Monday, 17 November 2014

Cognitive Dissonance and Respectful Disagreements

In an argument, it is fundamentally disrespectful to the other person to assume, let alone assert, that the reason they don�t agree with you is because they are suffering from a defect in their reasoning.

Increasingly, psychological terms like �cognitive dissonance� are being used by dog trainers as a way to explain everything from why some people choose to use e-collars to issues with client compliance.  Whilst an understanding of psychology can undeniably help us understand how to effectively communicate with clients and help them through roadblocks in their training with their dogs, I believe that some of these psychological concepts are being over-used. More specifically, concepts like cognitive dissonance are used to immediately explain what is happening inside the mind of the person we are trying to communicate with - whether that�s another trainer or a client - and I think this is essentially insulting.

Cognitive dissonance is, at bottom, a defect in the reasoning process.  It�s a common problem, born from our reliance on heuristics to quickly draw conclusions from available information and beliefs, and it is local, meaning that a person can suffer from it in one area of their reasoning but not in others. In using concepts like cognitive dissonance to account for disagreements, we are essentially privileging our point of view over that of our opponent at a level that our opponent cannot argue with.  We are saying that our opponents are suffering from a defect in their reasoning, and that - tacitly - if they were free from this defect, they would have agreed with us all along. 

If you accuse me of suffering from cognitive dissonance, it�s almost impossible for me to prove otherwise.  Saying �No I don�t� only makes me look defensive, but there aren�t many other things I can say.  It drains an argument of any use and makes it impossible for you to lose, since my statements are automatically made irrelevant by your �diagnosis� of my defect.  In short, diagnosing your opponent with cognitive dissonance in an argument is a cheap way to avoid actually justifying your own claims.  It is an ad hominem attack dressed in a tweed jacket - it appears intellectually profound but in fact it�s deeply dishonest.

Instead of assuming that people who disagree with us or who won�t comply with our requests are suffering from cognitive dissonance or related problems, we ought to start from the belief that everyone is equally reasonable, and work on showing that the arguments themselves are faulty.  If our arguments are strong, we should be secure enough in our ability to muster the relevant facts, lay out our inferences and allow our opponent to try to criticize us.  This is the only way to show our opponents that we respect them as equals.  Failing to respect people who disagree with us as equals - or making them prove their equality - shows a kind of arrogance that will only lead to laziness. 

Thursday, 30 October 2014

LIMA in Practice: Efficacy and Welfare

As people who work with dogs, we have usually amassed knowledge of many different training techniques.  Our toolboxes are overflowing with products, techniques, protocols, proprietary systems, theoretical concepts, half-formed ideas - all designed to teach a dog how to do what we want.  With so many tools at our disposal, we have to ask ourselves what the best way is to train a desired behavior.  Where do we start?  We need a principle of help us decide what kind of intervention we should select.  

The principle of LIMA was created for just this purpose.  LIMA encapsulates a set of criteria on which we can choose between interventions - we should choose the Least Invasive, Minimally Aversive tool at our disposal.  LIMA, however, is only a practical principle, it is not a justification.  LIMA by itself cannot explain why we should accept LIMA; that would be tautological.  The reason we care what is the Least Invasive, Minimally Aversive intervention is because we care about the dogs welfare.  Training is supposed to make the dogs world a better place.

So, LIMA is an answer to the question, how do I train with welfare in mind?  Seeing it this way, as part of a larger picture, allows us to fold in other important concepts that are not easily captured by seeing LIMA as a standalone principle.  

One of these concepts is efficacy.  Recently, Eric Brad argued that efficacy is a vital consideration in choosing an intervention, and that LIMA is only part of the decision-making process.  He offers an excellent treatment of the concept of efficacy as it relates to dog training, however, I think he is too quick to relegate LIMA to a great place to start. Rather, I think that a complete conception of LIMA necessarily contains the idea of efficacy.

LIMA is based on welfare.  In many cases, dog training aims at improving the dogs welfare.  Let's look at an example:

A dog is afraid of loud noises, but his owner lives right next to a railroad track, with trains making the house shake every couple of hours.  As a result, this dog is living in a constant state of stress and barks like crazy when a train goes past, annoying his owner and their neighbors.  His owner hires a trainer to try to make the dog stop barking.  The trainer notices that the dog is barking because he is afraid, therefore, his aim is to improve the dog's welfare by making him feel better about the trains, which in turn ought to make it easier to stop the barking.  What kind of intervention should the trainer try first? 

The absolutely Least Invasive, Minimally Aversive option in this case is something like an Adaptil pheromone diffuser.  The trainer could instruct the dog's owner to plug it in and hope for the best.  But there is only patchy scientific evidence that these diffusers work, and no evidence that is specific to this situation.  Choosing this approach, then, has a reasonable chance of not working.  This means, the dog has a reasonable chance of continuing to live in misery for as long as it takes for the trainer to decide to try something else. That can't be right. 

By contrast, behavioral modification by classical conditioning and desensitization has been proven to work for decades, in hundreds of situations.  It can be invasive, as it involves setting up the environment to restrict exposure to the trigger.  It can also produce unpleasant feelings if it is done improperly.  But it is effective.  

So, should considerations of efficacy mean the trainer should skip a step in LIMA at this point?  I would say yes, absolutely.  The risk of the dog continuing to experience fear and pain justifies using something that is more invasive.  Considerations of overall welfare have to be paramount.  Effective solutions should take priority over ineffective solutions.  In real life, this means we have to choose solutions that have evidence behind them.  

This isn't an argument in favor of using aversives as a quick fix - the framework of LIMA still applies; don't use a more invasive or aversive technique than you really need to.  As I've argued elsewhere, if it is true that one never needs to use and aversive technique in training, then LIMA doesn't justify doing so. But what a trainer really needs to do must always be determined by the situation of the dog you see in front of them, not by a rigorous structure of interventions.  

Considerations of efficacy can be brought in through positioning LIMA as one part of a holistic, welfare-focused approach to dog training.   The ethical approach to selecting a technique is to choose something that will lead to the dog spending as little time as possible in a state of physical or psychological pain. 

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Should Dog Training Be A Regulated Profession?

This week, a German magazine reported that Cesar Millan had been banned from training dogs in Germany because he failed the local exam for dog trainers.  Germany is the first country to make animal training a protected profession, that is, to regulate who is allowed to call themselves a dog trainer.  The story has been widely discussed on social media, where two conflicting viewpoints have emerged.  One is that it's good to have a central place that certifies dog training.  The other is that it is not.  I believe that regulation for animal training would be an overwhelming positive anywhere it doesn't already exist, and I'm going to show why those who oppose it are mistaken.

First I'll rule out the idea that there could be a conclusive reason not to have certification.  That means a reason that can't be outweighed by anything - like, if it went against some ultimate value.  I'm going to assume that certification, if it is wrong, is wrong in virtue of the risks outweighing the benefits, not because it's inherently immoral. 

