Questionable Ethics: From my ‘Groomer To Groomer’ magazine column

I was at a popular dog park recently when a young man entered with a female pit bull mix, who was obviously wearing a shock collar. As the dog started to play a little rough with a smaller dog, the man pushed the button on his hand held transmittSportdogSportHunterDogTrainingCollarer and “zapped” his dog. She yelped a little and walked slowly away from the puppy. If you had been watching this act, would you have considered it cruel or responsible? If your dog was about to attack an innocent puppy and your only means of control was an electric collar, what would you do? 

To shift the perspective a little, a few weeks before, I had been at the dog park with a client’s Saint Bernard, Buddy. The dog had led a sheltered puppyhood. He was generally fearful of other dogs—and therefore potentially aggressive, when threatened. A young man entered a gate at the far end of the park with a male cattle dog. The cattle dog instantly charged at us from about 50 yards away. Buddy started to struggle and lunge forward in an effort to protect his owner and himself from this obvious threat. If you had been the owner of the cattle dog, would you havearticle-1260363-08DAAE6F000005DC-177_233x325 used a shock collar to prevent your dog from getting into a fight with an overwhelming adversary? If it was your St. Bernard being charged by an obviously aggressive dog, could you push the button on a shock collar and zap the aggressor? In the real world I didn’t use a shock collar. (Note: In the print version they got this sentence wrong. It says “I don’t use shock collars. That is not correct. I use them for very limited purposes where they are the best tool for the job and I know how to use them adroitly)  I threw a rolled up towel at the cattle dog and scared it enough to drive it off. The owner was furious. I asked if he would prefer that I drop Buddy’s leash. He stalked off out of the park with his dog.

Situations like these don’t happen every day, but they do happen. While most dog owners are comfortable with their own brand of acceptable dog behavior, they rarely consider the ethical foundation of their beliefs. Most of us learn the basics of dog ownership from our parents and families and then add to our knowledge through experience. This “rule of thumb” knowledge works well for most people, most of the time. The problem arises when your dog is placed in a situation where you have no special pre-learned knowledge to guide you. Developing an ethical and moral foundation for training and caring for your dog can help guide you through situations where rules of thumb don’t tell you what to do. Here are some ethical issues that are every day issues for dog owners.

1.    “When is it ethical to inflict pain or discomfort on your pet? If you automatically answered “never”, you may want to reconsider your response. Every responsible pet owner provides proper veterinary care and, coincidentally, grooming. Many veterinary procedures cause pain and discomfort. We all know that pulling mats can be a bit stressful for all concerned. When an owner requests to have a dog’s anal glands purged they are asking for a potentially painful procedure. The same is true of vaccinations, surgeries and some examinations. The ethical position that will cause you to “inflict pain” on your animal is the same ethic that your veterinarian follows – “do no harm”. In cases where an animal must undergo a painful procedure in order to restore its health, refusing to cause pain by refusing to offer the appropriate treatment would be unethical, cruel and in most states, illegal. Note:Eating inedible objects that cause intestinal blockages kills tens of thousands of animals a year. If you get to them in time a vet will cut the dog wide open to extract the object -thereby putting them at risk of death on the table or death afterward from sepsis. The surgery causes pain for weeks. (Consider that being “gut shot” is universally thought to be the most excruciating way to die) An electric shock collar used correctly can stop the behavior – and could have stopped it before it led to the pain and fear of the surgery. It’s your choice – but which is the loving choice: a momentary painful event that prevents putting the dog at risk or the expensive, painful and often fatal attempt to pull something out of the dog’s guts?

2.    “Is a non-visible fence system that delivers an electric shock an ethical training device?” One of the hottest selling items for dog owners is a non-visible fence. The device consists of a light voltage wire that can be buried underground and a radio collar. When the collar nears the wire, it senses the pulse of the electrical current and starts to beep a warning. If the dog moves closer to the wire, the collar delivers a shock that is similar to the static shock we get when we shuffle across a rug and touch a metal object. Many people assume that any form of electric shock is automatically cruel, because it “hurts.” When used correctly, this type of containment system can prevent a chronic fence jumper from getting hit by a car. The decision to use such a device should be based on the owner’s ethical choice between the potential harm from the pain and discomfort of the collar compared to the potential hazards of the dog, running loose.

3.    Is it ethical to use a “crate” or cage to confine a dog? Many dog owners shy away from them – while seeing the cages in your salon and regularly observing that they do no harm. That’s kind of a contradiction. It’s important because a crate can be a very powerful tool for fixing housetraining problems. If one of your clients has an issue with crates it may mean they won’t be able to solve a serious problem.

4.    “Is it ethical to make an animal perform “tricks” for the pleasure of humans?” Many people believe that asking an animal to roll over and speak is unethical because it is demeaning. To decide the ethical foundation for this issue, we must look at whether asking an animal to learn and do tricks causes harm. The quickest way to tell if a dog is harmed by learning and performing tricks is to observe the dog’s behavior. If the dog’s tail generally wags, has good appetite and often initiates the performance of trick behaviors, it would be difficult to find any harm. By contrast, one must ask if preventing a dog from performing an obviously pleasurable experience is ethical.

5.    “Is it ethical to keep two dogs together if they are fighting to the point of damaging each other?” Many pet owners are torn by their commitment to their pets and the pets’ commitment to commit violence. In some cases, left on their own, dogs will kill each other. In especially fierce conflicts, the damage often requires emergency treatment. To complicate things, aggression may occur after both of the dogs have been in the family for several years, making the decision to “get rid” of one of them almost unbearable. Can you justify the obvious harm that is occurring because you “love” them too much to give one away?

These ethical questions are not meant to suggest any course of action for you or your pet. Personal ethics are necessarily the result of individual beliefs. Taking the time to develop a consistent, ethical philosophy about dog ownership is a process of investigation and education. While providing your animal with an ethical relationship may not be the easiest path to take, it has one major advantage – it is the always the “right” path.

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