Pain: When in Doubt, Leave it Out

What makes pain … painful?    It’s an interesting question because let’s face it, some pain is just worse than others.

Think of removing a bandage.  You could rip it off quickly, suffering an intense short burst of pain.  Alternatively, you could gently ease it off, suffering less, but for longer.  Which is worse?

What do bandages have to do with pet training?  Bear with me.  This pain stuff is interesting.

Dan Ariely, a professor at Duke University, devised multiple experiments – inflicting pain on willing subjects so he could ask, “How did that feel?”  Creepy as it seems, Ariely was the victim of severe burns.

During his recovery, he begged nurses to remove the bandages slowly.  The nurses, experienced in patient care and no doubt caring people, disagreed.  They believed, based on experience and observation that a fast tug was kinder and less painful.  After recovering, Ariely began researching pain perception.  These types of pain studies objectively study the mechanics of pain so we can reduce the future suffering of others.

Others have followed similar lines of questioning for various reasons.  Some of the findings are as follows:

Individual tolerances differ.
The ability to tolerate pain differs from one individual to another.  Studies on electric shock found that some people felt pain when shocked with 0.30 mA of electricity.  Others could tolerate up to 2.0 mA.  Each individual feels things differently.  There is no really good way to predict how any individual will respond.  (For more information on pain   and shock, see my previous blog post.)

Escalating pain feels much worse than diminishing pain.
Some pain becomes worse over time.  Mild discomfort turns into intense throbbing.  Take the same pain but reverse it.  Start high and reduce the intensity.  Our perceptions change.  Given the exact same pain levels, we find increasing pain to be much more severe.

Duration matters.
Long pain feels worse than short pain especially when the intensity varies.  There is a very important side note.  Low levels of discomfort might not start out painful, but they can become painful over time.  Imagine a heating pad.  At first, it feels hot and possibly even therapeutic.  As time passes, heat builds to intolerable levels.  With the passage of time the pain threshold is crossed.  Just because something feels mild – nay pleasant – it doesn’t mean it stays that way.

Uncertainty increases pain sensitivity (Hyperalgesia)
Unpredictable pain makes us sensitive and less tolerant to unpleasant and painful situations.  Research shows that as little as three mild shocks can trigger this hypersensitivity.  It’s like watching a scary movie and then jumping at every bump in the night.  Our bodies have this built in survival skill that says, “This place is unpredictable and dangerous.  Be careful.  Be on high alert, extremely anxious and sensitive to any level of pain.”

Consistent outcomes reduce pain sensitivity (Hypoalgesia)
When faced with consistent pain, our bodies react differently.  When we can control and predict painful consequences, our brains release natural opiates to block pain sensation.  In other words, our brains self medicate in order to stay strong and carry on.  It’s a bit like getting injured while on pain medication.  Saying “That wasn’t so bad,” does not mean the incident was pleasant or safe.  It means we didn’t feel the full sensation because of the drugs coursing through our body.  The natural release of opiates is a coping mechanism and another survival skill.  It lets you keep going despite pain.  It’s handy if you need to ignore pain in order to escape a clear and present danger.

What it boils down to is that pain is complex.  You cannot measure pain based on a technique.  There will be variation that can increase, decrease or mask pain.  This raises concerns because pain is not about actual physical harm.  It’s about our perceptions and even the anticipation of pain.

With all the subtle nuances, how can anyone claim that physical discipline in dog training is not painful?  We cannot judge based on a happy demeanor because the dog could be hypoanalgesic.  “Gentle” or “mild” correction is dubious because it could trigger hypersensitivity toward pain.  If long in duration, it could cross that pain threshold.

Gimmicky videos of happy yet physically punished dogs is not evidence of lack of pain.

Many dog training techniques are at risk of triggering these problems.

  • Shock collars often have a continuous function for corrections that are longer in duration. Does mild ‘stim” cross the pain threshold, and if so, at exactly what point?
  • Inexperienced handlers and novice owners are notoriously inconsistent.  Consistency comes with practice.
  • Consistent trainers dismiss initial shrieks claiming that with time, the dog does not mind.  They say it’s surprise.  Couldn’t we also assume that pets are self medicating – releasing natural opiates to cope with their training.
  • Bark collars and electric fencing increase the intensity of pain when the dog fails to comply.