There are two interdependent strains to the argument.  One is that regulation of all kinds is always bad, that is to say, it has bad consequences of some kind.  Specifically in this case, that it fails to ensure only good trainers can train dogs, and that it takes power away from the public, or really, the market.  Second is the claim that because there is debate over what classes as science-based and as ethical in dog training, a central authority would be forced to impose a controversial value judgement on trainers and the public.  Such an imposition would go beyond the mandate of any such authority, therefore, we should not centrally regulate dog training. 

I will argue that although there are grains of truth in both claims, neither amount to a convincing argument for reversing the decision to regulate.  They merely draw attention to the need for caution in developing the institution and setting the standards. 

1. Regulation Restricts Choice 

The situation right now in the USA is that there is no central regulation but a lot of different certification bodies and schools, all with different standards and all claiming to be a metric to set some trainers above others.  Why might this be preferable to a centralized regulatory body?  One reason is that it provides choices for individual dog owners, and more choice is good.  Individuals in need of training certainly do have a lot of choice. But the question of whether this much choice is always good is still open; if we assume choice is valuable in part because of a link to a more important good like wellbeing, then being able to choose between dog trainers is only valuable to the extent that it does in fact allow individual dog owners to choose the best fit for them and their dog.  

I would argue that there is too much choice with too little guidance, and that marketing is unduly influential in prejudicing that choice.  Properly implemented, regulation would provide a basic standard; the choice would be between educated, qualified professionals.  The benefits it would provide outweigh the cost of restricting the number of trainers between which a dog owner can choose.  All responsible dog owners want to choose a high-quality trainer who will effectively train their dog; stripping out the charlatans, abusers and delusional people isn't going to cause a decrease in their welfare or that of their dog.  

2. Regulation Won't Promote Quality

The second objection is that for all its lofty aims, regulation has shown itself to be unsuccessful in stripping out the worst of the worst.  This is usually explained as an analogy. We can all remember that one schoolteacher whose lessons we always dreaded or who seemed to teach us nothing at all.  Not all teachers are equally good - some are terrible - but all teachers are subject to the same regulatory standards.  If teaching quality isn't correlated with regulation, we have no reason to assume dog training quality will be either.  Regulation won't succeed in its stated aims.

This is a strawman, however.  Nobody is claiming that regulation in itself will purge training of people who aren't very good at it, or who can pass their exams and then proceed as if they never had an education.  Regulation isn't a silver bullet, but it could be one important barrier to entry.  Moreover, with the best approach to regulation would come a system of formal complaints, so those animal abusers and ineffectual instructors could be subject to sanctions.

This argument is often packaged with a related claim, that market forces or "the power of the public" provides a more effective way to sort the wheat from the chaff than top-down regulation.  This relies on a rose-tinted view of how individuals get their information about dog training.  With clever marketing, coupled with a lack of public knowledge about alternatives, a bad trainer can convince people she's fantastic.  Cesar Millan is doing pretty well for himself despite his recent Teutonic oversight. 

3. Regulation Can Never Be Neutral On Ethics

This objection is less about the theory of whether regulation is a bad thing per se, and more about whether dog training in particular ought to be steered by any one group of people. 

The "training wars" show us that there is extreme disagreement about what counts as ethical, humane training. "Force free" has been labelled as a lifestyle choice, and P+ is often unreflectively compared to animal abuse.  On the other side, trainers who use corrections claim their position is mischaracterized because their techniques are poorly understood. Both sides feel oppressed and victimized by the other.  In this climate, how can we hope to create a judicious, clear-eyed group of regulators?  Is dog training the kind of enterprise where making any judgements on ethics is likely to lead to such bad consequences that regulation is not worth any potential benefits it could bring? 

First off, it is clear that we don't want regulatory bodies to be dead neutral on ethically-sensitive matters.  Euthanasia, abortion, stem cell research, removing children from their biological parents, all highly sensitive and divisive issues and all subject to guidance that comes both from ethics and law.  The fact that a regulatory body has to come down on some issues to do with what it is regulating, however, does not mean they are committed to binary pronouncements on all such issues. 

Nevertheless, there is a grain of truth in this worry.  Ethical pluralism is an important commitment in a broadly liberal, democratic society and regulatory bodies ought to be hospitable to more than one view of what counts as ethical action.  Putting a blanket ban on one style of training or one kind of tool in place risks alienating a lot of trainers and creating a backlash to the enterprise of regulation in the first place. 

Furthermore, questions of what 'counts' as animal abuse are open to a degree of interpretation - proponents of electronic collars, for example, claim that their methods don't cause a significant impact on welfare when they are properly used.  Biologists, psychologists, and philosophers still disagree on the theory of welfare, and there is not yet overwhelming scientific evidence that correctly-applied positive punishment meets the definition of abuse.

A good regulatory system would take into account ethical differences and try to minimize substantive judgements.  In setting a standard of knowledge and skill, regulation could ensure that only trainers who demonstrate a commitment to animal welfare and knowledge of animal behavior can train professionally.  There is no need to come down one way or the other on issues like the use of electronic collars.

Psychotherapy could be an informative analogy.  There are many different schools of psychotherapy with radically different approaches to their patients; many practitioners are vocal in their disagreements with some of their colleagues' chosen methods. Regulation exists, however, and differences of opinion are preserved.  The regulation of dog training could be like the regulation of psychotherapy, with a plurality of methods and different basic assumptions united by a standard of professional competence that conceptually functions as a lowest common denominator. 

Efficacy could play the same role in dog training as professional competence does in psychotherapy - define efficacy and you have a standard of competence. We could design regulation around the potential to be an effective trainer; what sort of basic knowledge would someone need to train effectively?  With this, the professional bodies we see now like PPG could still play a role, that of setting guidelines for best practice within their chosen theory. 

The benefits of regulation, for dog trainers, owners, and dogs, are clear: overall higher standards of competence, a framework for dealing with complaints and less reliance on marketing.  Provided it didn't fall victim to mission creep or the efforts of lobbyists, a regulatory system could allow trainers of all schools to uphold the same standards of competence.  And competence, with its attendant benefits to dogs and owners, is paramount for all trainers. 

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Informed Consent in Dog Training

Informed consent is not something we hear of much in dog training circles.  I believe, however, that dog training just is animal educational psychology - we are trying to bring about changes in behavior and, in many cases, in emotional state.  This means we should consider it subject to the same ethics of consent as human educational psychology. 

When parents are making this kind of decision about a educational or psychological intervention for their child, they are acting as their child�s proxy. They have their child�s best interests at heart, but also have to consider the effects of the intervention on their own household.  Analogously, dog owners who are making the decision to undergo training are overwhelmingly doing so with their dog�s best interests at heart, as well as their own and those of other family members. 

So what does informed consent look like between the dog trainer and the dog owner?  We can use the same three key elements that we find in human medical ethics, which are disclosure, capacity and voluntariness.  Of these, disclosure is the most important. 


The dog owner has to know what the risks and consequences of the trainer�s program is before he consents to it.  The trainer has to therefore be transparent and honest about what she plans to do to the dog.  Simply put, dog owners need to know what will happen to the dog during the training process, both physically and psychologically.  You can�t consent to something that you don�t know will happen.  

