making room for things that are more invasive and more unpleasant.  They are not addressing the underlying issue, which is, I will argue, that dog training remains an unregulated profession.  

An Ideal World 

The lobbyists often claim that no dog "needs" to be trained using positive punishment.  Any dog - every dog - could be successful with non-compulsive methods, and now that the information on how to use these methods is widely available, there is no excuse for using any other technique.  They point to listings of force-free trainers and organizations like the Pet Professional Guild, as well as all the online resources owners have at their disposal, and argue that because these exist, no dog ought to be subjected to any other kind of training than completely force-free. At the present time, however, such claims amount to utopianism. 

There are still parts of many countries that are not covered by force free trainers at all, and there are places where dogs need training outside a home or class environment, like dog shelters, who do not have access to skilled, experienced force-free trainers for whatever reason.  In real life, compulsive trainers who use e-collars might still be the only option for some people and dogs, if those trainers are the only ones who are accessible.  Taking away their e-collars is not going to provoke some kind Damascene moment of conversion to clicker training; it's more likely to lead to a fall back on more aggressive, more violent techniques.  Not all owners are capable of training their own dogs, especially for difficult or dangerous issues like predatory drive and aggression.  Expecting owners to train their own dogs using methods they are not skilled in is not only unfair, it's potentially dangerous.  

Banning e-collars doesn't change these realities, it merely makes force-free trainers look like they�re doing something.  Just because "something must be done" and you are doing something, doesn't mean you are doing what must be done!

Positive Punishment within a LIMA Framework

Force-free lobbyists often use emotive language in their arguments.  The Kennel Club even refers to e-collars as "barbaric".  We should remember, however, that the use of positive punishment can be a part of the LIMA (Least Invasive Minimally Aversive) approach, widely considered to be the standard of best practice in the ethics of dog training.  LIMA is a principle to guide decisionmaking about which approach to take to achieve a training goal.  It is most commonly, although not necessarily, related to the Humane Hierarchy.  If no other approaches are possible given the trainer's ability and the dog's specific problem, and if the training goal is required for safety, then neither the LIMA approach nor the Humane Hierarchy rules out the use of an e-collar or other method of delivering positive punishment. 

The Association of Pet Dog Trainers, and International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants� position statement on LIMA makes this point clearer:
LIMA requires that trainers/behavior consultants work to increase the use of positive reinforcement and lessen the use of punishment in work with companion animals and the humans who care for them. LIMA protocols are designed to be maximally humane to learners of all species. In order to ensure best practices, consultants/trainers should pursue and maintain competence in animal behavior consulting through education, training, or supervised experience, and should not advise on problems outside the recognized boundaries of their competencies and experience.

Competence is the most important factor in dog training.  We need trainers with a flexible set of skills and a commitment to continuing education.  But we should take something else from this statement too: trainers have different competences and the LIMA approach does not mandate any particular technique, only that the technique is the least invasive and minimally aversive given the situation.  This includes the owner�s abilities, the dog�s temperament and issues, and the trainer�s skills. 

Regulation, Regulation, Regulation

A much better solution than banning e-collars - or any other tool - would be to make dog training a regulated profession.  I�ve made some arguments about this in a previous post.

Ian Dunbar famously said:

To use shock as an effective dog training method you will need:
  • A thorough understanding of canine behavior;
  • A thorough understanding of learning theory;
  • Impeccable timing.
And if you have those three things, you don't need a shock collar. 
If this is true, then making sure that all dog trainers have demonstrated their education and skills to a required level would theoretically lead to the end of e-collar use and of all compulsive training, which is really the goal of the force-free movement.  Such regulation would also make for higher-quality training of every other sort, too - many positive reinforcement trainers mistakenly believe that they "cannot do R+ wrong�.  And, on those rare occasions where trainers do feel that suppressing a behavior is the best approach, the e-collar would still be available with all the benefits it has over other corrective tools. 

