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Archive for February, 2014

Dogs, Mental Health, and The Prong Collar

Sunday, February 23rd, 2014

Most of you probably think, by the title of this blog, that this is going to be a blog about how prong collars cause mental health issues in dogs. In fact, I believe that often they do, but that’s not what this is going to be about.

Recently, a blog has made the rounds on social media talking about the recent legislation introduced in Quebec that allows officials to fine owners found using a prong/pinch or shock/electronic collar on their dogs. To those of us in the force free training world, this is a huge step in the right direction for the welfare of dogs and the quality of the training they receive. For those who choose to use and train with prong and e-collars, it has been a call to action to ‘enlighten’ dog owners about why prong collars and e-collars are not harmful to a dog. Blogs like this one even go so far as to say that you can be well within the positive training realm and still use a prong collar. Advocates of such devices use a lot of common terms to achieve this goal; a mother’s bite, pressure, best used for high-drive dogs or red-zone dogs, only two or three corrections are ever necessary, and of course the ubiquitous “positive trainers can’t train aggressive dogs, they don’t do their homework on all options available to train a dog, and many dogs would die if not for the benefit of these devices”. A trainer who believes this kind of information is no more likely to be convinced that they are causing harm to a dog by using this equipment than I am to be convinced that they are not causing harm, or that they should form a useful part of my training equipment, so this blog is not to convince those trainers. This blog is intended to help those ‘on the fence’ about prongs and e-collars make a more informed decision, and to set the record straight on my own perspective on a topic I’m asked about almost daily.

Let’s start with those common ‘descriptions’ of the prong collar, such as the mother’s bite. This one is easy – in all my observations, I’ve never seen a mother bite her pup around the underside of the throat, a very sensitive area on a dog. If this were a true comparison, prongs would only be required to sit on either side of the muscled part of the neck. The word ‘pressure’, which I would say is the most common description used by trainers for both prong collars and shock collars, is in my opinion meant to say that the equipment merely causes the dog to feel some pressure on his neck, thereby causing him to realize he’s to stop whatever behaviour he’s doing. Pressure is another word for punisher, which is a more legitimate word when we consider operant conditioning and the learning quadrants. Pressure is what is known as a positive punishment, meaning we are adding something aversive to the dog or his environment meant to reduce the likelihood of the behaviour occurring in the future. Unfortunately, despite the number of ‘experts’ I’ve asked about this term, none have been able to explain to me why this pressure needs to be coupled with something that is in the very least irritating to the dog, if not actually painful. If these devices indeed cause only pressure, why not just use a flat collar? Why not just use a vibrating collar instead of a shock collar? What’s the difference? It seems to me that they are desperate to avoid the words ‘pain’ or ‘discomfort’ with these devices, when in fact if they weren’t causing pain or discomfort, quite frankly they wouldn’t work! Does a prong collar or a well-timed shock work in momentarily stopping a dog from performing an unwanted behaviour? Yes they do. But we can achieve the same results without causing the dog any discomfort, physically or mentally, so why we would choose not to? Leah Roberts, a highly respected trainer out of the US, sums it up beautifully: “I want to teach you something,” she explains. “Every time you do it wrong, I gently poke you in the shoulder. Doesn’t hurt, right? Poke, poke, poke, poke, poke… how long would it take before you were, first, so annoyed by the poke that you were ready to smack me, and second, you so dreaded the next poke that you no longer wanted to offer any behavior?” she asks. “Me? I’d probably be grabbing your finger somewhere around the sixth poke,” she adds. “Why choose this method when, instead, you can create a dog who is excited about offering behavior and invested in doing it ‘right’ to earn a valued resource? All while creating a relationship of trust that the teacher will never do anything to intimidate or upset you?” she asks.

High-drive is an interesting and, in my opinion, condescending way of saying ‘your dog can’t possibly be worked with in any other way than by using force’. Realistically, ‘drive’ in this context is just another way of saying ‘motivator’. Where we have a motivator, we have a fantastic learning opportunity with a real life reward. In other words, you have a dog with a high-drive for balls, for chasing squirrels, for performing in a sport, for the acquisition of food, or for the sheer need to control his/her environment (such as leash aggression). If anything, a dog with a ‘high-drive’ is easier to train with force free methods than the dog who is a couch potato and cares for very little in the world. To say force free trainers don’t or can’t work with highly motivated dogs is a serious misconception – we don’t just teach dog sports or train dogs for television – in fact, some of the world’s best veterinary behaviourists, animal ethologists, and force free trainers work exclusively and hands on with these so-called ‘red zone’ dogs (tv word, NOT a real diagnosis) every single day. Proclaiming that the handler may only need to deliver a few corrections on the collar in order for it be effective is also a misnomer – if this were the case, we’d rarely see dogs with prongs or e-collars, because they would only be needed for a lesson or two. More importantly, the reason we do see them so often, even on dogs who aren’t being repeatedly corrected, is because the dog ‘knows he’s wearing it, so he doesn’t act out’. To me, this means you’re threatening your dog, and essentially saying to him “that thing is on you, so if you step out of line, it’s gonna hurt”. Personally, I fail to see the ‘training’ component where the behaviour is conditional upon a piece of equipment, and the desired behaviour doesn’t occur when that equipment isn’t being worn.

