The Assumption of Imagined Harm

In the war over ethical training techniques there is a boogeyman – imagined harm. Trainers that pander to exclusively “positive” methods use this boogeyman to suppress logical and open discussion of the topic. That is because their perspective has no rational basis and cannot become paramount unless they suppress logical criticism. Their primary tool is to propose that any use of aversive control is dangerous and will lead to some imagined harm. That is obviously an irrational statement. A leash and collar inhibits free movement and compels the dog to hold an arbitrary distance from the handler. Not only is this not automatically harmful, all trainers, vets, shelter workers and pet owners use leashes and collars – even the anti-punishment ideologues. This begs the question of why someone would propose a wide-sweeping claim that the most casual observation contradicts. The answer may surprise you. They do this because it allows them to create the fantasy that they are ethically superior while silencing anyone who would question their statements. i.e. The anti-punishers promote imagined harm in order to win the argument.

An Example: False dichotomies

The tools for creating imagined harm are often removing any real-world context and creating arbitrary and unrealistic dichotomies. Here’s an example from the ASPCA’s webs pages on training.

“Some training methods use punishment, like leash corrections and scolding, to discourage dogs from doing everything except what you want them to do. Other methods cut right to the chase and focus on teaching dogs what you do want them to do. While both tactics can work, the latter is usually the more effective approach, and it’s also much more enjoyable for you and your dog.”

The first sentence is a prime example of removal of context and a false dichotomy. They have created a straw man who uses only punishment, all the time. The two types of punishment they offer are leash corrections and scolding – relatively mild forms of punishment. If leash corrections and scolding are somehow harmful then all dogs in the US have been harmed because they wear collars and inevitably hit the end of a leash, if only by accident. This leads to several obvious questions. Why would using such moderate punishments automatically imply that one uses only punishment? (The stress on the neck from veterinary technicians and shelter workers attempting to subdue fractious dogs often exceeds anything that a trainer would do, even our imagined “all punishment” trainer.) Why would leash corrections and scolding be able to stop every behavior other than acceptable behaviors? If they are capable of that power and all dogs experience these things (apparently to no purpose) why wouldn’t a rational person use scolding and leash corrections as a part of their training protocol? If the unacceptable behaviors stop, why would they straw man continue to punish the dog?

The second sentence leads us to a variation on the false premise of the first sentence. This suggests that teaching the dog what to do is the more direct means of achieving a trained dog. What is completely missing is an understanding that reinforcement and punishment have opposite effects. One effect decreases behavior and one increases behavior. If the goal is to stop the dog from jumping on guests, positive reinforcement does not “cut to the chase.” It delays the solution by using the wrong tool. This is only logical. Punishment stops or reduces behavior immediately and positive reinforcement, by definition, cannot stop anything. EG: “Cut to the chase” means skipping the extraneous scenes of a western movie to get to the action – meaning the important part of the movie.

The important part of a behavior procedure is to get to the solution in a timely fashion. If you delay the solution by using the wrong tool you leave the animal in jeopardy. Pet owners do not have forever or always to solve problems like jumping up on kids or destroying furniture. They need solutions that occur rapidly, safely and without complex procedures that barely blunt the dog’s behavior. So, no, there is no logical evidence that teaching dogs what to do is at all more effective. On the contrary – most dogs die because of what they do. If you can stop the unacceptable behavior, they live. Whether they have been taught to roll over or fetch has no bearing in their survival. It’s what they do that kills them, not what they don’t know how to do. Promoting the concept that we just need to teach them new behaviors completely ignores the context. As for positive methods being more enjoyable for you and your dog, consider what it’s like to constantly have to use treats to bribe an animal into obedience – and still having it fail routinely when a more powerful motivation intrudes – like a cat running quickly through the yard. The “positive’ methodology promotes a process that is pleasant to do, but leaves consequences that are far from pleasant and may be lethal. That possible result is conveniently removed from the context.

Exaggeration – The Number 1 Tool

Another common tool of the anti-punishment ideologue is to exaggerate wildly and assume that any use of aversive control causes horrible “side effects.” They never talk about intended, beneficial primary effects like saving a dog’s life by applying a controlled, temporary procedure that includes unpleasantness but insures a long life. For instance, this is an inert, menthol inhaler. It looks a bit like a lipstick tube. I recently used one to stop a 90 pound Chesapeake from jumping and knocking down a four year old little boy. When the dog jumped up, I put the inhaler to his nose. I repeated it until I couldn’t get him to jump up – clearly a punishment procedure. Then I gave the inhaler to the little boy – who chased the dog around unsuccessfully for a couple of days and then gave up the game. The result was a dog that was cautious about running willy-nilly through the house or jumping on the child. Ask yourself how this use of punishment could result in the following “side effects.” Again from the ASPCA…

Alternatively, you could grab your dog’s leash and jerk her to the ground every time she jumps up to greet people, and you’d most likely get the same effect in the end—no more jumping up. But consider the possible fallout:

  • Your dog might decide that people are scary since she gets hurt whenever she tries to greet them—and she might try to drive them away by growling or barking the next time they approach.
  • Your dog might decide that YOU are scary since you hurt her whenever she tries to greet people.”

