Aggression – Who’s to Blame – the Dog or the Owner?

When dogs attack, who is to blame?  Is it the dog, or is it an irresponsible owner?

Some feel that dogs are born good, essentially a blank canvas for owners to work with.  Others feel that there are bad dogs.  Or in the case of dog attacks, they blame an entire breed of dogs for the actions of a few.

I meet a lot of puppies.  We foster puppies, meaning that we can compare one puppy to another and compare behaviour between them.  All of them live in the same home environment.  This means, the variation in their behaviour while here is due to one thing – the dog’s temperament.

If dog aggression was 100% the owner’s fault, then I should be pumping out those foster puppies like toasters on an assembly line.  One quality doggie foster after another…wrap ’em up and ship them out.  Each dog going through my home should arrive as a clean slate, destined to become the exact same type of dog.

Dogs are not toasters rolling off an assembly line.  There is variation.  Each dog is unique and different.  As each new foster arrives, the first step is to honestly evaluate, “Who are you?  What makes you tick?”

Nature gives a starting point.  Owners influence what happens from that point forward.  Owners can make this better or make things worse.

Some dogs are easy.  Some take a little work.  And yes, some dogs are messed up and aggressive from birth.  Sorry to burst your bubble, but there are puppies that won’t let you touch them.  Others growl, snarl and bite – hard and with intent.  They come that way.  If it makes you feel better, chalk it up to oxygen deprivation at birth.  All I’m saying is that seriously aggressive puppies do exist.

Easy puppies make experienced trainers look like rock stars.  It’s why many performance dogs are hand picked with great care.

That same easy dog can be ruined if subjected to repeated mistreatment, or even repeated mistakes.  Some dogs are so easy, so forgiving, that they give humans another chance despite abuse and neglect.

Challenging dogs in the right hands can become pretty amazing.  However, despite excellent handling, they probably will take longer to get there.  Even with the best care, they might always have some quirks.  Placing a challenging dog into an irresponsible home is a recipe for disaster.

My Kip was seriously challenging.  There’s a reason we called him the ex-crotch ripper.  Instead of focusing on performance or normal puppy socialization, we started by dealing with a whole host of problems that you can read about in a previous blog.  Despite all the work, he will never be like our Kaya – a dog that passed his therapy dog testing at one year of age.  Kaya was easy while our mantra with the ex-crotch ripper was, “Aim for sane.”  He’s turned our rather well despite the rough start.

Had the ex-crotch ripper gone to a different home, I have no doubt that he’d be dead by now.  I believe that he would have died even if placed in an average, caring home.  Love, compassion and best intentions are not always sufficient.  You need to know what you’re doing.

This is because problem puppies perpetuate future problems with their own behaviour.  The puppy that lashes out aggressively isn’t going to get petted as often as the social butterfly.  This inhibits progress.  The challenging puppy is not as forgiving as an easy one.  There is less room for error.  Inexperienced owners understandably will make mistakes.  Owners need a stubborn streak and the foresight to say, “We need to deal with this now.  I will not let this fester and I know where to get really good help.”

Experienced and responsible owners also know to avoid risky behaviour.  They ensure their dog, and the community, is kept safe while the puppy learns.

What should owners take away from this?

  • If you have a tough pup, don’t panic.  However, do get to work.  Challenging puppies are not destined to be bad dogs.  Having a genetic predisposition does NOT mean the dog’s behaviour is set in stone.  You can make things better.  If you do things really well, you might even be pleasantly surprised.
  • Do not become jaded.  Challenging puppies are….challenging.  When frustrated or scared, focus on the dog’s talents and positive attributes.
  • Owners of easy dogs – do not sit on your laurels.  Sign up for puppy classes.  Make the effort to socialize your puppy.  Socialization is behavioural insulation.  If you fail to put in the effort, a few negative experiences can ruin the best dogs out there.
  • People facing extremely challenging behaviours need professional help immediately.  It doesn’t take an irresponsible owner to mess these animals up.

