The Ideology of Restraint vs. Punishment: Paradoxical and Odd

“Splasher” on his sleep-number bed.

  Consider this rather interesting paradox. Let’s say by pulling a stuck dog free from a rapidly filling drainage culvert, you break its leg. If you refrain from doing it, the dog drowns. Meaning your logical choice is a broken legged dog vs. a dead dog. Animal emergency people make these kinds of choices on a regular basis. This is not a hypothetical situation. I’ve been in similar situations dozens of times. I once pulled a dog out of a large irrigation canal. He didn’t want to come to me – he was a street dog. He had a big gash in his leg and by pulling him out it was going to hurt considerably and possibly further injure the cut. It’s the same basic choice – a dog with a damaged leg or a drowned dog. I pulled him out – he tried to bite me. Splasher lived to be 17 years old.

This isn’t anything unusual. Restraint intended to rescue a dog or handle it safely may actually causWeb-2-7-13-Dog-Rescue-2-e injury but give the dog a chance of survival. I was in that world for eight years as a shelter manager and animal control officer. I was in these types of situations dozens to hundreds of times. If you are ever confronted with such an immediate circumstance you will have to decide one way or the other. Your emotional side hesitates to cause pain or discomfort. You logical mind grits its metaphoric teeth and tells your compassionate mind to shut up. When confronted with the metaphoric filling drainage pipe, you take a deep breath and pull. Then you get the dog to a veterinarian. Mission accomplished. You have behaved ethically and morally in an emergency. Your course of action was dictated by reality. You wou1418450360_1769321540001_ari-origin29-arc-156-1344018184643ld never do these things without a very important reason. You are a true dog lover.

What if there was a news crew there and someone said, “Oh, my God! You just broke that dog’s leg? What if the dog struggled violently and ran away, preventing you from taking it to a vet? Sorry, the news crew didn’t see a happy ending. They didn’t see the subsequent vet care. They saw you brutally yank a dog and snap it’s leg. Now you are not a hero, you are a goat. You saved the dog’s life but you are attacked for what was necessary to Get-R-Done. Even if the dog does make it to a vet after your five additional hours of searching and dog catching on your own time, there is another glitch. The vet works behind closed doors and may be even more invasive but will not be part of the story. Hmmmm. That seems unfair.

However, there is a bit of logic to accusing you of brutality. Once at the vet, the dog required extensive surgery, paid for by an internet fund-it campaign. Compassionate dog lovers have just paid for weeks of pain and suffering as the dog recuperates from surgery with no guarantee that the leg will ever be right. Now it is in competition with six other dogs with no physical disabilities. Only one gets adopted. The others die. Does the community save a crippled dog while six perfectly healthy ones die? You betcha. The compassionate hearts are indifferent to the six that don’t have a heroic back story.

(Here’s another odd thing. If you Google “do131017212713-dnt-dog-rescued-after-being-stuck-in-drain-for-four-days-00011807-story-topg rescued drain pipe image” you get hundreds of pictures. If you google “veterinary emergency surgery image” you get links to veterinary sites but no images. Hmmmmm. Maybe they don’t want you to see it.)

Here’s the next paradox. If you had used the tiniest fraction of that kind of pain, fear and suffering to punish the dog in advance for going in the culvert, you would not be a hero. If you are observed by a dog lover you will likely be reported to the police or animal control and accused of criminal abuse. If that news crew was trolling around or if someone caught you on their cell phone, you can kiss your reputation goodbye.  Even if it doesn’t go to criminal prosecution, you will still be labeled an abuser. It might even go viral and you can start researching assisted suicide. If you are a trainer you will be lynched in social media and may lose your source of income. The justification is invariably all the horrible, terrible side-effects of punishment. The concept that punishment is a form of prophylaxis like giving a dog a softer version of a dangerous disease through vaccination is never imagined.

Q: Why are all the horrible side-effects of saving a dog after the fact somehow irrelevant? How come violent, dangerous, brutal restraint is OK but many times less aversive punishment isn’t? How does the dog differentiate the two and only get traumatized over the punishment but not the restraint?

Rather than get into too much detail about this paradox, I will cut through the Gordian Knot with a simple question. Would you rather 1) let a dog die or 2) punish it so that it lives? Times up.

  1. Letting a dog die is easy. You don’t have to do anything. It’s such a common occurrence that tens of thousands die daily across the country because people do nothing. My estimate is that about 3 million die on roads, highways, ditches and back woods, every year. Then there is the several million (They have never done a headcount so humane groups just guess.) or so dogs killed in shelters every year. Watching it die is a different story. Rather than see the dog die you might go to great heroics to “save a life” without considering the horrible, terrible side-effects of your actions. That’s because it’s mostly about you and very little about the dog. If it was about at-risk dogs living you’d realize that your efforts are meaningless compared to the 6 out of ten that die just because there aren’t enough homes.
  2. Saving the dog from getting into trouble in the first place is different. It’s all about the dog. With the current cultural taboos against punishment you have to have the courage of your convictions to do what’s right, regardless of the consequences. This, too, is an odd thing. The “savior” of an at-risk dog is motivated by fear and ego while the punisher is motivated by logic and self sacrifice. The punished dog never faces drowning, broken legs and major surgery. However, the unpunished dog is most likely going to be killed at the nearest vet clinic because it is an injured stray, after hours and didn’t make it on the 5 O’Clock News. In the long run, the anti-punishment debate is all about contexts that are never included in the debate. For instance, if someone or some animal initiates violence or dangerous behavior of any kind, you can bring down the wrath of God on them. If you act to punish the behavior with the intent to stop it in the future, the wrath of God will come down on you. The villain in our culture is anyone who would cause discomfort to logically stop a dangerous behavior – even if it saves the dog’s life while many times more violent and brutal “rescue” does nothing but cause greater pain, terror and suffering over a longer period of time. To quote Stan from Southpark, “That’s pretty messed up.”

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