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[The following was written for Animal Behavior College in response to a request for an article on balanced training.]

I’m not big on labels, especially empty ones. Tags like positive or balanced don’t signify much, in my opinion, beyond the public image a trainer wishes to project. These are marketing terms, not definable training methods. Yet all of dogdom seems to have settled into the opinion that every trainer is either one or the other.

The more serious trainers I get to know from both sides of the supposed divide, the more I reject this idea. But if pressed, I do identify as balanced, and will continue to do so going forward, regardless how the scales of positive and negative or punishment and reinforcement truly fall within my programs. Balanced may not go a long way toward conveying what I do, but it’s not inaccurate, and I like to think it evokes something of what I actually mean when I use it to describe myself and my colleagues.

To my mind, balanced trainers are by and large pragmatic. We approach tools and methods sensibly, unfettered by politics or ideology. We do what works, within an ethical framework involving fair expectations, clear communication, and respect for the dog in front of us. This may mean building a foundation of understanding and enthusiasm via positive reinforcement, then layering instructional corrections overtop to enhance reliability and steadiness under distraction. It may mean choosing negative reinforcement or positive punishment first, if so doing resolves a problem safely and efficiently. In all cases, it means remaining flexible, reading the dog at every turn, and keeping all options on the table.

Balanced training is unapologetically results oriented. Results matter, both to the client rightly expecting some deliverables, and to the dog, whose quality of life may ultimately depend a great deal more on whether his owner may walk him confidently in public or take him hiking off-leash, than on which quadrants of operant conditioning happened to land the dog such opportunities. Good results also represent the most reliable indicator that a given method is sound, which is not to say ends justify means. Means, particularly highly aversive or costly ones, are justified by the knowledge and experience that they represent the optimal path toward a good result, not the mere hope of achieving one. Being results oriented is not about being a cowboy. It is about being open to both new and traditional tools and methods as long as they have practical utility, and being prepared to do some amount of internal calculus before settling on the best approach.

Photo courtesy of Lionheart K9

Balanced trainers acknowledge that the deliberate inclusion of aversives within a training program is neither inhumane nor unscientific. Our commitment to canine welfare and fostering healthy relationships between dogs and people does not inhibit us from taking ownership of those aversives we employ. We focus our energies on applying them productively and responsibly, whether via electronic collar or head halter, with maximum efficiency and minimal risk. Denying their legitimate (and largely unavoidable) role in training and behavior modification both constrains trainers unnecessarily and inhibits frank discussion of how more socially acceptable tools and protocols actually work.

There have been some major shifts in dog training culture over the past several decades. On the upside, there’s been a great surge of interest and innovation, along with a new emphasis on ethical standards and humane methods. On the downside, it has become highly politicized, and lousy with specious claims driven by competition over market share. Balanced trainers recognize their work as existing on a continuum with what dog men have been doing for centuries, not as a departure so radical as to deny their influence and contributions to our field. Even if our approach bears little outward resemblance to the training of old, we refuse to reject traditional tools based on popular trends, and balk at the arrogant dismissal of generations of skilled and accomplished trainers as backward thinking relics.

In the end, it’s a matter of devotion to craft ahead of devotion to methodology.

Does every trainer currently advertising himself as balanced conform to my private definition? No, but I think it holds true for the balanced trainers I know best and attempt to model myself after, including a number who do not identify as such.

Whether positive trainers will mainly sympathize with or feel excluded by the above, I cannot guess. But I invite them to rethink the utility of defining ourselves according to terms that are ultimately more divisive than descriptive, and to help move our industry away from empty labels and toward an honest discussion of what we really do and why.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2012.

I have a weakness for dogs with ridiculous overbites, probably because the one’s I’ve known, including the female pit bull pictured below, have had awesome personalities.

Not suggesting the “massive overbite” should be an element of any breed standard, but then again, why not?

Would breeding for only half a lower jaw be any more ludicrous than breeding for twice as much skin as necessary, or legs so short that running was an uphill battle, or a head so large that puppies need be delivered via c-section?

After all, there’s a fine line between deformity and fetish.

No Pekingese. No Bulldog. No Clumber Spaniel. No Mastiff. No Neapolitan Mastiff. No Basset Hound.

These are the breeds that were absent within their respective group competitions at this year’s Crufts, due to their chosen ambassadors (those judged Best of Breed) subsequently flunking a newly mandated vet check.

According to the Kennel Club website:

The Kennel Club has introduced veterinary checks for the Best of Breed winners at all Kennel Club licensed General and Group Championship Dog Shows from Crufts 2012 onwards, in 15 designated high profile breeds. This measure was introduced to ensure that Best of Breed awards are not given to any dogs that show visible signs of problems due to conditions that affect their health or welfare.

The fifteen high profile breeds are as follows: Basset Hound, Bloodhound, Bulldog, Chow Chow, Clumber Spaniel, Dogue De Bordeaux, German Shepherd Dog, Mastiff, Neapolitan Mastiff, Pekingese, Shar Pei, St Bernard, French Bulldog, Pug and Chinese Crested.