Most importantly remember that the dog versus owner blame game is a false dilemma.  Dog aggression is a complex question.  Don’t be so quick to judge and blame – whether it be the dog, owner and especially the breed.  There’s a full history there that can and should be explored to find out what really happened.

Crisis of Conscience – Ultrasonic

Recently, I had a number of products sent to me for review.  They included several ultrasonic devices.

These devices emit a high frequency sound that is used to deter barking and other nuisance behaviours.  I had heard that these products worked for some, while other dogs failed to react.  I had also heard that a small percentage of people can hear the noise.

And so, I tried it out on myself first.  Yes, I can hear it.  I would characterize the sound as unpleasant.  Before you try this on yourself, warnings inside the packaging state that the device should be kept away from human ears.  Distance varies based on make and model.

The product I tried was a remote activated hand-held device.  You, as the owner, pressed a button when you wanted to correct the dog.

Here’s the dilemma.  Kip heard it.  He reacted badly, crouching low to the ground and then attempting to flee.  There is no doubt in my mind that he hated the ultrasonic.

Not dislike – hated. 

There was another sample, a bark activated ultrasonic box.  The inserts claim that you can prevent your dog from barking in the yard.  Or, you can install the box and have it correct your neighbour’s barking pets.

Each time a dog barks, a high pitched sound is emitted.  All dogs within range would hear this sound.

Think about this for a minute.  Imagine you live in an urban environment where yards are small.  Imagine that a barking dog lives nearby.  Your dog however, is calm, well-mannered and trained.  Each time the OTHER dog barks, ALL dogs in hearing distance are corrected.  You, as a human probably will not even know that this is happening.

Your dog can be punished for living in close proximity to a barking dog.

How is this a crisis of conscience?

I think people need to see how some dogs perceive ultrasonic sound.  Imagine if your dog started acting strangely, but you could not figure out why.  How does ultrasonic impact some dogs?

The question is, do I post video of Kipper and his reaction for the greater good?  Should people see the type of reaction they might expect, especially since they may be completely oblivious that their dog is being corrected?

I struggle to understand how anyone can legally use these devices on other people’s dogs, without their knowledge or consent.  Owners are generally liable for their dog’s behaviour, yet neighbours can secretly meddle with other people’s dogs.  How is this at all right or just?

Those that have to endure nuisance barking might point out that they have a right to quiet.  I’d agree.  The problem is, you’re punishing ALL dogs, not just the barkers.  There are other options.  Police do respond to noise violations in most municipalities.

If I posted video, some people may claim that it can’t be that bad if I would risk filming and posting video.  Others may say, “How could you do that to your dog?”  They will say that I am being cruel and no amount of justification warrants causing my dog a moment of unnecessary discomfort.  It’s the dilemma of greater good versus knowingly causing a moment of suffering.


No matter how long and hard I think this through, I cannot come up with a satisfactory answer.  I am torn between two wrongs.  So I’m tossing it out there for all of you to please tell me what you think.  Would it serve the greater good to show this?  Or is never worth momentary discomfort even if it’s for the greater good and I know that I can ensure Kip has no lasting side effects?  Thoughts?

Citronella Collars – May contain: Pesticides, Booze and Refrigeration Coolant

Natural things feel so good and safe.  By contrast, we see chemicals and pesticides as being bad and dangerous.

Marketing executives love our love affair with all things natural.  A trip through a grocery store is an epic journey into glacial waterfalls, exotic berries, butterflies and cherry blossoms.  Natural is a beautiful, safe embrace in a cold and dangerous world.  I know this is true.  It says so on the soap I bought.  Perhaps I should say it was strongly implied.

Nature offers us so many wonderful, natural things.  Digitalis, a heart medication, comes from the beautiful foxglove flower.  Unfortunately, it’s not as appealing when called by its other name, “Dead Man’s Bells.”  Death Cap mushrooms are natural.  Heroin comes from poppy plants.  Black widows are natural, but I prefer to avoid them.

