training dogs with shock collars

Best Friends responds about their position on the use of shock collars.

I recently learned about an on-going discussion and controversy about the world-renowned Best Friends Animal Society’s (BFAS) views on the use of shock collars. In this brief essay, I’m quoting directly from some correspondence that has come my way to be sure I get it right.

I first learned about this on November 14, 2019, from Jill Breitner in the following email: “I wonder if you’ve seen the video [posted October 23, 2019] of a town hall meeting at BFAS on their support of using shock collars on difficult dogs… The 47 min mark till 51 min is very telling. We both know that shocking fearful and aggressive dogs increases the chances of said dogs to bite so adopting these dogs out is a liability and danger to the public.” 

The dogs were going to be sent to the Dogs Playing For Life (DPFL) shadow program at the National Canine Center in North Central Florida, where shock collars apparently are used. Below you’ll see that this transfer has been put on hold for now. 

I reached out to a number of people who most likely would know far more than I did about this situation. They too were very concerned. During my inquiry, I discovered that The Pet Professional Guild (PPG) had decided to change its venue from Best Friends to another location for its Summit 2020 meeting. Their decision to go to Best Friends for their 2018 and 2020 annual summits was based on their reading of Best Friends’ stated approach to training and modification methods.1,2 In PPG’s Guiding Principles we read: “No Shock, No Pain, No Choke, No Fear, No Physical Force, No compulsion based methods are ever employed to train or care for a pet.”

I also reached out to Best Friends and asked them to send me their “official” view about the video and on the use of shock collars. I received a note explaining what was happening from their perspective. It read, “Just an FYI, the video that was posted was of the fourth meeting on this issue. Three were held with staff only and the fourth with staff and volunteers. Without having been party to the prior meetings and the general local conversation, it is easy to take some of the comments out of the context of the full discussion and misconstrue their intent. Here’s a link to a blog post with our public response to this issue. As we state, we do not use or endorse electric or pinch collars.”

I also learned, “…Our search for a solution with Aimee Sadler’s program was just that—a search. We have acknowledged our failure to include all Best Friends staff and volunteers in this conversation as it developed, which was the cause of much turmoil and also the impetus for the town hall meeting.”

In their response to the issues at hand was the Best Friends Statement Re: Dog Training published on October 28, 2019, a few days after the video was released. It reads: “Listening to the concerns of our staff at subsequent meetings, we have decided to replicate the structured, academy-style intensive training and behavior modification approach that DPFL’s center employs, but using Best Friends’ preferred relationship-based training protocols. Because we are taking this approach first, we are not planning to send any dogs to DPFL’s center at this time.”

A few people wrote to me that the would have liked to see Best Friends write: “Because we are taking this approach first, we will never send any dogs to DPFL’s center or any other place that uses these sorts of techniques.” 

Why would anyone shock their so-called best friend?

While the popular press and some scientific literature continue to refer to dogs as “our best friends,” there is ample evidence available that clearly shows this is not the case. Why would anyone shock their best friend?

I present a number of reasons why dogs really aren’t our best friends in an essay called “Are Dogs Really Our Best Friends or Family?” They include data from a recent study by Hao Yu Shih and his colleagues titled “Breed Group Effects on Complaints about Canine Welfare Made to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) Queensland, Australia” in which the researchers report a huge number of welfare complaints—129,036—over a 10-year period in Queensland alone. 

In addition, complaints about different sorts of abuse and cruelty are on the rise in many different locations; dogs are considered property we own in all legal systems with which I’m familiar; and we knowingly breed some dogs who we know will suffer because of human tastes, many of whom have short lives and can’t breed or give birth on their own. We also continue to make dogs in an already crowded canine world. Many people wonder if we really need more dogs when there are so many without homes. 

Furthermore, many people’s contact with dogs is limited to “homed dogs,” often only “homed Western dogs,” so far too many discussions of “the dog” refer to only a small fraction of dogs who live on our planet. They don’t realize that it’s been estimated that around 75-85 percent of dogs in the world have limited contact with humans or are almost totally on their own.3 

The proverbial slippery slope

There’s little more I can say right now, and I’m sure numerous people will have their own positions. I fully realize that Best Friends’ preferred positive reinforcement relationship-based training protocols are their methods of choice, however, their official statement leaves the door open that there might be a situation(s) when they might choose to send a dog(s) to the National Canine Center. Such a slippery slope clearly is full of all sorts of challenging problems that go well beyond the scope of this essay. Many people and I would have liked to see Best Friends Animal Society close this door once and for all. 

See future posts for further discussions of this and other situations in which people have to decide on how to train/teach dogs with various difficult personalities. There’s no shortage of wide-ranging opinions, and it’s important to have open and polite dialogue among people with different and often radically opposing views. I hope this post will catalyze such important exchanges, from which we can only hope that all dogs will benefit. 

Originally published on Psychology Today and republished here with the kind permission of the author, Marc Bekoff, Ph.D.

References

Also see “Are Dogs Really Our Best Friends?” and links therein

This piece has benefited from input from various people on different sides of the issues at hand, and I thank them all for taking the time to respond to my queries.

Note 1: Best Friends approaches to training and behavior modification methods:

Positive Reinforcement: Training with Praise and Rewards

Why We Don’t (or Rarely) Use Punishment

Relationship-Based Dog Training: Benefits

2: The Pet Professional Guild’s approaches to training and behavior modification:

Position Statement on PPG’s Pet Industry Education Mandate

Guiding Principles, in which we read, “No Shock, No Pain, No Choke, No Fear, No Physical Force, No compulsion based methods are ever employed to train or care for a pet.”

Position Statements

3: It’s difficult to estimate how many dogs there are in the world. One reliable estimate puts the number between about 850 million and 1 billion. Some claim we can’t generalize from the Western world to other locations. The main point is that a very large number of dogs are pretty much or totally on their own.

Bekoff, Marc. Should Dogs Be Shocked, Choked, or Pronged?

_____. Should We Still Make Future Dogs in a Crowded Canine World?

_____. Dog Training Offers Valuable Lessons in Humane Education.

_____. How to Apply the Golden Rule to Dogs and Other Nonhumans

_____. “Bad Dog?” The Psychology of Using Positive Reinforcement.

_____. Science Shows Positive Reward-Based Dog Training is Best

_____. “Why in the World do People Make These Types of Dogs?”

_____ and Jessica Pierce. Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. New World Library, Novato, California, 2019. 

Frederick, Eva. Bad dog? Think twice before yelling, experts sayScience, November 6, 2019. 

Jordan, Rain. The Siren Song of Dog Training. In this essay, Ms. Jordan writes, “…dogs who have their behaviors suppressed–whether by electronic collars, prong collars, choke chains, leash jerks, squirting, yelling, scaring, et cetera–often become like landmines.”

Todd, Zazie. The Lifespan and Health Conditions of French Bulldogs and Labrador Retrievers. Companion Animal Psychology, July 24, 2019.

Author’s Books on Amazon

Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do

Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible

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Marc Bekoff is professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He has published 31 books, won many awards for his research on animal behavior, animal emotions, compassionate conservation, and animal protection, has worked closely with Jane Goodall, and is a former Guggenheim Fellow. Marc's latest books are Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do and Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible (with Jessica Pierce) and he also publishes regularly for Psychology Today. Currently, Marc and Jessica are writing a book about what the world will be like for dogs as and when humans disappear (Dogs Gone Wild: Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World Without Humans, Princeton University Press, 202?). In 1986 Marc won the Master's age-graded Tour de France. His homepage is marcbekoff.com.