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. 

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

We Ought To Do The Best We Can

Let's say that Smith is a lifeguard, and he's sitting at his post when he sees Jones drowning.  When he goes to try to save Jones, Smith realizes he's been tied to his chair.  What ought Smith do?

Well, because Smith is a lifeguard, we can agree that he ought to save Jones, because it's a lifeguard's job to save drowning people.  But because Smith is prevented from leaving his chair, then, it seems wrong to say that Smith ought to save Jones, because Smith can't save Jones.  It's only true that we ought (morally) to do something, if we practically *can* do that thing.  

What, then, ought Smith do?  There are a couple of options. Either Smith can try to escape from his bindings, or he can call for someone else to save Jones.  So, to generalize, either Smith can try to make the situation back into how it was when we both ought to and was able to save Jones, or, Smith can change the situation so Jones is saved even though Smith is prevented from doing it. 

Most people would agree that the second option is better, because there's more chance Jones would be saved.  Trying to make the situation into one where the ideal is possible is liable to result in a bad outcome.  Smith ought to know this, so Smith ought to call for help.  Sometimes, if we can't do what we ought to do, we ought to do something else - the next best thing.  

How can this be applied to dog training?  One way is in how we approach training solutions.  Often, especially in training an anxious dog, we're confronted with a set of circumstances that mean we can't do the number 1, most ideal thing.  Maybe the dog lives somewhere that it has to confront other people and dogs just to go out to potty or exercise, so we can't completely control the distance of triggers.  Maybe the neighbors have a loud, barking do, so we can't completely control the desensitization process.  

Does this mean we should give up on training dogs in less than ideal situations?  No. Should we wait until the dog is in an ideal situation, even if that means never training, or training so rarely that no positive effect can happen?  No. 

My point is, if we can't do the best thing, we can do the next best thing.  And, it's not a moral failing if we accept that what we would have done in ideal circumstances is not possible here.  What is a failing, is to assume that anyone who asks "what is the best thing I can do in these less-than-ideal circumstances" either doesn't understand dog training, doesn't understand their obligations, or is not creative enough to make the situation into one where the ideal action is possible.  

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Doing, Allowing and No-Reward Markers

Frustration is an unwanted side effect of positive dog training.  Although we strive for errorless learning and errorless performance, we can�t always control the antecedents as well as we might like.  Rewarding a dog for the behavior we want has the consequence that if a dog expects a reward and that reward is withheld, some frustration might ensue.  

Recently there has been a lot of debate about the place of �no-reward markers� (NRMs) in dog training.  Some trainers have argued that an NRM is a useful piece of information for the dog and can prevent longer-term frustration, others claim that it is an aversive and therefore has no place in �purely positive� training. Some clicker trainers claim that there is no need for an NRM because not clicking for a behavior is sufficient for the dog to understand that he must try something else to get a reward.1

For the purposes of this article, I am defining an NRM as a noise or gesture that signifies to the dog that no reward will be presented for a behavior, but that does not cause the dog extra pain or fright.  The dog has to learn the connection between the no-reward marker and not being rewarded in the same way as he learned the connection between the clicker and a reward.  So, rolling one�s eyes and making a noise like �oops!� count as no-reward markers; dropping one�s keys on the kitchen floor or kicking the dog in the ribs do not. 

It�s reasonable to assume that the presence of an NRM would eventually become mildly frustrating in itself - pair it enough times with the disappointment of not getting an expected reward.  So when we use an NRM, we�re causing the dog to become mildly frustrated  - this is a conditioned emotional response.

Not clicking doesn�t cause the dog to become frustrated by itself - the frustration comes from an expected reward being withheld.  This means that the frustration the dog feels isn�t tied to an event like an NRM but it does still happen; the dog realizes that no expected treat is coming at some point after he performs the behavior, and that�s frustrating for him.  The difference is, in this case the trainer hasn�t performed an action that frustrates the dog, the dog has become frustrated �on his own�.  

So is there a moral difference between causing frustration with an NRM, and allowing frustration to happen by withholding a click?  I will argue that, in this particular case, there is not. 

In ethics, there is an ongoing debate about whether it is morally worse to cause harm than it is to allow harm to happen.  The general consensus is that it is worse to do harm than to allow harm, and there are literally hundreds of examples that illustrate the distinction.2  

One justification for the claim that doing and allowing are morally different has to do with probability - by doing an action, we make it certain that the consequence of that action will occur.  By allowing the action, we only make it much more likely that the consequence will occur.  There might, for example, be a tiny chance of a recovery if we turn off a patient�s life support, but no chance at all if we perform euthanasia. 

