There is so much debate at the moment
particularly on social media about types of dog training. Well I say debate but
often it varies from polite debate to angry mud-slinging. It is an incredibly
emotive and divisive topic. In simple terms there are two extremes. On one side
we have the ‘positive’ trainers; the force free people who claim to never do
harm to a dog. On the other side we have the ‘traditional’ types, who believe
that being the boss or ‘alpha’ is crucial and like to demonstrate how dominance
over the dog is the way to go. In the middle there are those who call
themselves ‘balanced’ but appear not to know which camp they would rather be
associated with, so place themselves somewhere safely between the two. So how
as dog professionals and guardians do we steer a ship between the maelstroms?
Social media slanging matches aside (how
you respond to those is up to you), I believe we need to delve a little deeper
into the ethics of our interactions with dogs, or animals per se. Afterall this
type of debate exists across the board of animal training. Let’s consider the common
perceptions of each approach:
Positive Training: Positive trainers are
those who do not use punishment or aversive methods. They use positive
reinforcement to teach dogs in a variety of ways. They have a fluffy,
enlightened, ‘nice’, reputation who shower dogs with treats and never shout at
Traditional Training: Think Barbara
Woodhouse if you can remember that far back, or even some TV personality
trainers like Cesar Milan. They like to dominate dogs, assert their misguided
place as pack leaders, and make dogs submit to their demands. They have a
reputation as being bullies.
Balanced Training: Balanced training is the
combination of both; reward wanted behaviours and punish unwanted ones. These
trainers have a reputation as being the common-sense ones who use what works,
that sit on the fence, that use both arguments when it suits and stick firmly
to Skinner’s quadrants and Most’s ideas about training military dogs from
Now forgive my cynical descriptions but the
reality is that all training is coercive, whichever method we choose. Asking a
dog to comply to a command is getting him or her to conform to our request.
Whether we do that by positively reinforcing a desired behaviour or beating him
into submission, it is still coercive and controlling. The ethical argument
comes into the equation when we start to consider the dog.
Why do we train dogs in the first place?
Well mostly for human convenience. We housetrain dogs so they toilet outside,
we teach them not to chase other animals so they are not a nuisance, we expect
them not to pull on a lead, so our shoulder joints remain where they should. We
train them so that they become acceptable members of human society. However,
training goes beyond the basics of toilet training, sit, down and stay these
days and many dog owners now use their dogs in sports where the dog is used as
a ‘tool’ for a particular result, such as tracking, agility, biting etc. In
terms of science, the jury is still out on whether this benefits the dogs, with
some research suggesting it does and other, to the contrary.
There is an argument that if we have
brought dogs into the human environment, then we should train them so they are
equipped to deal with it. Ok, so I can go with this; it aims to allow the dog
to flourish and is therefore an ethical argument for training. The next stage
then is to consider how we train dogs. Well we know that Dominance Theory has
been disproved (Mech, 1999) and Wendy van Kerhove (2004) who studied feral dog
groups explained how these dogs live in loose social groups not packs, as
previously suggested. She also confirmed that dogs do not use aggression as a
means to resolve conflict and added weight to the idea that punishment and
force in training is counter-productive and harmful.
But surely we don’t need research to tell
us that intimidation and eliciting negative emotional states in dogs is wrong?
Apparently we do as these techniques are still used in many contexts.
Let’s for a moment lose the human-centred
way of thinking. Let’s stop looking at our dogs and finding ways we can change
them to suit us. What if we were to start thinking from a dog’s perspective; to
think about their needs, their innate behaviours, their desires and pleasure?
How about an existence with dogs that doesn’t expect them to ‘perform’, to be a
status symbol or accessory, but to just be, in a mutually agreeable fashion,
one where they get as much from the relationship as we do? Thinking Critically
Is training oppressive and exploitative? It
certainly can be. We might say that we love our companion dogs, but too many
people love them in a humanocentric way, and despite them sharing our homes,
treat them in the context of utility. My own observations are that all too
often training is about our relationship with power, even when done
‘positively’. If we really think about how we impose our will on our dogs and
reflect on how society has influenced us into normalising it, perhaps we can
see that we need to address the power imbalance. Ask yourself how your training
methods are oppressing your dog? How can you promote your dogs agency, that is
their ability to make choices and demonstrate consent?
Our relationships with dogs is inherently
imbalanced. We only have to think about our daily routines and how much we
control our dogs to know that. Our use of dogs has become so normal, we have
forgotten that they are individual animals in the same way that we are. I have
no doubt that my dogs enhance my life and I try very hard to make sure my
presence in theirs does the same. So whether it is when training them or
sharing the sofa with them, I encourage you to think about your dogs and do the
Mech, D. (1999) Alpha status, dominance,
and division of labor in wolf packs. Canadian Journal of Zoology 77,
van Kerkhove, W. (2004) A fresh look at
the wolf-pack theory of companion-animal dog social behavior. Journal of
Applied Animal Welfare Science 7(4), 279–285.