Natural does not mean safe or free from side effects.  Natural can kill you.

The problem is that consumers generally stop reading after seeing the word “natural.”  We see butterflies – not death caps.  Marketing executives know that natural products appeal to many consumers.  It’s about time we stop falling prey to sunshine and fairy farts.  Natural on a product label is just a sales pitch.  It doesn’t tell you anything useful in terms of safety.

Citronella is natural and it is used in dog training products.

What exactly is citronella?

Citronella is also used in soaps and perfumes.  It smells a little like lemon.  It probably has appropriate uses.

However, there are plenty of things I like for some uses, but not for others.  I happen to love capsaicin, the stuff that makes hot peppers fiery and Indian food delicious.  I sure as heck don’t want it sprayed in my face or in my eyes.

In dog training, It can be found in sprays and bark collars – sold as means of stopping problem behaviours.  The collar is placed on the dog’s neck.  Each time it barks, a canister squirts citronella spray at the dog.

Citronella is an insect repellent – a pesticide.  It is also one that has been under scrutiny, regulation and banning.  According to Health Canada:

The limited data available for citronella-based insect repellents has brought a number of concerns to light. Natural citronella oil may contain methyleugenol, which has been shown to be carcinogenic in animal studies.

Companies that use chemicals, whether they be naturally derived or synthetic file a Material Safety Data Sheet (M.S.D.S.).  Pet owners can look these up by searching for ingredients followed by the letters MSDS.  You can become better informed with this simple step.  For citronella, you would type Citronella MSDS.

One company that uses pure citronella extract states in their MSDS:

Citronella can cause lung cancer if ingested.
Inhalation:  Remove to fresh air.  Avoid casual breathing.

It’s important to know that most products on store shelves contain multiple ingredients.  A canister of citronella spray is not necessarily 100% citronella.

The following MSDS was obtained directly from the manufacturer by trainer Caryn Charlie Liles.  You can read her story here.Citronella JPEG

The safety page for the canister of 1% citronella spray also contains approximately 10% ethanol and up to 90% Tetrafluoroethane.  Warnings include:

Potential Health Effects:
Eye: may cause irritation
Skin: may cause irritation
Inhalation:  may cause dizziness and loss of concentration

It then goes on to say:

This product is considered hazardous based on the criteria listed in the Federal OSHA Hazard.

Most people are familiar with the effects of ethanol.  It’s alcohol.  It makes you drunk.  What we don’t know are the effects of inhaling alcohol.  Who knew, but apparently people do this.  According to the CBS it is a new and seemingly dangerous trend that promises to deliver quicker intoxication.

Tetrafluoroethane is a refrigeration coolant – it makes car air conditioning units cold and it is also used in various spray canisters.  This chemical is also a street drug, giving abusers an easily obtained rush.  Users inhale sprays, leading to drunk, dazed and intoxicated behaviour.

Pause for a moment and think about this.  Inhalant abusers breathe these types of products to get stoned.  Bark collars spray this same substance in the air around the dog’s face.  You might say the spray is not directed straight at the dog’s face.  It doesn’t matter.

According to at least one manual:

“The mist if very fine and simply creates a mist in the region of the snout.”

Proponents of such tools claim that manufacturers simply could not sell unsafe products to the public.  That is not true.  Companies cannot sell defective products.

Most products have some degree of risk.  Think of prescription pills.  They have side effects.  Should you choose take medication, you accept that risk.

A Roger Williams law review paper states that clever marketing can downplay risk in a consumer’s mind.

Manufacturers can remain immune from liability by placing warnings on products while simultaneously undermining the effect of those warnings.

…the manufacturer can simply point to the warning and say cynically, “See, I told you so.”

This means that pet owners need to read warnings while ignoring sales pitches if they are to make an informed decision.

