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My daughter was invited to the circus last week by a classmate celebrating her 7th birthday. The circus comes regularly to a very nearby venue, but I’d successfully avoided it up to this point. The kids all enjoyed themselves, of course, and were especially excited to see real live elephants and tigers. I remember my own awe as a child being exposed to such creatures.

To say I felt conflicted would be an understatement, especially while watching the lions and tigers perform. It’s hard to know exactly how much of such an act is scripted versus accidental. But a number of those big cats looked genuinely pissed, and the third time one of the females balked at a cue and then ran at the trainer, it did not look choreographed.

Likely all part of the show on some level, but is that even any better?

My three-year-old son pretty much summed up the absurdity of the evening when he exclaimed quizzically, “Look, it’s tigers on stools!”

Why yes, my son. This is how men demonstrate their physical prowess and mental superiority over other living creatures–by making them sit on stools.

Or, in the case of the majestic killer whale, by housing them in fishbowls and training them to splash tourists.

The maiden post to this blog was in response to the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau at Sea World’s Orlando park. It was the third death associated with the bull orca Tilikum, known to tourists as Shamu.

That post was flip in some respects, but the business of keeping killer whales for fun and profit is not. It does speak directly to my problem with gauging the humaneness of a training program purely according to which learning quadrants happen to dominate. And sadly, it speaks to the power of money to distort our judgement.

I think it’s well established that a higher percentage of clicker-trained killer whales actually kill their trainers than do dogs trained by any method. I do not mean that as an indictment of clicker-training.  I mean it as a challenge to the dual myths that A) killer whales are a model of reliable behavior compared to dogs, and B) their handling is a model of humane training.

What we do to killer whales is an atrocity without moral justification, in my opinion. They suffer lives of abject deprivation, void of any genuine opportunities to self-reward. They are prisoners of our selfish desire to engage with an intelligent species that wants little to do with us, absent our trapping and keeping them like lab rats.

Positive reinforcement based operant conditioning has proven utility both within and without the confining walls of zoos and amusement parks. I don’t deny that. I deny the legitimacy of extending the analogy between dogs and killer whales to the point of suggesting the best tools for engaging the latter must also be the best choice for training the former. And to the extent I personally find the level of management involved in captive marine mammal training to be abusive, I think there is some danger associated with modeling dog training practices after that example.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2012.

The following is from a 2011 online article, “Ten Vaccine Myths”, posted by Catherine O’Driscoll to Dogs Naturally Magazine.

Myth No. 1

Vaccines protect our dogs against disease, helping to ensure they live long, healthy, happy lives.


Vaccines only sometimes protect our dogs against disease (if at all). Scientific studies into human vaccines have shown that just as many vaccinated people, and sometimes more vaccinated people, contract diseases as do unvaccinated people.

A study conducted by Canine Health Concern during 1997, involving 2,700 dogs, showed that 68.2% of dogs in the survey with parvovirus contracted it within three months of being vaccinated. Similarly, 55.6% of dogs with distemper contracted it within three months of vaccination; 63.6% contracted hepatitis within three months of vaccination; 50% contracted parainfluenza within three months of vaccination; and every single dog with leptospirosis contracted it within that three month timeframe.

So vaccines represent – at best – only a 50/50 chance of protection.

Needless to say, this “study” did not involve the controlled exposure of 2,700 dogs (or 4,000, the number used on the author’s website) to diseases ranging from parvo to influenza within the three months following their respective vaccinations. Nor did it demonstrate that any vaccine is at best 50% effective.

Canine Health Concern, founded by the author of the article, evidently conducted a survey, and while the details are not easily accessible (or worth looking too hard for, I think), one may assume some fraction of surveyed pet owners happened to own dogs afflicted (either past or present) by various diseases. Suppose 22 dogs (out of the either 2,700 or 4,000 whose owners were surveyed) suffered parvo infection, and 15 of those happened to contract it within three months of being vaccinated. Voila, you have your 68.2%.

Never mind if 100 or 1,000 other vaccinated dogs were in fact vaccinated, exposed, and protected. No matter if the survey respondents either lied or were confused regarding their pets’ vaccination status. No matter if the vaccines in question were expired or faulty. No matter if the relevant sample is in fact so tiny that drawing conclusions is unwarranted.

I normally try to avoid such low-hanging fruit, but O’Driscoll’s aggressive promotion of junk science (and personal abuse of math) is too egregious to ignore.

© 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.

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.

I grew up in a commuter town in New Jersey known for its faux-tudor houses, devil-worshipers, and radon.

As a teenager, I spent an inordinate amount of time traipsing up and down Manhattan, taking classes at the Art Students League, and missing the last bus home. I still miss NYC at times, and make sporadic efforts to stay abreast.

This post has nothing to do with dogs, and may be offensive to some. Word to the wise.

It has to do with Ground Zero, or the real estate surrounding it, where a nominally local dispute over the proposed erection of a Muslim community center has lately ignited an international debate.

I don’t intend to rehash it here.

