Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Regulation in Dog Training: Auckland

After a news story out of Auckland, where the owner of a Long Island daycare and training facility was caught on video jabbing a crated pit bull with a stick in a clear example of animal abuse (cw animal abuse -- here's the story with video), there has been renewed calls to require licensing for dog trainers in Auckland. A bill, sponsored by Senator Todd Kaminsky, has been put before the state Senate. You can read the full text of the bill here, and the accompanying explanation here.

Although I recognize that legislation has some serious potential drawbacks, and would need to be a slow process with as much consultation from all the stakeholders, dog trainers, the public, and professional behavior and training organizations for a start, I believe that requiring some sort of education has to be better than the current free-for-all. Here's the letter I wrote in support of the Bill. You can register your support on this page.

Dear Senator Kaminsky, 
Thank you for proposing this legislation. The current regulation-free state of dog training has long been a lacuna in animal welfare and veterinary law, and I believe it has caused a great deal of harm to dogs, dog owners and the public at large by allowing uneducated trainers to operate. 
Many of these trainers make completely inappropriate, impossible guarantees to "fix" all manner of behavioral issues, essentially preying on the public's lack of knowledge and sense of urgency in addressing their dog's issues.
By requiring a license for professional dog trainers, your legislation has the potential to protect the public from false advertising, from animal abuse, and from the physical, financial and emotional harm that comes from uneducated trainers and their outdated, unscientific, ineffective interventions. 
I hope that your team takes the time to canvas professional dog training organizations, who have been working to raise standards by providing education and certification for those dog trainers who are committed to professional ethics and doing the very best for the dogs they have dedicated their careers to helping.  
Thank you again!

Regulation in dog training is something I truly believe could enhance the lives of dogs, their owners, and ethical dog trainers everywhere. There are some hard questions that will need to be addressed if it's going to work who will make the rules? Who will be allowed to practice? Who will pay for all of this? But if we don't have a seat at the table and help make these decisions, we forfeit the right to complain when things don't go our way. That's why I'll be working as hard as I can to lobby for licensing in my home state of California and supporting any effort in any state in whatever way I can. 

Friday, 21 October 2016

The Argument That Didn't Go Too Far Enough

The Delta Smart was probably Garmin's least successful launch ever. Although the company had been making e-collars for a few years after purchasing Tri-Tronics in 2011, they'd never set foot into the shark-infested waters of social media until they wanted to show off their latest device for the smartphone generation. As soon as they posted their first marketing video, it was seized upon by people who didn't know Garmin made e-collars, didn't know e-collars were "a thing," or were strongly morally opposed to their use. It was, by all accounts, a very bad day for Garmin.

Professional animal behavior organizations weighed in over the next few days, with position statements first from IAABC, then PPG, then CCPDT. This, as you might expect, caused further ructions as inter-organizational differences of opinion came to the fore.

Among dog trainers, the main ethical conflict arose out of the claim that in focusing on the technological reasons the Delta Smart was a poorly designed, potentially dangerous piece of junk, the IAABC must, therefore, be condoning e-collars as a class of device. This claim popped up immediately after the position statement was released, both in public and member-only forums.

Critics suggested that IAABC's arguments against the device, that it would fail to work as advertised and cause more welfare problems than even other kinds of e-collar, just weren't strong enough. One critic claimed it was "like" IAABC were saying e-collars were completely okay so long as nobody chose this particular e-collar. Instead, the position statement's authors (myself among them) should simply have pointed out that all e-collars were bad and nobody should use them. Instead of technological reasons not to choose the Delta Smart, it was claimed, the authors should have given "scientifically proven" reasons, or, better still, moral reasons.

What's the principle here?

From the arguments critics made, the most likely principle seemed to be that if you criticize one instance of a class for one set of reasons, and these reasons don't apply to the class as a whole, you must, therefore, be condoning the class as a whole. This principle is not logically sound. Why would anyone believe that there's only room for one kind of reason why something is bad?