Ignoring MSDS pages and safety precautions makes us blind.  It absolutely is easier to feel good about spraying a dog in the face, nose, mouth and eyes with what seems to be a “natural” extract.

Would pet owners embrace spray collars so ethusiastically if the packaging stated:

“Sprays insect repellent, alcohol and air conditioning coolant (and drug used in inhalant abuse) in your dog’s face to stop barking.  Side effects may include skin and eye irritation.  May cause dizziness and loss of concentration.”

Natural just doesn’t sound so pleasant anymore.

Do shock collars hurt? It’s the amps not the volts.

I have read a lot of social media posts lately on the topic of shock collars.  Specifically, proponents claim that:

Modern shock collars do not cause pain.  It is a mild tingle, a tickle.  It is very much like a tens machine used by physiotherapists to heal people.  Like the wee little pop of carpet static, the reaction is startle and not pain.  This idea is substantiated with statistics.  Bark collars, at 0.0003 joules are far gentler than an abdominal energizer – coming in at 0.914 joules of energy.

Here’s the problem with joules and volts.  You can’t say, “This amount of shock will kill you.”  It’s complicated.

For example, consider the follow three people who were shocked:

A  Construction worker wearing insulated boots touches household wire feels a mild tingle.
B  Homeowner standing barefoot on a wet bathroom floor touches household wire dies.
C  Child is shocked with 20,000 volts and giggles.  (Carpet static…it can kill you.)

Thankfully, carpet static doesn’t kill people because the duration is too short and most of the charge dissipates through the air before it reaches you.  Make no mistake, it is powerful.  Much lower voltage can be more dangerous.  There are some generally accepted levels, in amps, from Georgia University, and it includes information on the physiological effects at different levels – such as can’t let go effect, and serious health concerns.

The construction worker had protection in the form of insulating boots.  Unlike the homeowner with wet bare feet, who was a serious accident waiting to happen.  And yet the volts on those two were the same.

That’s what makes this whole shock collar debate interesting and complex.  Knowing whether shock hurts is a challenging question. How is shock pain measured?

Researchers involved in pain studies use amps.  So I went back to lessons from high school to try to sort through the confusion.  I can remember the teacher saying:

 “It’s the AMPS that kill.  It’s the AMPS that hurt.”

Amps are calculated using Ohm’s Law.  Amps = Volts / Resistance

Think of electricity like a water hose.  Volts are your water pressure.  Resistance is the dirt that’s gotten clogged in the hose.  It will slow down pressure. So will holes in the hose that let water escape.  Amps is the “oomph” you have at the end of the hose when all is said and done. There is a profound difference between the dribble of a clogged garden hose and the gush of a fire hose putting out a fire.  The blast from a pressure washer has got to sting, but I’m not about to volunteer to try that out.  Really, it doesn’t matter how much water is going in the hose.  It’s about how much oomph is coming out.

That’s what Ohm’s law is about. You have power going into a wire.  Maybe some dissipates into the air.  Maybe there is some resistance, something getting in the way of the current like skin or hair.  Maybe the wire is high quality and really lets that current flow strong.  These impact the amount of amperage.

If you have all the information, the voltage, the way the product is made and the resistance, then you could do math calculations.  That’s a bit tricky and presumes that the information is readily available.

Or, you can look it up.

How many amps hurt?  Amperage, at this level is usually written in milliamps, or one thousandth of an amp.  Researchers involved in pain research, often use shock to cause pain.  For example, they shock subjects and measure how much pain the individual can handle.  Then, they might give pain medications, re-shocking the individual to see if the drugs were effective.  The following is a list of pain thresholds taken from a sampling of pain studies.

Painful would mean, “It hurts.”  Threshold means, “The subject absolutely cannot take anymore.”

