ADVERTISEMENT

Practical methods of behavioral control (Proceedings)

May 01, 2011

The first tool of practical behavior modification is objectivity. In contemporary behavioral control, objectivity is a rare commodity. Most perspectives on behavior are myopic. Traditional trainers stick to what has worked in the past, ethologists confine their scope to the instinctive behavior of wild animals and academic empiricists depend on extrapolations of rat and pigeon studies. Using bias to determine how to control companion animals often leads to paradoxical beliefs.

For instance, the academic, empirical approach suggests that dogs and cats should be trained with exclusively pleasant methods. This belief has now filtered down to modern dog trainers who ape academia by having training conferences, certifications (with attendant letters they can put after their names) and "peer reviewed" literature. Coincidentally and ironically, academics who have staked a claim as companion animal experts ape dog trainers with the same fervor. That is because academic training and literature do not cover practical control of companion animal behavior. A modern academic practice is to cite an ancient research paper, suggest its findings as fundamental principles and offer training rules taken from non-academic references authored by dog trainers. The trainers reverse the practice and quote the academics' rewrite of traditional methods with the implication that it is the result of empirical research. There is no objective evidence of efficacy in this practice, merely enthusiastic practice with a claim of empirical authority.

As an example of this process in action, consider the universal dislike of shock collars and choke chains among modern trainers and behaviorists. Common observation yields the fact that millions of dogs are trained with these two tools each year with no observable harmful side effects. This should trigger further scrutiny to find the specific factors that delineate safe use of these tools as opposed to potentially traumatic practices. The criticism is asserted as a fundamental principle without supporting evidence and no empirical evidence to allow for scrutiny. For instance, if constriction of the neck via a choke chain is dangerous, the use of a "catch pole", AKA "control stick, should be similarly dangerous. If the gradient pain caused by a shock collar is dangerous, the equally intolerable sensation of cutting the quick while trimming a nail should also cause behavioral trauma. To test this comparison, simply try this test. Find a dozen dogs that are reactive to the point of uncontrollable at the front door when someone rings the bell and equally reactive about having their nails trimmed. Set up trials where half the dogs are shocked as the approach the door and the other half are restrained enough to trim a single nail. Record the decline in front-door approach relative to each aversive consequence. In reality, pre-conditioning with nail clippers is an incredibly potent aversive stimulus for many dogs. (There are no behaviorists who recommend using nail clippers to stop dogs from becoming aroused at the front door. Having tried it, I can report that it is highly effective and incredibly humorous. A simple Pavlovian association between the sound of a doorbell and the sequence that leads to nail trimming causes the behavior to decline almost instantly. Complete inhibition of the front-door arousal requires at least grazing a nail with the clippers on each repetition.)

The logical conclusion is that if mere pain, discomfort and fear cause trauma in training, they must also cause trauma in any other setting that yields the same levels of fearfulness. This means that standards for training should be the same as standards for veterinary care and grooming. If a choke chain is a bad tool because if can damage the trachea, then a control stick in a veterinary clinic should be a bad tool for the same reason. If the pain of a shock collar is inherently damaging, underground containment systems must be as dangerous as manual systems.