The reasons the Delta Smart is a terrible device don't change depending on your stance about e-collars more generally. It's a bad device because it's been shown to fire randomly, because the smartphone interface is clunky, and because low energy Bluetooth is particularly prone to interference and latency when used at a distance. This should be something that both sides of the debate can agree on: one of those fantastical times where warring factions come together to fight a larger common enemy. 

I believe all professionals have an obligation to inform and educate the public. Time and again, education has been proven to work better in effecting behavior change than a blunt demand for prohibition. For example, abstinence-only sex education in schools has been proven to be less effective in delaying teenage sexual activity and reducing pregnancy rates than initiatives that teach about safe sex. People who believe in the immorality of sex before marriage ought to be in favor of educating school-age virgins about safe, consensual sex rather than demanding they sign a pledge not to have any, even if they believe this education should never be used by the kids who receive it. This is because if they have an aim of preventing as many people as possible from having pre-marital sex, they should endorse whatever strategy works best even if it runs contrary to their beliefs.

Being informed and understanding something is vital to having a justifiable stance for or against it. It's true for sex education and it's true in dog training: if you know better, you can do better. Everyone benefits when we encourage people to think critically and engage deeply with issues.

It's not black and white, except sometimes

Rhetoric isn't a dirty word

For everything you believe about dog training, you can probably think of a clutch of different reasons why you hold that belief: some personal, some practical, some normative. Some of these reasons will justify the belief, others will explain why you hold it. When you're trying to convince other people to share your belief, choosing the least controversial and most generalizable reason is a sound rhetorical tactic. You should choose the argument that is most likely to achieve the effect you want in your audience, not the one you believe is most important or the one that makes you feel best. In this case, IAABC wanted people to not buy the Garmin Delta Smart, all people, not just people who weren't going to buy an e-collar anyway, and we chose reasons that were most likely to convince the widest audience. 

My technological reasons for believing that nobody should use the Delta Smart are different from my moral justification for believing we should always use the least invasive, minimally aversive effective strategy in training and behavior modification. But they're not incompatible.

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Consent and sharing on social media

We hear a lot about consent in dog training. It's important that dog owners are able to give informed consent, which means that trainers and behavior consultants need to give clear and honest descriptions of what they will do to the client animal, why they are doing this and not some other intervention, and what to expect if it works (or doesn't). 

Consent matters with dogs too. For example, we can set up their environment so that there's no penalty for refusing to engage with the behavior modification or training program, and we can take breaks to give them the chance to choose to re-engage. Anecdotally, this allows for a less stressful learning experience for the dog. 

But there's a third, less obvious area where consent is part of a behavior consultant's practice: online. 

There's a consensus that people love to see their pets on the Internet, and I can't really dispute that. I'm pretty much exactly that guy: if my dog became Internet famous, I' be well, I'd be very confused, but I'd also be kinda pleased. We like it when strangers respond to our pets the same way we do, it's fun. However, there is the potential for an ethical problem when trainers and consultants share pictures and video without their client's consent. 

"I totally deserve to be famous"
Even if 99% of the time, the client is flattered, and even if 100% of the time it's shared with the best of intentions, it's still unethical to share footage of client animals without express consent.

The client may not want footage of the inside of their home, or of their neighborhood shown to the trainer's online world. On the serious side, the client may be in witness protection, have had problems with stalkers or other kinds of harassment, or not want to reveal to other family members that they contracted with the behavior consultant in the first place. Or it could simply be that the client wants to keep their social media profile free of too much identifying information: having multiple profiles for different parts of life is commonplace, so it's dangerous to assume the person you talk to in real life is the "same" as their persona on social media.

No matter the reason, clients ought to know when their personal information is being shared and have a chance to stop it happening, so consent is always needed. Inviting an animal behavior consultant into one's home creates a bond of trust: the client often ends up sharing some quite personal details about their lives, and consultants have an obligation not to violate privacy. Even if the client is not in the picture or video, the potential that they could be identified is always there.