In demanding that governments ban e-collars, all the force-free lobby is doing is risking the alienation of a whole group of trainers who use them, including as an adjunct to mark and reward and as part of a LIMA approach.  Until we regulate dog training as a profession, there is no way to minimize the kinds of abuse that go on behind closed doors, and we won�t be able to make progress towards regulation unless there�s widespread support among trainers in all camps.  Dog trainers would need to show that regulation has strong support, and put pressure on governments.  

Furthermore, a regulation system will only be truly fair if it is consented to by as many trainers as possible.  Getting rid of one tool and using language like �barbaric� and �cruel� to describe everyone who uses it is not a step in the right direction because it will ultimately and lead to more divisions, less willingness to co-operate and less likelihood that regulation will happen.  Instead of focusing our energy on banning tools, we should be demanding higher professional standards for the people who use them. 

Monday, 26 January 2015

What is an "Obedient Dog"?

Everyone knows what �obedience training� is, it�s the process of teaching a dog to reliably perform a behavior when you give them the cue to do so. But this doesn�t actually mean you�re training a dog to be obedient, even though it�s often described as him �obeying your commands�.  Some trainers baulk at such authoritarian language, because it is suggestive of a hierarchy, which is a highly contentious concept.  

Without the concept of a hierarchy, however, the idea of an obedient dog means nothing.  

The definition of obedience is to submit yourself to commands given by someone in authority.  On this definition, you can�t be obedient to somebody without holding them in authority - the authority doesn�t have to be a person, but it has to be elevated, like the law or moral principles.  

So, an obedient dog is a dog that dutifully does as he is told to do by someone he recognizes as an authority. Without the authority relationship, there can be no obedience. But this doesn�t necessarily mean teaching the behaviors we now call �obedience training� are impossible to teach a dog, merely that the process should rightfully be called something else.  

Two analogies 

The most common example of human obedience training is in the military.  A commanding officer asserts his authority over his platoon by instilling them with respect for his authority.  The private is expected to obey her commanding officer, not to ask �what�s in it for me?�  If the commanding officer had to remind her that she was being paid for her service every time she told her to drop and give her twenty, the private would no longer be called obedient because she was not obeying for the sake of the authority relationship.  Not to mention being charged with insubordination.

Drop and give me the ball! 

In the opposite way, a worker might obey his boss's demand that he stay later with his team to prepare for an important deadline, but the worker is only doing so insofar as it makes his life easier in the long term. Maybe he�ll look for a better, faster way to accomplish whatever the boss needs so he can go home earlier, even if that means not technically doing what he's been told. In this case, we can hardly say that the worker is being obedient, acting for the sake of the boss's authority.  A better description would be "savvy"; knowing when to keep his head down and hoping for a raise come Christmas. There is nothing insubordinate about a worker reminding himself that he is here because he is being paid, or about his boss reminding him of this.  This is because in this case, there is no need for submission to authority simply because it is authority. 

Is training a dog more like a commanding officer and his private, or like a boss and her worker?  Both models are in use by professional trainers and pet owners, but only the latter has traction in the "force-free" community.  We are told that our dogs should want to work with us, and that we should make it so that our dogs want to do what we ask them to do because they have a history of enjoying doing that thing, then in a way, we are not developing obedience, we are building willingness, memory, and reliability. 

If we use the analogy of �paying� a dog his �salary� to work, then we�re effectively precluding the idea that our dog is being obedient.  He�s being savvy, like the worker. Even if sometimes you withhold his paycheck or give him less than he expects, the fact that he is expecting a reward at all means he is not acting for the sake of you as a perceived authority figure. 

Should we reject the concept of obedience? 

Do we need our dogs to be obedient at all, given that we have an alternative model? This is a question for more experienced trainers to answer with evidence; all I can do is give some criteria to meet if we are to reject the notion of obedience with no loss of function.  If we can teach them to do everything that an �obedient� dog does, but in the spirit of willing co-operation rather than dutiful submission, then we haven�t lost anything by losing the concept of obedience.  

