“When used correctly……..”
This phrase comes up time and time again when those who advocate for the use of aversive dog training methods and tools try and come across as ethical.
“When used correctly” are empty words.
This is highly problematic. An absence of adequate regulation of training and behaviour professionals parallel to the frequent display of self-appointed expertise is a BIG welfare problem for dogs in this industry.
The trainer I watched in a popular instagram video ‘stimming’ a dog with an e-collar everytime the dog went to sniff things in a pet store probably thought they were using it correctly.
Ceser Milan probably thought he was applying ‘calm and assertive’ body language correctly on Holly the Labrador as a way of ‘working’ with her food aggression, even though she bit him multiple times for doing it. He required hospital treatment.
The prong collar trainers whose dogs make an awful choking sound when corrected, probably think they are doing it correctly. Despite the prong seemingly being placed ‘correctly’ high on the neck!
The well known UK balanced trainer who posted a video a good while back of them ‘stimming’ a french bulldog for exhibiting abnormal repetitive behaviours probably thought he was using it correctly. (The dog’s owner later posted their own video explaining how this made the dog worse, and a more welfare focused approach has now started to help the dog).
What does ‘correctly’ even look like?
Good timing and equipment placement?
Is that REALLY all that’s needed to make sure the dog is protected from poor professional conduct and fall-out?
How can we help the viewer know what to look for?
It’s very hard for me to imagine what the correct use of aversives looks like, but a start would be:
Getting a vet referral, reviewing the full medical history of the dog.
Reviewing the stressors in that dog’s life and addressing them.
Applying positive reinforcement focused methods first and foremost. This applies to all dogs. No excuses!
Enough of us are doing this daily with the same demographic of clients (let’s not flatter ourselves with ‘I get the red zone dogs’ comments, please!).
I have subjected myself to watching plenty of balanced training videos to make sure I am educating others based on what I SEE and not just what I think or read in research.
I am not seeing ANY evidence of the above in the videos, posts or comments I have seen.
I can catagorically say I have NEVER seen added text or information to the many videos I have watched that even acknowledges stress or pain in dogs.
Balanced training method videos appear (to me) to continuously represent dogs simply “a good dog” or “a bad dog”. There’s not enough mention of a “stressed dog”, a “hurting dog” or a dog who has yet to be taught different (kindly).
I don’t see explanations as to WHY the dog may be behaving that way and what is being done to help the dog- beyond applying aversive methods to punish or supress the bad behaviour.
Whilst I would NEVER endorse the use of aversive tools and aversive methods that intentionally startle or cause discomfort- I would have a little more respect for balanced trainers if they actually OWNED their methods publicly.
Be clear about HOW these methods work.
So, let’s help owners make a genuinely informed decision rather than leading viewers to believe there is no risk to the dog’s physical and emotional health, and only benefits to be gained.
Some even think that these tools are enjoyable for dogs! This gross misunderstanding is the soul responsibility of those who showcase using these tools to the general public without being transparent.
Here are few examples of what transparency from balanced dog trainers would look like when discussing aversive tools in ALL contexts;
“Because the e collar may startle the dog or cause an unpleasant sensation, we tried to remove as many stressors as possible in the dog’s life before applying the training”.
“We considered using a slip lead on this dog to apply leash corrections, but the dog was found to have hip dysplasia in their pre-session vet check. It wouldn’t be fair to correct a dog, which is unpleasant for them, if they are already in pain- so we need to address that first”.
“E collar aversion training may be able to stop your dog chasing sheep, but it won’t stop them killing your next door neighbours cat or causing a road traffic accident. So, you really need to up your management and make sure your dog doesn’t escape”.
“As a correction on a prong collar causes momentary compression to the neck – this can cause stress by temporarily reducing oxygen intake and also causing discomfort from all the metal pins briefly digging in. For that reason, the dog had a vet check to make sure the’re not experiencing any pain in their neck, or elsewhere”.
“Because a prong collar correction has the potential to be deeply unpleasant for the dog, we have to be so careful about when we apply it. If you’re not careful, the dog may associate the discomfort with what they are looking at when the correction is delivered and start to fear it. This could be a child, or it could be the rose bush they have to walk past on your driveway. Your correction has to be timed perfectly to the mili-second and that is really not easy!”.
“Because the slip lead tightens when a corrrection is applied or when the dog pulls- this is uncomfortable and stressful for the dog and the dog adjusts their behaviour to avoid that discomfort. We want to avoid causing our dogs stress as much as possible, so we are starting our training in a super easy environment so the dog can get maximum reinforcement for the desired behaviour. Ideally, we just don’t want to correct the dog at all”.
“Here I am scaring the dog with my body language. I am being intentionally threatening and confrontational. The dog will change their behaviour to appease me, as they can’t escape. The risk here is they could bite you in defense, so you do have to be really careful”.
Doesn’t quite sell the method so well to potential clientele and followers, does it?
Using ambiguous language like ‘pressure’ is just not thorough enough. Interpretation of what pressure is relies on one’s own experience.
Some people may have felt extreme pressure in their lives and view it as highly aversive. Others may have only experienced mild pressure and thus view it as a minor inconvenience that is easily overcome.
A living being’s emotional and physical resources will influence how they cope with pressure (stress!). It’s not black and white as each individual is different, and their individual coping ability can vary day to day.
Talking about ‘pressure’ and ‘using it correctly’ gives zero indication that a risk assessment should be done daily on our learners, regardless of the methods we use on them.
I have yet to see sufficient evidence of balanced trainers showing that they are looking at all of these nuances or helping viewers learn about them.
The many videos I see make it look very much like the aversive tool is stage 1 in the process. If it’s not, then why aren’t they saying so?
This does dogs a HUGE disservice. If you want to get remotely close to using aversive tools correctly (if there is such a thing!) then let’s see balanced trainers be more transparent as to the risk of using these tools. Correct use is increasing awareness of what can go wrong.
If you want positive reinforcement trainers to do the same, sure! I’ve not been shy about discussing fall out across my work and I work very hard to prevent it.
Positive reinforcement users could go into detail about how to reduce fall-out, such as frustration and redirection, from negative punishment, extinction or clumsy mechanics.
Let’s help viewers recognise how withholding or withdrawing reinforcement, ignoring a behaviour without providing an alternative, or poor application of reinforcement can cause problem behaviour.
BUT, if you’re a balanced dog trainer who ALSO uses reinforcement based methods too……then I fear your list of disclaimers will start to get a little long. All of those risks using reinforcement are piling up and onto the risks of using aversion based methods.
If this is truly about dog welfare, let’s see ALL the details on every.single.post so you can be sure that every person you are potentially influencing is as informed as they can be.
Why does this matter more with aversion based training methods? Because they are designed to operate on avoidance of fear, anxiety (stress / pressure), discomfort and pain. End of.
NOTE: I have not looked at every bit of content from every balanced trainer in the world. I know there are some who are very knowledgable and who do take stress and pain into consideration. Some are also less quick to use aversive tools or methods.
My predominant direct experience is that this is less common OR they are just not talking about it openly! I have a problem with both!
When ever a trainer posts about using an aversive tool they should still be completely transparent.
People who don’t know better are watching.
Final Note: If you think the ever increasing popularity of balanced methods online is because they are better than gentle methods, I would encourage you to look into (online) how social media platforms prioritise VIOLENT content. This is quite well established information now.
It has nothing to do with effectiveness, and everything to do with what unfortuantly now seems to make humans tick. It’s pretty gross, if you ask me.