All that's needed to address this issue is a verbal agreement, or a line in your contract of services. Probably, 99 out of 100 of your clients will think you're being excessive, but for the sake of that one who says, Actually, it's worth taking the extra step to make sure before you share. 

Friday, 13 May 2016

What makes a great trainer? Balancing implicit and explicit knowledge

When I first started studying academic ethics, people would often half-jokingly ask whether I was trying to become a better person. What's the point of studying something like, being good, when clearly there are so many good people out there who have never sat a minute in a philosophy seminar? Doesn't that make academic ethics pointless? 

My reason for studying ethics had nothing to do with becoming more good and everything to do with being more reasonable. What fascinated me was why people who wanted to be good, ended up believing things that, to my mind, were bigoted and harmful. How could one person seemingly be completely committed to beliefs that, when you looked at them from further back, actively contradicted each other?

I wanted to understand my own beliefs about right and wrong, good and bad. To me, that meant I wanted to organize the gut feelings, lessons from comic books, and pangs of empathy that more or less made up my sense of morality into something I could look at with critical distance.

So I started learning about different ethical theories and concepts; creating a library of ideas, arguments and principles that I could think about explicitly. Every so often, I learned something that I really felt made me a better person for understanding it; Oliver Sense's interpretation of Kant's principles, for example. But I don't think that, overall, I'm any more ethical or virtuous than any other person. I just know how to spot contradictory beliefs, how to make a strong ethical argument, and how to see patterns in what a person is saying that suggests what kind of underlying understand of human nature they have. Having access to these explicit concepts makes me better able to see where I'm logically contradicting myself and (sometimes!) to convince other people that they're being irrational or bigoted. 

Recently, I read a blog that argued that dog trainers are beginning to place too much emphasis on learning the scientific principles that underpin the skills of training and behavior modification. The author suggested that trainers should focus on just training the dog, because training is a mechanical skill. 

I agree, training is a mechanical skill and it's entirely possible to be an excellent trainer without ever learning any of the relevant scientific principles. Just like it's possible to be a truly ethical person without knowing the difference between deontology and consequentialism. 

Knowledge that comes from disparate sources years of personal experience, the wise words of good teachers, gets assimilated in a person as implicit knowledge, which, when combined with physical dexterity and quick wits, can make for an expert in animal training.

But it's difficult to take that implicit knowledge and look at it objectively, which means it's difficult to see gaps, or where different parts are in conflict. This means it can be tricky to criticize your own beliefs, and to be flexible in cases where your usual approach isn't working. Making this knowledge explicit means labeling the concepts we're already working with as everyday trainers, as well as learning new concepts. This is good because it means we can communicate these concepts to other people, see patterns and contradictions, and critique our own methods. It gives us a new perspective on the way we train. Theory alone won't make us expert trainers, but it gives us something that experience cannot because of the way our brains work. 

Perhaps some dog trainers are reifying the study of scientific principles, some of which end up having no bearing on the way they train; in many ways this is understandable given the unregulated nature of the industry and the anti-intellectual bias still present in some dog training circles. This shouldn't lead to a backlash against learning the science at all, however. What we need to understand is that the mechanical skill and intuitive grasp of training can be enhanced by learning the science. It's important to focus on both sharpening skills and building that library of concepts'on both implicit and explicit knowledge. That's the way to balance. 

Sunday, 3 April 2016

The UK's Animal Welfare Law has a Depressingly Well-hidden Gem

It's common to hear dog trainers complain that their profession is completely unregulated; that their practice isn't subject to any legislation whatsoever. Trainers assume that the government must just not have any interest in the welfare of dogs, beyond basic animal cruelty laws. But what if I told you that the United Kingdom had some of the most progressive legislation on dog behavior in the world? The problem is, it's hidden so well and implemented so poorly that it might as well not exist at all. Let me explain: 