The second important piece of knowledge concerns whether the trainer is using the most humane and effective method possible. The huge majority of people want a happy dog who no longer does things that get him into trouble, and they don�t want to make their dog suffer unnecessarily. Owners need to know whether there are alternatives that have fewer risks, work faster, or are less painful and invasive. Could the same results be achieved with rewards rather than punishments?  

On the subject of alternatives, owners also need to know whether there is an approach that requires less disruption to their lives, or poses less risk of harm to the dog and the rest of the family.  This is especially important when we are dealing with potentially dangerous behaviors like self-harm, ingesting objects or aggression, where there are risks associated with management during training as well as with the training process itself.  Balancing the risks and benefits of a training protocol for everyone involved is a large part of making an informed decision to consent to it. 

There are some things that trainers have to know too, if they are to be in a position to offer full disclosure of all the relevant information to their client so that he can choose whether to consent. Trainers need to be aware of the alternatives to their own preferred approach and be able to justify why they choose the methods they do.  I wouldn�t trust a therapist who had only read medical textbooks from a century ago and wanted to cure my depression by sticking me in a freezing bath.  Nor would I trust a dog trainer who had never heard of a front-clip harness.  Techniques and protocols change even if the subject matter remains the same, and it is therefore important to understand one�s own approach in relation to the state of the art.  This is true no matter how the trainer identifies herself, whether �force free�, �purely positive�, �natural� or �balanced�.  

Simply claiming that your method works is not enough to secure informed consent because it's not giving the owner all the information he would want.  Especially if pain or suffering is involved in the training process being proposed, because we can fairly assume that most people prefer less pain and suffering to more for their loved ones when they are given a choice.

Capacity and Voluntariness

Capacity is less of an issue than disclosure.  We can assume that if someone has come to a dog trainer with their dog, they have the capacity to understand basic concepts of training.  But one rule is important - the necessity of phrasing descriptions of what is happening in language that anyone can understand.  It is important for the owner and trainer to be on the same level of understanding, even though the trainer's knowledge will be deeper.  A trainer who overuses scientific jargon or the unique terminology from her own particular theory is making it less certain that her client has the capacity to consent to what she is proposing, and introduces scope for manipulation.  

Voluntariness is also related to manipulation.  Although we could assume that because the owner has sought your services, they must be voluntarily agreeing to whatever the trainer is offering, if the trainer uses sales-talk and obfuscation to explain something, she is deliberately creating a picture in the owner�s head that has diverged from what�s really going to happen.  The owner is saying �yes� to what�s in his head, not to what the trainer is offering, and therefore the consent isn�t valid.  

An example of this is showing examples of dogs the trainer says are calm but are really shut down and miserable, by way of a testimonial.  The owner says, �Yes of course I want a calm dog who doesn�t jump up or bark�, but in reality that�s not what he�s getting.  Selling something you�re not really delivering is unethical.  

Trainers therefore have a responsibility to show that their method is the best one - the most humane and the most effective - because they are in the role of an authority.  Owners can read up, but they are not authorities and can�t be expected to know which side of a debate is right if they don�t know the science behind the issue.  There is a lot of information about psychology - human and animal - out there on the Internet, but just as we don�t expect patients in therapy to know the risks and consequences of one kind of counseling technique or another, we don�t expect dog owners to know whether clicker training is better than shaking a can, or whether pack theory makes more sense than pressure/release.  The responsibility has to lie with the trainer, to inform the owner about how their method works in the clearest way possible so that they can be aware of the consequences.  

It's also important for the trainer to respect the beliefs and desires of the dog owner, even when they differ.  For example, an owner may believe a prong or a slip collar to be the best for him and his dog whilst out walking, but may hire a clicker trainer who recoils at the sight of such equipment for help with an unrelated behavior happening in the home.  A trainer seeing people who don't believe the same things as she does as deficient in reason or in compassion is not only disrespectful, it limits that trainer's perception of her own responsibilities.  People who use the information given to them to reach a conclusion the trainer disagrees with, or who are only interested in help for a specific problem and not general advice, are still entitled to that information and they are entitled to reach their decisions voluntarily, without manipulation.* 

The vast majority of dog owners who seek help from trainers just want everyone in their household to be happy, including the dog himself.  If an owner learns that the behavioral outcome they are looking for from their dog trainer could have been achieved with rewards and not punishment, they may well be entitled to claim a lack of informed consent.  

*Think of a Jehovah's Witness in an emergency room; all the doctors may strongly believe the best medical decision is to give him a blood transfusion, but his personal religious conviction is that transfusions are wrong.  The doctors should respect his decision even though they don't agree with it, and they should continue to give him as much medical treatment as he allows.  

Saturday, 12 July 2014

The Simple Ethics of Receiving Unsolicited Advice

Yes, sometimes I am forceful with my opinions.  But that�s only because I�m passionate.  And right.  And passionate about being right!  - Frasier Crane.  

As dog owners, and especially owners of dogs with behavioral problems, we often find ourselves on the receiving end of advice.  Sometimes well-intentioned, sometimes less so, but almost always bullshit.  

I�ve lost count of the number of times I�ve been approached by someone I have never met, who has proceeded to tell me everything I�m doing wrong with my dog after having observed the situation for all of ten seconds.  And, invariably, the phrases �pack leader�, �show him who�s boss� and �coddling him� spring up within the first ten words. 

I�m sure a lot of you have experienced the same thing, and I know how upsetting it can be.  But, there�s good news!  I have discovered a simple way to rid yourself and your dog of these irritating know-it-alls.  Better yet, it can be distilled into one simple phrase: �shut up�

Yes, I know, that does sound rather harsh.  But really, when you get down to brass tacks, you have no obligation to pretend to a stranger that you have anything other than disdain for the unsolicited, usually-bullshit advice he�s accosted you with out of nowhere.  Why waste your time - more importantly, why risk your dog reacting?  

For those of you who are trainers, perhaps you feel like you ought to be nicer.  Perhaps, you think, these people are presenting you with a �teachable moment�, a chance to engage with someone, save them from the clutches of Cesar Millan and maybe convert them to the Gospel of Positive Training?  

Here�s the thing: most of the time, it isn�t.  Chances are, if someone is so sure of themselves that they�ll approach a stranger to offer them advice, you�ve got about as much chance of having a reasonable discussion with them as you have turning a street preacher into an atheist.  People don�t offer advice in these kinds of situations because they�re looking for personal growth through generous critique, they offer it to feel good about themselves.  To show off.  I�m not going to feed into their ego trip by being anything less than honest about how useful I feel them to be.  

Probably, that makes me a bad person.  Almost certainly, those strangers who freak my dog out and spout crapola think I�m pig-headed as well as a bad trainer.  Whatever.  My first, indeed my only, duty, is to do the best I can for my dog. If that means people don�t like me, it�s a consequence I�ll have to live with.  

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Why Aren't Dog Licences Like Drivers' Licenses?

What if we couldn�t just go out and buy a puppy whenever we wanted one?  Is it really okay to pick up a Chihuahua with your cheeseburger, or a Groenendael with the groceries?  

