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Who's a good girl?
There is a person who lives in my neighborhood who practiced aversive training. When her dog barked wildly at other dogs on a walk, she would dominate the dog, holding the dog down, turning her over, and yelling at her. It was brutal.
While my instinct was to say something, I feared that she would become defensive and that would not help the dog. Plus, she walked the dog often and the dog was in good health, so I assumed she was misinformed, not malicious. In no way was I excusing the behavior; only trying to understand what would most likely help the dog.
Henry Bergh, the great 19th Century founder of the first SPCA in North America and the father of our movement, approached a situation by assuming the best in people and allowing them to rise to his expectation of their decency. He understood that people wanted to think of themselves as good and leveraged this to the animals’ advantage.
During rush hour traffic in crowded Manhattan, when he came across a horse straining to pull a trolley filled beyond capacity, he would stop the car dead on its tracks and loudly announce, “All good Christians, disembark!” People, wanting to identify themselves as just such a person, would willingly exit the train.
While his act of stopping the trolley and telling people to get off inherently implicated them in the abuse he was trying to end, he allowed people to save face. And he allowed them to choose to be a part of the solution, so they could own that act of compassion, wear it with pride and hopefully do better next time, even when he wasn’t around to request it.
Following his example, I sent an anonymous letter addressed to “Dog Loving Neighbor” and included a copy of the article, “Heartbreaking Study Shows The Long-Term Effects of Yelling at Your Dog.”
The study found that using punishment (including yanking on the leash, scolding, yelling, shock collars, restraint) hurts dogs. As compared to dogs trained by rewards, dogs trained using these aversive methods spent more time showing behaviors associated with pain and distress, including lip licks, body turns, moves away, crouches, salivating, yelping, paw-lifting, and lying on their side or back. They also had higher cortisol levels – evidence of chronic stress – post-training. In addition, the more punishment, the greater the pain and anxiety, but these occurred even if the punishment was relatively mild.
Over the long term, dogs trained via punishment “displayed a more ‘pessimistic’ judgment.” “Critically,” note the authors, “our study points to the fact that the welfare of companion dogs trained with aversive-based methods appears to be at risk.”
Not only do “the results show that using aversive training methods (e.g., positive punishment and negative reinforcement) can jeopardize both the physical and mental health of dogs,” but “there is no evidence that it is more effective than positive reinforcement-based training. In fact, there is some evidence that the opposite is true.”
I hoped she would take it to heart.
The first time I saw her after sending the letter, her dog was about to start barking wildly as my dog and I walked by, and I braced myself for a confrontation. But she responded calmly, quietly, getting her dog in a sitting position without yelling, yanking, or dominating.
“Animals, like human infants, arrive in the world ready to learn, ready to explore, ready to figure out the rules, ready to find their place.” When we fail to provide those opportunities, we harm them. From this perspective, teaching dogs (i.e., “training”) shifts from being done primarily for the benefit of people to one that promotes fulfillment in dogs. But only if it does not involve punishment. Like all paternalistic actions we take on behalf of dogs, we are obligated to act in their best interest using the least invasive means possible. In short, we should not hurt dogs.
For one more dog in the neighborhood, that is now true.
A month or so later, I saw my neighbor and her dog again. As I walked by with my pup, she turned to her dog, and the dog quietly got into a sitting position. She gave the dog a treat and softly called her a “good girl.” She is.
She’s a good, good girl…
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