The 2006 Animal Welfare Act made owners and keepers of animals responsible for both the prevention of harm to, and the promotion of welfare of their animals. According to the text of the Act, promoting welfare includes meeting the need:
  • for a suitable environment (place to live)
  • for a suitable diet
  • to exhibit normal behaviour patterns
  • to be housed with or apart from other animals (if applicable)
  • to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease
Failing to meet these needs is a criminal offence. What counts as appropriate provision for these needs, however, is much too specific to be included in the text of the law, so a set of Codes of Practice were developed to give more detailed guidance on how to implement the Act. 
[Codes of practice] provide owners and keepers with information on how to meet the welfare needs of their animals, as required under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. They can also be used in courts as evidence in cases brought before them relating to poor welfare. - Defra Animal Welfare Legislation: Protecting Pets
The code of practice for dog owners is comprehensive, detailed, and specifically mentions the need for positive reinforcement in training, the importance of being well-socialized and able to live free from fear:
Training a dog is important to help it learn to behave appropriately and to make it easier to keep under control. Puppies need to get used to the many noises, objects and activities in their environment, some of which are frightening when first experienced. Good training can enhance a dog's quality of life, but punishing a dog can cause it pain and suffering....
All dogs should be trained to behave well, ideally from a very young age. Only use positive reward- based training. Avoid harsh, potentially painful or frightening training methods.
Someone in the government has taken modern, science-based training advice and turned it into real policy. But have you ever heard of this code of practice? My guess is no. Has anyone ever been prosecuted under the Animal Welfare Act for training a dog cruelly, and not behaving in accordance with the code? Not that I can find.  

Work has been done and money spent - something that might surprise those people whose default assumption is that the government has no interest in doing anything at all - but it's clear that this approach isn't adequate as a system of regulation for dog trainers. 

All legislation is retrospective by nature. It relies on people noticing and reporting training that is cruel. This means dogs have to suffer before anything is done, and crucially, the public has to know that this kind of suffering is not appropriate within dog training. The public is subjected to a lot of misinformation about the right way to train a dog. After watching a TV show where dogs are routinely kicked by someone who is claimed to be an authority in animal behavior, it's unfair to expect them to recognize inhumane training when they see it. If the public don't know that the code of practice exists, or that dogs don't need to be trained with physical coercion, how can the code of practice be useful at all? 

Finally, for all that advocates in the "training wars" focus on whether it's practically or ethically justifiable to use e-collars, prongs, or any other tool to inflict punishments on a dog, the most serious welfare issue runs far deeper than mechanics. Trainers who subscribe to outmoded ideology about needing to be the, pack leader, tend to set up situations that directly contravene the welfare needs stated in the Animal Welfare Act. They deliberately set dogs up to fail so they can be punished. In pursuit of  proving you're the alpha, dogs are routinely denied access to affection and enrichment, worked too hard, prevented from social interactions and ignored - all supposedly for their own good. This treatment goes on long after the trainer leaves, often for the whole life of the dog, and to my mind this is much more of a welfare issue than even the most unpleasant training session.

We need to make sure the information trainers give lays a foundation for the dog to live a happy life, as well as not do whatever the owner hired the trainer to help stop happening. Only licensing can do this because it's prospective, not retrospective. It can screen out trainers who don't help provide for dogs, welfare needs, without placing an impossible burden of knowledge on average dog owners. Licensing would mean that the documents like the UK Government's code of practice for dog owners could be more than a hidden gem. 

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Fact Check: Will the UK Soon be Requiring Licenses for Dog Trainers?

A recent article in the Telegraph reported that the UK Government will soon be requiring everyone who works with animals professionally to get a license. People who have been calling for dog training to be a licensed profession - myself included - got very excited about this, as the article specifically mentioned dog trainers. But sadly, fact checking showed our jubilation to be premature. Here's a run-down of what's going on.

The Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is directly responsible for animal welfare law in England, and indirectly involved with the devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. 

For the last few years, Defra has been streamlining regulations and legislative frameworks to ease the regulatory burden on local authorities and businesses. This consultation on the review of animal establishments licensing in England is part of the process, as well as explicitly being a response to public concerns about animal welfare.