In this article, I�ll be arguing the case for making it more difficult to own a dog.  Dog licenses should be like drivers� licences - granted subject to passing a test to demonstrate that you know enough about basic animal welfare to give a dog a good life, and that you don�t intend to engage in any dangerous practices.

The question of whether dog ownership should be denied to some people is often put in terms of whether dogs are rightly seen as property.  Legally, all animals are property, and so people argue that if we have a right to own property, we must therefore have a right to own a dog.  On the other hand, some people claim that animals are living beings and are therefore better seen as something closer to a family member than an object.  

I�m going to nearly sidestep this particular thorny issue by offering one argument for each side.  I�ll argue that if dogs are fairly seen as property, this still doesn�t mean that people have a simple right to own one - the legal system distinguishes between different kinds of things we can own, and puts restrictions on some of them.  And, I�ll argue that if dogs are better seen as family members rather than property, this doesn�t give us an automatic right to own them like we have a right to family life, because the basis for the right to have our own children doesn�t apply to dogs.  

After I�ve given these arguments, I�ll then discuss what I see as the major obstacle to introducing a dog license, which is the question of how to avoid prejudice. 

Dogs Are Property

Earlier this year I read a blog post that claimed that the reason we all have a right to go out and buy a dog whenever we want to, is simply that dogs are property, and we all have the unconditional right to own property without government interference.  Unfortunately, the author of this article overlooked a class of rights that are conditional, which are rights to own dangerous articles.  

The most common example of this is a car.  Of course, everyone has the right to buy and own a car, but only people with drivers� licenses have the right to drive.  We can only legally do what the car is designed to do when we�ve proven to the government that we understand the rules of the road in theory and in practice.  Or, think about a gun license - in many countries a person can only own a gun when they can prove that they�ve undertaken some training, otherwise they are committing a crime.  

In both cases, the danger of letting someone have an unconditional right to own or operate an object merits interference.  Dogs can also be dangerous, the frequency of attacks on children show this.  The danger an untrained, poorly cared-for dog can pose also merits putting up a bar for people to clear before they can legally own one.  This doesn�t mean that people don�t have the right to own a dog, only that dogs ought to be classified as a different kind of property for the protection of others.  If we make getting a dog license contingent on proving you have a basic knowledge of dog welfare and skillset for handing a dog, we could potentially reduce the number of attacks.  

Dogs Are Not Property

This last argument is unlikely to convince people who just reject the idea that a living being can fairly be seen as someone else�s property, subject to the same rights as couches or minivans.  

So let�s say that any right we have to adopt or purchase a dog doesn�t stem from property-rights.  Where else might it come from?  One common paradigm is that dogs are family members.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights accords all humans the right to found a family, so therefore we all ought to have the right to take a dog into our homes.  

The key point in an argument against this is that the right to found a family was originally intended as a right to have children of one�s own.  This right to reproduce - to have a part in the creation of a life that carries some of your genes forward into the future - is not quite the same as a right to take a child into your home.  This becomes clear when we look at adoption agencies.  Most agencies from governments and charities have criteria that any potential adopters have to meet before they can be allowed to even meet a child in their system.  In fact, the stringency of these guidelines has been a hot topic in the UK in recent years, because it has been argued that they prevent children finding permanent placements in families.   

My point is, the reason it is okay for adoption agencies to lay out rules and make prospective adopters go through an often arduous process, whereas there is almost no restriction on who can conceive and raise children that are biologically their own, is because having a child of one�s own is seen as a fundamental part of human life.  To deny people that would be to remove their genes from the species in the future, something that veers dangerously close to eugenics.*

It�s clear that buying or adopting a dog has no such biological distinction attached - requiring stricter testing for people who want to buy a dog rather than rescue one seems more like levelling the playing field than denying a fundamental part of human life.  There�s no relevant difference between acquiring a dog from a rescue or from a breeder, so there should be no issue in being required to pass the same tests no matter where you get your dog.

A Problem with Prejudice

So far I�ve argued that making it more difficult to own a dog through requiring that potential owners demonstrate basic knowledge and skills is compatible with seeing dogs as property and seeing them as family members.  Now I will raise a worry about how such a system could be used to reinforce socioeconomic bias.  I�ll make the general case by giving a specific example.  

When my dog was experiencing gastrointestinal issues as a puppy, I signed up to a lot of dog food forums and groups. I was surprised by how heated some of the debates got - whether raw food was better than cooked, whether vegetables and carbohydrates were necessary, anything that mentioned bones - but the one thing everyone seemed to tacitly agree on was that if you didn�t feed your dog expensive food, you were a Bad Person.  If it wasn�t grain-free, artisan-made, air-dried, or fresh from the local organic farm, you might as well be feeding Rex shredded cardboard.  This made the price of admission so high that basically only middle-class people were thought of as good dog owners.  

Dog food is a vital part of dog welfare, so any kind of dog license testing would probably involve a question about feeding.  And, the armchair nutrition experts are a vociferous group, so if there was any consultation about the substance of the test, you can guarantee they�d try to weight it in favour of their own views.

The same goes for dog training.  Some shelters mandate that adopters sign their new pups up for obedience classes, which aren�t cheap.  Nor are they convenient if you don�t own a car - when I got my puppy, the nearest obedience class was a half-hour bus ride away, so by the time we arrived she was already over threshold.  Should all dogs have to go to (expensive) training as a condition for ownership?  What if the family doesn�t speak English, but the trainer doesn�t speak any other language?  Should all dogs have an (expensive) yard rather than an apartment, and an (expensive) insurance policy?  The list goes on.  

The point is, I believe that it�s possible for people from any background to give a dog a good life, and I worry that although introducing a dog license system like we have for drivers� licenses could be beneficial, there is also the risk of making dog ownership an elite activity that people from tougher neighborhoods, with less money and less education, are automatically precluded from.  

So, although there is a case to be made for tougher restrictions on owning a dog, we have to be careful that these restrictions are really doing what we want - weeding out potential abusers and minimizing the risk to dog and human welfare.  

This being said, if the proper care were taken to only include the most important parts of dog welfare and safety on the test, I believe that a dog license system could do a lot of good.  It would eliminate impulse buying of puppies, which in turn would impact puppy mills, and go a long way to identifying potential abusers.  There is no rights-based argument against taking such action, although I highly doubt there will ever be a public base of support for it. 

*Note here that I�m not saying adoption �doesn�t count� as having a child of one�s own, merely that there is a genetic basis for the right to reproduce that can account for the reason we don�t need to pass any tests to conceive and bear children, whereas denying inappropriate families the chance to adopt a child seems like the right thing to do.  

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Dogs Are Not People, But That's Okay

In the last few months, there has been a slew of fascinating new data about the emotional capacities of dogs.  The first comes from scientists� new-found ability to image canine brains whilst they are conscious and alert. We can now be more sure that dogs share many of the same emotions humans do, including love. This new data was summarized in an article in the New York Times, entitled �Dogs are people, too�, a sentiment that has been picked up by animal rights activists, dog lovers and dog trainers.