Thus no Best of Breed award was ultimately awarded to the winners of six individual breed contests. See all results here.

One can read more about these events on a number of sites, including Terrierman’s Daily Dose, Pedigree Dogs Exposed, Border Wars, and Honest Dog.

Personally, I applaud the Kennel Club for taking this step, although they may have done so grudgingly, and although it is perhaps not the best step they could have taken. And I applaud the veterinarians in question for their willingness to suggest that the Kennel Club’s “Best”– if that includes dogs suffering from visible health problems– isn’t good enough.

But I’m a little put off by the Kennel Club’s apparent effort to lay blame for the crippling health problems within certain high-profile breeds squarely at the feet of a handful of judges. And I’m equally put off by the suggestion that the solution to these problems, which clearly stem in large part from a century of judging dogs by appearance alone, is somehow to judge dogs more competently by appearance alone.

From the Crufts website:

Ronnie Irving, Kennel Club Chairman, said: “The majority of people involved in showing dogs, including the 15 high profile breeds, are doing a good job in moving their breed forward and many judges are ensuring that health is paramount when they judge. This work should be applauded and recognised.

“Sadly though, a few judges in some breeds simply can’t or won’t accept the need to eliminate from top awards, dogs which are visibly unhealthy. Neither we who show dogs, nor the Kennel Club which must protect our hobby, can reasonably allow that state of affairs to continue. I hope also that monitoring the results of this exercise may even, in time, enable us to drop from the ‘high profile’ list some of those breeds which prove to have a clean bill of health.

“This move, along with the other health measures that we have put in place will help the Kennel Club to ensure that the show ring is, as Professor Patrick Bateson said it can be: a positive lever for change in the world of dogs.”

Professor Steve Dean, Crufts Committee member and Senior Veterinary Surgeon, and a member of the Kennel Club General Committee, said of the new requirements: “The guidance which we will issue to Show Vets will focus on clinical signs associated with pain or discomfort which will come under the main headings of external eye disease, lameness, skin disorders and breathing difficulty. The show veterinary surgeons will be looking for signs such as ectropion, entropion, corneal damage, dermatitis, breathing difficulty on moderate exercise, and lameness. The fifteenth breed is the Chinese Crested where the principal issue will be the presence of skin damage arising from hair removal and thus signs of clipper rash or chemical insults to the skin will be looked for.

According to Kennel Club secretary Caroline Kisco, the vets will be judging the winners’ health solely by outward appearance. In other words, vets are not to disqualify dogs for any reasons beyond those that would have been apparent to the show judges themselves. Watch the below video to hear Kisco explain in her own words.

Here’s my take on that interview. By scapegoating individual judges, the Kennel Club deftly avoids undermining the idea that purebred dogs may be perfected via beauty contests. After all, a competent show judge should be able to gauge a dog’s health and fitness just as easily as these independent veterinarians, right?

It’s not the system that’s broken, it’s not the bizarre dog show culture, and it’s certainly not the Kennel Club ethos. It’s just a few bad apples– a few blind or deluded individuals that somehow can’t tell a sick dog when they see one.

Other than that, everything’s fine.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2012.

If your dog was to be subjected to an aversive, would you rather it occurred randomly or control the timing yourself?

I put this question to a rational positive-reinforcement trainer, who responded unhesitatingly that she would prefer to control the timing of the aversive, so as to minimize fallout, and in order to potentially create some practical inhibition.

The logic of her choice hinges on a pair of sensible assumptions. First, that controlling an aversive (even just the timing) naturally lends any competent handler the opportunity to avoid (or at least temper) detrimental associations; second, that the well-timed application of an aversive has potential utility. Of course, she would prefer to avoid aversives altogether, and clearly stated so.

No surprise, given the well-publicized risks. According to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior,

the potential adverse effects of punishment [include] but are not limited to: inhibition of learning, increased fear-related and aggressive behaviors, and injury to animals and people[1]

Moreover, we are warned that risks such as extreme generalized fear and negative associations with the dog’s environment or handler, can occur “regardless of the strength of the punishment.”

This last claim must rest on belief in a dark sort of behavioral homeopathy, whereby the magical effects of punishment [2] endure despite its infinite dilution.

But there is another problem. If we accept that the experience of even mild punishment carries an arguably prohibitive level of risk, and we acknowledge that the deliberate application of an aversive is nonetheless safer in obvious respects than allowing exposure to randomly occurring ones, how is it that trainers come to fret over distilling off every atom of punishment from their training programs, while blithely acknowledging that naturally occurring aversives are both largely unavoidable and relatively innocuous?

One would think such events as getting stepped on or startled would carry a risk (of potentially extreme and irreversible fallout) equal to that borne by the deliberate application of a comparable aversive. Yet few cautionary tales exist to illustrate these hazards, such as happen to dogs every day of their

lives, often right in the presence of their owners or at their owners’ very hands.

