Relaxed or Hostage?

I recently saw a video of a trainer teaching relaxation, the dog was tethered to the ground, muzzled, and in both a prong and shock collar.  The dog was trembling, any experienced dog person would recognize the tenseness, the stressed eyes, the trembling – it was the farthest thing from relaxed.  Was the dog down?  Yes.  But was it relaxed?  No.

The trainer felt that if it was kept in a down enough it would eventually feel the reward of relaxing.  But to me it looked like a hostage situation, and learned helplessness.  I suspect the dog was not learning to relax but was learning it was not worth fighting.  Would it maybe eventually relax?  Perhaps.  Some dogs are resilient, some dogs are not.

When I look at training methodologies I cannot help but slip into teacher mode, and go back into the classroom.  I often put a person in the place of the dog.  I ask would I do this to a student?  And if the answer is no, I ask why it is okay to do to a dog.  Is it justified?  Taking it to another level, if that was a prisoner convicted of murder – would that be consider appropriate or cruel and unusual punishment?  If the methodology would be considered too cruel for a murderer, how can it be appropriate for a dog?  

Too extreme?  Okay, I’ll take it another way.  I have a masters in Education, and was certified as both an Elementary teacher, and a Special Ed teacher in NYS.  Watching some of these “training” videos I think of all the strategies used to “rehab” dogs and how they compare to older strategies to “rehab” people. Yes for people they employed tethering, punishment, even shock.  Many times on people who did not have a voice and far more recently than many would expect.  It was shameful what was done, although it was often by done with people with good intentions – however misinformed.  Now thankfully we have left most of those methods behind.  Even nuns with rulers are becoming a thing of the past – we learned, we changed, we do better.  And I hope the dog training industry follows along.  Regulation helps that, something we are still lacking in dog training.

When considering training strategies for dogs I focus on the Five Freedoms, and I encourage my clients to consider them as well.  I will now be handing them out in my classes, but for those who want to learn more please read about them here
and here.

The Five Freedoms simply are:
1. Freedom from Hunger and Thirst by ready access to fresh water and diet to maintain health and vigor.
2. Freedom from Discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
3. Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
4. Freedom to Express Normal Behavior by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.
5. Freedom from Fear and Distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.

If a trainer is endorsing any methodology that violates the Five Freedoms I encourage you to think hard about following their advice.  Look at their credentials, look at what organizations they belong to, what their training is, and what their long-term results are.  Punishment can work, but many punishment based methods have dogs operating under threat of pain or fear – are you okay subjecting your dog to that?  Effectiveness and risks aside, you as an owner have to make an ethical decision of what you are comfortable with.  And unfortunately many trainers will misrepresent their tools.  Shock collars do not shock but stim – it’s a tickle!  And prongs mimic the bite of a mother dog – it’s natural! If you have a trainer who tells you that I suggest you take a step back and do some research yourself.  First on effective punishment based training, and secondly on how these tools work.  I’m providing some resources at the end of this post.

Punishment based strategies work because the repercussion of a behavior is unpleasant, and the dog does not want to experience that again.  If a trainer is not upfront about that, I would personally not trust them – they are either misleading or lack understanding of training methodology.  

Personally I prefer to teach a dog what to do instead, to create positive experiences, and set up management and boundaries to help a dog be successful.  But everyone has to make their own choice.  For those wondering how to teach your dog to relax I would encourage them to look at Really Real Relaxation.

And for those thinking you have to, I understand.  I think I think all trainers have had those moments.  For you I encourage you to read this article by Suzanne Clothier – someone I am lucky to have as a friend and mentor.

Further Reading/References

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