The Ethics of Training Methods


A friend recently asked me to read this article and give some thoughts on it: The Relativity of Pressure.

Well, I had a “thought” for about every other sentence I read so I figured I’d turn it into a blog post! Here are my thoughts on the ethics of dog training methods:

How should we define ethics?

The author begins by assuming that ethics should be judged on the amount of stress put on the dog. I googled “what does ethical mean?” and I got:

Of or relating to moral principles or the branch of knowledge dealing with these.”

There are many ways to determine what one would consider ethical. At this point, you should think about how YOU determine something is ethical or not.

While I think stress is one factor that should be considered, I believe there are many more variables to consider and I also don’t believe all stress is equal. In any situation where you are expected to learn something, you will have pressure to pay attention and try and understand to the best of your ability. There IS stress. So is this really the best way to determine if a certain way of training is ethical? Is stress what you should judge when looking at ethics?

Measuring Stress

The article goes on to talk about a study that compared the training methods on dogs and measured their stress. They came to this conclusion:

Another way of looking at this is that the reward based technique, caused a considerable amount of stress in the dogs, for virtually no reason. The training via this method was not nearly as successful as the electronic collar, and caused as much or more stress. So in this study which type of pressure was more ethical? It seems the electronic collar takes the cake.”

Unfortunately, the study they mention was done in another language so I cannot judge the accuracy of this study. Here are some questions I have to ask about the study:

  • How exactly did they measure “stress”? How did they measure physiological responses? What physiological responses were measured? Were there control measurements made before the experiment began?
  • What is the history of the dogs used in this study? What methods of training have they experienced?
  • What were the trainer/handler’s expertise in using the methods that were applied to the dogs? Were the methods they used done correctly and accurately? What rewards were used and how were they given in the training?
  • What behaviors were they trying to teach the dogs in the study?

Maybe one of my readers will be able to read the study and let me know the answers to my questions :)

The author of that article tries to explain that the study included highly motivated working dogs which implies that they have had training before. If the dogs were not used to reward based training, this may have led to higher stress levels when using that method which would skew the study results.

My Conclusions

In my opinion, I want to choose the training method which will accomplish three things at once:

  1. Train the dog what I want it to learn
  2. Improve my relationship with my dog
  3. Create positive associations with any situation I put my dog in

313315_10151582043820362_537648197_nFrom experience, I know punishment and correction based training only accomplishes one of those. I’m not sure how the author of the article concludes that choking, pinching, and electrocuting a dog is just as ethical as with holding and giving treats or play. To me, it is clear – positive reinforcement based training is the MOST ethical way to train. It takes some skill and knowledge, but as we move further into this 21st century, I hope dog owners change and improve their training methods so that their training methods reflect the love they have for their pets. I know I’m glad I did!

Reward based training comes from scientific research that Pavlov and Skinner did. This training uses classical conditioning, counter conditioning, desensitization, and operant conditioning which are being used all the time whether or not you are aware of them. Does your dog look at you when they hear a bag open? That’s the exact same thing as Pavlov’s experiment when he rang the bell and then fed the dog which created a dog that began salivating when he heard the bell- classical conditioning. Do you ask your dog to sit before going through a door way? That’s operant conditioning  which Skinner defined. Reward based training takes these methods and applies then in a way that will teach your dog what you want in a positive and dog-friendly way.