I will only comment on an argument encountered Friday night while wading through the political blogosphere: that had strippers flown the planes that destroyed the World Trade Center, they would not be welcome on such hallowed ground, either.

This is the preferred resolution, it seems, to the conflict created by the widespread insistence in recent days that some undetermined amount of real estate peripheral to Ground Zero be counted as hallowed, despite its meanwhile playing host to strip clubs, peep shows, and off-track betting.

It’s been a while since I lived in the tri-state area, but last time I checked, hallowed ground wasn’t subject to byzantine zoning codes.

hallowed: adj 1. holy, consecrated  2. sacred, revered

Just double-checking. So how does this jibe with accommodating sex shops, lap dances, and gambling?

Let’s see how author and acclaimed journalist Abigail Esman explained it Friday in her Forbes blog Pen & Sword:

Rauf  [the man steering the proposed development]– and others – note that strip joints and OTB offices occupy the space nearby Ground Zero, and argue that this proves, somehow, that the area is not considered “hallowed ground.” This, of course, is idiocy. Strippers didn’t kill 3000 people that day; Muslims did. Strippers don’t threaten to destroy America if we don’t build a temple to nudity where they want us to; Muslims do. Had strippers and gamblers been the ones who plowed their planes into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, you can bet they’d not be welcome there now, either.

I forget the Latin term right now for HUH???? But it will come to me.

In any case, I know basing one’s argument on a purely ludicrous hypothesis is not considered entirely kosher among bona fide logicians. And I would note that presuming that one’s opponents spout idiocy falls somewhat short of actually demonstrating it.

I also question her basic presumption. I mean, how totally convinced are we that strippers would be unwelcome? No doubt whatsoever? Not even really kickin’ ones?

Okay, what about cab drivers? If cab drivers had flown planes into the Twin Towers, would they now be unwelcome within a two block radius of the footprint?? You see my dilemma.

As an aside, I do think Esman’s startling hypothesis has the stuff of a really solid premise for old-school science fiction. What if….

This may be the biggest problem with Esman’s red herring–the imagery it conjures, which is both bizarre and distracting, as well as a teensy bit hard to shake. Face it, when your head is spinning with visions of scantily clad terrorists deftly twirling their tassels as they overwhelm the cockpit, focusing on the earnest intent behind words such as these becomes genuinely challenging:

Like the papers that wind whisked that day as far as to downtown Brooklyn, Sabella’s body, it seems, simply blew away. His remains could still be buried in the earth deep below the WTC foundations – or, more likely, they fell as ashes, not so far away–perhaps, indeed, where the Burlington Coat Factory still stands.

…or on the stage of the Pussycat Lounge.

Maybe lower Manhattan’s sex stores, strip club, and OTBs got grandfathered in as acceptable “special uses” on its hallowed ground, sort of like the slaughterhouses within Chicago’s Planned Manufacturing Districts (also most hallowed, by the way).

My own conviction is that there is no graceful way to rationalize declaring the ground in question to be hallowed, when no one has treated it as such before now.

And for the record, I am neither a prude, nor an enemy of the state.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2010.

I’d like to say a few words about Cesar Millan.

I appreciate his focus on exercise, structure, and leadership. And I can’t get through an episode of The Dog Whisperer without shouting at the TV.

Truth is I don’t indulge very often, despite the professional interest I presumably should have. And I do shout at other TV trainers, notably Victoria “Why-let-never-owning-a-dog-get-in-the-way-of-a brilliant-career?” Stillwell, and that Canadian fellow whose modus operendi seems to involve an intensely creepy home-search. But Cesar’s overwhelming popularity and unofficial status as the patron saint of balanced trainers earns him special consideration.

Many dog trainers will tell you that Cesar Millan is not a dog trainer. I’ve said it myself. Cesar has said it himself. But to non-trainers, that assertion comes across as a nonsensical cop-out, and maybe it is. What is certain is that as long as he keeps showing up on Animal Planet National Geographic Channel doing something that for all the world is indistinguishable from dog training, real-life trainers will be called upon to address Cesar’s message, methods, and towering success.

I usually begin by pointing out that Cesar is not so much instructive as inspirational. He presents a compelling example of how one might–or even ought to–live with dogs. It is an entertaining illustration of what is possible (and also occasionally of what is not, even for him). It is great television. It is good business.

It is not a training method.

A method is systematic and reliable, if not universally applicable. Socrates had a method. Lee Strasberg had a method. Bill Koehler had a method. Cesar draws on something closer to a style. His style works for him, at least by and large, but that success depends heavily on a particular dynamic existing between himself and the dog (not to mention skilled editors and a dynamite publicist). In its absence, Cesar’s way yields less reliable results, and few of his signature techniques remain advisable.

A sound method, by contrast, should function independent of extraordinary powers of calm assertion and physical prowess. Mind you, both help a great deal, and may in fact be prerequisites in some cases where the stakes are especially high. But they are arguably more gifts than skills, and thus challenging to teach, develop, or codify.