The second stream of data comes from Alexandra Horowitz and her team of canine behavioral researchers at Barnard.  Horowitz designed an experiment that showed the �guilty look� people see when they come home to find their dog in the middle of a pile of shredded couch cushions, for example, only happens when the dog is being scolded.  It is not correlated with whether the dog actually did anything �wrong�, only with the owner�s reaction to the dog.

Trainers have taken this to show two things.  First, that Horowitz has proven that dogs do not feel guilt at all.  Second, that because dogs cannot link actions to consequences over more than a few seconds and because the �guilty look� isn�t an indicator that the dog know it has done something wrong, we shouldn�t punish dogs when we get home to find a roomful of cushion stuffing.

Furthermore, trainers have taken this to indicate that we shouldn�t punish dogs at all, since it�s not true that they �know what they ought to do�.  Dogs shouldn�t be held responsible for their actions like humans are, even though dogs can behave as if they feel guilt, which is a moral emotion.

The way these two streams of new data about what dogs are have been interpreted has lead to a tension.  On the one hand, there is the desire to show that dogs have so many similar emotions to humans that they ought to be seen as people too. On the other, we want to show that dogs ought not be blamed or punished for their actions like we blame and punish people, because doing so is unjust. 

If dogs are people, but we don�t hold them responsible, then it�s meaningless to claim that dogs are people in the first place.  To say that a dog is a person diminishes what personhood is, and ultimately threatens to undermine both the welfare of dogs and the unique responsibilities of humans.  

What is a person? 

How do we define a person?  The core of my preferred definition is that only a person can be held morally responsible for their actions. Only a person can make promises and be expected to keep them.  Without persons, there would be no good and evil, no right and wrong, just nature.  Being able to be held accountable for failing to live up to moral standards of behavior is what separates persons from the rest of life on Earth, and what gives persons a unique responsibility to do the right thing. 

On this definition, most animals are not persons and not all humans are persons.*  We can use promise-making and accountability to draw a bright line between normal adult humans and everything else.

But wait, doesn�t this collapse into �speciesism�, the unfair privileging of one species above others?  Any assertion that persons and non-persons belong in different categories - that they are different in kind as well as in degree - is now confidently waved away as a simple error in reasoning.

My definition of a person does not amount to speciesism for two reasons.  First, because it is an irrelevance that many people claim only humans can be persons - persons could be aliens, angels or apes and still have this unique place in the world.  Second, because there is a difference between being expected to act a certain way, and being entitled to a certain kind of treatment.  We don't have to claim that only persons deserve to be treated fairly and without cruelty, but we can claim that only actions that persons do ought to be appraised as good or evil, fair or cruel.  

To say that persons are unique is not fundamentally unfair.  Persons are expected to act morally, and they are also entitled to be treated well by other persons.  Non-persons are not expected to be able to make promises, uphold the rights of others or do their duty, but they are still entitled to good treatment because of other features they have.  

Dogs aren�t people because dogs can�t make promises or be held morally responsible for their actions.   This doesn�t mean that dogs aren�t entitled to be treated well; far from it.  Most dogs deserve better than their lot in life.  To say that they dogs are people threatens to have the opposite effect to the one intended by dog trainers.  Instead of increasing understanding and empathy for dogs, we are in danger of forcing them into a human scheme of values.

An insidious speciesism 

When I adopted my first dog as a child, I spent the journey home in the car telling her all the things I promised to do for her.  I promised to feed her, walk her, be her friend, and make her happy.  I didn�t expect her to promise anything in return; how could she?  Dogs don�t choose who rescues or buys them, and they don�t have a say in the rules of their new home.   Dogs make no promises about their own behavior - they don�t promise not to guard the food bowl, or growl at the baby, or come with you everywhere without fuss.  Seeing dogs as people is an insidious harm because it threatens to see dogs as parties to a covenant, and therefore subject to blame and the loss of entitlements if they break that covenant.  

Seeing dogs as people also gives them little room for those behaviors that we can�t fit into the human-like rhetoric of victimhood, past abuse, or mental illness - the kinds of aggression that don�t come from fear, the prey drive, in short, the �animality� of the dog.  When a dog deviates from the human-like mould we�ve force him into, when he chases and kills the family cat, does he deserve less good treatment?  Is he a �bad dog� because he no longer appears to be the simple little person, full of love, that the �dogs are people too� message would characterise him as?  This is closer to dangerous speciesism than the claim that there is something unique about humans that gives us special responsibilities to other creatures.

We humans have a responsibility not to see animals as worth bothering with only to the extent that they provide us with good feelings or resemble the parts of ourselves we like. Animals are an Other that we have to learn to relate to on their terms as well as on ours.  The way a dog, pig, rabbit, or snail perceives and processes the world is radically different from our own worldview, and we should never lose sight of this difference in our dealings with them.  We have a duty to treat living things well because we as persons have the capacity to be good that is unrivalled anywhere else in nature, not because they are people.  

*Great apes and cetaceans are candidates for personhood; although their lack of language makes it difficult to know whether they can keep promises, their cognitive abilities are such that there is an argument to extend personhood to them.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

The Case for Genetically Modifying Dogs

Since the creation of the first transgenic mouse in the early 1980s, there has been a great debate over whether it is ethical to deliberately alter animals at the genetic level.  In the current climate, just mentioning the term �GMO� is enough to send many people into a slavering frenzy.  Pictures like this are met with repugnance as well as with wonder at human scientific ability:

The first glow in the dark rabbits were produced at the University of Hawai'i - Manoa in 2013. 

These initial research projects sparked discussion over what the limits of our interference in animal genetics ought to be; there are arguments about the wrongness of �playing God� as well as the threat of a �slippery slope� into Huxley�s Brave New World for humans. 

Although the ability to create new animals �from the ground up� is still a long way off (further still for humans, and there are immense legal roadblocks), the first steps have already been taken towards genetically modifying living animals for purposes beyond research.  The AquAdvantage salmon, for example, has a gene from a different species of fish in its genome, so that the salmon can grow all year round instead of seasonally.  This is, at least, proof of concept that genetic modification is possible on a large scale.  If we can do it in salmon, we could do it in dogs.  

But why would we want to?  In the case of the AquAdvantage salmon, the reason is profit: farmers want bigger fish that are ready for the table faster.  For dogs, the reasons are more diffuse, and so are the potential modifications we could make.

Why modify?

Dogs have a number of roles in human society; they are beloved pets, service animals, sports competitors, livestock guarders, herders, and law enforcement operatives. Historically, dog breeding has been for the purpose of developing animals that fit the roles humans have set out for them.  More recently, dogs have been bred for even more fine-grained purposes, for example, �labradoodles� were originally bred as guide dogs for visually impaired persons with dog allergies.

We are already modifying the genes of dogs though careful breeding, but the ability to modify individuals and breeds of dog at the genetic level has the potential to give us unprecedented power in this project of tailoring dogs for roles in human society. Biotechnology could let us �zoom in� and isolate the genes that play the greatest role in the expression of behavioral and physical traits in the dog, and then decide whether to switch off these genes, switch them out for new ones, or boost their function.*  The technology could allow us to create new and better dog breeds, even more able to do the jobs we ask of them.

