Shock Collars are so NOT like T.E.N.S.

I had a more practical blog lined up.  Humor me, as we look at one more expression.  This one keeps coming across my news feed and it’s interesting.  Some trainers claim that, “Shock collars are like T.E.N.S. machines.”

I have used a T.E.N.S. machine many times under the guidance of various therapists.  For those unfamiliar with this treatment, mild electric current flows to pads secured to the patient’s skin.  It causes muscles to contract.  Dr. Ho’s Pain Therapy System seen on infomercials is a T.E.N.S. machine.

Here is one of the machines that I use on a regular basis.  At the bottom are two dials for “intensity.”  There are two intensity dials because the machine regulates the left and right pads separately.

tens

Comfort levels change between individuals.  They also change from moment to moment for the same person.  Intensity levels vary from one area of the body to another, hence the two dials.  There is no “consistent” setting.

If you asked a patient using a T.E.N.S. “Are you okay?” the answer should be “Yes.”  Discomfort results in a reduction in intensity.  If asked, “Do you want me to turn it off?” the answer should be, “No.”  Stimulation should be neutral or pleasant.

With shock collars, it is this underlying premise that is fundamentally different.  Bark collars shock dogs to suppress barking.  Barking reduces because the dog does not like the shock.  If the shock were neutral, nothing would change.  If it were pleasurable like a T.E.N.S. machine, barking would increase.  Barking would increase because the dog would be learning that barking leads to massages.

The same goes for electronic training collars used as negative reinforcement.  Negative reinforcement is like the game “Uncle.”  Children pinch one another.  They keep pinching until the other child says, “Uncle.”  The behaviour of saying uncle leads to cessation of pinching or relief.  Similarly, dogs turn the shock off by obeying a command.  Reinforcement is the cessation of the electronic stimulation – relief.  Dogs that respond quickly can “beat the buzzer”, avoiding shock altogether.

“Pleasant” shock, under the level of aversiveness wouldn’t be effective here either.  Ask a dog, “Do you want the electrical current to stop?”  The answer needs to be, “yes” or the collar will not work as designed.

Both may involve electrical current but the intensity is on a gradient.  Many things are on gradients.  Music is nice, unless it is too loud.  Massage feels good, unless Olga the Horrible is hurting you.  (My apologies to anyone named Olga.  Olga was the name of the massage therapist who hurt me.)  Light helps us see unless it is glaring.  Flowers smell pretty unless it is an overdose of noxious perfume.  Cool water makes a refreshing swim.  Cold water is icy and painful.  Food is usually fabulous, unless you have eaten excessively and feel nauseated.

No one thing fits neatly into a naughty or nice category.  Dogs decide what they find pleasant, neutral and aversive.  We infer how the dog feels by observing their change in behaviour.

I would have gladly paid Olga the Horrible to stop the massage.  Massage therapist Mike was different.  He had magic hands.  I would pay money for longer massages.  Olga’s massages were aversive.  Brad’s were appetitive.  I was not screaming and thrashing in pain with Olga.  I just wanted it to stop and it changed my behaviour.  Contrary to popular belief, it’s not the dog’s attitude that will tell you if the training is aversive.  It is the dog’s responses.

There is a second key difference between these two devices.  Shock collars are training.  With T.E.N.S., the goal is long-term if not permanent pain elimination.  It is not a teaching tool.

Olga may have been brutal, but her intent was to offer long-term relief.  Magic Hands Mike offered the same goal under threshold.  Suzy who does scalp massages at the hair salon….she just gives nice feeling massages.  Training cannot be compared to these scenarios.

In training, the trainer creates the plan with the goal of creating a change in behaviour.  We determine which behaviour we want to teach.  Therapies for pain relief have no skills development.  Olga never taught me to dance a jig in return for pain relief.  She did not use my discomfort as a tool.

I never went back to Olga.  I had the choice to leave.  More importantly, I had a choice to never return.  I could refuse to participate.  Our dogs do not have that choice during training because repetition is part of the gig.  Once the aversive ceases, the aversive is back in play for more training.  We can’t see all the differences unless we look at the specifics of how each of these work.