I know, Cesar doesn’t train, he rehabilitates. So are we talking apples and oranges? Charting new territory? Or just flying blind?

I find that rehabilitating aggressive dogs is less linear than straight obedience training, and that a lot may be accomplished without teaching formal skills. I still call it dog training, and suggest method is no less important in these cases. In fact, every aspect of dealing with dangerous dogs argues strongly in favor of a reliable, systematic approach.

The fact some number of exceptional people are capable of going it alone into the void, relying on instinct to carry the day, and coming out unscathed, does not persuade me of the existence of an alternate model. But it is sound entertainment to be sure.

Many experienced trainers take cases similar to those featured on The Dog Whisperer, but it’s rare that made-for-TV drama ensues. Real-life trainers are mostly not showmen, but rather engineers. We lay a solid foundation and build skills overtop. We teach first and apply second. It’s less sexy, takes longer than an hour, and is rarely televised. It is methodical, and we generally do let you try it at home.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2010.

A Little Backstory on the Front End

After roughly twenty years of regularly being called inhumane for using standard training equipment in the course of working with dogs and horses, I recently took some friendly fire from some folks who take my blog posts to be the work of an animal rights activist.

I take animal welfare seriously enough. Animal cruelty strikes me as basically degenerate and thoroughly deserving of stigma. Human society is well served in my opinion by laws that intelligently and effectively minimize its occurrence; and such laws, once enacted, ought to be consistently enforced. Of course, this presupposes one is drawing from a rational definition of cruelty, not a radical one.

The concept and enforcement of animal rights is a trickier proposition, both morally and legally. As for ill-conceived activist legislation, suffice it to say it’s not my cup of tea.

So I was relieved to read news of Tuesday’s Supreme Court decision, which came down hard against a 1999 federal law that criminalized the creation or possession of depictions of animal cruelty with intent to distribute.

As is highly traditional, the law in question appears to have been inspired by revulsion at non-standard sexual depravity, in this case a little known fetish that succeeded in generating a perfect storm of political grandstanding.

At issue were what are known, at least among congressmen and mainstream media, as “crush videos”, which I’m told depict stiletto-heeled dominatrices stepping on and killing small animals. Also not my cup of tea, incidentally, but chacun à son goût.

Crush Videos and the First Amendment

The law was aimed at crushing what was estimated to be a small but growing market. But, as is also traditional, Congress overstepped, fashioning a statute that effectively criminalized a much wider range of conduct, and in so doing ran afoul of the First Amendment.

The case, brought by the office of the Solicitor General, that put the 11-year-old Depiction of Animal Cruelty Act to the constitutional test involved author and documentary producer Robert Stevens, convicted in 2005 of selling three videotapes about pit bulls to undercover agents. He was sentenced to three years in prison, but a federal appeals court threw out the conviction. Stevens was also one of the first people charged under the act.

The films reputedly show pit bulls catching wild boars during hunting trips, engaged in a dogfight in Japan (where dogfighting is legal), and engaged in fights shot here in the US in the 60s and ’70s. By all accounts, apart from his lawyer’s perhaps, Stevens is pretty clearly in the business of glorifying pit fighting, which I’m sure strikes most of us as deplorable.

The problem is that darned amendment, which our Supreme Court justices seem pretty stuck on protecting against the wrongheaded efforts of narrow-minded do-gooders, in this case within the Department of Justice.

The essence of the government’s argument was that as with child pornography, the prevention of animal cruelty rises to the level of trumping free speech, and that because its depiction has no social value or expressive content, it is not entitled to First Amendment protection.

To put the government’s argument into perspective, the Supreme Court last declared a category of speech to be undeserving of First Amendment protection in 1982. That was child pornography. Other unprotected speech includes fighting words, obscenity, threats, libel, and incitements to illegal activity.

It is a short list.

So a key question in the Stevens case was whether animal cruelty rises to the same level of government concern underlying the above rulings. In other words, does the state have a compelling interest in curtailing depictions of animal cruelty, on the order of the interest it has in preventing riots, threats, and child pornography?

In an 8 to 1 ruling, the high court said no. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, said,

Maybe there are some categories of speech that have been historically unprotected, but have not yet been specifically identified. But if so, there is no evidence that ‘depictions of animal cruelty’ is among them.

The Chief Justice also criticized the government for proposing a balancing test that would pit the “value” of any speech against its “societal costs,” saying,

As a free-floating test for First Amendment coverage, that sentence is startling and dangerous.


The First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech does not extend only to categories of speech that survive an ad hoc balancing of relative social cost and benefits.

Describing the “alarming breadth” of the law in question, Roberts explained,

A depiction of entirely lawful conduct runs afoul of the ban if that depiction later finds its way into another state where the same conduct is unlawful.

He pointed to the problem that since hunting is illegal in Washington, D.C., the law could be applied to

any magazine or video depicting lawful hunting, so long as that depiction is sold within the nation’s capital.

