Co-written with Mary Angilly
A slippery slope may seem to refer to a patch of ice where you slip and slide, but people use it to refer to situations where deciding to do something can lead to other actions with undesirable consequences. For example, we might say it’s wrong to use shock collars to train dogs, but someone might say something like, “I agree, but I’ll only use one time to solve the problem I have”. Later they have another problem, so they decide to use it again and maybe again. This sets a bad precedent for future situations that could be handled without using the collar.1
Our obvious preference is to move all dog sitters towards non-force and positive training methods whenever possible, but we understand that some people, including those who love their pets, sometimes experience a significant amount of cognitive dissonance when told that their prong, choke or shock collars or other punitive training methods are harming their dogs.2 These situations require a cost-benefit analysis and trainers must choose their battles carefully.
For example, Mary worked with a dog with high leash responsiveness to other dogs. While talking with the guardians of this dog, she discovered that the dog had an electronic collar. When she asked about it, the keepers said they only use the e-collar when they go into the mountains and the dog is outside without a leash.
They never had the collar on the dog at any other time. They rarely used vibration and never used shock. Mary asked them to send her videos of the dog in the mountains, including calling him (to check on their use of the e-collar), and in all the footage they sent, the dog looked happy and confident.
To be very clear, none of us condone the use of this equipment, especially when non-force tools have been widely released and science and research tell us that positive reinforcement is the way to go in dog training. . Would we prefer that people didn’t use electronic collars at all? Sure. Would we have preferred this equipment to be totally prohibited? Yes.
However, for this particular dog in this particular situation, and with these very concerned and aware dog guardians, this tool may have allowed this dog to be more free from restraint and less stress in general. We don’t really know because we can’t ask the dog, but it’s an important thought experiment. After a few sessions with these clients, they told us more about recall and what positive training methods might look like.
Currently, this dog no longer wears an electronic collar in the mountains, and he still has excellent recall. More information on training dogs to come without shocking them can be found here.
Source: zoegammon, pixabay, free download.
Mary had also worked with clients on the other end of that spectrum, once with a dog that wore a claw and an electronic collar at all times except at night when crated.
Customers were first given a spiked collar at the suggestion of a pet store employee to prevent their dog from pulling on the leash.
After a few months, the spiked collar stopped working, so customers were given an electronic collar to continue helping with pulling. From there, they started using it for other behaviors they found problematic. After reviewing the videos and working with customers, it became clear that people were using these collars so frequently that the dog was likely receiving dozens of corrections a day, with increasing intensity. This dog was neither happy nor relaxed.
With any tool, piece of equipment, or information, there will always be individuals who pay more attention than others. When given aversive training, individual companion dogs may be more or less resilient and able to or may not cope differently. Either way, as we’ve already discussed about aversive collars, if a piece of equipment or training method works to stop a behavior, it’s because the animal has found it aversive from a one way or another, whether boring, uncomfortable, scary or painful.
If positive, humane, force-free methods of training and interacting with our pets are widely publicized and supported by science and research, then what is the argument for using the alternative? If they didn’t notice it or liked it, it wouldn’t reduce the frequency of the behavior to be corrected. For good measure, check out the American Veterinary Society’s recent report of Animal Behavior Position statement on people training.
For these reasons, we would prefer an outright ban on aversive equipment so that certain individuals do not misuse these tools and misuse them. Whether the tools are used “correctly” or not (this is subjective), the potential for negative fallout with aversive methods is significant. Even with the banning of aversive gear, there will still be those who physically and emotionally harm their animals.
But what about dogs that would otherwise be euthanized? This is a common argument that some people use to justify the use of shock collars. Remember that the use of aversives is elective; It’s a personal choice, and other options are readily available.
Unfortunately, there is no magic cure in dog training. The nature of aversive use almost guarantees that the root of a behavioral “problem” will not be resolved. This can stop the behavior in the moment, but the risks of creating negative associations and increasing fear, aggression and reactivity are well known. It is important to consider the long term potential for negative fallout in dogs where we use “quick fixes” that work for the time being but leave a dog feeling anxious and scared.
A recent to study by examining risk factors for euthanizing or re-homing dogs, it was found that “owner-associated variables included the use of punishment-based training and prior consultation with a behaviorist or trainer non-veterinarian”.
We should carefully consider these results because they are testament to the fact that using punishment-based training methods can actually do the opposite of keeping dogs out of shelters and not being euthanized. And, of course, it’s debatable whether “putting these dogs to sleep” really is euthanasia because they aren’t suffering endless pain or an incurable disease.
Overall, people love their dogs and do the best they can with the information and tools they have. In an industry that is unregulated and overrun with misinformation, it can be complicated for a well-meaning dog sitter to sift through what’s “good” for their dog. But when they do, it’s a win-win for them and their dog, and nothing better than developing and maintaining a positive, mutually respectful relationship.
*Mary Angilly is a Boulder-based non-strength positive trainer.