If dogs think and feel, do aversive training techniques cause harm?

If dogs think and feel, do aversive training techniques cause harm? January 25, 2012

“It’s better to be hurt by someone you know, accidentally, than by a stranger, on purpose.” – Dwight K Schrute, “The Office”

Oh boy. Dog trainers are butting heads again over a post on Ruth Crisler’s blog, called “Undo Temperance.” Butting heads figuratively, of course. Because we don’t want to ever butt heads literally. That would be aversive. Although if I understand Crisler’s post, she’s not opposed to an occasional aversive head butt.

But I could be misreading the whole thing. In which case you can yank my collar or give me a cookie. Whichever method  you prefer.

I read Crisler’s post at the request of a friend who saw my review of the Cesar Millan event in Rochester, NY. It was my first experience with Millan, so I wrote what I thought and felt and saw and experienced. Who knew a review could cause such a ruckus? (Or that so many people don’t understand the concept of a review?)

Just so we’re clear, when it comes to dog training, I’m the idiot in the room – it’s engraved on my collar, in rhinestones. “Idiot.” (See, I saved you the trouble of having to point that out when you comment!)

And as another disclaimer: I cannot nor do I desire to respond to Crisler’s entire post, word for word. Again, I’m an idiot. And I’m not a dog trainer. But there are a few things that caught my eye and I’d like to share some thoughts.

Crisler opens the post with this question to dog trainers:

“If your dog was to be subjected to an aversive, would you rather it occurred randomly or control the timing yourself?”

She points out that if an accidental “aversive”, like stubbing a toe while catching a Frisbee, doesn’t harm a dog forever, then a purposeful aversive shouldn’t either. She writes:

“Moreover, we are warned that risks such as extreme generalized fear and negative associations with the dog’s environment or handler, can occur ‘regardless of the strength of the punishment’ … This last claim must rest on belief in a dark sort of behavioral homeopathy, whereby the magical effects of punishment endure despite its infinite dilution.”


“One would think such events as getting stepped on or startled would carry a risk (of potentially extreme and irreversible fallout) equal to that borne by the deliberate application of a comparable aversive. Yet few cautionary tales exist to illustrate these hazards, such as happen to dogs every day of their lives, often right in the presence of their owners or at their owners’ very hands.

I’ve had the pleasure of living with a wonderfully loving but wildly quirky  Border collie, and I can attest to the fact that yes, accidentally stubbing a toe while playing Frisbee can cause a dog to be afraid of 1) the park where he stubbed his toe and 2) the sight of the Frisbee with which he was playing when he stubbed his toe and 3) even the sound of the birds chirping nearby when said toe was stubbed while chasing said Frisbee.

And yes, being stepped on will cause fear of 1) the owner’s shoes, 2) the place in the room where the squashing took place, and 3) any sound that was audible when said squashing took place. And that the effects will be felt long after the event.

Of course, I’m mentally unbalanced, so my dogs are probably mentally off balance as well. We don’t fit into nice boxes over here. And I know from personal experience it can take a long, long time to figure out why said quirky Border collie flinches, flees and runs away for what appears to be no logical reason.

But once those triggers are identified, once you realize that picking up the sneakers causes the dog to flee or understand why he refuses to get out of the car at this park but not that park? Ta da! We can work to lessen the fear and increase the happy feelings associate with shoes, Frisbees and parks.

Crisler asserts that aversive opponents believe there is a “dark sort of behavioral homeopathy, whereby the magical effects of punishment endure despite its infinite dilution.” I contend that there is not enough time in the world to naturally dilute the “magical” effects of a negative accident. (I mean, how many of you have dogs who are afraid of the word b-a-t-h, and are until their dying day?)

And how do we know there are few cautionary tales? If dogs could talk, I think they’d share more than a few stories of ways we’ve damaged them, hurt them, scared them, and ticked them off, all because we think our actions don’t effect them in any meaningful way.

I don’t think you can change the behavior without intending to do so and also considering the dog’s needs, and if you don’t? You may make the behavior go away but  may have damaged the dog in the process. Quirky collie, for example, was “cured” of his barking by shaking pennies in a tin can. His anxiety was also wildy cemented, his fears were increased, and worse, he clearly experienced confusion about why the people he loved were doing that scary thing every time he got excited.

The effect of the purposeful aversive was the same as the accidental: something happened that was loud/scary – dog connected that something to event happening at the time – dog forever tied the two events together – dog’s behavior was changed. (Translation for those of us who speak non-academic, non-dog training English: Mommy scared me and I don’t know why.)

Crisler does make points worth considering, like when she’s commenting on a reflection by Suzanne Clothier on how Clothier’s own motives influence her decision to use or not use aversive techniques:

“To be clear, I’m not arguing for or against specific equipment or methods. I’m suggesting good intentions wield little to no dependable influence over how much a dog gains or suffers.”

I would argue, however, that good intentions do influence how much an animal suffers or doesn’t, because we humans can’t tell if a dog can interpret the spirit, if I can use that term, of our intentions. We don’t actually know what goes on on a dog’s brain or heart or soul, what he thinks for feels, because we don’t understand a dog’s language. And just because we don’t speak his language doesn’t mean our actions don’t affect him. I love this quote from Temple Grandin:

“[Y]ou don’t have to have language to have a conscience, which means it’s at least possible for an animal to have a conscience, too. Many owners have seen their dogs act remorseful after doing something wrong, but animal behaviorists always reject this interpretation. However, no one has shown that an innocent animal can’tfeel bad for doing something he knows is wrong, the same way an innocent child can feel bad for doing something he knows is wrong. We shouldn’t assume that we know for a fact animals never experience the emotion of guilt, because we don’t.”

In the end, dog trainers will always be separated into two camps – those who believe animals feel, understand, and experience emotions and the other camp, who see animals as problems to be solved, with obedience as the goal.

Or if I can sum it up this way: One believes relationship leads to obedience (at the risk of anthropomorphizing animals), the other argues for obedience over (and sometimes at the expense of) relationship. Two basic outlooks on life that drive different techniques used to achieve the same goals.

One is not necessarily better than the other – unless you believe, like I do, that dogs – all animals, for that matter – have feelings, have souls, experience emotions, were created for a purpose by a God who created all living things to work together in harmony. That, in fact, we really don’t know what we don’t know about animals, and that in the void of the unknown, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” applies to animals as well. (And before you call me a  hypocrite, yes, I would include animals we eat in there as well. Which is a whole other topic for another day.)

Call me ignorant, or “old school as a tent revival”, as Crisler writes, but I’d rather experience loving, emotional relationships with my pups than have dogbots who obey but don’t really like me.

Of course, I also believe everyone needs to be naughty once in a while. Bad dogs really do have more fun.

(*When I read Crisler’s opening sentence, this quote from “The Office” was the first thing that came to my head. I hope you giggled. If not, I suggest two cookies and a good night’s sleep.)


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