Olga vs Mike

If you are ready to jump in and say, “You don’t need batteries to use aversives,” then you won’t get any argument from me.  There are many forms of aversives in dog training.  Some are easier to swallow than others.  You do not need batteries to use aversives.

But, let me broaden the statement.  Using aversives in dog training is not the same as using a T.E.N.S. machine.  It’s not even close.  It does not matter if the aversive is added to the dog, the dog is added to an aversive scenario or whether we use a dog’s discomfort for our training purposes.  Using the aversive is trainer’s choice.  If the dog is put into a position where they want to leave, they have been put between a rock and a hard place.  It’s not free will.  The trainer has free will.

Training paradigms are not the same as T.E.N.S. machines.  In dog training, the choices to use an aversive are ours and ours alone.

Negative Reinforcement – The Bill Collector Quadrant

Many people seem to know what positive reinforcement means.  People assume that negative reinforcement means exactly the opposite – that you do something nasty like hit or yell at the dog.  This is not true.

Negative means subtract.  Reinforcement means to strengthen.  Put them together and it means that you take away something nasty in order to increase a particular behaviour.

Negative reinforcement stymies even pet professionals. An example would probably be helpful.  By viewing this quadrant from a human situation, we can better recognize negative reinforcement – how it acts and maybe even how it feels.

Watching television, I saw an excellent example:

“Are you tired of calls from bill collectors?  You can make them stop!”

past due

This is negative reinforcement.  You can escape repeated phone calls, making them stop, if you increase your bill paying behaviour. Yes, it is true that collectors must start calling in order to stop.  Stopping the discomfort is key element doing all the work.  That is how we know it is negative reinforcement.

People with sufficient money with perfect payment histories might never feel the stress of collection calls.  They AVOID nagging calls and letters.

Most people slip up at least once.  They ESCAPE the uncomfortable nagging by paying the bill.  They feel relief.  Anxiety goes down, at least temporarily.  When the next bill deadline looms anxiety resurfaces  It’s potentially a roller coaster of highs and lows.

Those that run into a financial crisis face waves of calls and letters that go on and on and on.  There is no peace or reprieve.  Those unable to pay have no real means of ending the barrage.  One can easily start to understand how the inability to ESCAPE could make some people snap.

Calls and letters can only be stopped one way – through paying bills.

Unless you’re dealing with the mafia, bill collectors are not abusive.  Phone calls and letters aren’t typically traumatic.  These things are part of daily life.  It is interesting that people often complain about the HARASSMENT from bill collectors.  No disrespect meant to those that do the job.  However, one can easily see how repetitive nagging can be upsetting.

Relief that comes from getting that monkey off your back is a sweet – sweet reward.  While it might be a “reward” and it might feel good to feel the relief, people generally don’t like bill collectors or the process.  The exception being if you hired bill collectors to work on your behalf.

In dog training, we don’t use bill collectors.  Some trainers offer relief from pain, discomfort or fear.  You can generally recognize negative reinforcement if something is stopped or removed when the dog complies.

If you come when called, I will STOP the continuous shock.
If you take the dumbbell in your mouth, I’ll STOP pinching your ear.
If you sit calmly, I will let you MOVE AWAY from something scary.

Dogs learn to obey faster and faster in order to stop the discomfort sooner.  If the dog happens to become PERFECT, they might obey so quickly they avoid discomfort altogether.  Other dogs fail to comprehend, in which case the discomfort is unrelenting.  Like the person facing bankruptcy, the dog just snaps or gives up.

Can it work?  Sure.  Bill collectors “work” at least some of the time.  If all you want is your money, you might get it.  They do not work all of the time.  If your goal is teaching financial responsibility and money management, you might want to consider another strategy.  Bill collectors do not call teenagers, giving them a taste of what might come if they mess up in their adult lives.  That task rests with parents, teachers and even lenders.

Even lenders want to avoid the use of collection agencies.

The question should never only be if it works.  We need to compare the results to the risk.  Clearly, there are risks; so many that they are best left to a blog of their own.

When it comes to understanding negative reinforcement, these are some points to remember:

1 – Perfect pups may look happy – like perfect bill payers.  You can’t necessarily read a dog’s body language accurately and determine if coercion was used, especially if the dog has learned to completely avoid the aversive.

