“There is no fundamental difference between man and animals in their ability to feel pleasure and pain, happiness and misery.”
– Charles Darwin
“There is no fundamental difference between man and animals in their ability to feel pleasure and pain, happiness and misery.”
– Charles Darwin
The biggest problem facing American shelters and rescues in my opinion today is the choice of responsibility. Shelters and rescue can choose to side with being responsible to our community, or we can choose to be responsible towards the dogs we want to save. I do not honestly believe that we can always be responsible towards both.
The balance of responsibility is almost never talked about outside of the rescue world, because it’s a harsh and sometimes ugly concept. It’s not something we like to think about, but I think it’s something that we need to think and to talk about, openly and honestly. Until we can discuss the balance of responsibility, until we can ask organizations where their individual fulcrum sits and where they’ve decided to place their moral chips, it’s nearly impossible to have so many other discussions about euthanasia and live release rates and what “adoptable” looks like in their organization.
There’s a margin of error on both sides, and within that margin of error live the borderline dogs. Borderline dogs are those dogs who come into the shelter system damaged through no fault of their own. Through poor genetics, lack of socialization, or bad experiences, these dogs are just a little too hot to be pet material. Anyone who’s worked for any amount of time in shelter or rescue knows the dogs I’m talking about. These dogs do well in the hands of experienced animal handlers. We can take these dogs and make them look like stars. They’re usually dog- and cat-aggressive, or perhaps they do great with other animals but show no sociability towards people. Maybe they don’t like to be touched, or maybe they’re guarders. Maybe they don’t like men, or kids, or people who are holding things. Sometimes they have crazy drive and terrible structure. Sometimes they have stereotypies – spinning, licking, jumping. Often they’re quick to lunge and snap, quick to snark, or maybe even have a minor bite history. Maybe they’ve just never been inside, and pancake to the floor or won’t go through doorways. They come in a variety of flavors, but whatever they look like, they’re just a little bit tough without being obviously unsalvageable. They’re workable, but they’re also very likely to hurt someone in the wrong situation.
Do we – should we? – place these animals? With lots of resources, they could do really well. In fact, many blog readers probably have success stories about dogs just like those I described above who did beautifully in your home (I do too!). But, the resources that it would take to get these borderline animals to a place where the average pet owner could handle them would save fifty perfectly lovely other dogs who are dying in southern shelters today. And in my experience, most rescues never get these animals to a place where the average pet owner can adopt them. Instead, they have to wait for the above average pet owner to adopt them, and that takes months or years. That takes so many resources, or it takes unintentionally misleading adoption pleas.
The problem is that either way, you’re going to get some wrong. Occasionally, it’s not going to go well. So, which way do you err?
If your rescue errs on the side of the community, you kill some animals who were perfectly placeable. This is the side that the majority of the ER staff, vets, and trainers I know, myself included, tend to come down on, because we’ve seen the damage done when borderline dogs get placed irresponsibly. We’ve seen the bites to small children requiring plastic surgery. We’ve seen the grief when people’s pet cats or dogs are killed. We’ve seen how devastating it can be when an adopter has to send their new pet’s head off for rabies testing. So we advise that dogs with bite histories or histories of aggression, especially large or powerful breeds or those who already have a bad reputation which would be especially hurt by another poor media portrayal, be euthanized. We advise against placing dogs who we would absolutely work with if they were already in stable, loving homes, because the sad fact is that they aren’t, and that there are hundreds of lovely dogs with no behavioral issues who could use those resources out there who need help.
And I understand how hard that is, too. Because if you work in rescue, you tend to err on the side of the dogs. You’re the one who has to clean up after the world, and it hurts so much to take a hurt and broken dog who’s physically healthy on that last trip to the vet and hold them while they die. So you place them and you cross your fingers and then you feel so happy that everything worked out. And most of the time, quite honestly, it’s okay. Most of the time, things are all right, and adopters make things work, and the dog doesn’t bite anyone. And – I’ll be honest – even if the dog does horribly disfigure the neighbor kid, you’re probably not going to hear about it, because usually the adopter is too embarrassed or upset, so they don’t contact you to let you know, and you go on thinking everything worked out in the end. And you didn’t have to kill the dog. The buck was passed.
Why am I writing this? If you’re not in the rescue or shelter community, you’re probably horrified about the Sophie’s choice of the idea right now. If you are, you’re already aware of it, although you may not have thought of it so starkly before. Honestly, I’ve had a lot of tough cases over the last few months, blog readers, on both sides of the fence. I work with rescues who are doing everything they can to advocate for their dogs, and I admire the hell out of their commitment to their charges. However, I’ve also had a handful of cases where adopters have had to make tough choices about dogs that, in my humble opinion, should never have been placed in their homes or their communities, and in some of those cases children were injured. In one case, a beloved pet died. The dog in question was placed with a known history of aggression towards other animals. Shame on the shelter for passing on the responsibility to their adopter. You can guess which side of the moral debate that particular organization lands on.
Regardless of whether you work in shelter or rescue or not, you can make a difference. Make sure that your donations are going to support organizations whose missions support your beliefs. Even better, support organizations who work to keep animals in their original homes through programs that provide training, veterinary, and educational support to needy communities.
The sad fact of rescue is that sometimes we get it wrong. Behavior is not always predictable, and we’re left making educated guesses about what any animal in our care will do in the future. With that in mind, those of us in the rescue and sheltering community have an important responsibility to both the community we live in and the animals we’ve sworn to help. It’s a balancing act that can seem daunting at times, and each of us must decide at which point on the scale we wish to place our fulcrum. Where will you err? In favor of your community, or in favor of the dog? If you err, who’s going to pay the price?
“We can learn so much from our dogs but in order to do this, we need to give them the opportunity.”