Roberts rejected the government’s insistence that federal prosecutors would only enforce the statute against acts of “extreme cruelty,” noting that

The First Amendment protects against the government; it does not leave us at the mercy of noblesse oblige. We would not uphold an unconstitutional statute merely because the government promised to use it reasonably.

Besides, federal prosecutors had already strayed from the purported mission of the statute by prosecuting cases involving depictions of dog fighting, as opposed to restricting themselves to

wanton cruelty to animals designed to appeal to a prurient interest in sex.

Those were the words used by President Clinton to describe how the executive branch would interpret the statute. In his opinion, Roberts points out that

No one suggests that the videos in this case fit that description.

In fact, none of the cases in which the law had so far been applied fit Clinton’s description. And no cases involving actual crush videos were ever brought. / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0“>

The HSUS and Wrongheaded Analogies

Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) explains why:

That law dried up the market. It was very successful without a single prosecution. So we turned our attention to those peddling dog fighting videos. And all the arrests made under that 11-year-old statute were for selling dog fighting videos.

Okay, raise your hand if you are wondering why Wayne Pacelle is speaking as if the HSUS is personally driving these arrests. While you’re at it, raise a hand if you were wondering earlier just how it came to pass that Congress became aware of the threat posed to our nation by dominatrices wielding small animals. As it turns out, the answers are related.

According to an article by Lisa Wade McCormick for, Pacelle claims it was an HSUS investigation into crush videos that originally brought them to the attention of legislators. The HSUS also takes credit for fueling the current suit, which ended in the high court’s 8 to 1 smack down.

Did you think the HSUS was busy funding shelters? Their mission statement reads as follows:

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) is the nation’s largest and most effective animal protection organization. Established in 1954, The HSUS seeks a humane and sustainable world for all animals – a world that will also benefit people. We work to reduce suffering and to create meaningful social change for animals by advocating for sensible public policies, investigating cruelty and working to enforce existing laws, educating the public about animal issues, joining with corporations on behalf of animal-friendly policies, and conducting hands-on programs that make ours a more humane world. We are the lead disaster relief agency for animals, and we provide direct care for thousands of animals at our sanctuaries and rescue facilities, wildlife rehabilitation centers, and mobile veterinary clinics.

Providing care for “thousands” of animals may sound impressive, until you notice that their total revenue topped 100 million dollars in 2008, of which less than 7 million went to animal care facilities (while over 5 million went toward post-retirement benefits). Of course, with a name that trades liberally on its resemblance to that of myriad local Humane Societies, it’s well understood, not least by the HSUS itself, that donors commonly mistake the HSUS for a sort of umbrella fundraising organization for local shelters. But in fact, the HSUS has no such affiliation. And both Charity Navigator and The American Institute of Philanthropy have been critical of the HSUS for failing to live up to its mission.

Where does the money go? According to their 2008 Annual Report, the real money goes toward fundraising (over 27 million, or four times the sum going to animal care facilities) and a category of expense dubbed “Campaigns, litigation, and investigation” (over 28 million). You know, investigations like the one that supposedly turned up over 3,000 crush videos. Speaking of which, the HSUS claims crush videos are again proliferating on the internet. According to Wayne Pacelle,

Congress should act quickly to enact this legislation to prevent some of the most extreme forms of animal cruelty I have ever seen. Anyone who has seen the clips of women in high heels literally crushing small animals will understand the urgency in passing a bill to prevent the sale of these vile images.

Well, either they’ll understand the urgency of passing legislation, or they’ll… never mind. I for one couldn’t find any. Not saying they aren’t out there somewhere, readily accessible to those more in the know than myself. Just saying perhaps there are more pressing (no pun intended) issues to address.

Was that the strategy all along? I mean, the HSUS turned its attention to dog fighting videos pretty efficiently, despite the lack of any presumable “appeal to a prurient interest in sex,” almost as if that had alway been the plan. I tried looking for information regarding the HSUS investigation that led to the passage of the Depiction of Animal Cruelty Act in the first place, but couldn’t find anything beyond conflicting assertions regarding the volume of videos it uncovered.

I did find something interesting, though. I found the following statement from HSUS President Wayne Pacelle:

The federal Depiction of Animal Cruelty Law is the only tool available to crack down on this horrific form of extreme animal cruelty. We wouldn’t allow the sale of videos of actual child abuse or murder staged for the express purpose of selling videos of such criminal acts, and the same legal principles apply to despicable acts of animal cruelty.

Alright, raise your hand if you spotted the analogy. The one between animals (not even particularly intelligent ones) and children? Sound familiar? It’s the same flawed analogy used against remote training collars and a boatload of other things that are in fact appropriate for dogs, while being very bad for children.

Utopian Visions or Slippery Slopes?

Unfortunately, this is where the trail of animal rights often seems to lead, to a land in which dogs, cats, and maybe even mice (depictions of which beneath stilettos are very popular with the sexually deviant according to the HSUS) share the same protections, at least in many respects, as human children.

