So a man walks into a bar and sees a dog sitting at the counter. He turns to the dog and asks, “So what do you think about all the controversy surrounding the best methods and tools for training dogs?”
The dog takes a sip of his beer, briefly licks his butt, and replies, “What controversy?”
This past spring, Adam Frank–an astrophysicist–wrote for NPR about a conversation he’d had on a plane with a fellow passenger about the fact that while the public and political spheres continue to argue endlessly about whether or not climate change is real, the scientific community involved in the daily practice of climate study has been working on its consensus piece on the subject for well over a decade.
In other words, while the nonscientific community has been busily shouting away, creating controversy, inciting anti-scientific skepticism, and creating an unmatchable din that no rational voice will ever match, Frank and his colleagues have been piling up mountains of evidence confirming exactly what they’ve been saying for years: Significant climate change and human beings’ undeniable role in it are a given. It’s assumed knowledge now. And yet the average person might never hear their voices confirming that incredibly important point amidst all the other noise drowning them out.
Similarly, the Adam Franks of the animal behavior community–Bob Bailey, Jean Donaldson, Nicholas Dodman, Patricia McConnell, Sophia Yin, John Bradshaw, Marc Bekoff, Ian Dunbar and countless others–have not only been in agreement on how dogs learn and the most effective and humane methods for training and caring for them for over a decade, but they’ve been presenting, writing, teaching and researching the topic in as many public forums as possible for just as long. And yet still, voices throughout the animal welfare community ranging from average uninformed dog owners to self proclaimed animal “advocates” and “trainers” guided by egos rather than ethics, continue to suggest that there are multiple views to be considered, alternative philosophies to be acknowledged, personal preferences to be respected, and methods to be “balanced.” And it seems that not only is there no amount of scientific evidence to the contrary that might persuade them, but they seem thoroughly intent on attacking anybody who suggests otherwise–even those pesky experts and scientists.
Every single contemporary voice with a legitimate claim to the field of dog behavior and training has researched, demonstrated, stated, written and repeated, unequivocally, that punishment-based training and pain-inflicting tools that support such training beliefs are out of place in the dog and animal training community, and are not only ineffective in comparison to more humane and science-based training methods, but in fact can exacerbate existing behavioral problems, create new ones, and cause physical and psychological damage to the dogs involved.
Recently, while walking around at a summer festival in the small town where we live, I watched a scene unfold before me that I have seen dozens of times. A young woman was walking down the street with a big, beautiful Doberman wearing a prong collar (I mention breed here because it’s an historically discriminated against and abused breed, and this was an incredibly beautiful dog that was hard not to notice).
As we stood on the opposite side of the street, waiting for the crosswalk signal, I watched the painfully familiar saga play out before us. On the corner directly across from us, a man was standing with his dog on a leash chatting in a large crowd of people. Also moving towards this same corner from one direction was another owner and her dog. And from yet another direction came the young woman with her Doberman, inching toward the corner with the other dogs, looking increasingly nervous about whatever she anticipated her approach towards the other dogs might mean for her own dog’s behavior.
As she approached the other dogs, she visibly tightened her grip on the leash and attempted to move off the curb and walk in the street around the area where the other dog owners were congregating. As she did so, her own dog showed some visible interest in the other dogs by staring a little more closely at them (and yet at this point was in no way displaying reactive or aggressive behavior of any kind). The second her dog showed an interest in the other dogs and pulled a bit on the leash, she jerked back the leash, tightening the pinch collar, and whacked the dog’s hind quarters with her hand–all this in front of throngs of people in a small town community at a fun summer’s evening festival.
A million thoughts run through my mind at this point, most of which lead to me mentally strangling the woman holding the leash. If you know your dog has issues with leash-reactivity, why would you choose a loud, crowded street festival with hundreds of other people, many of whom are also walking dogs, on one of the hottest days of the year to take your dog for a walk? What do you think you accomplished by jerking that leash and hitting your dog, other than making yourself look like an ass in front of a large crowd of people? How about trying to reward your dog’s calm interest in another dog by offering some verbal praise or a treat and just quickly walking on without stopping to choke and hit him? And the mental list went on.
And yet I can’t really be angry with the owner of the Doberman. Because she is simply a victim and unavoidable outcome of the noise drowning out the astrophysicists of the dog behavior community. The noise made by those in the animal welfare and training fields who continue to muddy the waters of dog training with outdated practices, ineffective tools and egotistically-derived choices. (Yes, prong collars are considered outdated and ineffective, regardless of the handler. And every expert cited above has written and presented on why.)
That owner had a prong collar on her dog and felt the need to hit him in public for looking at another dog because someone, at some point, suggested to her it was a good idea. Some popular television show told her, “You need to dominate your dog.” Some Doberman fanatic on Facebook posted his 500th video of how he asserts control on walks by jerking the dog’s head into position. Some “dog trainer” (with no professional credentials to speak of) told her that it was a good idea to train a reactive dog by taking it to a crowded place and physically forcing it to act as undoglike as possible. As long as uninformed dog “advocates” and imposter “trainers” keep talking loudly about things they know very little about while failing to listen to and fully support those who know exactly what they’re talking about, educating the public on dog welfare is a pipe dream.
If we want to make a difference for dog welfare, we do not have the luxury of picking and choosing which facts and information we’d like to listen to, regardless of what the experts tell us. It doesn’t matter how much good you do and what your intentions are if at the end of the day you’re still deliberately clinging to bits of knowledge and practices that directly contradict everything you’ve set out to accomplish. You can’t teach history, call yourself a historian, but ignore vital historical information that is essential in shaping our perception of the world we live in.