Even the authors of some of the most dire warnings regarding the purposeful use of aversives to punish behavior, seem to understand that the bulk of natural or accidentally inflicted aversives are fairly harmless.

I imagine it is intuitively obvious to them, as it is to me and to the dog-owning public, that a dog’s stubbing its toe while chasing a frisbee is unlikely to sour him on the game or ruin his relationship with the person who threw it.

So, what makes the demon punishment so extra-special potent, and its measured application so inescapably treacherous, compared to those unplanned aversives our dogs regularly suffer and gracefully overcome?

Aversives v. Punishment

Karen Pryor explains the critical distinction in a 2007 blog post (emphasis mine):

There’s a difference between aversive events and punishment. Life is full of aversive events—it rains, you stub your toe, the train leaves without you. These things happen to all of us, and to our pets, and we don’t control when or if they occur. Kay Laurence has an amusing paragraph about the aversive events that befall her Gordon setters (all of which they ignore)—falling off the bed, running into door posts, and more (read that article here).

In general, all that we learn from the inevitable aversives in daily life is to avoid them if we can.

On the other hand, a punishment is something aversive that you do on purpose. It may be contingent on a behavior, and it may stop or interrupt that behavior—which reinforces YOU for punishing, so watch out for that.

I find this explanation notable for several reasons.

First, it happens to be framed in response (albeit indirect) to the question, “Can you teach everything without punishment?”, yet that question is in no way addressed either by the above or within the remainder of Pryor’s comments.

It does, however, illustrate the tendency to frame discussions on tools and methods in terms of human intent, rather than in terms of the dog’s actual experience.

It’s a common tendency–and problematic, as when assumptions regarding the intention behind either the design or application of a given tool are offered as proxy for an objective analysis of how the tool actually operates or is actually applied.

Consider the myth, held true by many and even promoted by such authorities as Dr. Karen Overall, that head-halters are non-aversive. It’s an error that persists despite the reality that dogs do not casually accept wearing them, nor reliably tolerate being steered or restrained with their assistance.

It’s surprising that a phenomenon so widely observed and even scientifically documented [3] would be so widely ignored. But if we accept that our intentions are directly relevant to any and all contemplations of tools and methods, it’s only a small leap to imagine they may represent an acceptable standard of measurement.

And if we buy that, head-halters clearly rate as non-aversive by virtue of their gentle intention (indicated right there on the package), whereas prong and electronic collars may fairly be judged inhumane by virtue of being, as Dr. Overall put it in a 2007 editorial, “rooted in an adversarial, confrontational interaction with the dog.”[4]

Why would anyone invest in a scheme so clearly divorced from objective analysis?

For starters, it allows one to rationalize bypassing the complicated business of assessing how a given dog experiences a given tool wielded by a given trainer under given circumstances, instead suggesting a far easier equation, according to which one need only infer a tool’s intention in order to gauge its virtue.

This represents a boon, of course, for the purveyors of tools designed more for the purpose of persuading us of their kindness than actually facilitating it, as well as for anyone in the business of evoking faith in good intentions above promoting trust in skill or effectiveness. Moreover, substituting cursory judgements for true investigation is a real time-saver, freeing one up to concentrate one’s efforts on cementing the stigma attached to those intentions deemed impure, or on promoting the prohibition of those tools and methods associated with them.

But most importantly, it diverts attention from the fact that to a dog, an aversive is just an aversive, whether willfully administered or the result of mere clumsiness, a point that–if fully appreciated–would stand to undermine the endowment of punishment with extra-normal danger and potency.

To be clear, I’m not arguing for or against specific equipment or methods. I’m suggesting good intentions wield little to no dependable influence over how much a dog gains or suffers. And until we make a practice as an industry of evaluating the effect of our actions independently from the righteousness of our intentions, we may remain blind to those cases where to two are in conflict.

“I Can’t…”

Suzanne Clothier lately posted some thoughts on punishment under the title “I had to…”. On her blog, she takes positive trainers to task for dodging responsibility in instances where they’ve made the choice to punish. She offers examples of what she evidently considers lame excuses, like “the client was frustrated,” or “I had tried everything else.” And she challenges trainers to do better:

Replacing the phrase “I had to. . .” with “I chose to. . .” puts the responsibility where it belongs: on the trainer who made the choice to use techniques or equipment. It helps us all remember that in making that choice, by definition we excluded other possibilities. When using force, we need to be very clear that in discarding other options, other possible solutions, we may also be choosing to limit what is possible when we push ourselves.

For the record, I agree force is often used too casually, without due consideration of alternate strategies, and that acting out of mere convenience or fustration should be roundly discouraged. I also believe in the importance of accountability in dog training across the board. However, I was struck reading Clothier’s article by what seemed a misplaced focus on the moral peril (for lack of a better term) associated with use of force, rather than on any harm–real or presumed–that might be dealt the dog as a result.