As you can see, the author exaggerated and described an imagined, specific procedure when the topic was supposed to be about the general behavioral effect called punishment. To make sure that the scenario would be horrific to the average pet owner, she included the words “jerk” “hurt” and “scary” to imply pain, damage, fear and suffering. (Again, jerking a dog by the neck is a standard practice in shelters – including the ASPCA shelter in Manhattan.) There are several reasons why this is ludicrous and dishonest. By scientific definition the presentation of a stimulus that causes a behavior to stop is “positive punishment.” Therefore, by definition, I plainly punished the Chesapeake. However, nothing I did hurt the dog. The dog wasn’t even wearing a leash. There was no harmful fallout. The dog was not frightened by any aspect of the training. The only emotional reaction you could use would be “caution.” Why doesn’t the SPCA offer a caution about specific dangers of specific procedures rather than lumping all punishment into the category of abuse? My use of the Vicks inhaler benefited the dog, the child and the dog’s owner. How can this use of punishment cause harm? Of course, it can’t. To get you to obey them, the ASPCA has to scare you. That creates an ironic hypocrisy – the ASPCA claims that scaring a dog is abusive but scaring people to force compliance with their ideology is not.  

No context, no analysis of results:
When you read this stuff you will find that there is never a discussion of the full context of the need for behavioral control. 7-8 out of ten dogs in this country will not see their first birthday. Shelters see about 20% of the overall walking-dead and kill 80% of the ones they get. The reason most dogs are taken to shelters is because they do things that families and individuals cannot live with. If the behaviors can be stopped, they live, if not, not.

In the example of the dog being jerked to stop it from jumping, who cares about that if the behavior disappears? (Before you jump to conclusions, all vet hospitals, shelters and boarding kennels use “slip lead” collars that constrict the neck when tightened. Poll any dozen vets and ask if they have ever seen a neck injury they can attribute to a choke chain or other slip collar. I did about a year ago just to make sure my information was correct. Of a dozen vets, two ER vets, none of them had ever treated a dog for a neck injury from a collar of any kind. ) While the description is loaded with exaggerated dangers it doesn’t tell you the likely result of the dog doesn’t stop jumping on people – death. If it was proven that jerking a dog by the neck would prevent it from getting killed, would you refuse to do it? (The ASPCA pretends that teaching an alternate behavior will end the jumping, but that is simply nonsense. Teaching you French doesn’t stop you from speaking English. Meaning, positive reinforcement cannot stop behaviors. At best it adds to the dog’s repertoire. The old behavior may be less likely to happen but it isn’t blocked from returning. Research by Ivan Pavlov confirms reality – old car thieves may go straight, but if they ever need to steal a car again, they still know how to do it. That means that if you can get a dog to sit instead of jumping the dog will likely return to jumping when he stops getting treats for sitting. In almost all cases, that does not save the dog’s life.)

To retain their pets and have a happy home, dog owners need to stop unacceptable behaviors once and for all. They cannot spend a fortune and many hours of each day controlling their dog. Most of the behaviors that need stopping are innocuous but deadly. Like walking too close to a rattle snake. The actual behavior is innocuous but the result can be catastrophic. Regularly knocking down a small child is no different. (Oddly, anti-punishment people do not oppose using electric shock collars to teach dogs to avoid rattle snakes but would never countenance using the same collar to teach a dog to not knock down children – even though the outcome for the dog is identical but the odds of dying from a rattle snake are miniscule by comparison.) This selective acceptance of punishment is mindless and hypocritical…but, then, their world-view is mindless and hypocritical. They claim to love animals – yet attack methods that could save lives. That harm isn’t imagined – it’s plain to see and smell at a landfill near you.

2 thoughts on “The Assumption of Imagined Harm

  1. I teach obedience also foster and retrain dogs (modify unwanted behaviors), from the shelter.

    Having rules that are clear and concise and enforced will help a dog feel safe and confident. Dogs want to know “who is in charge here?”

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