Fans of the “slippery slope” argument (or of crush videos and pit fighting), consider these idiotic analogies between the rights of animals and the rights of children to be a gift. I consider them tragic. They are a basic reason otherwise rational people may experience gut-level aversion in the face of supposedly undue concern for animal welfare. They are specious and simple-minded, and as such corrupt legitimate debate. And they are dangerous, at least in the hands of men like Wayne Pacelle, who harbor real-world ambitions to see them codified into law, and who sit on enough money, lawyers and lobbyists to succeed at doing so.

I would guess the “alarming breadth” of the Depiction of Animal Cruelty Act was not accidental. I would guess the test to the First Amendment that the statute presented was always anticipated. It would explain why HSUS investigators were searching for small animal pornography (granted, there is at least one alternate explanation). After all, if they were looking for material capable of inciting legislation that would put animal protection on a par with child protection, such a scavenger hunt would make perfect sense. As would the overly broad wording of the law itself, and the push to defend that wording to the high court against too much constitutional scrutiny.

I can’t prove any of that, but I can’t prove the existence of crush videos either.

In the meantime, I take care to tread carefully along the road between concern for animal welfare and lobbying for animal rights. It may be steep at places, but I’m reasonably sure of foot.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2010.

The Welsh Assembly announced a ban on electronic training collars last week, making Wales the first part of the United Kingdom to impose a ban on the devices. Caroline Kisko of the Kennel Club had this to say:

This is a historic day for animal welfare in Wales….it is truly leading the way and we hope that the rest of the UK will follow by example to outlaw these cruel and unnecessary devices.

There have been calls for similar bans on this side of the pond, where electronic training collars have been in use since the 1960’s. The collars certainly inspire a fair amount of vitriol both here and in Canada. To get a feel for the rhetoric involved, let’s visit a Canadian “anti-shock” website. Perusing the home page, one encounters a number of provocative statements, such as

The animal has no escape. Shock devices are used to control unwanted barking, jumping, running, socializing etc. Sadly, these are normal behaviours that healthy dogs will exhibit and that contribute to a dog’s well being and happiness.

The argument seems to be that the very idea of curtailing any of a dog’s natural behaviors is wrongheaded. Bad news for pretty much all of us.

As for how the collars “work”, the site explains,

The dog is…expected to respond out of fear of further punishment. The problem is many dogs don’t know why they are being shocked and consequently don’t know how to respond. Therefore, when the punishing shock is delivered it causes further confusion.

I need to interject here that fear and confusion do not play a role in any sound or effective training methodology.

Add to this, the potential for defective collars, the unstable vindictive nature of an operator and you’ve set the stage for serious animal abuse.

Personally, I’d tend to think that once “the unstable vindictive nature of an operator” was added to nearly anything, you’d have set the stage for abuse, but maybe I’m setting the bar too low.

Just in case the reader hasn’t caught on to the idea that people who use electronic collars are mean sons-of-bitches, or that perhaps human beings generally do not deserve to own dogs, the author of the site goes on to lament,

Watching their dog wince in pain doesn’t seem to deter them. They seem blind to the flood of information given by credible sources that shock is harmful. Ultimately, it is their degree of respect for living beings that determines if they can stomach hurting animals.

All human beings are volatile creatures. Consider the daily display of road rage for example. Is there a driver who hasn’t been given the finger or flashed one at someone else? Domestic violence, family squabbles, schoolyard bullying and hate crimes are all everyday occurrences. You are deceiving yourself if you believe that people in control of a weapon like a shock collar would not use it out of anger and frustration. After all, it is the frustrated dog owner who seeks out these devices. Most shock users agree that abuse is possible but each one feels they are the “responsible” one. The plain fact is, some people are not cut out to be pet owners.

Some people aren’t cut out to craft logical arguments, either. But we still allow them to set up their very own websites.

What civilized person would allow a painful tool to be used on their animal that they would not allow to be used on their child?

If I’m understanding that last bit correctly, I shouldn’t do anything to a dog I wouldn’t do to a child, begging the question of what if any training aids a civilized person might use, or even where one might house a dog or how one might lead it about (I don’t care what anyone says, those leashes they sell for kids are seriously creepy).

Worst of all, even the most civilized and responsible among us need be concerned about “unintentional rogue shocks caused by device malfunction”, of which the site states,

The outcome will be a dog with a broken spirit and a fear of expression. A dog transformed from joyful and loving to paranoid and unpredictable.

No sir, the decent folks of Canada wouldn’t want that.

I admit it is a bit unfair to poke fun at such baseless hyperbole, so let me explain why I picked this website (which incidentally has a photo insert of baby dolls with shock collars strapped around their necks on its home page) as a representation of “anti-shock” rhetoric. I chose it because a very well known dog trainer, the author of several books in fact (one of which I not only own but refer to occasionally), and an otherwise intelligent woman so far as I can tell, recommended it as a “good anti-shock website”.