She details an event involving a young Labrador who’d just head-butted her very hard for the second time, and describes the moment in which she considered her options:

I began to think, “One good correction might get through this dog’s thick skull.” I surprised myself by thinking that, but then I further shocked myself (and some of the audience) when I asked the handler explicity for permission to use a physical correction on her dog. She agreed, trusting me as a trainer to do right by her dog.

In that moment when she trustingly agreed to let me use force on her dog, I found something in myself that surprised me further: a little voice that challenged me to push myself further, to help this dog without force. It was like having a gauntlet thrown down at my feet. Do it without force, without ego, without justifying force.

Compelling words. But what does Clothier’s internal struggle have to do with the needs of this somewhat thick-headed young dog?

We are meant to assume he benefited from Clothier’s suppression of her ego, to understand that what he needed most in that pivotal moment, was not “one good correction,” but rather for Clothier to “take up the gauntlet” and turn the other cheek.

But it’s impossible to deduce that from Clothier’s narrative, because it has nothing to do with the dog’s experience.

Instead, she gives us a parable about overcoming temptation and perfecting one’s intention. Good stuff from a personal improvement standpoint, but no substitute for a reasoned consideration of whether a correction might have been productive. Granted, not the point. But what is??

That we are accountable for our choices to use force, yes. That one should not act out of ego or vengeance, clearly. But was that the temptation Clothier resisted? Remember, she didn’t just refrain from lashing out in anger. She suppressed the instinct to consider punishment as an option.

Despite Clothier’s drawing the familiar analogy between the application of a training correction and the specter of wife-beating, this is ultimately not a lesson in tempering one’s anger or shoring up one’s patience. It is a lesson in training one’s inner voice to distrust one’s rational mind.

Clothier equates the use of aversives with the use of force, and equates force with violence. She frames its contemplation as a sign of moral weakness, and the decision to use “force” as a failure by definition:

Whatever the answer, the solution is to recognize where I went wrong.

Dog training is many things, including a lesson in kindness and patience. But it should not be exploited as a proving ground for fringe notions of moral perfection.

If “I had to…” is a cop-out, then so is “I can’t…”  After all, in making that choice, aren’t we also “choosing to limit what is possible”?

Bible and Hatchet

Meanwhile, a generation of trainers is being bullied into signing blood oaths constraining them from ever practicing the productive application of aversives.

Jean Donaldson, Karen Pryor, and Victoria Stillwell all require pledges from their disciples, while selling the public on the idea that hobbling oneself with a vow of irrational temperance is a mark of enlightenment.

The result is a murky and oppressive climate, often dominated by vitriol and intolerance, as in Dr. Karen Overall’s unsubtle insinuation that owning a choke, prong, or electronic collar may lead to child and spousal abuse:

Without exception, such devices will make my anxious patients worse and allow the anger level of my clients to reach levels that are not helpful and may be dangerous. The link between dog abuse and spousal/child abuse is now well-established (Ascione and Arkow, 1999; Lockwood and Ascione, 1998).[4]

Like Pryor’s warning to beware the utility of punishment, lest one’s urge to punish be strengthened, Overall here concerns herself with the threat punishment poses to us. It’s a clumsy argument at best, and less than cleanly scientific. But it succeeds in promoting the point that punishment is poisonous and intoxicating, while skirting the question of what that has to do with training a dog.

Child abuse is real. Animal abuse is real. Drunkenness is real. It’s a fact there are cretins and criminals within our ranks.

Likewise, there’s a history of countering such abuses with fear-mongering, misinformation, and hyperbole. And science, or some fractured fairy tale version of it, has been drafted into these campaigns before.

These tactics are effective, which I’ve heard is reinforcing. But they are a rejection of reason, and an abuse of the influence their authors wield. It’s as old school as tent revivals and temperance unions, and as backward as beating a dog.

There are solid arguments for taking care in applying aversives. But there is no credible foundation, scientific or ethical, for the wholesale exclusion of aversives from a training program, except if one accepts the idea that the very willingness to punish is perverse, and so fit to be stigmatized and suppressed.

Take away that belief, and the dragon vanishes. One is left with a serviceable tool and a solvable problem. The dog doesn’t know you are putting your soul at risk. He doesn’t even need to know you did it on purpose.

It’s not rocket science. It’s not alchemy.

It’s just good bar tending.


1. AVSAB Position Statement: The Use of Punishment for Behavior Modification in Animals. 2007.

2. I use the term “punishment” here and throughout this post in the same arguably vague way as the sources I’m quoting, to denote the deliberate application of an aversive to discourage behavior.

3. L. I. Haug, B. V. Beavera and M. T. Longneckerb, Comparison of dogs’ reactions to four different head collars, Applied Animal Behaviour Science Volume 79, Issue 1, 20 September 2002, Pages 53-61

4. Overall, K.L., 2007. Considerations for shock and ‘training’ collars: Concerns from and for the working dog community. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research. Res.2, page 106.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2012.

