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.