For the record, I fully appreciate the revulsion people feel when contemplating animal abuse, and am not wholly unsympathetic to the discomfort many people have with the popularity of these devices. Nor do I deny their significant potential for misuse. Personally, I wince a little each time I pass by the electronic collar display at Pet Smart. But then, I wince at the display of retractable leashes and formaldehyde laden rawhides as well.

I likewise respect the desire to keep them out of the hands of bad people, or even well-intentioned but unknowledgeable people, on the basis of their capacity to do real harm when used unethically or unskillfully. And I will go so far as saying that there are legitimate arguments (not to say I am in agreement) to be made for restricting or regulating their sale, or at minimum discouraging their widespread and casual use.

But, I believe there are far more compelling arguments to be made for holding ourselves to a high level of discourse when discussing subjects as important as animal welfare and the rights of animal owners. Passion, even outrage, is understandable. But neither gives one license to make false claims and specious arguments. Failing, whether deliberately or not, to distinguish between abuse and responsible use is misleading; fear-mongering is never called for.

Perhaps it would be helpful to look to a more ‘credible’ source for solid information regarding electronic collars, perhaps an authority on animal behavior, one with impressive credentials. After all, a website is one thing, a PhD is another.

An individual whose opinions on animal welfare, behavior, training, and electronic training collars are frequently cited is Dr. Karen Overall, VMD, PhD, Diplomate ACVB. By the way, she is also a certified Applied Animal Behaviorist. Gee, isn’t that the gold standard? I bet someone as famous and learned as Dr. Overall would have nothing but highly intelligent and erudite things to say on the subject of electronic training collars. Let’s see…

In An Open Letter from Dr Karen Overall regarding the use of shock collars, published in December of 2005, the esteemed Dr. Overall opens with her long held opinion that

there is never any reason for pets to be shocked as a part of therapy or treatment.

I’m not sure whether she classifies training in her mind under therapy or treatment, but then, she isn’t actually a dog trainer, so I suppose it’s understandable if her language when referring to training is less than perfectly natural or crisp. Nonetheless, her opinion is crystaline:

Let me make my opinion perfectly clear: Shock is not training– in the vast majority of cases it meets the criteria for abuse.

Gosh, that’s a bold statement. Of course, on the one hand, I’d have to agree: Shock is not in fact training any more than tossing a piece of steak at a dog is training, unless some meaning is attached to it (this is where being a dog trainer helps one to analyze these matters). On the other, I have to wonder how Dr. Overall, who presumably eschews “shock” collars herself, has achieved enough familiarity with electronic collar training methods and protocols to declare that in the vast majority of cases such training rates as abuse, particularly when many trainers use very low levels of electronic stimulation nearly exclusively.

Certainly, Dr. Overall would not fashion such a strident opinion out of whole cloth: she must have a great deal of science to back it up. And indeed she does. In her words,

There are now terrific scientific and research data that show the harm that shock collars can do behaviorally.

Hold on a moment–the harm that shock collars can do, or the harm (nay, abuse) that they do do in the vast majority of cases? Which is it?

Dr. Overall cites a pair of studies, one by Schilder and van der Borg (2003) and another, new at the time, by Schalke, Stichnoth, Ott and Jones-Baade (2006). There are both older and newer studies, but let’s look at those two, since presumably they represent a good portion of the “terrific scientific and research data” that informs Dr. Overall’s expert opinion.

According to a paper produced for 2007 publication by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants titled Electronic Training Devices: A Review of Current Literature (Jo Jacques, CPDT, CPCT and Myers, CDBC), the goal of the Schilder and van der Borg study was

to determine the behavioral changes in dogs during training using electronic training collars.

According to Jacques and Myers, the study comprised thirty-two dogs divided into two groups. Each received general obedience and protection training. One group was trained using electronic collars, the other without. They state,

The authors concluded that shock-collar training is stressful; that receiving shocks is a painful experience to dogs; and the shock group of dogs evidently learned that the presence of their owner (or his commands) announced the reception of shocks, even outside of the normal training context. They suggest that the welfare of these shocked dogs is at stake….

Yikes. But there is one small problem. According to Electronic Training Devices: A Review of Current Literature,

This study has come under considerable fire because the experience of the handlers and dogs is not clear, and the level of shock is not stated.

Are you kidding me?! I found this a little hard to believe, so had a look-see at the study itself. From the section titled Materials and Methods:

All of these dogs were adult German Shepherds. Sixteen dogs (2 females, 14 males) had received shocks during training and 15 dogs (3 females, 12 males), that never had received shocks, were control dogs. Some control dogs were trained on the same training grounds and with the same trainer as some shocked dogs. These 31 dogs, their handlers and their trainers belonged to five different training groups, spread over the Netherlands. The group of 31 dogs was used not only to study direct behavioural effects of shocks, but also to compare the behaviour of shocked versus control dogs. We had no influence upon the methods and aids the trainers used during the training sessions we observed.

But this is my favorite part of that section:

To assess direct effects, we filmed training sessions on videotape using a Canon UC-X30 Hi-8 camera with 40digital zoom, and analysed these tapes later on, using standard video equipment.

