Dog cruelty is often defined as inflicting unnecessary pain and suffering on our dogs.
Dog cruelty laws differ broadly from country to country, and it may even differ from county to county in the United States. Most dog cruelty laws only deal with situations of extreme physical violence against a dog, that may result in serious wounds or even death.
Another class of dog cruelty laws address extreme neglect by the dog owner. This includes failure to provide certain basic necessities, including proper food, shelter, and veterinary care.
I think most of us can agree that all of these actions fall under the umbrella of dog cruelty.
Sometimes, a dog may have to go through pain or suffering, as a result of health issues. My Siberian Husky had to go through several painful surgeries when she was young, because we were trying to straighten her crooked leg. Unfortunately, the procedure failed, and amputation was necessary.
Some people may consider having a three legged dog to be selfish and cruel, because of quality of life issues. However, if we talk to three legged dog owners, most of them will tell us that their dogs enjoy life as much as, or more than, their four-legged brothers and sisters.
In general, the majority of us would not consider short term pain from medical treatment, to be dog cruelty. However, this question becomes a lot more controversial when pain is applied in the context of dog training or dog behavior modification.
You Say Dog Cruelty, I Say Dog Behavior Modification
Dog behavior modification is commonly achieved through a process called conditioning. There is –
In aversive based conditioning, we apply a negative stimulus to discourage bad dog behaviors, and remove the negative stimulus, to encourage good dog behaviors. For example, if our dog pulls, we may apply a leash jerk. As soon as he stops pulling, we also stop applying pain through the leash and collar.
Not all aversive dog training methods are pain based.
Sometimes, an unpleasant sound or an unpleasant smell, may be used to deter undesirable behaviors such as chewing shoes, or jumping on people. When it comes to dog cruelty however, most of the controversy is centered around pain based aversive methods (e.g. leash jerks, muzzle slaps, finger pokes) and pain based aversive equipment (e.g. electronic or shock collar, choke chains, prong collar).
Are Aversive Methods Cruel to Dogs?
People who oppose the use of aversive methods, argue that it is dog cruelty because it inflicts unnecessary pain on the dog.
Dog behavior modification, they say, can be achieved more effectively and more successfully, with reward based conditioning.
People who support the use of aversive methods argue that the techniques do not really cause any pain to the dog, but is just a form of communication. It is only used to snap the dog out of his current bad or rear-brain state, and return him into a calm state, where he is able to listen and communicate with his human counterpart.
Do Aversive Methods Cause Pain?
Let us consider the experiments upon which aversive methods are based.
In the Skinner box experiment, a loud or unpleasant noise is applied until a caged rat performs the target behavior. When the target behavior is performed, the noise stops. In essence, the rat performs the behavior, in order to avoid the loud noise.
To be effective, the loud noise must be loud enough so that it triggers an “aversive response” in the rat, thereby giving him the motivation to do what we want him to do.
Aversive methods work, precisely because they deliver an unpleasant stimulus to our dogs.
Are aversive methods a form of communication?
Yes, in the sense that they communicate to the dog, “Do this, or else”.
Do aversive methods deliver pain?
Yes, some of them do, including leash jerks, muzzle slaps, and finger pokes. These techniques work when we deliver the right amount of pain to the dog, thereby causing an aversive response. Too much pain will cause the dog to break down, and too little pain will not provide sufficient motivation.
Different dogs have different temperaments, therefore the right amount of pain will vary by dog, and also by context.
Do aversive methods get the attention of our dog?
Yes they do, through the delivery of an unpleasant stimulus, for example pain.
Aversive methods are always unpleasant for the dog. If they were not unpleasant, they would not work. Saying that an aversive method is only for communication, is simply untrue.
Don’t dogs sometimes cause more pain to each other, especially in a dog fight?
In a dog fight, yes they do. However, that does not mean we should emulate them in this regard.
During play, dogs rarely cause each other pain or harm, because they have very accurate control of the force and location of their bite. Causing pain to their dog friends usually stops play, so dogs are highly motivated to play nice.
Even though a play session may involve growling and a lot of wrestling, there is little to no pain inflicted at the end of the day.
Dogs who are under-socialized may potentially be dangerous, because they are unfamiliar with controlling the force and placement of their bite. This may cause them to inadvertently harm people, and other dogs.
Are Aversive Methods Cruel?
Based on the dog cruelty definition, aversive methods are only cruel if they inflict unnecessary pain on our dog.
What is necessary pain?
Performing surgery on a dog causes necessary pain. The surgical procedure causes short-term pain, but it will frequently increase the long-term quality of life for the dog.
If aversive methods can be effectively used for the short-term, to bring about an increase in long-term quality of life, then it is not so different from the case of surgery.
However, this is almost never the case.
It is best to explore all other avenues of training first, in particular reward dog training, before resorting to any pain based behavior modification methods. Such methods are risky, difficult to implement, and only effective in very limited situations.
Ultimately, the question of whether aversive methods are a form of dog cruelty is a moral judgment. As such, it is something that each individual must decide for themselves, based on their own values, and system of morality.
Should I Use Aversive Methods?
Like many people, I started out with aversive methods because it was recommended to me by so called experts. In my case, it was my breeder, and my first veterinary technician. Both of them recommended alpha rolls, and both of them recommended that I follow Cesar Millan, The Dog Whisperer’s more aversive, dog behavior modification techniques.
Aversive methods worked well for me initially. However, after several weeks, I was almost always applying aversive corrections on my dog, and his behavior was actually getting worse. I started having doubts about the long-term effectiveness of these methods, and decided to explore reward dog training instead.
After switching to only reward dog training, things improved significantly with my dog.
He started misbehaving less, he became less aggressive toward me, and he began to trust me more.
In many ways, whether aversive methods are considered dog cruelty or not, is a moot point.
What matters most, is providing a good quality of life for our dog, and building a good and healthy relationship. I strongly believe that this is most effectively achieved, through reward behavior modification.
It has worked very well for me and my dogs.