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"Because it works"

Updated: Mar 16, 2021

The trouble caused by those three little words..."because it works"...

On many of the pet groups I follow, techniques for training often include pain or pain predicated methods - prong collars, e-collars, nose swats, kidney pokes, grabbing muzzles, ear pinches etc. When pushed to defend the use of these methods the answer is -inevitably - "because they work".

The first step in discussing e-collars, pinch collars, hitting or swatting, kidney pokes, kicking, collar lifts, etc. is we have to agree on WHY they appear effective at the time of use. Explanations from advocates range from false assertions that pinch collars mimic a mother dog's discipline, to claims (usually by manufacturers or resellers) that e-collars are not really painful, they are simply "attention getters". People who use slaps or kidney pokes or collar suspensions (2 or even all 4 of the dogs feet held off the ground) maintain these do not really hurt the dog, and they use them "because they work".

But we have to agree that what all these methods have in common is pain. Call it discomfort, call it a sting, a pinch, a twinge, smarting, irritation, a prick, a tingle, a jam, a squeeze .. these are all synonyms for pain. One can argue that it is only a small amount of pain, a fleeting application of pain, but it is pain nonetheless. If someone who uses these methods refuses to acknowledge that "discomfort" is the result of the application of these methods, then they are deluding themselves.

Pain works to stop behavior (highly aroused or totally fearful dogs aside) because that is its very function - pain exists specifically to STOP behavior! If your body is in danger from an action, pain is what clues you to STOP doing that. Do not walk across those hot coals, do not stick your nose in the hornet's nest, do not run on that broken leg. And painful experiences result in avoidance behavior - the dog will try and avoid those events that have, in its past, resulted in pain. Humans respond similarly to pain - we avoid the stairs where we fell and got hurt, for example, and we all know why we hate going to the dentist!

So what's wrong with using a dog's biological response to pain to prevent it from doing things we don't want? What's wrong with using pain, "if it works"?

The first problem is that avoidance often fades. If you broke your leg, nature wants you stay off it for a while, not forever! Pain has to be reapplied - often more severally - as its effect fades with time.

The second issues is these methods may work, but there are consequences. There is always a bill to pay when we use pain.

Years ago, I lived in a city and I had a large, very popular working breed. The 100lb love of my life was dog aggressive. With a pinch collar, I was able to hold my dog if we encountered another dog while walking.

Early one morning, I was walking my dog when we rounded a corner and came face to face with another large dog. Both dogs jumped out to the ends of their respective leases and started barking and growling as if to kill each other. I yanked back hard on my dog's leash, attached to that pinch collar. With a loud yelp my dog turned and bit me several times up my arm.

So what happened here? The arousal from the proximity of the other dog, the pain from the collar, and the frustration at the leash preventing him from getting to the other dog all caused my dog to aggress at what he COULD get - in this case my arm. At work was frustration aggression, redirected, or displaced aggression, and pain aggression. Redirected aggression can happen when a dog is highly aroused and there is an accessible target. Frustration aggression is the leash holding the dog back, and in my dog's case, the final straw was pain aggression, a consequence of the pinch collar.

A trio of aggressive motivations all bundled up in a not terribly unusually scenario, a dog with dog aggression issues being walked on a pinch collar! I never used a pinch collar again, switching to a head halter. And I never again had a scenario where this dog aggressed at me, despite encountering many more dogs over the years.

Another problem with "because it works" is owners that think using a strong physical response to behaviors they don't want like kicking or hitting is an appropriate way to train the dog to behave. However we know that owners that use force and punishment like scruff or jowl shaking or striking or kicking their dogs are more likely to encounter aggressive behavior from that dog. 1 Aggression teaches aggression.

When pet owners (who are often inconsistent) use corporal punishment as the main training method, a dog can become stressed about offering any behavior, unsure what will be punished. For some owners, this is considered success ("it works"). For example, corporal punishment is used when an owner discovers a chewed shoe, and now the dog goes into its crate and stays there when the owner is in the room. The owner says this "training" worked, when actually he has a scared, stressed dog, who is very likely to exhibit problem behaviors as a result of his stress and anxiety - these can include inappropriate urination, chewing and destruction, and fear responses including shaking and avoidance, and of course, aggression.

Ok, so these are extremes you say, most dogs don't stay in their crate or bite their handler when put on an e-collars, or a prong collar, or disciplined with scruff shakes or a swat. True. The consequences of using pain to train may never be as visible or as overt as any of these responses, But studies show they exist none the less.

E-collars, for example, are now illegal in many countries, and studies such as the one below demonstrate why.

"Our results indicate that the immediate effects of training with an e-collar give rise to behavioural signs of distress in pet dogs, particularly when used at high settings... Accordingly, it seems that the routine use of e-collars even in accordance with best practice (as suggested by collar manufacturers) presents a risk to the well-being of pet dogs. The scale of this risk would be expected to be increased when practice falls outside of this ideal" 2

So let's revisit "because it works". Does the use of painful training methods really "work"? Do they result in the dog we want; a confident, fun, eager, engaged, attentive, interested partner? Or do e-collars and pinch collars and physical punishment in training introduce potential problems that we DO NOT encounter when we train positively ?

Is that, perhaps the final and most important reason to avoid using these methods.....we have competitively effective ways to train that use positive reinforcement, teaching dogs what to DO, rather than what to stop doing, and we know that these methods work just as well as punishment based methods, without the negative fallout.3 4

The answer to "because it works" is "Reinforcement, because it works better "! Reinforcement training is like the cocktail without the hangover, the taco without the heartburn, the workout without the sore back. Why would anyone use anything else ?

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