More importantly, genetic modification has the potential to increase the welfare of dogs, at both the individual and the species level.  It is this set of reasons that I will be focusing on, rather than on how we humans could benefit - although, the two are not cleanly divisible since dogs do better when they are able to perform better.

In this article, I will make the case for genetically modifying dogs from the standpoint of the welfare of dogs.  I believe that because of the way we have bred dogs for our own purposes, with little regard for their wellbeing, we have an obligation to explore genetic modification as a tool to restore dogs to health.

Classifying Genetic Modification

Genetic modification can mean anything from removing the possibility of passing on a gene for a serious disease, to the creation of human-animal chimeras.  These are two ends of the spectrum, however, and raise very different moral issues.  We need to be clear what we are talking about before we can see the problems with them.  According to the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, genetic manipulation can be divided into �therapeutic� and �enhancement�:
�The way to distinguish between those interventions which count as �therapies� and those which count as �enhancements� is by reference to the condition that is to be altered: therapies aim to treat, cure or prevent diseases and to alleviate pathological conditions which place someone outside the normal range, whereas enhancements aim to improve already healthy systems and to advance capacities which already fall within the normal range.� 
This is a good baseline, although there are some potential interventions we could make in dogs specifically, which would count both as therapy and as enhancement.  I will divide up the interventions we could make into three classes; purely therapeutic; therapeutic enhancements and purely enhancement.

1. Purely therapeutic interventions

Creating different dog breeds has lead to �genetic bottlenecks� within the dog species, which have lead to some breeds being at an elevated risk for certain genetic diseases.  Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, for example, are at risk of syringomyelia, a terrible condition that leads to persistent headaches, seizure and death.  Chihuahuas are particularly vulnerable to luxating patella, a progressive condition of the knees that can lead to episodes of severe lameness.

Almost every breed has a particular set of genetic diseases associated with it.  Our ancestors, in creating today's breeds of dog by strict artificial selection, did dogs a great harm.  A harm that we ought to try to put right, however we can.  Genetic modification gives us the chance to eliminate the diseases we put dogs at risk of, both from individuals and from the species as a whole.

Responsible dog breeders are already working hard to rid dogs of these diseases, but the tools they have to use mean that there is still a long way to go, meaning that many more animals will be born blighted with genetic disease in the meantime.  If there is a duty to remove genetic diseases from the dog's gene pool, there must be a duty to do so as efficiently as possible.  With genetic modification there is the possibility to abbreviate the process with minimal loss of life.  Therefore, when the technology becomes available, breeders have a responsibility to use it.

2. Semi-therapeutic interventions 

On my definition, an intervention is semi-therapeutic when it takes an individual outside the range of normal functioning for a species in order to treat a pathological condition.  This is important because it takes the dog's capacities away from what is "natural" by introducing genes from other animals, which marks a critical moral boundary for some people.

For example, the squashed nose of the pug makes it more difficult for them to breathe properly, which leads to an increased risk of various medical conditions that come from a lack of oxygen.  We could counterbalance this by modifying the pug�s hemoglobin so it can carry more oxygen; making every breath it takes more efficient.

We know, to give another example, that giant breeds of dog such as the English Mastiff can suffer from a variety of health problems that come simply from being bred to be so big.  If we could make the bones of giant dogs stronger than they naturally are, we could prevent many of these problems.

Adding genes from other animals, or even creating genes from scratch*,  could be the key to preserving the health of these breeds without changing their appearance or behavior.  Given that we humans have created these problems though more primitive breeding technologies, and given that any attempt to remove these breeds would probably be met with huge resistance, we have a duty to do the best we can to make the lives of these dogs comfortable so that they can flourish rather than being, as Alexandra Horowitz puts it, �captive in their own bodies�.

Or, to take behavior rather than physiology, we could create a pet dog that is adaptable and calm enough to tolerate the constant imposition of city life; kids, other dogs, being left alone for long periods without developing the kinds of problems that can lead to being surrendered to a shelter.

Doing so would improve the lives of dogs without demanding that humans make the kinds of changes in lifestyle that history has shown many are unwilling or unable to make.  Many people get a dog and then have children, or get a full-time job, or expect their dog to be as comfortable at a sidewalk cafe as on a hiking trail no matter what breed it is.  Although it is possible to teach pet owners to manage their expectations, education is a slow process.  Creating dogs that can do these things without stress is a way to increase their welfare in the intervening time.

3. Purely enhancing interventions

The final class of interventions are the most morally problematic.  Enhancing a dog would mean giving it abilities that are outside the normal range of functioning for the entire species without aiming to treat any medical condition.

With pure enhancement, we could give guide dogs new senses like magnetoception, heightened intelligence, and full color vision so they can understand more street signs.  We could give detection dogs even better scenting abilities, or pre-program them to recognise certain odors.  We could make dogs that live as long as humans.  The question, as the biologist Lee Silver puts it, is, �Why not seize that power�?

Despite the public's association of genetic enhancement with Frankenstein or Superman, there are some morally sound, welfare-based reasons for undertaking such a project.

The needs humans have for dogs often put them under stress and at risk of harm. Dogs that do demanding physical jobs are at risk of injuries; dogs that work in combat and disaster zones are at risk of extreme stress.

If we could engineer dogs so that they were more tolerant to stress, less likely to get injured, faster, stronger, smarter, more long-lived than any dog could possibly be right now, perhaps we could increase the welfare of dogs even further.  We could give them new, enjoyable experiences that today's dogs could never have, or allow them to develop new skills to cope with their world. Enhanced dogs could be a part of society in ways that demand we recognize their rights and prevent their suffering - given that the science is still in its infancy, the only limit is imagination.

Pure enhancement raises the most moral questions about the limits of our creative power over another species, but it is easy to wall off from the other two classes.  We do have an obligation to use every available means to alleviate the harms we have done to dogs through breeding and through expectations, but this obligation does not simply translate to a duty, or even a permission, to enhance non-therapeutically.


I have made the case for genetically modifying dogs based on the claim that we have a unique set of duties towards them given our history of modification through artificial selection.  Genetic enhancement is still science fiction right now, but it is coming ever closer to science fact.  The practical and ethical implications of genetic modification for dogs must be taken seriously by the people who love them now, so we can get clear on what we believe is right before the technology catches up.


*Of course, the actual process will be a lot more complicated than this - I am simplifying because I�m not an expert in biotechnology and because many of the breakthroughs that would let this happen are yet to be made. 

*This is much further out than the classical method of modification by taking the genes from one animal and transplanting them into another. However, in the last few months a team at the Scripps Research Institute has successfully created the first artificial DNA base pair, suggesting that synthetic genes are a possibility for the future. 

Monday, 2 June 2014

"Dog Sense" and the Appeal to Experience

Just because you�ve had dogs for ten, twenty, even fifty years, doesn�t mean everything you say is automatically credible.   Of course, it�s true that there is some plausibility to the claim that more experience is better - nobody wants a novice dentist - but there�s also the possibility that being experienced just means �being set in your ways�.  There are some ethical pitfalls with the appeal to experience that we need to be careful not to fall into, whether we�re using it or listening to it. 