That’s right, the authors take pains to detail what camera equipment they employed, while saying not one word about the electronic training collars, stimulation levels, or methods that were used. Very scientific, scientist guys. In fact, no information is given regarding training methods until the Discussion section. That is where we discover the following assertions regarding police and guard dog training generally:

First, this type of training is typically and traditionally work by and for men: it is mostly men, that do these trainings and they have been doing it their way and successfully for many years. Men mostly are harder on animals than women, men may be perceived as more threatening than females (Wells and Hepper, 1999; Hennesy et al., 1997). Secondly, training time is too short. Thirdly, prestige is an important factor: championships or high rankings count heavily. All this promotes severe punishment in order to get quick results.

And, to the question of electronic collars and animal welfare, that the

effects of the electric collar, at least when used in a harsh way, may be visible outside the training area. The most likely factor here is the presence of the handler.

In other words, dogs trained by brutal men overly concerned with prestige in too short of a time using shocks of unknown (and presumably unlimited) strength and duration, at least in a harsh way, can suffer visible fallout, and in fact appear to have suffered more fallout in this case than dogs trained with other methods or equipment.

That is about all I am personally able to draw from the study, but let’s see what the authors themselves were able to glean:

To the question of whether shocks are painful or merely annoying, they argue,

All in all these responses show that shocks elicit fear and pain responses.

And under Conclusions and Recommendations they confidently state,

We concluded that shocks received during training are not only unpleasant but also painful and frightening.

I am not a scientist, which may be why I have so much trouble wrapping my brain around how one could presume to ask the question of whether shocks are painful or merely annoying, much less answer it, without any discussion of what level or duration of electronic stimulation caused the behaviors documented.

According to the often cited Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training: Procedures and Protocols, Vol. 3 (Lindsay 2005), high-level electronic shock causes a neurological response and a perception of pain (although no physical damage), but low-level electric shock causes tapping, tickling, and/or tingling sensations. And Schindler and van der Borg themselves point out that shocks may last anywhere between 1/1000 of a second to 30 seconds. Do they not imagine a dog might perceive a low-level shock lasting 1/1000 of a second somewhat differently from a high-level shock lasting up to 30 seconds? If they do, they certainly keep that to themselves.

Well, let’s look at that other study. Maybe it’s the terrific one.

The title certainly gets my attention: Clinical signs caused by the use of electric training collars in everyday situations. And I am excited to see that the authors took the trouble to outline the training equipment they used, which in all cases was the Teletakt micro 3000 (ohm levels of 500 to 2.2 kohm). The Abstract states,

The aim of this study was to investigate whether any stress is caused by the use of electric shock collars or not and in this way to contribute to their evaluation with respect to animal welfare.

Three applications of electronic stimulation were included in the experiment:

  1. The elimination of hunting behavior
  2. Punishment of a dog disobeying a verbal recall from prey
  3. Random shocks (to simulate inappropriate owner use)

Now, I can buy those as examples of real life situations, but they are hardly representative. None of the above situations involves negative reinforcement, which certainly accounts for a huge portion of all electronic collar training and very possibly comprises the majority of it.


The subjects of the experiment were fourteen laboratory bred beagles (a frightening concept in and of itself), who prior to the study

only had contact with humans during the daily feeding and grooming routines. They were not accustomed to being separated from their kennel mates.

Hmm. This is sounding less and less like an “everyday situation” to me.

Returning to equipment, the authors note that the Teletekt collars have five stimulation levels. As far as what levels of stimulation were actually used in their reconstruction of “situations that often occur in dog training”, the following line of impenetrable reasoning is offered:

In this investigation the device was run at level 5 in all of the experiments. This level was chosen in order to investigate the dogs’ reactions under the highest electric pulse and as such the worst condition possible.

Funny how they didn’t mention that in the beginning. And also, are these people sadistic?!

I feel compelled to note that in the years I have trained dogs professionally, attended seminars, read journals and books, worked alongside other trainers, and participated in public and professional forums, I have yet to encounter anyone who felt it acceptable to subject a dog to nothing but the highest setting on an electronic collar right out of the box and in every context. At least, I had not before now.

Coincidentally, the authors of Electronic Training Devices: A Review of Current Literature did not think this worth mentioning either. They are, however, careful to include the following statement from the researchers:

This study indicates that the general use of electronic shock collars is not consistent with animal welfare.

Strange, I missed that sentence, because it does not appear anywhere in the actual study. What is stated is this:

The results of this study suggest that poor timing in the application of high level electric pulses, such as those used in this study, means there is a high risk that dogs will show severe and  persistent stress symptoms.

And that is indeed all that the study shows. Even when subjected to the highest level of shock first time out of the box (no collar conditioning whatsoever), neither of the groups in which shocks were doled out in association with some identifiable behavior demonstrated remarkable stress symptoms. And in fact, those beagles shocked in conjunction with touching prey (the scenario in which the way to avoid punishment would have been the most obvious) showed entirely negligible stress symptoms.

