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Let the Dog Decide

Effecting Change – Money Makes the World Go ‘Round

Admittedly, one of the first things I do in the morning is to sit down with my towel wrapped around my wet hair, cup of coffee on my desk, and play Words with Friends in between checking the morning Facebook activity.  It’s not all fun and games, though.  I am, as the illustrious Jean Donaldson has described me, a “warrior princess for force free training.”  Granted, that isn’t all I use Facebook for.  I like to catch up with far away friends, network a homeless dog or two, giggle a bit at the useless bits of fantasy, or participate in some of the “wall wars” as much as the next person.

Today, I happened upon a lovely blog post from Maureen Backman, of Dog Connect, called Fear: When Nothing Else Matters.  I was struck, as I always am, with the difference between how people like me, and Maureen, view dogs, versus the way other people, whose agenda is much more geared toward compliance than learning, view dogs.  But, even more than that, the thought occurred to me that there are people whose general bent toward dogs is kindness, yet they opt for training tools that are unkind because they think they have to.  The odd thing is that many of us used to be like them until we discovered that we didn’t have to.  Doing that takes a willingness to literally jump out of your comfort zone, not easy to do if you are already making a living at training dogs by means which you think work perfectly well (why fix what isn’t broken), or if you are already training dogs for a very important task, such as assistance dog work, that has a human safety component very different from the one a pet dog has to observe.

Why, after all this time, are so many people dragging their feet and clutching their prong and shock collars as if they were the veritable keys to Heaven, I thought.  Just as with Earl, Maureen’s newly acquired dog with separation anxiety, perhaps fear is a component.  Change is hard, and scary, for many people.  And, sometimes, people who resist change aren’t really as opposed to the change itself as they are to the background conversations they hear in their own heads about it.  They may fear being inept – I imagine that competitive results-driven force trainers whose dogs go out and score 98 in obedience would be humiliated, while learning a new method, to have dogs that don’t rise to that level quickly enough to avoid embarrassing them.  Somehow, they don’t seem to see that if you know operant conditioning, you can use any of the quadrants successfully.  They prefer the familiar, instead of testing the waters of the unfamiliar.  They perceive positive trainers as “soft” and yet many positive trainers used to use those traditional methods, but had the courage to try the newer paradigm when it first became apparent to them that there might be some truth in the science, or at least some better ethics about how we were treating the animals we trained.  I view traditional trainers rather like the aging board members who still insist that the executive director’s secretary call them to inform them of meetings when everyone else on the board has long since adopted email as the accepted mode of communication.  Laggards exist wherever there is discomfort with change, even when the change is good and makes things easier, or more comfortable in the end.

There are many theories on how to go about convincing them, but when people are clutching their prong and shock collars as if they were the keys to Heaven, not to mention that they are profiting from their use in competition or in business, it’s unlikely that simple ethics are going to convince them.  Just as with dogs, we may need a more powerful motivator.  If the Cheerios don’t work, try a meatball, right?

What if, instead of just complaining on Facebook, we took financial action?  What if we refused to purchase any product that puts profit into the pocket of the manufacturers of choke, prong or shock collars.  What if we didn’t take that cheaper puppy class at the big box store that sells those devices?  What if we didn’t donate to the shelter or rescue that is using such devices on dogs and directed our donations to the ones that use kinder methods?  If enough people did that, change could be effected much more quickly.  Just as it became socially unacceptable to drink and drive, or to smoke when you’re pregnant, maybe we could make it socially unacceptable to choke or shock a dog into compliance when there are kinder methods that are every bit as effective (Shapiro, Bloomsmith & Laule, 2003, Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science).

I no longer recommend any products by PetSafe (Premier) for this reason.  I avoid the big box stores and patronize my local pet supply stores, even if the prices are slightly higher.  I don’t donate to assistance dog organizations that use prong collars.  I try to avoid rescues and shelters that use or recommend such equipment or who refer pet owners to trainers who use them.  Political change is not easy – and maybe my efforts don’t parallel the courage of the people who walked over the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma in the 60’s, but I am willing to take the hit if people think my view is unpopular, or my goal unreachable, because my conscience is clear.   I’m not always successful, sometimes I spend and find out later I should not have, but at least I have tried to spend ethically – just the way I try to train dogs.  Those who use positive methods are rewarded with my patronage or donations.  Simple operant conditioning.   Stop reinforcing behavior you don’t like, and reinforce behavior that you do like.