Sensation Level in Milliamps (mA)
Painful 0.15 – 2.0
Threshold (can’t take anymore) Study 1 0.5
Threshold (can’t take anymore) Study 2 0.90 – 7.35
Animal tail twitch studies 0.2 – 0.8

Why do we have pain thresholds for animals?  Pain medications are tested on animals.  So researchers need to know how much pain an animal will tolerate.  These are tail twitch studies.

How many amps do shock collars deliver?  It’s a tough number to find, but a few retailers and pro-shock education sites do offer numbers..

Source Level in Miliamps (mA)
Christiansen Study 400
Shalke Study 800 – 1250
Website sales site 20
Shock collar education site 7 to 40-80

Shock collar proponents state that modern electronic training systems are gentler than older versions.  Christiansen and Shalke are older studies. I’ll concede that point and remove them.  How do shock collars stack up against the pain research numbers in a graph, using milliamps?

shock collar chart

Do shock collars hurt?  It’s a complex question.

Where amps are concerned, all I can do is work with the numbers that are publicly available.  I can chart the numbers from pain studies.  “This many amps hurt.”  I can look up the number of amps in shock collars and chart them.  Then I can look up other devices that are often compared to shock collars.

Let the numbers do the talking.  Of course, I’m always open to more data.  Heck, I’ll even wear one.  But for now, these are the numbers.  If 2 milliamps can pain during a study, then how can 7, 20, 40 or 80 feel like a tickle?  What do the numbers say to you?

Update:  June 11, 2013
Radio systems references the amps on “modern” training collars.  It directs people to a study that claims that the collars run from 30 to 80 mA.  These numbers are from a report, direct from the manufacturer.  (Page 3)  Another section of the same report, references 100 mA.  As with all the other shock collar data, taken from a pro-shock reference.

Update:  July 3, 2013
I welcome additional statistics, and have openly stated I would like to see data from the shock collar trainers and sales reps that have commented.  Some said they were contacting the company directly.  See below in the comments.  Nothing yet and not surprised.  Still open to getting the full range of amps on collars under a variety of conditions. Dry, wet, salt water.

Pinch Me A.K.A. Prong Me

During a recent Facebook discussion, it was pointed out that I had never worn a prong collar.  As such, I would  have no idea whether a prong (a.k.a. pinch collar) causes pain.  My knuckles firmly rapped, it seemed the only solution would be for me to open my mind and wear a prong collar.

prongFor those unfamiliar with the product, these come in a variety of styles.  Some look scary with spikes and “prongs” of metal.  Newer models hide the “teeth” of the prong collar under a strip of leather, plastic or fabric.  I use the word “teeth” very deliberately, because proponents of these products claim that the spikes of a prong replicate a mother dog’s teeth as she corrects a misbehaving pup.

I do know how to fit a prong collar, and I know how to use one.  I am a crossover trainer, meaning that I have used physical corrections and discipline in the past.  However, never have a put a prong collar around my neck I have not been able to claim to know how it feels.  It is about time.

While not scientific, I wanted to challenge my pre-conceived notions.  How does a prong feel?  Does it cause pain?  When products “work”, they work for a reason.  What is that reason?

I began by placing the collar on my forearm.  Surprisingly, it did not cause pain.  There was pressure.  At this point, I felt that I would be eating a good healthy dose of crow.  This gave me the confidence to move forward – to fit the prong to my neck.

Carefully, I adjusted the number of links so the collar sat high up on my neck, snug but not tight.  Gently I pulled on the ring where the leash attached.  Again, I was legitimately surprised that spikes did not dig into my neck, and there was very little pain.

My husband entered the room, rolled his eyes at yet another “experiment”.  Jokingly, he grasped the chain.  Using his fingers only he tugged.  “You’re coming with me!”

That is when the prong collar “bit” me.  As the metal of the prong pressed against the bone of my spine, it created sharp, intense pain.  I screamed – yes screamed – for him to stop.  My husband blubbered, “I didn’t pull hard.  It wasn’t hard at all.  I just used my fingers.”