I was jarred over the weekend to discover the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers had lately revised its 2009 policy statement on training practices.

Back in December, I’d written a letter to the CCPDT’s Board of Directors protesting the inclusion in that statement of language banning certificants from using electronic collars on any dog under one year of age. The letter had accompanied my application to re-certify as a CPDT-KA, and explained why I could not sign on to the new policy.

My check was ultimately returned and my certification allowed to expire. But that decision was not made hastily. The CCPDT Board took two weeks to consider my case, a fact that was communicated through official channels and leads me to believe that everyone serving on the CCPDT Board at that time would have read my letter.

And despite the scant response I got at the time, it appears the CCPDT Board may have taken my concerns (or similar concerns voiced by others) to heart.

As of August 4, 2011, the CCPDT’s Policy on Training and Behavior Intervention Practices no longer includes the following within its list of disallowed practices:

Applying a collar that delivers an electrical stimulation to a dog under the age of one year, with the exception of a vibration collar that does not have an electronic shock component.

In its place, a new and unrelated restriction has been added:

Purposely lifting a dog by the collar, leash, or scruff such that two or fewer of the dog’s legs remain on the ground.

Go figure.

Or, follow this link to view the revised policy statement in its entirety.

By the way, it’s unclear to me whether the CCPDT has actually shared the fact of these changes with current certificants, apart from editing the document as it appears on the CCPDT site. You would think they’d be obliged to, kinda-sorta, considering a new restriction was introduced. But the person who brought these changes to my attention said she’d only happened upon them by accident while reviewing the policy online. And it was definitely not mentioned in the most recent news update posted to their site.

A fact I can confirm unilaterally is that they did not inform me. But that’s not so shocking.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2011.

UPDATE: The CCPDT revised its policy statement on training practices in early August, 2011.

The CCPDT Responds

Below is the CCPDT’s response to the letter that accompanied my recent application to renew CPDT-KA certification. It explained my inability to sign CCPDT’s updated Ethics Code, due to its reference to their 2009 policy statement banning certificants from using electronic collars on any dog under one year of age. The board’s response followed two weeks of deliberation, or, more likely, a two week period within which my concerns were at some point very briefly deliberated.

It is by now safe to assume my arguments did not inspire the CCPDT to revisit the language within their 2009 policy statement on dog training practices. But even if it did, their taking the present opportunity to remove me from their ranks is hardly a shocker.

At any rate, here is what landed in my virtual mailbox yesterday afternoon.

Good afternoon Ruth:

Last evening the Board of Directors  of the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT) discussed the reasons you submitted for which you believe you cannot sign and adhere strictly to the CCPDT Code of Ethics.  We appreciate your integrity and honesty.   However, insofar as the Code of Ethics is an integral part of our recertification process, your refusal to sign means you have not fulfilled the recertification requirements.  Regrettably, we must allow your CPDT-KA credential to lapse.


CCPDT Board of Directors

A Haiku Version

The more I contemplate the above four sentences, the more I regret the CCPDT did not think to craft their verdict into a pithy haiku for my digestion. That would have been inspired. Below is an example of the form, featuring a 5-7-5 syllable structure:

Concerns unwelcome

Integrity regretful

You are not worthy

I’m sure someone out there can do better, but you get the idea.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2011.

The response to my protest of the CCPDT’s 2009 policy on Training and Behavior Practices arrived today while I was busy working with a longtime client and her new Bouvier puppy.

The verdict was as predicted. The CCPDT will not renew my certification.

Their response, not surprisingly, failed to address the concerns I’d put forward. It defended neither the spirit nor the language of the ill-conceived policy, and avoided defining what is meant by its reference to unnamed “scientific standards,” despite my asking relatively nicely.

All in all, a little anticlimactic. But what did I expect from a body unwilling to allow policy discussion on its own list?

–Ruth Crisler, CPDT-KA

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2011.

Today marks the end of the two weeks over which the CCPDT Board of Directors pledged to discuss my refusal to sign their revised Code of Ethics.

My three-year certification through that body was set to expire on December 31st, and signing the code is a prerequisite to renewing, along with accumulating a minimum of 36 education units, writing an original exam question, and paying $190. At this point, I either lose my certification or the Code of Ethics get amended, the former of these being rather more likely in my estimation.

While I can’t say I’m exactly losing sleep over the problem, it would be a lie to say I didn’t care.

I do. I may even care a lot, but that’s a little hard to gauge. I know I care about standards of competency and ethics within the field of dog training. And I care when language and concepts, like humane and scientific standards are abused and distorted. I would also prefer to avoid having to destroy a spectacular number of perfectly good business cards.

I am told by a CCPDT administrator that the board is currently drafting its response to my letter. I expect it to be full of scholarly citations and carefully reasoned arguments….Whoa, someone pour me another coffee. I may have drifted off just then.