We don’t get to talk about relationship-based training and claim we use positive reinforcement techniques while putting prongs and shock collars on our dogs. Many experts have also tried to explain why cropping ears and docking tails is inappropriate, and interferes with your dog’s ability to communicate through body language, and yet owners and breeders still continue to believe that hacking off their dogs’ ears and tails (even when done “responsibly” by a licensed vet) is an okay choice to make.
To clarify, I fully appreciate and empathize with owners out there who are trying their best with their dogs, trying to do right by them, and either don’t yet know, or have just learned, that punishment-based tools and training are not effective or necessary, but they’re just not in a position yet to make the transition comfortably. I totally get that. I once used prong collars too. And if a prong collar is what makes the difference in keeping a dog out of a shelter, with the understanding that the goal should be a better alternative down the road, no problem.
This diatribe is directed at those who should know better and yet continue to get on their podium and dominate public forums, claiming that using punishment-based tools like prongs and shock collars is okay as long as you “know what you’re doing.” Nevermind that most of these folks have no legitimate professional training or expertise in animal behavior or learning theory. Those who do, are usually more thoughtful and nuanced with their message.
All the education in the world can’t make up for the damage that you are doing with that take away message for the average dog owner, who will walk into a pet supply store tomorrow and grab something off the shelf with no knowledge of why it’s designed the way it is and how to safely use it. Prongs, chokes and shock collars are incompatible tools with modern dog training methodology. Yes, they technically fit nicely within the operant conditioning quadrants of positive punishment and negative reinforcement–but most experts will tell you those are the two least useful quadrants when training, and the average dog owner is never going to take any interest in knowing the difference and responsibly implementing them.
For me, this isn’t so much about the prong collar as it is about what it’s a symbol of. The sad reality is that the prong collar is one of the more moderate components of a wide spectrum of outdated, punishment based protocols that range from screaming at a dog or using a choke chain on the nicer end, to the Cesar Millans of the world engaging in daily and dangerous physical intimidation and abuse of dogs. It will take a while for that other end of the spectrum to go away, because they are the extremists. The fringe group of the dog training world. And there will always be a few of them around.
But the key difference between that group of people and those who claim to be using a “balanced” approach, mixing tools like the prong with positive reinforcement training, is that the latter group lacks a guiding set of principles. The extremists believe whole-heartedly in the old mentality of dominating dogs and punishing bad behavior, and that’s what drives everything they do. The so-called “balanced” group members have no grounding methodology to speak of, because they’d rather hand pick their facts themselves, or blindly follow others who do. (And by the way, if balanced training did have a philosophical underpinning, from the dog’s perspective, it would be called Confusion-based training.)
What I’m advocating isn’t an all or nothing approach that discourages independent thinking. What I’m saying is that no legitimate independent thinking and thoughtful inquiry starts without first acknowledging what we already know to be true, based on scientific evidence. What I’m suggesting is that according to the experts in this field, we are many years of work and mountains of evidence beyond having to balance our training philosophies because the real scientists, knowledge producers and expert practitioners have confirmed ten times over that the new art and science of animal behavior IS the field.
Some might think, hey, we don’t have time to argue about this one issue. We’ve got 4-5 million dogs being euthanized in the US every year. We’ve got shelters and rescue groups bursting at the seams. We’ve got rampant BSL/BDL and puppy mill madness on our hands. We can’t nit pick over training tools and philosophies. Yeah, you’re right we have all those bigger problems to address. And do you know why? Because we’re not effectively educating dog owners and the public in general about issues regarding dog behavior and training. And that’s because too many of the people doing the educating don’t know what they’re talking about and yet have somehow managed to edge out the voices of those who do, thanks in large part to a popular culture and social network that rewards mindless, incessant shouting and discourages more tempered reading, writing, thinking and acting . . . which of course is what the real experts in this field have been busy doing for the last several decades.
Returning to Adam Frank, he writes:
For folks working in the field, and those scientists like myself watching from the sidelines, the situation feels like being Alice as she plunges down the rabbit-hole. Everything you’ve learned about how science works, how it judges what we know and how we know it, appears in public reflected back through some crazy, fun-house mirror.
It’s not a pretty sight.
Someone told my science-loving seatmate there was great debate going on among scientists about climate change. Someone told this smart, clever guy that the reality of climate change was a great scientific controversy. But the truth is so much simpler. That controversy ended. The field had already moved on.
But the rest of us — him, you, me and everyone else — we’re not being allowed to do the same.
The real difference between the notion of a climate change “controversy” and that of dog behavior and training is that not only are we all not being allowed to move on, but in the case of dog training, the field itself can’t move on either. Because while not everyone pretends to be an astrophysicist on any given day, any random person who’s walked a dog in the last 20 years somehow thinks that suddenly makes them a canine training and behavior expert.
Speaking of experts, here’s a fun sampling from that mountain of expert information and evidence to which I’ve been referring:
Deb Monroe considers pet supply stores’ problematic role in the collar argument, and writes about the widely available alternative to the collar–The front-clip harness (which is what I use with all of my dogs on walks)
Dr. Sophia Yin systematically unravels the dominance controversy using examples from her own practice, along with popular culture and evidence-based research–a number of illustrative videos are included