– Dr. Gadbois
Force free. It sounds great, doesn’t it? Of course dog training should be force free! Yet when a recent client asked if I was a force free trainer, I said I wasn’t. My client was taken aback, as many of my blog readers probably are. Let me explain.
I have several issues with the idea of labeling the training that Paws Abilities offers as “force free.” My biggest problem with the label is that it says nothing about what we actually do. Focusing on negatives like this is one of the biggest advertising gimmicks of all time. “No corn, wheat, or soy!” the dog food package proclaims. Yet, reading the label shows that there’s enough barley, rice, and oatmeal in the food that dogs who have issues with carbs are still going to react negatively. “Sugar free – No Sugar Crash!” the 5-hour Energy drink shouts, saying nothing about how your body might react to the caffeine crash later in the day.
Focus on negatives like this is meant to make you think poorly of competitor’s products or services. When you see the label that says “no by-products” on the dog food package, you start thinking that maybe by-products are bad for your dog, and wondering why other dog food companies would use them. When you see “force free” on a dog trainer’s website, your mental image of a trainer shoving or jerking a dog around makes you feel relieved that at least this trainer doesn’t do that.
What the focus on negatives doesn’t tell you is what the trainer actually does. While I don’t use or recommend choke, prong, or electronic collars, that doesn’t tell you a single thing about what I will do to your dog. Can I solve the behavioral issues you’re experiencing with your pet? How quickly and effectively will I do so? These are probably the bigger questions on your mind, and knowing what tools I do or don’t use isn’t going to tell you a whole hell of a lot about how effective I am. There are good and bad trainers of all training methodologies, and more has to do with the trainer’s experience than with the methods they use.
Which brings me to the second reason I don’t consider myself or my other instructors force free. The dog decides what “force” means, and we can’t always know that until we try a given training intervention. Is it considered forceful to stand on a dog’s leash so that he has enough leash to comfortably sit, stand, or lie down, but not enough to jump up on a stranger? Is it forceful to use body blocks to keep my dog from lunging at a passing bike? Is it forceful to fit a dog with a Gentle Leader or front-attach harness so that when he pulls on his leash he ends up facing his handler? I can’t tell you, and neither can anyone else. Each of these training methods is one that I frequently use, and each of them produces different results for different dogs. For some dogs, these methods might be considered forceful. A soft dog who’s very sensitive to spacial pressure might be really uncomfortable when her handler body blocks her, for example. For that dog, we may have to adjust the handler’s technique (perhaps having her handler lean towards her instead of actually stepping in front of her, for example). But we can’t know until we look at the dog’s response.
I’ve watched as a friend’s dog was happily and quickly recalled using low-level shocks from an electronic collar. While the tool isn’t one I use or recommend, in this dog’s case I didn’t see any body language that told me that the dog was uncomfortable or stressed by the use of force. Rather, the dog understood what the sensation on his neck meant, knew how to turn it off, and had a great relationship with his handler. I didn’t consider the interaction forceful and was not uncomfortable with anything I observed, even though the training tool was not one that I typically like seeing used.
On the other hand, I’ve watched a trainer shape a dog to “bang” the teeter totter using a clicker and treats at a seminar and felt highly uncomfortable. The dog was on a leash but was not being physically guided in any way. Still, she couldn’t go more than 6′ away from the teeter totter, and was clearly uncomfortable with the amount of pressure placed on her by the trainer. The dog’s body was low and she was licking her lips and turning her head away from the trainer. Even though I often use clickers and treats to train dogs, I was very uncomfortable with the interaction and didn’t feel like the dog was enjoying the training or building a good relationship with the well-known presenter at all.
The force free training movement would have you believe that the first trainer is evil because of her use of an e-collar, while the second trainer is good because she was using a clicker and treats. However, I bet if we asked the two dogs which was happier with the training they were experiencing, we’d get very different answers. This doesn’t mean that I’m going to start using an e-collar anytime soon (I’m not), or that I don’t think clickers and treats are good training tools (I do). But we have to ask the dog, and the mark of a good trainer has a lot less to do about what tools are in their repertoire as it does with how they modify their techniques based on the animal in front of them. Dogs are individuals, and cookie-cutter techniques don’t work any better for them than they do for the owners at the other end of the leash. The more dogs a trainer has worked with, the better that trainer will be able to change his or her methods to suit the individual that they’re working with at the moment – and the happier and less stressed the dog will be with the training.
I still get it wrong sometimes. Everyone will. I yelp loudly when a puppy nips me, then watch as that puppy shrinks away and realize that I’ve been too forceful. Next time I’ll need to make less noise. I clap my hands and cheer, offering a tug toy as the dog I’m working with gets into heel position, then feel my heart sink as the dog lags behind me. Next time I’ll need to praise and pet quietly, handing the dog a small piece of hot dog. I back an excited adolescent dog away from the dog he’s lunging and barking at, and watch as he continues to carry on. Next time I’ll need to body block him with a quick verbal “I don’t THINK so,” and be ready to reward him when he quiets down. The important thing in each interaction is that I modify my response to the dog to better work for that individual animal.
I’m not force free. I make mistakes in how I handle dogs. But I strive to be fair, kind, and respectful. I’m not force free. But I am helpful, effective, and a trainer who prefers reward-based methods. And doesn’t that tell you a lot more than focusing on what I’m not?
I talk to him when I’m lonesome like
and I’m sure he understands.
When he looks at me so attentively,
and gently licks my hands;
then he rubs his nose on my tailored clothes,
but I never say naught thereat.
For the good lord knows I can buy more clothes,
but never a friend like that.
– W. Dayton Wedgefarth
“Obesity in dogs is one of the biggest problems. But do you think the dog food companies want to talk about that?”
– Dr. Ray Coppinger