If we consider that most trainers who use these devices also work, for the most part, with dogs who have behavioural issues, including serious aggression, then we need to address the mental health component of training. A behavioural issue such as leash aggression (considering we’re talking about leash related tools) is in fact a mental health issue. The dog is having a reaction to a stimulus because something in his mind is telling him that a ‘normal’ situation is not normal for him, and he needs to react to it. This is rarely (unless the dog has been purposely trained to be reactive) a case of a dog consciously deciding that he wants to carry on and bark and lunge and be crazy. He didn’t wake up that morning and decide he was going to ruin your day and get all the neighbours talking. It’s a sub-conscious response to a stimulus that his brain is telling him to react to inappropriately. The majority of the time, it’s a fear reaction. At the most basic level, it will never make sense to me why a person would choose to inflict pain upon an animal that is afraid, or how punishment could resolve the problem.

My husband, as some of you may know, was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome in 2012 at the age of 32. As a result, I do a fair amount of reading on the subject in the hopes that I can better understand his thought processes, improve our communication, and be more supportive of the challenges and gains it brings him. Today, I was reading “Look Me In The Eye” by John Elder Robison, and came across this quote, which describes his thoughts shortly after his own diagnosis in adulthood: “I knew that I did not look at people in the eye when I talked to them. Hell, I had been beaten up and criticized for that all through my childhood. But until I read that book I had never realized my behaviour was unusual. I had never understood why people treated me the way they did. It had always seemed so mean, so unfair. It had never occurred to me that other people might find what I did (or did not do) naturally disconverting.””I had spent most of my life listening to people tell me how I was arrogant, aloof, or unfriendly. Now I read that people with Asperger’s display inappropriate facial expressions. Well, I certainly knew about that. When I was a child, I was told my aunt had died, and I grinned even though I was sad. And I got smacked.”

Consider this quote, and the fact that John was a child when he, inadvertently, made an inappropriate facial gesture in response to bad news – despite how he actually felt about the news. How did his Aunt smacking him change his behaviour going forward? If she were training him within the parameters of behaviour modification and learning theory, the action she chose should have affected John’s future choices in how he responded to a family member’s death, or similar news. However, because John had an underlying condition, essentially a brain which is not flawed, but wired differently, he was not able to understand why he smiled, nor was he able to change that about himself in the future. By smacking him, his Aunt actually compounded the situation by teaching John that, when receiving bad news, the situation has potential to be even more uncomfortable should he choose the wrong response. His comment about never understanding why people treated him the way they did is rather sad, and even more so for many people when they consider he was just a child when he started feeling this way. Until his diagnosis, my husband faced similar social frustrations, including the two of us trying to come to agreements on how to communicate with one another early in our relationship, and my own frustrations with him seemingly not understanding my broadest of gestures. I can assure you, though, yelling and otherwise punishing him for these misunderstandings would not have made future gestures, conversations, and other methods of communication any better. In fact, they would have become more tense, and more frustrating for us both.

Dogs can’t sit quietly and type out an email pouring out their heart and telling you how they feel when they face the situations in which they act out the most. But if they could, they’d surely tell you that adding painful or even irritating devices in situations where they are already uncomfortable does not make them feel any MORE comfortable, and in fact it adds a level of confusion and frustration because, like John and my husband, the choices they are making in uncomfortable situations are often subconscious, at a level where they can’t really understand why they are choosing that method of communication. So instead, wouldn’t it be better to teach them that the situation is not one in which they should be uncomfortable, therefore changing the way they deal with that situation? And, if your dog wears these devices because he’s overjoyed about going to do something fun and pulling you down the street, or jumping on his absolute favourite new person ever that they’ve never met before, is killing the joy of the experience something you want to do to them? Wouldn’t it be better if we simply provided clear options for how to behave appropriately in social situations, so that they can confidently make better choices, AND stay happy, in future?

Reaching a goal as a team - with trust, teamwork and joy

One of my pet peeves is a blog that lays out all the things NOT to do with your dog, but doesn’t then tell you what TO do. So, if you are trying to figure out how to manage some of the issues I talk about in this blog, I invite you to read about them more specifically here:

On leash aggression

On pulling on leash

On jumping up on guests (Boxer specific, but the methods and techniques apply to most excitable dogs)

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