2 – Negative reinforcement does not need to be violent or abusive in order to cause significant discomfort.  Bill collectors aren’t abusive and neither are most dog trainers.

3 –Negative reinforcement might make you comply, but it doesn’t mean you like it – or the person/thing dishing it out.  Compliance is driven by the desire to “make it stop – make it go away.”

4 – The inability to escape can send you over the edge, and it can send your dog over the edge.  Some have referred to this as a “ticking time bomb dog.”  Jean Donaldson’s webinar on negative reinforcement touches on this.

Nevertheless, the real question is:

Do you want to live your life as a bill collector?  Would you choose that road if an alternate existed?

Toolbox or Technique

I am a tool junkie – specifically, kitchen gadgets.  In dog training, there are also plenty of tools.  Some people feel that the more tools a trainer has, the more problems they are capable of solving.  That would be wrong.

Bear with me for a moment while I go back to cooking…..

My ability to cook is not tied to my tools.  Give me wood and a pan, and I’ll cook you something so good that you’ll go weak at the knees.  If you like a nice ceviche, you can even skip the fire.  Someone has serious technical skill when they can take the cheapest, toughest piece of meat and turn it into something succulent.  It’s all about having mad skills.

If you are good at what you do, you don’t need a whole toolbox of tools.

Realistically speaking, I don’t want to whisk egg whites by hand, so I have a stand mixer.  However, I don’t need one to have success.  The act of buying a thousand dollar Robot Coup will not magically transform someone into a cook.  Nor will it result in an edible meal.

Many tools that I have bought fall into the miserable uni-tasker category.  Meaning they do only one thing, or aren’t worth the time or money.  They wind up in the trash.  They are too frustrating and aggravating to drag out of the back of the pantry when a decent chef’s knife will do.

You can also waste money on dog training uni-taskers.  Introducing the Dog-a-matic 6000.  Fast results.  So easy!!  Anyone can do it just press the button for instant results.  Money back guarantee if you’re not 100% satisfied.

It’s a bit of a money grab in my opinion.  That’s not my real beef.  An editor’s comment is.  There is a screen shot circulating on social media.  It’s allegedly a snapshot from Dog’s in Canada Magazine – the Canadian Kennel Club (CKC) publication.  It states:

“Purely positive trainers…are limited by their personal training philosophies, leaving them unable to fix difficult, long-term behaviours in a timely manner.  A balanced or integrated trainer may be more likely to have a variety of skills and methods to fix problem dogs because they have a wider set of TOOLS and approaches…..”  (Caps added)

Excuse me – but a plethora of tools is just a bunch of gadgets.  The only tools a trainer really needs sits squarely between their ears.  It’s called a brain.

Just as I do own kitchen tools, I do own dog training tools.  I use a clicker.  Do I need it?  Heck no.

Without timing and skill, that clicker won’t give effective results.  Neither will prong collars, shock collars, chock collar, leash correction on any kind of collar or using your hand to poke, swat, hit or otherwise punish the dog.  (None of those I use.)  If you’re struggling with the timing of food rewards, then you’ll also struggle with the timing of corrections.  It’s a hand/eye co-ordination problem.  How is it fair to use the dog as a guinea pig while you learn to use pain?

Some tools do more harm than good.  It’s like driving a nail with a sledgehammer.  It might be possible, but it’s a little crazy to think you won’t damage the wall.  Greater power does not always equal better results.

Plenty of dog training techniques come with a bunch of side effects, creating other problems in the wake.  According to research, some techniques trigger aggressionRetaliation toward discipline is the number 2 trigger for dog bites to children.  Pressure on a dog’s neck has been tied to eye problems.  When you’re playing with life and death outcomes, asking about potentially negative fallout matters.

When it comes to some of the gadgets such as shock collars, electric fences and citronella collar –  they come with a manufacturer’s warning that says, “Do not use on aggressive dogs.”  According to the makers, don’t even use them on dogs prone to aggression.  With restricted use, having these in a toolbox doesn’t seem to offer any benefit.