One of my friends pointed out that dogs have muscular necks and walk on all fours.  I can respect that my husband’s tug on the collar does not replicate a dog walking at an owner’s side.  Head down (literally, I got down on all fours) we attached the leash to the collar.  My son “walked” me around the house.  He was applying FINGERTIP pressure.

It was here that the collar “bit” me for the second time.  It was not painful.  I think it was worse than that.  The pressure from the evenly spaced links didn’t distribute evenly, the way it had on my arm.  Walking on my hands and knees, the collar did not pinch.  It pulled up against the front of my throat, an area that has very little muscle to afford any protection.  Checking the front of my dog’s neck, it becomes quickly apparent that his muscular neck and shoulders do not offer protection to the front of his neck either.

As I crawled along the ground, and the prong dug up into my windpipe, I felt a primal urge to recoil and relieve pressure.  While not quite a choking feeling, it was a gagging, gurgling, inability to swallow.  My stomach seized and I felt panic.  In an instinctive need for self-preservation I gasped, “Drop the leash!”  Grasping at the links, my hands shaking, I immediately struggled to remove the prong collar from my neck.  Having felt both the pain of prong on bone, and the pressure of a prong on my windpipe, the pressure on my windpipe was, at least to me, far worse.

I went into this process with an open mind.  Some of my most profound life lessons have come when others have challenged my position.  I respect it when people speak up and push me.  I want to know why a product “works.”

This little experiment may have begun as a prong question; it has led me to wonder how we perceive a dog’s neck.  We see the muscle and power.  Under their chin is the soft underside, cartilage, glands, bones.

collageProng collars are not the only collars placed high upon a dog’s neck.  Owners are often told to ensure collars stay up as high as possible.  Why?  They are told this is to maximize control – and the effectiveness of the collar.  Some collars are designed so they intentionally do not slide down the dog’s neck – to the muscular part.  I can see how that “works.”  It hurts like hell when a collar presses on delicate tissue.  Research shows that pressure on a dog’s neck presses on the optic nerve, potentially causing eye problems.  This isn’t just a moral “tree hugging” concern.  Veterinary organization recommend harnesses for this reason.

I can’t ask my dog how any collar feels for them.  However, I can, for a minute, put myself in their position – look at the anatomy of their neck and look at the fit of a variety of collars and ask how it would make me feel.

No dogs were harmed, corrected or pulled using a training collar.  In other words, the photos for this blog post were staged.

Update:  May 6th, 2013.  There have been an overwhelming amount of comments.  This one stood out.  Jennifer Montgomery Kay wrote the following:

I tried this experiment myself on Saturday. There really is nothing like the horrible feeling of it merely resting on my windpipe. The moment I caused it to apply actual pressure? I thought I was near death.

Treated Like a Dog

This is the most difficult story that I have ever written.  Repeatedly I have deleted the words.  They take me to a place I am not comfortable with.  A dark, painful place, it remains only in the memories of my childhood.

Growing up, I had a father who believed in discipline.  That discipline was coupled with strict religious values.  Rules were clear.  Men, women and children held traditional values and roles.  Wives and children should submit.  The man was head of the house.  Spare the rod and you spoiled the child.  That rod was literal.

Dog lovers who know my work probably have already realized that the word “submit” alludes to where I am going with this story.  Submission and dominance are two concepts commonly used in dog training.  Forced to submit while growing up, I feel safe saying that I can verbalize what if feels like to be a dog.

Physical discipline has at its core an honest motive.  I truly believe those who use it, genuinely believe they are acting in the child or dog’s best interest.  Many expressions support this idea.  I heard them all, and I heard them often.  The words would echo in my ears, “This hurts me more than it hurts you.  But you have to learn.”  As I grow older, I truly believe that people who use physical discipline really have never learned an alternative solution, or have not learned that alternative well enough.

As a child, I really do not think I was a danger to society or to myself.  In other words, physical punishment was not given to stop a dangerous situation.  I was, however, an independent thinker.  Independent thinkers are not well regarded in homes or churches ruled by male authority figures.