The consultation document lays out the areas Defra proposes to reform. These include pet stores, boarding kennels and commercial dog breeders. 

What does Defra propose to do?

Essentially, Defra wants to create a general license for all establishments where animals are kept. The license will apply to the premises itself, and will be given subject to a yearly inspection. Licenses will be given if an establishment can meet a list of  Model Conditions,  based on current thinking about animal welfare. The backbone of these conditions will be the 2006 Animal Welfare Act, as the consultation states on page 1: 
"The law requires anyone responsible for an animal to ensure that its needs are met to the extent required by good practice. These needs explicitly include a suitable environment, a suitable diet, the ability to exhibit normal behaviour patterns, to be housed with, or apart from, other animals, and to be protected from pain, suffering, injury and disease."

How does this effect dog trainers in the UK?

There is no mention of dog trainers or behavior consultants in the proposal. Since the majority of trainers work in clients' homes, they don't qualify as a kennel (some will, if they run a board and train or daycare facility). It's clear that the intention of the proposal goes no further than business establishments, not professional individuals. 

As it stands, the Animal Welfare Act does apply to dog trainers as it does to every citizen, but this proposal doesn't add anything to it. The UK Government has already published a comprehensive Code of Practice that guides the implementation of the Animal Welfare Act, but as far as I can tell there have been no prosecutions of trainers that fail to implement this code. I will explain why the implementation of existing laws is not an adequate way to regulate dog training in an upcoming blog. 

There is one possible route to expanding the scope of the proposal to include dog trainers, however. The proposal mentions establishments like dog groomers, which are outside the scope of existing legislation:
"Such establishments are still subject to the Animal Welfare Act and have to provide for the welfare of their animals. Local authorities have powers to take action under the Act where poor welfare is evident. Indeed any person can take a prosecution under the Act. Nevertheless there have been suggestions that these establishments should be brought under the welfare licensing system although this would be a considerable new burden on the businesses and charities operating in this area. We are interested in stakeholder views and alternative proposals, such as sector-led UKAS-accredited certification schemes."
Not all dog groomers have physical premises - some are mobile, and visit clients, homes. If they are all covered by requirement to get a license or to register with UKAS, then such licenses can't just apply to the establishments where animals are kept, they could also apply to any situation where a professional is handling an animal. This would mean dog trainers could be included in the requirement to be licensed, too. 

However, it's important to note that this is not likely to happen, unless the consultation demonstrates a clear demand for it. 

What happens next?

The consultation period for this proposal ended on March 12th, so right now Defra is reviewing all the opinions and evidence they received, and will publish a summary at some point (they haven't given a time frame). The materials Defra received will inform the final proposed regulations, which will then be put into a parliamentary bill. 

In conclusion, this might be great for dogs being bred, housed and sold in the UK, and I don't want to take away from that. But it's more than likely not going to be the regulatory framework many progressive dog trainers want. However, there might be some scope to stretch it to require some sort of registration, at least. 

Monday, 21 March 2016

Why Self-Regulation Won't Work For Dog Training

What would the dog training industry need to do to make it easier for clients to find professional, highly skilled help for whatever problems they�re experiencing with their dog, and avoid hiring people who lack the skills, knowledge or compassion to deliver a high quality service?

My answer has always been regulation, and I�m not the only person who feels this way. In particular, the model I favor is licensing. Although regulation is a serious step, and would change the industry as we know it with some potential for adverse consequences, I believe that it is the only way to ensure that the public - and their dogs - get the service they deserve. In the first part of this series of blogs, I explained what is wrong with the current model. In this post, I�ll explain what�s wrong with the current model, why a popular alternative - self-regulation - won�t work.

What about the existing professional bodies? 

Some people argue that because we already have a myriad of certification programs available for dog training professionals, we have no need of further regulation. All we need to do is make sure that the public recognizes these certifications as the gold standard in dog training, which is a marketing rather than a regulatory challenge. This is a mistake, however.