At the end of the day, I don’t NEED to buy a sledgehammer to drive a nail.  Frankly, I don’t WANT one either.  I don’t NEED a Robot Coup to make a puree.  I WANT one.  I really don’t WANT the latest Dog-a-matic 6000 gadget because it’s a cheap piece of marketing nonsense that will end up in the garbage.  Waste o’ cash.

Call me really old school if you like.  I believe in technical skill and practice.  I don’t NEED to use any pain or fear.  I don’t NEED any tools that cause pain or fear.  I don’t NEED silly gadgets.  That old school attitude does not at all compromise results because a multitude of gadgets and tools will never make up for lack of technical skills.

If you have solid technique, you never NEED a full toolbox to get results.

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.

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.

Nature’s Template for Dog Training…Something to Chew On

Many celebrity dog trainers claim to have studied wild dogs.  Dog owners get eyes as big as saucers when they hear this proclamation.  It imparts supernatural tendencies on the trainer.  Very few people have the chance to see dogs in the wild.  How can any owner question the observations of those who have seen what we have not?

Owners blindly follow the sage advice of those who have seen “real dogs”.  The majority of the time, that advice goes something like:

By watching how the alpha reigns supreme, we can mimic these behaviours and the dog will obey.  Instant sits, no more house soiling, no pulling when walking on leash.  It is an “instant cure.”  All behaviour problems will be solved if an owner is alpha enough.  Owners mimic the bite of a mother dog.  No food treats are allowed.  Mother dogs do not reward a puppy with food treats.  Throw the treats away.  It is unnatural and humanizes the dog.  Only coddling, permissive, passive, submissive owners would stoop to that level of bribery, something a real dog would not do.  Instead, owners should adopt the corrections of a mother dog, rewards are limited to praise, chest massages and tug games.

Yes, I am one of those few people lucky enough to have seen dogs in the wild.  There are some thoughts I would like to share on the matter.

I promise you these things:

Dogs do not do obedience in the wild.  Yup, that is right.  Obedience is a human idea.  Dogs do not walk each other on leash, and they can wander off and do as they please whenever they like.  Mother dogs do not correct puppies for lack of obedience.  You can be the biggest alpha in the universe and your dog still has no clue what heel position means.  I will not change my mind on this until I see dogs barking sit commands at one another.

Natural dog behaviour includes many things that I want to discourage.  Dogs sniff each other’s butts to say “hi.”  They lift their legs and mark vertical surfaces.  Dogs dig holes to bury things and roll in things that smell.  Mother dogs, or pack leaders (I will leave that discussion for another post) NEVER correct for these things.  If you want natural dog behaviour in your house, then please warn me.  I do not want to sit on your furniture.  It has probably been peed on.

While it is true that mother dogs do not reward puppies with food treats, they do not use leashes, shock collars, prong collars, ear pinches, or slaps to the face either.  A leash correction is just as unnatural as a food reward.  Some people believe that dogs correct one another with a snap, growl and possibly some humping.  So hop to it, or should I say, hump to it – if you believe in replicating wild dog behaviour.

The wild dogs I saw were not in the least bit aggressive.  Aggressive dogs, they tend to get injured.  Without veterinary care (another human idea), they die off.  Nature does not like aggression in cooperative groups.  It is evolutionary suicide.

Let us get down to rewarding these dogs shall we?  Treats are obviously out of the question.  In the wild, dogs have plenty of choices to emulate.  Dogs create social bonds by licking at the mouths of other dogs.  They groom one another, using their teeth to nibble at the fur and skin of others.  What they do not use are praise (they do not talk) and chest massages (they have paws, not hands.)  Dogs do not have tug toys in the wild either (They do not have money to go to the store).  Proponents of emulating wild dogs should probably get a bunch of toothbrushes ready.  Open that mouth and get grooming.  Bet it will be hairy.  At least it will eliminate another unnatural activity – dog baths and shampoo.  Do not worry, your dog will love that you made the effort to speak their language.

Oddly enough, food does play a role in natural dog behaviour.  Food teaches the dog how to break into a garbage can.  Mother dogs regurgitate food to puppies, teaching pups to lick gently to get their supper.  By searching for food, they find the fields of blueberries.  Survival – finding food – is a large part of their daily life.