Control, through submission is all about fear mongering.  Parents use physical punishment because they fear that harm will befall their children.  Perceived as serving a greater good, force is justified.

That is the perception of the adult and it is a naive one.

Some children and wives may submit to authority.  Others do not.  Anyone with a backbone learns to misbehave behind the backs of authority figures.  School officials would be shocked to learn that all the forms signed by my dad had forged signatures.  I wanted to go on class field trips.   I wanted to take part in activities and sports.  They were not allowed, so I forged signatures and went regardless.

When my dad caught on, it meant greater supervision, which I rallied against.  Surprise visits and inspections became the norm.  It meant that I always had to be on guard.

Living under rigid structure and rules coupled with the threat of negative consequences leads to strong emotions.  I identify with three.

Anxiety grips you at the pit of your stomach, leaving you in a perpetual state of heightened awareness.  The tentacles of fear take over your muscles, clenching them repeatedly until they spasm.  Each step you take, you look over your shoulder, fully expecting that someone is watching and waiting for you to fail.  Inevitably, the punishment comes.  “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, please don’t hit me,” does not work because spoiling the rod is equated with spoiling the child.

Coupled with that is a sense of relief.  It comes when you realize that you have passed or met expectations.  When it happens, you smile.  Do not mistake that smile for pride, joy or love.  Trust me – it is relief.  Inside you feel like a quivering, grateful and groveling mess.  “Thank you, oh thank you for being pleased with me.”

Those reading might wonder why people do not just leave or call the police.  Because for the most part, it is legal, and the church took painstaking efforts in educating parents on how to hit their children legally.

Turning to authorities for help triggers the third and final emotion of rage.  Begging and pleading for help (please make it stop) fails.  I stood there and listened as the police officers chastised my mom and me.  “You need to be more submissive.  You need to be a better wife.  You need to obey your dad.”  When this happens, when no one listens, you take matters into your own hands.  In the heat of the moment, when your spirit is broken and have no say over your own life, you take your life back through force.

Eventually I grew up, as all children do.  I can say with absolute certainty that rules, boundaries and discipline did not keep me safe.  I rebelled.   For the first time in my life, I felt I had wings.  Like Icarus, perhaps there were times I flew too close to the sun, crashing to the sea below.

I share this story because I see many parallels between force based dog training and cult based religion.  They claim that lack of discipline and physical correction spoils the dog.  Owners fear remote and unrealistic dire consequences.  “If you don’t correct the dog, it will run into traffic and die…jump on grandma and knock her over…maul babies and children…kill other dogs.”  Exaggerated worst case scenarios justify the use of force.

When dogs misbehave, owners are encouraged to supervise consistently.  Some trainers recommend tethering (umbilical cording) the dog to their waist.  With the alpha human always looming by ever so closely, every transgression is seen and disciplined with a jerk of the leash, a smack to the nose, a pinch on the ear.

As with spanking, the legal definition of dog abuse allows many of these practices to continue.  Dogs can neither complain nor consent.  People who advocate for the animals have their concerns dismissed.  Hitting is often within the bounds of the law. I think the law is wrong and needs to change.  Just as I retaliated and rebelled, research shows that physical discipline triggers aggression in dogs.  It does not take a rocket scientist to see that many dogs would bite when hit.

Some people claim that physical discipline is necessary and effective.  Others say it teaches the dog to respect the owner.  They point to heavy-handed trainers and owners with happy dogs.

Let me very clearly clarify.  Yes, forcing someone to submit can get them to comply – until they have enough and snap.  That is not respect.  I think dogs trained with force are relieved when owners are calm because the alternative is punishment.  That is not love or even like.  Once the dog figures out that the owner is associated with discipline, we really shouldn’t be surprised when they snap.

I will concede that I may never know exactly what a dog thinks or feels.  However, I do know what it is like to be forced to submit.  I cannot understand how any woman or minority who has fought for equal rights could not see the parallels and the offensiveness of the concept.