In fairness, I don’t know what to expect. I don’t know any of CCPDT’s directors, or the dynamic within that organization. I don’t know what motivates their actions or decisions. About all I know is that they haven’t cashed my check.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2011.

Disclaimer: I know nothing about penguins. But I know a thing or two about equipment.

My husband called me from his car to alert me to a story on NPR he thought I needed to hear. I think his exact words were, “So, I’m listening to the radio, and there’s a penguin expert complaining about a new scientific study, and she sounds exactly like you. And she sounds really pissed.”


He was right, though. Her comments in response to the penguin study, the results of which are published in the current issue of the journal Nature, sounded eerily like my comments in response to a number of “shock collar” studies I’ve read. And, in another striking parallel, her tone did come across as rather annoyed.

The study, conducted by a team from the University of Strasbourg in France, claims to answer conclusively the question of whether the flipper bands used by scientists to track penguins in fact significantly compromise their chance of survival. From the radio transcript:

The French team put traditional metal bands on 50 King penguins that live near Antarctica. Fifty others had much smaller radio-frequency transponders. Ten years later, the survival rate for banded birds was 16 percent below the unbanded birds.

Yvon Le Maho, the chief biologist, says at first there was little effect. Then during the first 4.5 years, survival rates for the banded birds dropped about 30 percent below the unbanded birds.

“In other words, only the superathletes are surviving,” Le Maho says.

The numbers were even worse for breeding, banded birds producing 39% fewer chicks.

Le Maho found that banded birds took longer to forage for food in the ocean and they were slower to get to breeding sites in the spring. That meant adults had less time to raise their chicks before heading off for lengthy foraging trips in the winter.

“At some time, they have to leave while their chick is too young and too poor in [reserves of] body fuels to withstand the winter,” Le Maho says.

According to ukwired, the “[French scientists] say continuing to use the tags would in most situations be unethical.” This despite other studies that show such bands to have minimal effect.

“There was a debate about whether bands have an effect or not – and you could find studies and some would say ‘yes’ and some would say ‘no’,” said Claire Saraux from the University of Strasbourg and the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS).

“So our idea was to try to make sure – instead of doing one-year studies, to try to find out what’s going on over 10 years,” she told BBC News.

This study… eclipses everything else”

Case closed, non?

But what about that lady on the radio that sounded like me? Dee Boersma is described as one of the world’s leading penguin experts, and it turns out she has a different opinion. From the NPR transcript:

The French study, she says, “shows that the bands that they used on King penguins harmed the King penguins — I have no doubt about that. But all bands are not created equal. It depends on what material that they are made of, it depends on how they are shaped, it depends on how they are fitted to the individual penguin. It depends on what penguin species it is.”

Mais, non?!

You mean to tell me that all nifty flipper bands are not in fact the same? That the “traditional” bands used in the French study may not fairly represent all such bands? That maybe an aluminum band is mare harmful than a plastic one? That how the bands are applied in the field actually has some relevance? Sacreblue!

But listen for yourself:

(and if that embed doesn’t work, follow the below link)

Flipper Bands Can Harm King Penguin Population

Oh, and just one more note on the above penguin study. It seems that if we take its results at face value, it may undermine previous studies on the effects of climate change, which have used the survival rate of tracked penguins as an important barometer.

What’s my point? It is that science, at least as practiced by mere humans, is often fallible, and rarely Godlike.

That said, it does seem logical that putting even a minute drag on one of a penguin’s flippers would have some ill-effects over the course of its lifetime, which I understand can be up to 20 years or more. And I agree that this is a problem, both for the penguins themselves, as well as for our ability to take meaningful data from our study of them.

The question is regarding the true scope of this latest study. Its authors claim it is “conclusive,” and that it “eclipses” all previous studies. But is demonstrating scientifically that something can do harm equivalent to demonstrating that it will do harm in a majority of cases? I would say no.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2011.

FINAL UPDATE: In October, 2011, my certification was renewed.

3rd UPDATE:  On August 4, 2011, the CCPDT Policy Statement on Training Practices was revised to no longer include the restriction against using an electronic collar on any dog under one-year-old. I am also told that policy discussions are once again allowed on the CPDT List.

2nd UPDATE: The CCPDT informed me on January 14th that they will be forced to allow my certification to elapse, as a result of my failure to sign their Code of Ethics.

UPDATE: I am told the matter of my concerns regarding the CCPDT’s Code of Ethics are slated for discussion by the Board on Thursday, January 13th.

Below is the bulk of a letter sent to the Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers.

December 31st was the deadline for renewing my CPDT-KA certification, which I earned three years ago by sitting for a mind-numbing 250-question multiple choice test on topics ranging from learning theory and ethology to animal husbandry and training equipment.

