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.

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.