In dog training, we could make the claim that using an NRM definitely will cause frustration, whereas not clicking only probably causes frustration.  Therefore, it could be argued, we should avoid using the NRM.  

This argument doesn�t work, however, because adding an NRM doesn�t make frustration more likely.  We could imagine that although many dogs get frustrated if they don�t get the reward they expect, some just don�t.  However, a dog that doesn�t get frustrated when he doesn�t get the reward he expects also wouldn�t be frustrated by an NRM.  If not getting an expected reward just isn�t frustrating, he�d never develop a conditioned emotional response to the eye rolling, or the word �oops!�.  It would just be information.  The likelihood of frustration depends on the dog, and on the trainer�s skill, not on the mere presence of an NRM. 

The factors that make the difference between examples of doing and allowing in ethics don�t exist in dog training - factors like whether the harm would have happened if we were not present, whether we intended to cause the harm and so on.  This is because when we are training a dog, we are putting him in a situation we have decided he should be in and we have created.  What we do, or don�t do, in that situation is always our responsibility.

The frustration the dog feels at not getting a reward is our responsibility whether we cause it with an NRM or allow it to happen by withholding a click.  This being the case, it is better to focus on the way training is set up and create conditions to minimize frustration rather than focus on how that frustration comes to happen.  

Whether a dog gets frustrated during training is down to a combination of the dog�s personality, the task at hand, and the trainer�s skill in setting him up for success, not merely whether an NRM is used. If both approaches can lead to frustration, there is no obvious ethical difference between using an NRM and withholding a click.  If there is a difference, it must be empirical - that one approach leads to more frustration; that the conditioned emotional response to the NRM is worse than the frustration of not getting a click.  

1  Materials like this article from the Karen Pryor Academy make this claim.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an excellent introductory article to the Doing and Allowing distinction with a bibliography.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Humiliation in Dogs

What�s wrong with these pictures?  

If you reacted to these pictures with any kind of repulsion, chances are part of your explanation for your reaction would involve the idea of humiliation.  It�s humiliating to clip a Poodle so that it looks like a My Little Pony toy, or to dress a daschund in a wedding dress.  This raises the question; what does it mean to humiliate a dog, and why is it wrong?  

This question isn�t just reserved for idle judgement, increasingly it's a legal issue.  Since 1992, the Swiss Constitution  has made provision for the dignity of animals.  Part of respecting the dignity of animals, the drafters of the Constitution claim, is protecting them from �humiliation�.1  In the UK, the Royal Society for the Protection of Animals has released a statement suggested that people who dress up their dogs could be prosecuted under some circumstances.2

In this post, I�ll discuss whether dogs really are being humiliated by being subject to extreme grooming and dressing up, and, if they�re not, how we can capture the intuition that there is something wrong. I�ll reconstruct both sides of the argument before concluding that doing these things to dogs is not humiliating, but there is still something wrong with it. 

Before we look at what it means to humiliate a dog, I�ll first explain what it means to humiliate a human being.  When one person humiliates another, she causes him to feel ashamed of himself; like he is less of a person.  Humiliation has a social component - it is done to one person by another, and part of feeling humiliated is feeling the �gaze� of others and feeling diminished in their eyes. Avishai Margalit defines a humiliating act as anything that gives the victim a sound reason to feel humiliated. What counts as a �sound reason� will depend on features of the individual - the sort of things he believes are humiliating given his culture and character; and features of the context.3

The most important part of humiliation is that we can�t be humiliated unless we believe we are being humiliated. This is because humiliating someone is designed to injure their self-respect, so the humiliator has to know enough about the victim to know whether the intended action will humiliate him. Being told to wear women�s clothing, for example, is humiliating to most men, but not all of them. 

On this conception of humiliation, it�s clear that dogs can�t be humiliated because they can�t believe they are being humiliated. They don�t have the kind of complex self-respect that humans do, the kind that link body image to a sense of personal identity.  I�m not saying that dogs don�t have a sense of self, just that if they do it is unlikely to relate to the way they look. With the example of �doggie marriage�, this is unlikely to be specifically humiliating because it is a sham marriage, since dogs can�t understand this concept.  To a dog, walking next to another dog in a silly costume and then doing a sit-stay whilst people say things is unlikely to register as impacting their self-respect.  