In 2009, the CCPDT released its Statement on Training and Behavior Intervention Practices, a copy of which follows my letter. I and a number of other trainers openly protested the policy on the CPDT-KA list, at which point the CCPDT coincidentally decided to ban all posts on CCPDT policy from that forum.

This letter was sent along with all the required materials to support my recertification, with the exception of a signed copy of their current Code of Ethics, which I will not sign due to its reference to the above mentioned policy statement.

I do regret not writing this letter a year earlier, as was my intention. However, the Code of Ethics did not include any reference to the offensive policy at that time, but appears to have been amended in September of 2010.

December 22, 2010

To the CCPDT Board,

I am writing regarding the CCPDT Policy on Training Practices, both as it affects my ability to maintain my CPDT-KA status, and out of concern for how certain claims made in the statement of that policy reflect on the CCPDT and its certification programs.

The policy refers to “certain practices which can in no way be considered humane or sound by scientific standards”, the implication being that some science exists which shows the enumerated practices to be irrefutably inhumane and unsound.

The problem is that no science exists that in any way addresses, much less refutes, the use of very low-level electronic stimulation as either a cue or a distinctly mild aversive as an element in a training program.

I understand the policy does not outlaw the use of electronic stimulation as a sort of last resort for certain adult dogs. But it does outlaw what to my mind is the more humane application of the tool, as a very mild aversive in the context of a mainly positive training program, at least in any dog under one year of age.

[….] while I have no formal training in the field of animal behavior, I like to think I have a more than passable ability to think critically, a skill I do my best to bring to bear both in my training practice (evaluating as objectively as possible the prudence and outcome of my choices at every step), as well as in my approach to any article, book, or scientific study I encounter.

I also take pride in being a humane and effective trainer, who attempts to take all available knowledge into consideration when making choices among the many different tools and methods at her disposal. I recognize the need for standards of ethics and practice in dog training, and hope to make some contribution to the effort to establish and maintain such standards.


So what does science have to say about electronic stimulation and training? Very little as it turns out, and what it does have to say is hardly definitive. Even the authors of Electronic Training Devices: A Review of Current Literature, in contemplating the body of relevant scientific research, admit that “most studies involving dogs have discernible methodological weaknesses”.

I’ve read each study surveyed in the above review fairly closely, by the way, and the authors of A Review of Current Literature could not be more correct in their appraisal. But the key thing to understand, is that there have been exactly zero studies using very low-level stimulation, such as one may achieve with a number of high quality units these days, and such as the vast majority of dogs tend to find only very mildly aversive. In other words, the research that has so far been done is incredibly limited in its scope, so much so that drawing broad conclusions, such as that voiced in the Policy on Training Practices, is illogical.

Extending scientific conclusions regarding stress and/or training effectiveness of high level shock, to the use of such low levels that a dog might only barely perceive them, is frankly unscientific. And treating all forms and intensities of electronic stimulation as by definition strongly aversive (as is implied by the policy to avoid using electronic collars “without first attempting alternative strategies [etc]”) is likewise unjustifiable.


So by what “scientific standards” does the CCPDT claim that low-level electronic collar stimulation need be either a last resort or reserved only for dogs over one year of age? If by none, then I suggest the CCPDT refrain from invoking such phrases, and consider substituting more accurate language, such as “practices that are politically awkward to defend, despite their being potentially more humane and less stressful than other allowable practices.”

I have enclosed the required materials for recertification, minus a signed copy of the Code of Ethics, as it would bind me to endorsing the above discussed policy.

I have enjoyed holding my certification up to now, and have honored its requirements, with the exception of never using electronic stimulation on any dog under one year old. I have broken that exactly twice, once with an eleven-month-old bullmastiff […] and once with a six-month-old pit bull [….] Both dogs remain happy and confident, and take low-level electronic stimulation in stride as a very mild aversive, used to remind them of what has mainly been taught through positive training.


According to the CCPDT statement on training practices, science has irrefutably determined that my work with the above mentioned dogs was both unsound and inhumane, because it involved the application of electronic stimulation on a dog under one year of age. If that is the case, I would appreciate your pointing me to that science.

I do not expect to be re-certified, though I would obviously prefer that to resigning the certification that I have taken some trouble to earn and maintain over the past three years. Either way, I hope you will respect my honesty and my concerns. [….]


Ruth Crisler

CCPDT Policy

Dog Training and Behavior Intervention Practices

Purpose: This policy serves to govern those practices that a Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT) certificant may not use during the practice of dog training or behavior modification. This policy will clarify for dog owners and dog care professionals those practices in which a CCPDT certificant may not engage.

The CCPDT recognizes that this policy does not address every practice under debate in the dog training industry. The goal of this policy is to ensure that CCPDT certificants no longer engage in certain practices which can in no way be considered humane or sound by scientific standards. It also acknowledges that certain additional practices remain under debate, such as the use of electronic stimulation collars. This policy is intended as a first step in ensuring that CCPDT certificants are not using practices that are potentially egregiously harmful to dogs, either physically or emotionally.