I can hear the objections now.  Dogs are not people, rats, mice or monkeys.  True.  Let’s remember, plenty of research indicates that our pets feel pain in the same way we do.

We have two choices.  We can assume that dogs and cats are freaks of nature – different from all other mammals.  We can turn a blind eye to the possibility that the “mild” or “correct” use of physical discipline has no pain or consequence.  We can pretend it ain’t so.

Or, we can look at the bandage question at the beginning of this blog – realizing that the nurses – the practical hands on experts on bandage removal in a burn ward were wrong.  Slow and gentle was better!

We can admit that dishing out physical corrections does not make one an expert on taking them.

Ariely’s most profound finding in my opinion is that you can look someone right in the eye, convinced that you are acting in their best interest, sure that you are not causing pain – and you can be wrong.  That’s what’s so great about science.  It just answers the questions so we can make better choices in the future.  In the meantime, we take the science we have.  Where pain is concerned, when in doubt, leave it out.

9 thoughts on “Pain: When in Doubt, Leave it Out

  1. Unfortunately, in the real world there is no consideration for what kind of pain or the dog’s individual pain tolerance is. If a dog sticks his nose in a badger hole, and gets bitten, it is a natural and PAINFUL consequence to undesirable behavior. There are natural, painful consequences in every day life for everyone – human, dog or any species. While I am not advocating the use of abuse, we are also intelligent humans (most anyway) that can understand that when a dog’s life is at stake – i.e. chasing a car or a game animal – sometimes an aversive in the form of pain will save the dog’s life, much like surgery (while VERY painful) will also save a life. If a dog has more “prey drive” than “food drive” there is no way that you can cookie and treat your dog into life saving responses.

    • Thank you for stating that the aversive would involve pain. I do respect that degree of honesty. However, I disagree with your analogy.

      1 – Emergencies are emergencies. I wouldn’t put a kid in the road so I could correct them in order to teach them road safety. I wouldn’t do that to my dog either. I don’t create emergencies. I create training scenarios so I don’t have emergencies.
      2 – Aversives don’t necessarily work. My dog went after a snake and gets bitten. He yelped. Next day, he goes after another snake. See it with skunks, porcupines…cats. Aversives aren’t fully reliable on real prey drive either. Thankfully, few dogs have really true prey drive. Those that do, I wouldn’t trust them fully even if trained with aversives. I’ve seen enough dogs blow off a very strong aversive for me to put consider it unreliable. If you read electric shock manuals, they tell you right up, they will NOT guarantee that it works. If a dog has more “prey drive” than “pain tolerance” you can’t aversive your way into life saving responses either. On most average dogs, in a proper training protocol, you can teach the dog not to chase things with a variety of reinforcements with proper execution. No, my dog doesn’t still run after snakes.
      3 – I don’t know what doctor you use…but most I know use anesthetic and give drugs. 😉
      You know what, I really do appreciate that you’re willing to say, “Corrections involve pain.” It’s honest, I respect that far more than a someone who is deceptive and dismissive about what they are doing. Thanks for that. We’ll have to disagree on the idea that pain “works”. I’ve seen it fail far too many times.

    • I agree with what awesomedogs says in her response. If you’ve ever worked an earth dog of any sort at the job they were bred to do, you would know that they are so focused on their job, on the prey, on their goal, that all the aversives in the world wouldn’t stop them. They get bit, mauled, sufficated, bruised, abrased and occassionally whacked with the shovel the human is frantically digging with to save them from suffication. Doesn’t stop them. Doesn’t stop their behavior one little iota, in fact, it seems to urge them on to try harder.

      I am a cross over trainer (I’ve been training for 40 years). I use to use aversives. Now I have dogs that learn faster, are more eager for the learning process, invite me to “play” with them more often then I’m willing to train, and the training that is done is retained with much more vigor, many times with single instance learning.

    • “If a dog has more “prey drive” than “food drive” there is no way that you can cookie and treat your dog into life saving responses.”

      If you think that this is all that pain and intimidation free training entails, then it demonstrate why it fails for you. However, that’s not a justifiable reason to hurt a dog.

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