If, however, there is a point where our dog is not willing to co-operate, and is determined to do something we don�t want him to do, then we might find that we do have a need for the authoritarian model of obedience after all.  The question of whether �obedience training� should be renamed, and the idea of the perfectly obedient dog retired, hinges on whether there are moments where only the imposition of one�s will on a dog is sufficient to attain compliance.  

Friday, 9 January 2015

"My Dog Ought To Sit"

Owners of dogs with problems are often confronted with the charge that they just haven�t done a good enough job of training their dogs.  Sometimes, the owners themselves believe that if their dogs were less stubborn and more obedient, they wouldn�t bark and lunge at joggers, or charge the door when guests come around.  The perceived failures of obedience in their dog leads them to feel resentment and guilt. In short, many people see all dog behavior problems as obedience problems, and are liable to blame the owner and the dog for having them.  

A Misconception

This tendency to see frightened and/or aggressive dogs as poorly-trained dogs is actually symptomatic of a deeper misconception about how we should see the dog-human relationship. As humans, we exist in a world of agency, responsibility, promises and obligations, and we�re liable to try to impose as much of the model we live in on how we relate to our pets.  But in fact, allowing our human-centric focus on what we owe to each other to creep into what we expect from our dogs can lead to frustration on both sides. 

The key is in how we understand just one simple word: �ought�.  When I say, �when I tell my dog to sit, my dog ought to sit�, what I mean by this shapes my whole understanding of our relationship.  As I�ll explain, the appropriate way to understand �ought� precludes the kind of resentment that�s so toxic to our lives with our dogs.  This is why such an abstract enquiry is, I hope, useful work. 

Two Kinds of Ought 

When I say someone ought to do something, there are two ways to understand �ought�. One is statistical: �when I toss a coin, it ought to land on either heads or tails�.  The other is moral: �when you make a promise, you ought to keep it�. 

The difference is important because moral �oughts� are related to what the philosopher P.F. Strawson calls �moral emotions� like resentment and guilt.  We feel resentful towards someone, Strawson contends, when they fail to fulfil an obligation we believe they have towards us.  We feel guilty when we become aware of our own moral failings.  Lying, stealing, humiliating and breaking promises are all examples of failures to meet our moral duties, and all of these things make us feel resentful towards others, and guilty when we do them ourselves.  

When I say, �my dog ought to sit when I tell her to sit�, it could sound like a moral ought.  If we believe that dogs can be deliberately spiteful or can fail to respect us, it certainly sounds like we�re saying that failing to sit means failing to fulfil the obligation to sit.  So it makes sense, on this logic, to believe that a dog that doesn�t sit when a skateboard passes by, or won�t lie on a mat when guests come over, is worthy of our resentment. 

However, it�s a lot more profitable and parsimonious to see �my dog ought to sit� as reflecting a predictive, statistical kind of ought.  An ought that does not depend on imputing bad character to our dogs when they fail to do what we ask of them.  A coin ought to land heads or tails, but very rarely it will land on its side.  My favorite tea is oolong, so when I visit a tea shop I ought to choose oolong - but sometimes I�m in the mood for genmaicha.  When a dog is under pressure, the likelihood of what ought to happen actually happening will go down.  Seeing �ought� as purely practical means we don�t resent our dogs for failing to perform as we expect - if any frustration or guilt is in the picture, it is us feeling bad for not setting our dogs up for success.  

It�s All Semantics, Anyway

Often in debates with trainers and behaviorists, the charge of �it�s all semantics� is levelled at anyone trying to clarify the meaning of key terms.  I hope to have shown that there is a lot of unpacking to be done even within a single, non-technical word, and that this conceptual work can shed light on how we see the world with our dogs.  The better we get at understanding the underlying concepts at work when we talk about dogs and dog training, the more effective our communication will ultimately be.