The dog training world relies heavily enough on marketing and lack of public knowledge that not having a certification from a professional body doesn�t mean you can�t still make money as a dog trainer. The big franchises offer all their training in-house, and don�t require any prior knowledge about dogs. They have formidable marketing budgets compared to average training companies, and they very rarely engage with their critics. For all that professional organizations, humane societies and other advocacy groups try to create educational materials for the public, they can only reach so far. 

Even with wonderfully effective marketing, there is a gap in the profession that certification in incapable of filling by design. To achieve industry-leading certifications like IAABC's Certified Membership and CCPDT's Knowledge and Skills Assessed, you already have to have logged hundreds of hours as a head trainer. Essentially, you have to be in the job professionally for at least many months before you have the chance to demonstrate your knowledge and/or skills for assessment. Mandating this lag between entering a profession and certifying in it effectively requires the very thing people who argue certification is all the regulation we need are using them to guard against - unregulated trainers who have to rely on marketing, not certification, to get clients, and who aren�t bound by any professional ethical code.  

These certifications and the professional bodies that offer them are an important part of the dog training world, because they allow people who are willing and able to do the research to find the best help for their dogs� behavioral problem. They represent the highest standards of professional education. Clearly, however, their existence is not enough to protect clients from incompetent trainers. We need standards that will reach everybody, not just those who already choose to adhere to them. 

What about self-regulation? 

If professional certification is not enough, what should we do? Recently, I was talking to someone in a professional organization for dog trainers about the challenges working in an unregulated industry can bring. This person argued that instead of pushing to make dog training a legally regulated industry, we should be focusing on the question of �whether we can regulate ourselves�.

Our interaction ended before I got the chance to ask what �regulating ourselves� meant in more detail, so I�m going to explore that idea here. 

There are three elements to self-regulation in an industry:
  1. Everyone in an industry has to sign up to a code of ethics, which describes best practice and outlines conduct that is considered unprofessional, harmful, or otherwise wrong. 
  2. The industry has to fund an independent organization to develop, monitor and enforce this code of ethics. 
  3. There has to be an incentive to comply with the code of ethics: failure to do so has to result in some kind of sanctions. 

The advertising industry is often held up as a paradigm example of self-regulation, but what works for the ad people won�t work for dog trainers. This is because it�s in the whole advertising profession�s best interest to rid itself of unscrupulous shysters. The more the public trusts the advertising industry as a whole, the easier it is for individual advertisers to do their job.

It�s not so clear that dog training as an industry is so invested in maintaining the trust of the public in general. This is because the dog training world is so divided that some groups within it already think others are fundamentally wrong on theoretical, practical and moral levels. The industry is rife with disagreement over everything from what counts as scientific fact to whether electric shocks count as ethical practice. There is simply no reason for force-free trainers to want the public to believe that all trainers - including those using positive punishment - are fundamentally trustworthy and competent. Likewise, there�s no need for BarkBusters or any other franchise to foster the public�s belief that independent force-free trainers can be just as effective as them. 

The only incentive to adopt a universal Code of Ethics that all dog trainers could share would be public demand. The pressure would have to come from outside. Unfortunately, the level of education the general public has about dog training is hugely variable. Between reality TV, the Internet, and non-expert sources of knowledge like vets and family members, the majority of average dog owners either don�t know, or don�t care about professional standards in dog training. 

One of the reasons self-regulation is seen as attractive to dog trainers - at least, a reason that is often given when I�ve engaged people about the subject - is that external regulation means involving the government, with all the bureaucracy and concerns about privacy that seems to entail. However, self-regulation is not independent of the government or the legal system. In the UK, the Advertising Standards Authority (the industry-funded regulatory organization) can refer noncompliant marketers to Trading Standards, which has the legal authority to prosecute through the courts. They can then be subject to fines and even imprisonment. Other than animal cruelty laws, there are no such legal backstops in the dog training world, so self-regulation would mean creating new laws. 