Confirmation bias

The first is that experience can be colored by confirmation bias.  Often there are arguments from experience on both sides of a debate, but experience only seems worth listening to if it lines up with what you already believe.  A trainer could claim that you should only name your dogs Harold, because in her fifty years of dog training all dogs named Harold were good dogs, but we wouldn't see this as a good argument just because it comes from experience. Experience only has weight when it's combined with our own beliefs about how good the argument is. 

Secondly, as an experienced trainer, if you�ve had dogs for many decades, you�re not likely to remember absolutely everything that�s ever happened with them. Confirmation bias also means it is a lot easier to remember facts that support the position you�re trying to argue for. Experience alone doesn't make you an authority. 

Experience is not a substitute for science

Relatedly, having experience and being sure that your approach works well can lead to a rejection of more systematic, scientific approaches, either because of confirmation bias or because of a feeling that science can�t test for the �natural dog-sense� that decades of experience gives a person.  This can be a problem.  Although most people would agree that an experienced doctor, for example, is better than a novice, we regard a doctor who hasn�t kept up to date with any developments in medicine since qualifying with some suspicion. Having a �feel for� how sick a patient probably is can be useful but not as a substitute for knowledge. This is especially important if the patient is presenting with symptoms that would have been written off as �malingering� or �hysteria� not too long ago.  

New discoveries are also being made in the science behind dog-human interactions; for example, most trainers now believe the majority of aggressive behaviors in dogs are grounded in fear, not anger or competitiveness. This has lead to a revolution in how these cases are treated.  In dog training, many different approaches can �work�, but not all of them are equally ethical or effective.  It could be that a very experienced trainer found an approach that worked and simply stuck with it, without seeing the need to try anything else. This doesn�t mean their approach is better, just that it meets a minimum subjective standard of �working� for that trainer.  We can let our dogs down by assuming that we already have all the answers or that there is nothing new left to learn. 

Subjectivity and specificity

Subjectivity and specificity are the final suite of problems with the appeal to experience. Just because a trainer has had decades of experience raising herding dogs on a smallholding, does not mean they are experts in how to raise a French Bulldog in a studio apartment. Breeds differ, living situations differ, individual dogs and owners differ, so simple experience may not be relevant. 

We need to take special care with picking out relevant from irrelevant experience when we�re talking about behavior modification rather than more day-to-day issues in training. Dogs with emotional and behavioral problems pose very specific additional challenges. Whilst finding someone with the right kind of experience can be invaluable, the wrong kind of experience can make the problems worse. 

If you, as a human, were having problems with a relationship, you might consider talking to a trusted older friend, or your parents - someone who has successfully navigated relationships and has probably dealt with most common issues.  If, however, you found yourself having fits of uncontrolled rage, OCD or panic attacks, you would probably want to go to a psychiatrist - someone who has been trained to deal with these specific problems.  People with depression, for example, are often told by loved ones just to think positive, or to try harder - well-meaning advice that may have helped non-depressed people get over a bad time, but can have detrimental effects by instilling a sense of guilt and failure in people with clinical problems. 

So, how do we know when an argument from experience is a good argument? The answer is in whether the person using their experience to persuade you that they are right, is also giving you enough information to justify their argument independently. The explanation an experienced trainer is offering should be acceptable even if it came from a novice. Experience comes in as extra weight in favor of accepting this explanation rather than another - as I have said, talking to someone who has been there before can be a great help, so long as we take the time evaluate their claims.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

The Ethics of Behavioral Medications 2: The Appeal to Nature

Many people believe that if you live with an anxious or fearful dog, it�s best to try dietary supplements first, before starting down a medical route that could include prescriptions for behavioral medications.  As a result, there are literally hundreds of different calming supplements available for dogs, most of which claim somewhere in the attending marketing spiel that they contain natural ingredients.  The fact that they are natural is often taken as a reason to prefer these supplements to behavioral medications. In this article, I�m going to argue that we can�t formulate a strong argument for the claim that calming supplements are in any way better than behavioral medications because they are natural.  

This claim has a practical and a moral component; I�ll dispense with the former before moving on to the latter.  


The practical part of the idea that natural is better is the claim that natural supplements are safer, with fewer side effects than �unnatural� medicines.  Leaving aside the fact that there are a great many natural plants that will kill you, the comparative safety of calming supplements is largely an empirical issue.  At the present time, there are no studies on the long-term side effects of any of the most common calming supplements; in fact, there are only a few studies specifically looking at the efficacy of using these supplements in dogs at all.  Furthermore, supplements generally are subject to fewer safety standards; US federal law does not require dietary supplements to be proven safe by the FDA before they go on sale.  

There are, however, well-documented side-effect profiles for all drugs approved for veterinary use by the FDA.  A drug has to be proven safe and effective before it reaches the market.  This difference in the amount of data in itself can skew the argument - prescription drugs can appear to be more dangerous just because we can read about their side effects and can only obtain them from a professional. But this isn�t necessarily true; side effects have been measured with many different supplements, even though there is no law that they must be labelled.    

Prescription drugs can indeed have side-effects, and knowing what to look for is a huge plus.  They are known to contain an element of risk that we choose to take on if we choose to give them to our dogs.  However, there is also an element of risk with supplements, which is aggravated by not knowing as much about them.  In the third part of this series, I will talk about the related risks of choosing supplements instead of prescription medications in more detail.  


The second component to this claim is that, other things being equal, natural things are morally better than unnatural things - that the more humans interfere with an animal, or a process, or a system, the less �good� it will be.  

This isn�t to say that anyone who argues supplements are a better option than prescription medications must believe that all natural things are good and all unnatural things are bad - we could never classify this consistently, because things like fire, clothing, all petrol are unnatural for humans, but all undeniably useful.*  But the underlying belief is that generally, if something is natural it is better than an unnatural alternative. 

One problem with with is with how we can sort natural things from unnatural things. Behavioral medications can�t be easily sorted into natural and unnatural for two reasons.  The first is that both supplements and prescription drugs are designed to do basically the same thing. In order for any effect to take place, the blood-brain barrier must crossed by whatever chemical is contained in the pill. And, in all cases, the chemicals in the pill work on existing neural chemical pathways; the brain architecture that is responsible for producing and reabsorbing the chemicals that cause emotional responses like fear and joy. These are the same pathways, by the way, that dog trainers use to build a reinforcement history for any behavior - see my last article. So the natural and unnatural chemicals are working in the same area.   

To be more specific, everything marketed as a calming supplement is designed to work on serotonin and on the GABAergic systems.  Prozac is designed to stop the brain from reabsorbing serotonin that it creates, meaning that overall levels of available serotonin in the brain will go up.  Tryptophan, a common supplement, is metabolized into serotonin, meaning levels in the brain will go up. Alprazolam and Lactium (also called Zylkene) are both meant to work on the GABA receptors. My point here is, whatever you�re putting into your dog to calm him, prescription or supplement, is going to be doing one of only a few possible things.  The difference is whether it will be doing these things effectively and safely.  Therefore it is not easy to divide natural and unnatural medications along these lines.  

