Content Note: moderately detailed analogies between punishment-based training techniques in dogs and child abuse.
Important Disclaimer: I am not a dog trainer. Any personal advice in this post is based solely on personal experiences, coursework in Animal Behavior, and the articles I have linked. But again, these still do not make me a professional dog trainer and anything I have to say on the subject should be considered in light of that fact.
Animal rights might not be the easiest topic to imagine under the umbrella of feminism. However, based on what we know of how animals think, feel, and remember, I believe that animal rights lies along an axis of intersectionality, even though we do not explore this axis as often. Still, I believe that this axis matters when considering how to treat sentient and feeling beings. This post is devoted to one of many types of non-human members of human families: the dog.
As I’m writing, my pup is sleeping on the rug in my living room. She will be two years old in about two weeks. Her furry face is mashed into the carpet and she is snoring gently. Research suggests that she is dreaming. Research suggests that she has the emotional and cognitive awareness of a human child.
My personal experiences suggest that she does care about me. When teaching her not to bite, I never once yelled or physically punished her. The way I taught her, as recommended by this puppy book, was to make a high-pitched yelp of pain whenever her teeth contacted my skin. If that failed, and she was too excited to stop nibbling, the next step was to leave in a huff, ending playtime and showing that I did not enjoy her biting. No yelling. No spray bottles. No “displays of dominance.” No physical punishment.
Fast forward to two weeks ago. I was walking with my dog along the trash-studded streets of my neighborhood, when she saw a particularly tasty looking piece of trash and tried to gulp it down. Knowing that trash and dog intestines do not mix well, I grabbed her harness and stuck my entire hand into her gnashing teeth to pull out the item. My dog continued trying to chew as quickly as she could while I tried to remove the trash. When I finally removed my hand, I had no cuts, scratches, or even bruise marks. As discussed above, she had no learning experiences to teach her that she needed to fear me if she did not give it up. Based solely on her learning experiences as a puppy that her teeth hurt me, or that at the very least I did not enjoy being bitten, she decided to give up her treasure rather than bite my hand.
Knowing what we know about dogs from research, and what we know about dogs from personal experience, I think people should think very seriously about what kind of teaching techniques are ethical to use with dogs. My personal rule of thumb is this: if you would not do it to a human three year old, do not do it to a dog.
Based on this rule of thumb, here are some common practices that I believe it is absolutely unethical to practice, and that I urge you to commit to removing from your dog-training repertoire. When housetraining, it is common practice to rub puppies’ faces in the urine on the floor as punishment when they have an accident. It is common to smack puppies when they bite, or to spray them in the face with a squirt bottle. Some people teach dogs to walk on a leash by using a choke/chain collar. Some people teach dogs not to bark by using a shock collar.
For some readers, none of these techniques seem surprising or out of line. If you are one of those readers, I invite you to take a moment and imagine using those techniques on a human child to accomplish analogous goals. If you find it too upsetting to even begin imagining the use of a shock collar to teach a human child to not yell or cry, then please reconsider your stance that this technique is acceptable to use with dogs.
Now some people protest: but it works! Well, yes, lots of things “work,” but some things work better than other things. The fact is, research shows that dogs respond well to positive reinforcement and that punishment techniques are not more effective and may cause or exacerbate behavioral problems. Not surprisingly, this is like what we see with human children.
So it turns out that the world is full of misinformation on how to get your pets to listen to you by “displaying dominance” (translation: nonverbally or verbally threatening them) or by physical punishment. Part of this misinformation includes the myth that dogs and wolves are pack animals dominated by an “alpha leader,” even though their social structures are more analogous to families and are based on mutual affection. Justifying their methods with this misinformation, there are people who will tell you that they got faster results teaching their dog to walk on a leash by using a choke/chain collar. However, professional dog trainers and animal behaviorists recommend against using choke-collar techniques because they cause fearfulness, aggression, and pain that would be unnecessary using another method (again, see footnote on proper use of chain collars).
Staying mindful of the knowledge of these harmful side effects, let’s throw the naysayers a bone and assume that we live in a hypothetical universe where both positive reinforcement and punishment work, but where punishment is more effective (again, NOT the case in our world). If you take seriously the research and common experience as a pet owner that dogs (and many other animals as well) have emotions and memories, then you should take seriously your obligation to minimize pain and punishment while teaching them how to coexist with you. This is because sometimes, being an ethical person means sacrificing practicality. Did I say sometimes? I think I meant to say all the freaking time.
Back to the housetraining example, many people feel that an appropriate way to housetrain puppies is to shove their face in the urine if they accidentally go inside the house. First, this does not work the way many people think it does. But to resume the human child analogy, let’s say that you are teaching a human three year old to pee in the toilet. It’s true that one way to teach them not to do that would be to shove their face in the urine if they have an accident in the kitchen. But even if that were somehow more effective (again, it is NOT) than to simply be patient and give them positive reinforcement, even if that somehow got faster results, we would never do that. Why? Because an ethical person would choose to sacrifice faster toilet-training results for the outcome of treating that child with dignity, for the outcome of a child who listens out of love and respect, not out of fear. As beings with similar levels of emotional functioning as a human child, dogs share the same basic right to not have their faces shoved in urine. Period.
Sticking to positive reinforcement for pets might sound difficult or strange, especially if you have used different methods in the past. But when thinking about getting good results with your pet, the most important result is an emotional being who feels safe in your home and well-loved. In addition, you owe it to yourself to be a person who does not rely on causing physical pain to other beings in order to achieve your goals. Feeling safe is a right that all emotional beings have, and we should take that seriously for all animals under our care, whether human or non.
1. This is definitely one of those “don’t try this at home” anecdotes. My pup and I did a TON of bite inhibition and food sharing training when she was little, and not all dogs have that training background. In addition, dogs have powerful instincts to protect their food, and for many dogs, no matter how much they love and want to not hurt you, those instincts will take over in this kind of situation.
2. A humane way to use a chain collar is to use the collar not for choking, but instead to make a snapping sound by the dog’s ear when the dog pulls on the leash. When the dog gets distracted by the noise and stops pulling, the trainer rewards the dog with a treat, reinforcing the good behavior. Having not seen this done before, I am not sure if this is the same type of choke-chain collar described here. I think it might be a different type of collar, since it would be strange for the collar to have the capacity to choke if its purpose is just to make a surprising sound.
3. The message people think they are sending their dog is “Don’t pee inside the house.” However, dogs cannot infer the “inside the house” part. Instead, dogs whose owners use this method learn that humans become angry when we see them urinate. They learn to hide their puddles, which leads them to pee behind furniture, in corners, closets or under beds where their waste will not be found (though it will still stink up your home). In addition, they become afraid of peeing any time their owners are in close proximity, such as when walking on a leash outdoors.