Policy: The following practices are never acceptable for use by a CCPDT certificant, for any reason:

• Helicoptering or hanging a dog (defined as lifting the dog off of the ground and either holding it off of the ground or swinging the dog off of the ground by the collar or leash for any period of time) or otherwise restricting the airway of the dog in any manner as a training measure.

• Applying a collar that delivers an electrical stimulation to a dog (with the exception of a vibration collar that does not have an electronic shock without first attempting alternative intervention strategies, including, at a minimum, positive reinforcement of alternative behaviors, changes in antecedent stimuli, and either negative punishment, negative reinforcement, or extinction.

Applying a collar that delivers an electrical stimulation to a dog under the age of one year, with the exception of a vibration collar that does not have an electronic shock component.

• Applying more than one electrical stimulation collar to a dog at the same time.

• Applying an electrical stimulation collar to the genital region or abdomen area of the dog.

• Applying a toe or ear pinch (defined as applying a pinching pressure either with the hand or with a tool of any sort – including but not limited to a cord or wire – to a toe, ear or any other body part of the dog with the intention of causing the dog to perform or cease a behavior).

• Drowning (defined as submersion of the dog’s head in water for any period of time).

• Applying a cattle prod to any part of the dog’s body.

No trainer or behavior consultant who has been certified through one of the CCPDT’s certification programs shall engage in any of the above-named acts for any reason. To report any such conduct by a trainer or behavior consultant whom you believe has been certified through one of the CCPDT’s certification programs, please refer to the CCPDT’s Complaint Procedure or contact our administrator at

Adopted September 4, 2009. Effective Immediately.

Code of Ethics

The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (The CCPDT) Code of Ethics provides The CCPDT certificants with a set of guidelines and goals designed to assist certificants in the ethical challenges of their work and elevate the level of professionalism in dog training and behavior consulting. Additionally, The CCPDT will apply the Code of Ethics as a set of enforceable standards which certificants must agree to abide by in order to retain certification by The CCPDT.

A certificant of The CCPDT affirms to abide by the following:

1. to operate as a certificant without discrimination on the basis of race, color, ethnicity, national origin, gender, disability, physical limitation, marital or familial status, sexual orientation, religion or political beliefs.

2. to assist clients in establishing humane, realistic training and behavior goals in accordance with The CCPDT Humane Hierarchy Position Statement.

3. to understand and fully comply with The CCPDT Training and Behavior Practices Policy.

4. to utilize training and behavior modification methods based on accurate scientific research, emphasizing positive relationships between people and dogs and using positive reinforcement-based techniques to the maximum extent possible.

5. to always provide for the safety of clients and animals in training programs and behavior consultations.

6. to act with honesty and integrity toward clients, respecting their legitimate training and behavior goals and the autonomy of their choice, provided they conform to societal and legal standards of humane treatment for their pet.

7. to refrain from public defamation of colleagues, respecting their right to establish and follow their own principles of conduct, provided those principles are ethical and humane according to The CCPDT Humane Hierarchy Position Statement.

8. to provide truthful advertising and representations concerning certificant qualifications, experience, performance of services, pricing of services and expected results; to provide full disclosure of potential conflicts of interest to clients and other professionals.

9. to refrain from providing guarantees regarding the specific outcome of training.

10. to use properly authorized logos and credentials provided by The CCPDT when marketing in print or electronic media.

11. to obtain written informed consent from any client prior to photographing, video or audio recording a dog training session.

12. to work within the professional boundaries of The CCPDT certifications and individual expertise and refrain from providing diagnosis, advice or recommendations in areas of veterinary medicine or family counseling unless certified to do so. This does not preclude referring the client to a veterinary or behavior consulting professional.

13. to maintain and respect the confidentiality of all information obtained from clients in the course of business; to refrain from disclosure of information about clients or their pets to others without the client’s explicit consent, except as required by law.

14. to be aware of and comply with applicable laws, regulations and ethical standards governing professional practices, treatment of animals (including cases of neglect or abuse) and reporting of dog bites in the state/province/country when interacting with the public and when providing dog training or behavior consulting services.

15. to keep accurate and complete records of clients, their animals and the training and behavior services provided; to ensure secure storage and when appropriate, confidential disposal of such records.

16. to refrain from accepting financial remuneration for referrals to other professionals with the exception of nominal gifts (such as a pen or coffee mug) and to refrain from other business relationships that may affect the scope and quality of services offered to clients.

17. to continue professional development as required for maintaining The CCPDT credentials in accordance with the policies of The CCPDT.

18. to maintain and respect the confidentiality of the contents of any and all certification examinations of The CCPDT.

I have read the Code of Ethics of The Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers and agree to abide by this code in my dog training and behavior consulting practice.

Signature:                                                                         Date:

Adopted September 17, 2010. Effective immediately.


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© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ruth Crisler and Spot Check with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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