The second reason sorting of natural and unnatural calming medications doesn�t work is because all supplements are processed in some way.  We don�t find any of these pills growing in the wild. 

Two of these are supplements, two are prescription.

There�s no clear cut way to say that one pill is natural and another is unnatural just by looking at it, or even at the processes used to make it. We still discover a lot of �unnatural� drugs from natural sources, for example, cancer drugs, aspirin, statins, anti-malarials, and opiates - many are easier and cheaper to synthesize than derive directly thanks to modern techniques, but they all come from plants.  Are they natural, and, if they are, does this give them any extra moral goodness?  These difficulties make it very difficult to hold on to the idea that natural is better.

I would contend that the only thing that matters morally here is whether what we�re doing works, and is worth the risk.  When faced with a dog who is suffering, we ought to go straight to the science, because we don�t want to be faced with a long process of trial and error.   Often finding the right prescription behavioral medications involves trial and error too, so there is already the potential for the dog to have to wait a long time before feeling any respite.  

If we combine the practical claim that it is better to use something that we know works, and whose side-effects have been fully studied, with the moral claim that there�s no reason to believe that we can isolate the property of naturalness and justify why it is good, we have compelling reason to reject the appeal to nature here.  People wishing to hold on to the moral difference between natural and unnatural things are faced with a burden of proof; they need to justify what it is about natural things that make them better, and to explain a clear way to distinguish natural from unnatural.  

Besides which, dogs themselves are inherently unnatural. There�s an air of irony when people talk about natural being better for dogs, because we humans haven�t interfered as much with any other species on the planet.  What is natural about humans choosing to create a chihuahua and a Great Dane out of the common ancestor of the European gray wolf?  Human artifice has created every breed of dog, designed for human purposes.  If humans are agents of the unnatural, then, dogs are our finest creation.

*Unless you�re a nudist on a raw diet, of course.  But every rule has its exceptions!  

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

The Ethics of Behavioral Medication in Dogs 1: Are Medications a Kind of Force?

This post is part one of a series I�m calling �The Ethics of Behavioral Medication in Dogs�, in which I�ll look at some of the common arguments in favor of and against giving dogs medications for anxiety, phobia and aggression.  

In this post, I�ll be discussing a claim I�ve seen on a few different dog trainer forums, which is that administering behavioral medications* to a dog is a form of force.  This ties in with a post from a couple of weeks ago on Force Free Training.  

Ethically speaking, the argument is this:
  1. Any use of force within dog training is wrong; only methods that are �force free� are morally acceptable;
  2. To force a dog to do something means to offer him no choice but to perform the behavior we want, usually by drectly manipulating his body. 
  3. Medications like Prozac to treat anxiety compel a dog to behave differently to how he would otherwise behave, without giving him the choice by altering brain chemistry. 
  4. Therefore this kind of medical intervention is a form of force. 
  5. Therefore, using drugs like Prozac as an aid to training is wrong.
I'm going to argue that this argument doesn't give us enough justification to believe that using behavioral medication is wrong, because it doesn't adequately justify the claim that Prozac is a form of force, even if we accept the definition of force from premise 2.  We can see the flaws in this argument through an analogy with the old adage, �a tired dog is a happy dog�.  I am taking it as read, of course, that exercising a dog is not morally questionable.


Let�s say Spot is too bouncy and excitable around new people.  We want Spot to learn to greet strangers politely, but Great Aunt Mabel is dropping by tomorrow and we haven�t got a solid �paws on the floor� yet.  So the morning of Aunt Mabel�s visit, we take Spot out for the Best Hike Ever - fetch up and down a hill, running off-leash, some fun obedience too, and we give him a big breakfast when we get home.  We�re hoping Spot will be so tired and full that when Mabel visits, he�ll lay off the bouncing a little bit.  If we tell him to go to his mat, he�ll go instead of barreling past us into poor Aunt Mabel�s face.  

The �tired dog is a happy dog� idea is that if we give a dog exercise he is more likely to experience positive emotions like relaxation, and more likely to perform the calm behaviors we want.  Exercise is not just for his benefit, then, it�s also for ours - we want to avoid the behaviors that come from excess energy and lack of exercise. 

The brain chemistry changes that come with exercise are not something the dog has control over.  When we take him for a run or feed him a tasty meal, he can�t choose whether to release endorphins.  Exercise and the brain changes it brings are non-optional in a loose sense of the term.


Let�s say Jape is nervous around strangers, especially men, but Uncle Herbert often calls for a visit.  Jape�s owners want him to go lie on his mat quietly so that nobody will bother him, but Jape is so anxious that he can�t sit still, and often ends up getting too close to Uncle Herbert and scaring himself, making the whole thing worse.  Jape�s owners take him to the vet, who prescribes Prozac and suggests ways to make Jape happier on his mat. Everyone is hoping Jape will feel less anxious next time Uncle Herbert visits, so he can go somewhere where he won�t be bothered, and relax.  

Jape�s owners give him a pill every morning.  Jape doesn�t choose whether to take the pill and can�t understand what is in it. Taking the pill is non-optional and its effects are also non-optional. 

Prozac is designed to make Jape less likely to experience negative emotions and more likely to perform behaviors we want.  Jape�s owners want him to be more focused and less likely to go over threshold so he can listen to them and go to his mat, which is in his best interests. 

Like exercise, Prozac is not just for the dog�s benefit, it�s for ours - it is much easier to train and live with a dog that isn�t scattered and anxious; we are better equipped to give the dog coping skills rather than constantly needing to manage and worry.


The analogy holds because Prozac and exercise are similar in three ways.  The aim in both cases is the dog�s welfare and our own.  The mechanism is internal and not something the dog can directly control, and the chemicals involved create antecedents for behaviors that would not be likely to happen under normal circumstances.

In Spot's case, the effect of exercise as a training aid is short term; the chemicals released by exercise don't last forever. For Jape, the intervention is longer term, because Prozac is intended to correct a chemical imbalance. Even here, however, the distinction isn't that clear cut; dogs that are deprived of regular exercise can become frustrated, over-excitable and difficult to handle. The extra burst of tiredness and relaxation Spot's owners aimed at is backgrounded by a longer term commitment to regular exercise. 

In both cases then, the change in brain chemicals an antecedent, which effects behavior.  Behavior then has consequences, which then form a part of the next antecedent situation.  With Prozac, or exercise, we are altering the internal antecedents of a behavior.  If there's no difference in the relevant practical parts of two situations, there's no difference in the morality of those situations.  

If there is a moral difference between deliberately creating a situation where a dog�s brain has high levels of the chemicals released by exercise, and deliberately creating a situation where a dog�s brain has near-normal levels of the chemicals that mitigate depression and anxiety, it is not to be found in whether one is an example of �force�.

*I'm using "Prozac" as a generic catch-all term for behavioral medication, for clarity's sake.