The notion that, when used correctly, choke chains, prong collars and shock collars are good options, is common. We only need to take a look around social media to see these arguments raging on a daily basis.
Aren’t we all just animal lovers trying to do the best for our pets? On the whole, yes, I think we are. There are, of course, exceptions but let’s stick with the premise that most of us care for our dogs and want the best for them. If there was a way of training the dog without discomfort or pain, wouldn’t we want to do that? The behaviour scientists have been showing us the way for years but it takes a very long time for this to trickle down to the general pet owner and become commonplace, especially when TV executives seem hellbent on making dramatic TV using old-fashioned training methods.
Why should we not use aversive tools? Let’s take the choke chain as an example. Perhaps the dog is reactive to other dogs when on lead and each time he reacts a quick application of the choke chain is applied. Can this work to stop the dog reacting? Yes, it’s possible, but far more often it does not stop the behaviour from happening in the future. If it was truly working as a training tool, the dog would learn not to react in future. I often think back to 30 years ago when I was a dog owner in a training class. We would walk our dogs around the hall and if they walked ahead or reacted to another dog, we were instructed to yank the choke chain. Of course, we assumed the trainer knew a thing or two and that this was in the best interest of the dogs. But there was something wrong and one week it hit me; If this yanking worked to teach dogs anything, then why were we still needing to do it week after week? This began my journey into learning more.
Were we just inept at using the choke chain? Possibly. Even if we’d been fabulous and used it ‘correctly’ what would the dog be learning? He might well be learning that when walking next to me he sometimes receives a yank of the neck, that other dogs predict a yank of the neck or that the training hall predicts discomfort. Causing stress to the dog in this way actually makes it more difficult for them to learn; Stress is not conducive to a good learning environment. If he’s reactive to other dogs, what does yanking the neck teach him? He is not reactive just because he fancies being a bit of a dick; he is reactive because, for whatever reason, he is uncomfortable with the proximity of the other dog. Yanking the neck is only increasing his discomfort. Wouldn’t it be better to teach the dog to be ok with his environment so he doesn’t feel the need to react?
Why do people choose to use discomfort or fear? Because it is immensely powerful. The whole evolutionary function of pain is that we avoid harmful stimuli. If I chose to shock the dog (with a shock collar) each time he growled or barked at a crisp (potato chip) packet he might very quickly stop growling or barking; so it seems to work and work quickly. But what have we really achieved? Is the dog now okay with crisp packets? Has he merely learned not to show his discomfort outwardly? Does he now associate crisp packets with painful stimuli? Have we just made him terrified of crisp packets? What happens when a crisp packet accidentally gets too close to the frightened dog? What if the crisp packet is actually a child? The power of pain or fear avoidance often comes with devastating unwanted side affects.
How might we help the dog without using fear or discomfort?
Firstly, we try to keep him under threshold. We work at a distance from other dogs (or crisp packets) that the dog can easily cope with and make these experiences as positive as we can, maybe with food or a toy. We can do things like teaching the dog that he can move away by reinforcing him for turning and walking with you. We can associate distant dogs with good things happening and reduce the distance over time. We don’t usually get to control the environment as we’d like so there will likely be occasions when we are too close and the dog is over threshold. Is it then ok to yank his neck? How will that help? If safety is an issue, I turn and walk the dog away, increasing distance. If safety is not an issue and the other dog is not getting closer, then I might just wait it out. As soon as he calms in the slightest, stops reacting or turns his head away, I’d take the opportunity to then walk away. This way he may learn that he has some other way to control the situation. We may not always be able to keep them under threshold, but increasing their discomfort with a yank of the neck is not going to help them cope and may actually have long-lasting behavioural repercussions.
In addition, the anatomy of a dog’s neck is very similar to our own with vital structures, such as the oesophagus, trachea and thyroid gland sitting close to the surface. Should we really be yanking at these structures?
On the whole we are all looking to confirm what we already believe. This is a well understood flaw in human thinking known as confirmation bias. This is why we must look to the science of behaviour rather than just accepting what the latest TV celebrity or blogger might be advocating.
Imagine how many peer-reviewed scientific behaviour studies I’ve had to read during five years at university studying canine behaviour. It must be in the thousands, yet I know of no study or scientist who today advocates using pain or discomfort in the modification of behaviour.
There are countless eminent science-based behaviour experts; for example, Mary Burch; Jon Bailey; James O’Heare; Karen Overall; Ken Ramirez; John Bradshaw; Karen Pryor; Nicola Rooney; Paul Chance; Dr. Susan Friedman; Risë VanFleet PhD; Robert Bailey; James Serpall, Kathy Sdao, Dr. Nicholas Dodman and Prof. Daniel Mills. To the best of my knowledge, none of them advise the use of pain or discomfort, all of them advocate positive reinforcement. We could also construct a list of those who are supportive of aversive-based methods but you will not find these people in modern scientific peer review literature. They are usually self-proclaimed experts who base their knowledge on their own personal beliefs and ignore or are unaware of the science.
To my mind, the evidence is overwhelmingly clear, but convincing others is a little like getting them to change religion or football team. It cannot be forced. We must each walk our own path in our own time and this is mine.
Shay Kelly is the author of Dog training and behavour: a guide for everyone and Canine Enrichment: the book your dog needs you to read