If I have one hope, it is that people reading this stop for one second and think what it is like to be the dog.  In the future, perhaps, I will pull the Band-Aid off the wounds of my past a bit further and talk about the dog that was forced to submit along with me.

Punishment and Principles – Where is the Line?

Punishment is such an ugly word.  Use it in a piece about dog training and people either get their knickers in a knot (I would never punish my dog) or people get defensive (I do not punish!  I correct and discipline).

Much like the blog I wrote about positive training being dangerous, this is all about semantics.  Punishment is another one of those technical terms that can derail a conversation.  You can see the train wreck coming, and there is nothing you can do about it.

Webster’s defines punishment as, “suffering, pain and loss that serves as retribution…severe, rough, disastrous treatment.”

In dog training, punishment is technical jargon.  For that reason, it leads to confusion because most dog owners equate punishment with Webster’s harshness.  In dog training, it means to suppress.  For example, if you take measures to stop your dog from jumping up, you have used punishment.

Turning your back on a jumping dog to snub and withdraw attention is punishment.  Timeouts are punishment.  Are these harsh and painful?  Doubtful.

Others can be.  Punishments range in severity from leash corrections, slapping, poking or kneeing the dog.

Is it wrong to punish a dog?  That seems to depend more on the technique and severity than the technical definition of the word.  Is it okay to slap a dog?  What about using a leash and collar to leash correct the dog?  How hard should you be able to jerk on the leash?  Really, how many pounds per square inch of pressure can a dog’s neck take? Depending on the breed it might not be very much at all.  Pressure on a dog’s neck can lead to pressure that can damage their eyes.  Where does punishment cross the line from training into abuse?

Here is the problem that I see.  A thick coat of fur masks physical signs of an injury, such as bruising.  To me, that seems a lot like a child who hides the marks of a beating under a shirt.  You cannot identify physical harm if you cannot see it.  Do I know that any of these methods cause bruising?  No.  Therein lies the problem.  Not only can we not see physical injuries, we cannot ask the dog because it is not talking.

Animal cruelty laws in my opinion are lax and cowardly in this area.  It is as if the word “training” gives owners and some trainers a free pass.  Carte blanche is given to an “anything that works” excuse.  The word “training” can turn offensive behaviours into something acceptable.

Most S.P.C.A. agencies (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) have guidelines.  However, they tend to be fuzzy where dog training is concerned.  Owners, in my opinion need to know exactly where the line between acceptable techniques and abuse stands.  I think that some of these agencies should probably step up to the plate and give owners some clarity here.  I would love for agencies and officers to answer those questions – clearly – in ways owners can understand.  Spell it out.  Because in my books, when you tolerate anything, you stand up for nothing.

Personally, I use timeouts and loss of privileges.  That’s not to say I use them as a method of choice and on all dogs.  For example, a time out given to a dog with separation anxiety would not be appropriate in my books.  Any sort of punishment without first teaching appropriate behaviour would be confusing and unfair.

Theoretically, any technique could be misapplied to the point of cruelty.  Physical touch and pettting can be sheer torture to the puppy mill dog.  Loud praise, clickers and whistles are potentially fear inspiring to an animal that has a sensitivity to noise.  The individual needs of the animal are important.

Technically everything can be taken to extremes if one were to go that route.  But that’s not what this blog is about.  It’s about techniques that when used correctly are supposed to cause pain or discomfort.  Those are the techniques that I do not use, along with those shown to trigger aggression.  It puts people at risk of an injury.  Research shows they are less effective than gentler methods.  Why would anyone want to be harsh when it is more effective to be kind?

What is the proper way to use punishment?  It is when you suppress behaviour without ever coming close to the Webster’s definition of pain and suffering.  Why is that important?  Because pain and suffering is the definition of abuse.  Training should never be a free pass for dog abuse.