Professional bodies like IAABC, CCPDT and PPG have a significant role to play in raising the standards of dog training as an industry, but they should also be involved in lobbying for greater regulation through the legal system. Without the introduction of a legal backstop - a sort of Trading Standards for dog trainers - their codes of ethics and educational outreach alone won�t do enough to tackle the real problems. 

In my next blog, I'll explain why licensing is a better idea than self-regulation, looking at the way licensed professions are administered and exploring how advocacy groups could be involved in the drafting of best practice guidelines that would inform licensing bodies. 

Saturday, 5 March 2016

"Relationship" and training shelter dogs: not a good fit

There are obvious problems with the statement that �relationship� should be the lens through which a trainer�s methods are judged, which I�ve mentioned in previous posts. Here, I�m going to focus on pure pragmatism. 

I spend most of my time around dogs at a local shelter, where I�m part of a group of volunteers who work with our more challenging guests. Although I love developing bonds with these dogs, when I�m training a shelter dog I pay absolutely no attention to whether I believe the dog likes me, or whether I like her, or whether we�ve even spent time together before. In every case, with every dog, I try to apply the principles of learning theory with a strong focus on counterconditioning and positive reinforcement for desired behavior. In short, relationship is completely irrelevant to how I choose to train dogs at the shelter, and moreover, I believe it ought to be irrelevant. 
"You don't have to say you love me, just have a treat in your hand"
One reason relationship can�t matter is time. We don't know how long a dog will be in the shelter and I'm lucky that the shelter I volunteer at has a high turnover. A dog could be with us for weeks, or just a few days. A frightened, highly reactive dog needs behavioral modification right away, starting with feeling safe in her environment. So, we need something that will work without a relationship.  

Training methods always have to be safe for the human, and have as small as possible risk of harming the dog. When a dog comes in as a stray or a surrender, we don�t know what kinds of associations that dog has made in the past. Some dogs are fearful of the leash, or human hands - I once had a rescue dog that was completely petrified of newspapers. Adding extra adrenaline to the mix by punishing a dog that�s also liable to panic at certain triggers is a perfect setup for unpredictable aggression. 

A shelter dog also needs the kind of training that can be replicated. Not relying on relationship - or perception of relationship - means shelter dogs can be trained by all the volunteers with the skills to do it. And that training can be passed on to the owners and extended through other trainers. 

The dog's adoptive family needs to have tools to reward good behavior and discourage what they don't want before a relationship is formed. Otherwise, the dog is more likely to be returned. Training based on operant conditioning uses a well-established set of principles that can be applied by multiple handlers with no special connection to the dog, and it's also less stressful than using pressure or punishment. Besides, nothing fosters a good relationship like learning and having fun together! 

When rescues and shelters are looking for trainers to help with their more difficult dogs, they should ignore any mention of "relationship" as a justification for the methods they use. The ethical principle at work here is that if a concept is used to justify doing something, like the concepts of relationship or of "knowing one's place in the pack" are used to justify compulsive training, the justification only applies so long as that concept is relevant to the situation. If there's no family pack, and no relationship, these can't work as justifications. 

Shelter dogs should be protected by asking the questions Jean Donaldson proposed last year
  • What exactly will happen to my dog when she gets it right?
  • What exactly will happen to her when she gets it wrong?
  • Are there any less invasive alternatives to what you propose?
Trainers should be able to answer these questions without reference to relationship, or trust, or what the dog ought to know and believe. If they can't, their methods are not suitable for short-term work in shelters or rescues.

At the shelter, we are more like teachers than family members. It's our job to teach the dogs in our care like a good educator would teach a student; not by relying on power dynamics and compulsion, but with clarity and kindness. Think summer camp, not orphanage!

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Can a relationship with a dog be toxic?

We take a lot of shit from our relatives, especially parental figures. Often we feel like we crave their love and attention even though we know they hurt us. Some people can even say that they would never choose to be around their parents if they met them for the first time today. 