So, it is unlikely that we can find an account of dog humiliation just by looking at what it means for humans to be humiliated in terms of their self-respect.  The concept needs to be altered if it is going to make any sense.  If humiliation can apply to dogs it must apply regardless of what the dog is thinking and feeling.  

Again, it might be possible to look at humans as an analogue.  In particular, those humans who don�t have the relevant ability for self-respect - comatose people, people with severe intellectual disabilities, people with late-stage dementia and so on.  If we can humiliate these people, then potentially we can humiliate dogs too.

This would be too quick, however, because the reason that certain actions are humiliating to adults who used to have self-respect, or who have the potential for self-respect, does not apply to dogs. We can think about what these people would have wanted, either before they got into their current condition or if they didn�t have their current condition.  Being left naked, for example, is humiliating to any adult because they would not have consented to it if they could.  This argument still relies on self-respect, so it cannot apply to dogs.  


Now that I�ve dismissed two conceptions of humiliation, I�m left with one final description that might apply to dogs.  This is that, by interfering excessively in a dog�s appearance by dressing it up or grooming it outlandishly, an owner is treating her dog like a doll, not like a dog.  Dogs are entitled to a special kind of respect because of the kind of thing they are - a living, sentient creature. Treating them like an object is wrong because it means treating the dog as if they do not have the features that make them worthy of this kind of respect. 

Literally, the word �humiliate� comes from the Latin �humus�, dirt.  Humiliating someone sets them below you, it grinds them into the dirt as you stand over them.  The overall effect is a lowering of status. So treating a dog like a doll is humiliating because it means lowering their status.  This would hold even if the dog can�t understand. 

Even this conception of humiliation does not quite work, because it relies on an indefensibly strong claim that dressing a dog up, or grooming him excessively, is automatically objectifying because it means treating the dog as something less than he is.  If this were true, we would be humiliating babies by dressing them up in little dinosaur costumes, because this would mean we�re seeing babies as entitled to the same respect as dinosaurs, or dolls.  Babies can�t understand clothes, so we can dress them however we like, and many parents enjoy putting their little ones in crazy costumes...

Concern about humiliating babies seems like a futile constraint on parental creativity; what matters is the baby is happy and able to explore and learn about the world in a loving, safe environment.  The same can be said about dogs - it is wrong to treat a dog just like a doll, but if it is possible to dress them up and groom them into weird shapes whilst also paying attention to their welfare, then the dog is not being treated just like a doll and therefore not being humiliated.  To paraphrase Kant, we are not treating the dog merely as a means to an end just by dressing him up, by paying attention to his welfare we are at the same time treating him as an end in himself. 

I would contend that the reaction people have to extreme grooming and dog clothing stems from the perception that the dog is being treated like something less than a dog. Part of this is a worry that the dog is being objectified, which I have dealt with here.  But another part comes from a picture of the ideal, or natural dog - a Lassie, or a Rin Tin Tin.  Deviation from this archetype strikes many people as necessarily a diminishment of what�s essential and good about dogs, and as we�ve seen, the concept of humiliation well captures what it means to diminish someone.  This suggests a �normative essentialist� conception of what a good dog is - an important theme I will return to in a later post.  Suffice to say, for the moment, that just because something is natural, or �the way it always has been�, doesn�t make it good now.  

If there is anything prima facie wrong with dressing dogs up or grooming them to extremes, it is that there is always the potential to overlook the dog�s welfare in the owner's pursuit of her own desires. But this is as true for dog shows, sports, jobs like search and rescue and everyday experiences with dogs as it is for dressing them up or extreme grooming.  Any time a dog is being used, there is always the possibility that it is being used merely as a means to an end, and there's no reason to restrict our worries to the more bizarre examples of the dog-human partnership.  This reminds us that we have a duty to pay attention to what our dog partners are telling us, whether it�s at the dog park or at their wedding.


1. "The Dignity of Animals" (2001) Joint Statement by the Swiss Ethics Committee on Non-Human Gene Technology and the Swiss Committee on Animal Experiments. Available at
2. "RSPCA says people who dress up their dogs could be prosecuted" The Telegraph, Jan 13 2009. Available at
3. Margalit, A. (1996)  "The Decent Society" . Harvard University Press.