Do dogs use food to learn obedience?  No.  As stated before, obedience is a human concept for dogs living in a human world.  You can be the biggest alpha in the universe and it does not change the fact that dogs do not come pre-programmed to sit on command.

As someone who has chosen to take a dog, an animal, and I have chosen to impose human rules on the dog, I owe it to the dog to be kind and considerate while I explain my language and my expectations.

Through research and through my observations, I know that my dog does not see me as part of its pack.  Dogs differentiate.  They are not stupid.  How do I know they see us differently?  Because dogs usually figure out on their own to sniff the butts of other dogs, and not of people.

Is my clicker natural?  No.  However, I am not the one claiming that my methods are natural or based on wild dog behaviour and pack structure.  I fully expect those who criticize food rewards as being unnatural to throw away all training devices.  They are just as unnatural. Those that want to use the argument that they emulate wild dog behaviour should really put their mouth where their money is.  You cannot criticize treat-based training as being unnatural and use other unnatural tools yourself.  I am calling that as a bluff.

Warning! Positive Training May Harm Your Dog

There is a trend brewing in dog training, and it is all about being positive.  Owners understandably want what is best for their dog; they want to avoid causing unnecessary pain and distress.  Newspaper headlines of trainers charged and convicted of animal cruelty have many people concerned.

To avoid unnecessary suffering, owners go in search of a positive and humane trainer.  It just may be the worst thing they can do.

How could these things represent anything but good?  It boils down to legalities and semantics.

Pet training is unregulated in most of North America.  As long as an animal is not physically harmed or in obvious distress – anything goes.  If anything goes, then not much is abusive.  It is all humane until someone’s pet is hurt or someone is charged.  No business savvy trainer on the planet is going to admit to being inhumane.

Searching for positive methods is not much help in screening either.  Here is where the semantics come into play.

The word “positive” has many definitions.  Webster’s defines it as, “having a good effect…marked by optimism.”  Most people are familiar with this meaning.  It is all warm, fuzzy and full of goodness.

In pet training, it has completely different meaning altogether.  It means add, like the math symbol.  (+).  Trainers are positive when they add something to a situation.  It does not mean necessarily mean good at all.

Treat trainers add a cookie.   They add something the dog likes, something good to the mix.

Trainers can also add something distasteful.  Jerking on the leash adds pain, as do other techniques like swatting, shaking, poking, slapping and pinning the dog to the ground.  As horrible as it sounds, a trainer can tell owners to hit or kick a dog and honestly claim to be positive because it fits the technical definition.  Heck, hitting a dog with a 2×4 is technically considered positive with this definition.

When push comes to shove, the majority of training techniques are positive because they add the proverbial carrot or stick to the mix.  That means trainers can honestly claim to use positive methods.  If they smile, they might even fit the Webster’s criteria of happy, cheerful optimism.  Although I personally find it disturbing and creepy that anyone can smile while meting out discipline.

Now I get that not all trainers and owners agree on training techniques.  I personally use treats and lots of them.  I do not use physical corrections based in pain or fear.  Research shows they can trigger aggression and are less effective than food based training.

Some people will disagree.  Under the law, everyone is entitled to choose techniques that fit their own moral compass.  At least, here in North America these products and techniques are legal.  In other parts of the world, many are banned or heavily regulated.

What I do take issue with is trainers who use words like positive to mask which techniques will and will not be used in training sessions.  Clients have a right to know what they are buying.  So let’s call a spade a spade.

A choke collar is a choke collar and not a training or slip collar.  A leash correction is a jerk not a tap.  A shock collar is not an e-collar.  A slap is a slap.  And yes, treats are treats.

Do not ask about positive or humane training.  Instead, owners should get down to the nitty gritty and ask for specifics.  Ask, “What products and techniques will you possibly use on the dog?  How will you correct the dog when it is doing something wrong?”

If you get the run around and claims of “positive discipline” and other clever but evasive answers – run in the opposite direction.   Trainers who have nothing to hide – hide nothing.  Hiding methodology behind a veil of jargon and misleading and misrepresented terminology accomplishes one thing and one thing only.  It takes money out of your pocket and puts it into theirs without an honest and clear indication of what you are buying into.