The permanent management of unwanted dog behavior has become a pandemic. It’s all the rage with veterinary behaviorists, force-free dog trainers, animal rights organizations, and other groups unburdened by knowledge or understanding of typical dog behavior. The approaches and characteristics are multi-fold. They include walking your dog during off-hours, avoiding certain homes or situations, buying enrichment toys, drugging dogs, and many more. This creates animal welfare concerns.
It’s Not About What It Is. It’s About What It Can Become.
– Dr. Seuss
Of course, these approaches can all be perfectly fine as temporary steps while we address the underlying issues through training. That would be reasonable, as none of these management activities are inherently problematic. There is a time and place for all of that. However, that is no longer how these suggestions are proposed.
Now, dog owners hear to accept permanent management as part of dog ownership for things modifiable through training. This recommendation is problematic and not in the best interest of dogs and their owners. It also runs counter to animal welfare. How did we get to this place where dog owners are told to develop management strategies for everything bothersome about their dogs’ behavior? Was it always like that? Of course not. Let’s take a closer look at the dog behavior management pandemic.
Historical Approaches to Animal Welfare
The traditional approach to dealing with unwanted dog behavior was training the dog. That was it. The training was the solution. What happened? We could likely write an entire book about what happened, but here are the cliff notes.
Traditional dog training was harsh. Trainers used a lot of excessive compulsion, and animal welfare was not much of a consideration. But then, clicker training, more rewards, and other ideas started to spread. As dog owners didn’t like the harsh approaches of the past, these new ideas became popular. All of this is understandable.
Moderation Seems Difficult for Us
But as is human nature, we tend to overdo everything until we realize we went too far. We moved from unnecessarily harsh compulsion to kinder approaches, which is generally a good idea. No one who loves their dog wants to use excessive force in training. But as often goes, we have taken another good idea too far, and it backfired. Now, we have reached a place where many dog trainers tell dog owners they can’t even say “no” to their dog, let alone use a training collar. Everything has to be positive, or you are a bad person and must be shamed and punished. The plane flew past the destination and landed in cuckoo land.
We Still Need To Be Able To Resolve Problems
The promise to fix every dog problem with a better cookie remains elusive. Because it runs counter to the biology of life on Earth, these extreme, positive-only ideas don’t even work on people, and we have much more brain power than our dogs. If we could have figured this out for ourselves, we wouldn’t need prisons and police forces to patrol our neighborhoods. The radical, positive ideas are as flawed as the radical, compulsion ideas we wanted to avoid. As usual, the most successful strategies lie between the extremes. In the middle, where the majority of us live.
But what happens if we subscribe to flawed extremes that can’t address our dog’s challenges effectively? We end up with permanent management strategies that were never intended to be used indefinitely.
Good Ideas Breaking Bad Affects Animal Welfare
Avoiding stressful places and encounters is a perfectly reasonable approach with your dog while you are working through a training plan to address issues. But avoiding stressors doesn’t replace training that can increase resiliency towards stressors. Only training makes our dog better able to handle the world. Avoiding things improves nothing.
Using enrichment toys is also great. Our dogs benefit from mental stimulation. However, they don’t replace playing with your dog. Proper interactions build stronger relationships. Substituting interaction with your dog and items your dog uses alone is a bad idea.
Using calming agents like cannabis oil or Valerian root to get your dog in a better state of mind for training can also be a great addition to a training plan. However, it shouldn’t be a permanent way of life. This applies even more to psychotropic medications, for which long-term side effects remain largely unknown.
When To Use Management
Management can be a useful, temporary addition while going through a training program, but it can’t replace training.
Training towards achieving the training goal should always be the first step. This is an animal welfare issue. Dogs who can be trusted at liberty will have a much richer and more fulfilled life than dogs managed 24/7. The more freedom a dog can handle, the better its life will be.
However, when something can’t be resolved through training (e.g., food aggression), management may be our only option. In such cases, that is best for all.
But for resolvable challenges, management should always be on the back end. It’s for things training couldn’t address. Management is not a replacement for training.
Flawed Thinking Endangers Animal Welfare
The idea of permanent management has much to do with a dislike for using aversives like martingale, prong, or shock collars in dog training. If that is all a trainer wants to do, look elsewhere. But rejecting targeted, appropriate tool use as a 5% component in a 95% positive reinforcement program is an ideological problem. It’s not in the best interest of the dog. Rejecting training tools compromises animal welfare.
We tell our kids not to do things we can’t allow and may collect their smartphones or X-Box to make the lesson sink in. There is nothing wrong with teaching dogs consequences. They don’t take it personally if you explain that they can’t eat the mail carrier using a training collar.
When used correctly, these tools will get dogs to stop doing dangerous things without side effects. Without tools, that option often doesn’t exist. And yes, I am very familiar with differential reinforcement. I understand what realistically can and can not be accomplished that way.
Of course, jerks can use these and other tools to do horrible things. Profiles with millions of followers on YouTube and other social media sites are full of poor examples. But that is not an argument against using aversive tools for what they are intended. That is, to convince a dog to change its behavior in some way.
Using Tools Properly Gives Freedom And Saves Lives
We can use a shock collar to teach a dog to avoid rattlesnakes by punishing approaching their scent in a controlled training scenario. That—combined with a solid recall—allows us to let them explore nature on a hiking trail and be a dog. Or we can manage it by keeping them on leash everywhere. It has come to that in Austria, even in the mountains! What is better for long-term animal welfare? Freedom or restraints?
We can use a prong or shock collar to teach a dog to come back to us when called, no matter the distractions. Or we can always keep the dog on a six-foot leash its entire life and hate its existence. What is better for long-term animal welfare? Freedom or restraints?
We can use training tools to stop aggression, self-injurious or destructive behaviors so our dog can have more freedom and be safer. Or we can deal with constant repairs and vet bills, amputate body parts (e.g., tail due to self-mutilation chewing) or euthanize the dog. What is better for long-term animal welfare? Is it teaching a dog what is acceptable and what isn’t or killing it?
Trying to manage things we can reliably change through training runs counter to animal welfare, restricts our dog’s movements, complicates the family life unnecessarily, and is a really ignorant idea overall.
Animal Welfare Conclusion
When dealing with behavioral dog challenges, dog owners benefit most from tackling those issues with an experienced dog trainer with a broad skill set. That will more likely result in a resolution than any other approach.
Avoid starting with management strategies with no end in sight. Your dog can learn how to live with your family in peace instead of you adjusting everything to your dog. Permanent management creates animal welfare concerns.
Yes, some issues may require long-term management (i.e., food aggression), but this is not true for the majority of challenges most dog owners need to address. Don’t put the carriage before the horse.