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.