Dogs take a lot of shit from their caregivers, too. Many trainers say that it doesn't matter how you train your dog, so long as you have a �good relationship�. Some say it must be okay to use punishment if it doesn't diminish your dog's trust in you, since the trust is what�s really valuable. The problem is, humans have deliberately bred dogs to trust humans, and to be affiliative to us almost no matter what. We've installed this over generations; it�s why the majority of people can safely live with 100lb of carnivore at the end of their bed.

Humans have set up the conditions on purpose, over the thousands of years we�ve been controlling their breeding, for dogs to love us and want to be with us. We�ve made it so that it�s possible to inflict pain and fear on a dog and still have them wag their tail and want to work. Furthermore, we control so many of the resources in an average pet dog�s world - their access to food, social attention, opportunities to learn and play - that we make it physically impossible for them to leave as well as psychologically highly improbable. 

All this means it�s no wonder that the dog-human relationship is so strong, or that the closest analogue we have is the bond between a parent and their child. Young children are as dependent on their parents for access to resources as dogs are, and they too have evolved to crave love and attention from a parental figure. 

People who have grown up in abusive households know that it�s possible for children to love their abusers, to want to please them no matter what and defend them to the hilt, despite everything they�ve done. That the child still loves their abusive parent is a tragedy, not a justification. The onset of adulthood, with its physical distancing and new emotional perspective, can let the victim see the abuse for what it was - sometimes - and make the choice whether to keep the abuser in their life. But dogs never get that far. They don�t have the faculties to decide whether a relationship is toxic, or to cut abusers out of their lives. 

If a dog still wants to please their guardian despite being deprived of enrichment, physically hurt, ignored or otherwise abused, this is a toxic parental relationship. Once again, the dog�s wagging tail and willingness to please is not a justification. It would only be a justification if the dog had other options. The way most pet dogs live means they are deprived of such options. 

If dogs really are our "furkids", then we have to be careful that we�re not imposing everything that can go wrong with the parent-child relationship onto how we relate to them. We can�t assume that a dog has more autonomy than it does in how it emotionally connects with its caregivers. Of course, it is good for the dogs that they can be happy in miserable situations, but this doesn�t excuse or justify their being put into those situations. There needs to be a different measure of welfare, separate from subjective beliefs about relationships.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Surprisingly, Photos of Animal Neglect Accomplish Nothing

Yet another picture of suffering dogs is doing the rounds in dog training groups, reigniting the debate about whether any particular training method is more or less ethical than any other. This particular picture (below - TW: animal abuse) is claiming to illustrate that any training tool has the potential to cause harm, and therefore no training tool is inherently unethical. 

Although it was widely touted as "proving" that there's no difference between clicker training and e collar training, in fact this picture doesn�t further anyone�s position in the training wars, because the kinds of harm that are being shown are not the intended consequences of using any of the tools. Such injuries wouldn't be acceptable to the vast majority of human beings, let alone dog trainers, regardless of their stance on training methods. The pictures show neglect, not training. Pretending that using an e-collar means you�re okay with the picture on the left is just as wrong as pretending that using a clicker means you�re okay with the picture on the right. The picture illustrates nothing at all about the ethics of one method of training over another, only that people can be cruel and thoughtless. Quelle surprise.

But at the same time, the picture doesn't show what balanced trainers want either - that any object can harm a dog and therefore there's no difference between punishment and reward based training. Some objects, like prongs, are designed to cause aversive sensations to dogs, whereas flat collars, harnesses and treats are not, even though all of them can cause suffering in the right circumstances. Showing up with a machete to a party isn't morally the same as showing up with a bottle of champagne, even though both can kill. The risk of obesity as an unintended side effect is not the same as deliberately inducing pain and fear - read more about why this is here.  Again, all the picture shows is that neglect is bad; no more, no less. 

Really, the training wars is about the methods trainers choose, not the tools they use to execute the training. Nobody wins when one group of trainers tries to make out like others are tacitly condoning neglect. There are better ways to have this debate than demonizing one another.