I’m not sure Schalke et al. contributed very much to the evaluation of electronic collars with regard to animal welfare, but they for sure demonstrated that beagles would be better off if there were four fewer behavior scientists. Which reminds me, I’ve always wondered how it is that using shock to train a dog is widely considered inhumane, while using shock to earn a degree raises very few eyebrows.

So, are these two studies outliers in a field of otherwise impressive research? Afraid not. 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.

As you may have guessed, I use electronic training collars in my own training practice with some regularity, although they have never been my mainstay. I actually prefer the term “remote collar”, not so much because it sounds more friendly, but because the fact that the collars operate remotely, allowing hands-off and off-leash communication, is more essential to their utility than the fact that they operate electronically or produce electronic stimulation.

I could launch into a fair discussion of that utility, recounting true stories of the effectiveness of gentle remote communication. I will do at some point. But right now I am less interested in making that argument as in making a simple, straightforward plea to all of us to raise the standard of discourse regarding electronic collars beyond the intellectually sloppy, overly politicized language that currently prevails.

In the words of Dr. Karen Overall,

It’s time we replaced everyone’s personal mythologies and opinions with data and scientific thinking.

There is no longer a reason for people to be misinformed.

My thoughts exactly.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2010.

I am fairly broad minded when it comes to children’s literature. I tend to lean toward the classics, like The Story of Ferdinand, The Giving Tree, and Where the Wild Things Are, but am always on the lookout for notable new fare, like the hilarious ode to collective bargaining that is Click Clack Moo, Cows That Type.

I don’t especially seek out stories featuring dogs, because my daughter, almost four now, gets plenty of  exposure to dogs (and lessons about them) as it is. But I do like a good dog tale, and so does June, so when she spotted something called Perfectly Martha (a sequel to Martha Speaks, Susan Maddaugh’s original book about a talking dog modeled after her own) on the shelves of our local used book store, I naively thought I was in business.

I should have taken the time to read it through before bedtime. Turns out the villain is a supposed dog trainer and one evil son-of-a-bitch.

Long story short, Otis Weaselgraft sets up shop in a town very much like your own, and sets about conning frustrated pet owners into believing their dogs can be “Perfect Pups” via his “THREE-STEP TRAINING PROGRAM”.

News of the new dog trainer and his amazing program traveled from neighbor to neighbor. Soon half the dogs in town were enrolled at the Perfect Pup Institute.

Illustrations of the duped dog owners walking their suspiciously obedient companions are accompanied by blissful proclamations:

A perfect dog in only one day.

And we didn’t have to do anything.

Meanwhile, Martha, our hero, looks on in disbelief, thinking,

What’s wrong with those dogs?

At this point I am thinking, “What’s wrong with this author?” But I’m also imagining she could still pull this out. Perhaps the moral will be that real training takes work, or that even trained dogs aren’t actually perfect, or that one ought to be somewhat leery of any trainer named Weaselgraft.

Meanwhile, the plot thickens. Turns out Otis Weaselgraft’s three-step training program involves something that sounds an awful lot like a remote training collar (called the Robo Rover Brain Blocker). Great, just like mommy sometimes uses. Okay, I’m beginning to get the picture, and it does not bode well.

Step One: They removed the dogs’ collars.

Step Two: They attached a tiny object to the inside of each collar.

Step Three: They put the collars back on.

Now every dog was staring straight ahead. No tails wagged, no fleas were scratched.

Martha gets the inside scoop from Weaselgraft’s pug “Sir Lancelot”, who woefully laments,

They call me Sir Lancelot, but my real name is Burt. I used to run with the big dogs, but look at me now. A demo-dog. No better than a robot.

I’ve had enough at this point, but it’s bedtime, and you have to finish the story. Suffice it to say that Martha manages to cannily expose Weaselgraft for the shyster he is, thereby also relieving area dog owners of the delusion that dogs ought to be obedient.

Things are back to normal in Martha’s neighborhood. Most of the Double PP’s [Proud Parents of Perfect Pups] had to admit that having a perfect pup was really no fun. Something very important was missing. So once again dogs scatter the trash and drink from the toilet. They bark and scratch their fleas and sleep on the furniture.

But they also greet their owners with wagging tails and slobbery kisses.

Well, isn’t that just peachy. And aren’t we all very lucky to have the benefit of author Susan Meddaugh’s wisdom, which appears to be that solving simple canine behavior problems comes at a terrible, terrible price.

In the interest of full disclosure, I may have taken some poetic license with the ending of Perfectly Martha in reading it to my wide-eyed daughter. I may have invented an additional character, a genuine dog trainer, who arrived in the nick of time to enlighten local dog owners as to the power of training to actually ennoble dogs, without suppressing either their personalities or their joie de vivre.

I may have done.

Sometimes seeking the truth requires changing the narrative.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2010.


spot-check: to sample or investigate quickly or at random

My Thought Exactly

"There's facts about dogs, and there's opinions about them. The dogs have the facts, and the humans have the opinions." --J. Allen Boone

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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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