I watched "Dogs, Cats and Scapegoats" today - and I could write a whole post about that documentary and it's logical fallacies, but one sentence in particular caught my attention and nudged me to write a post on a subject that I was thinking about for a while now.
That sentence, said by Bernard Rollin, PhD, distinguished professor of philosophy, is:
"How you approach behaviour is an ethical stance".
Now, I need to make a disclaimer, before I continue - what follows is my view on the subject, it is what I find acceptable and ethical - am I no expert, nor I consider myself an authority on matters of ethics, dog training etc. Moreover, my stance might change over time and hopefully it will, otherwise it would mean I stopped learning. And while I do believe there is black and white distinction between the opposite ends of the dog training spectrum and approaches to dog ownership (which in itself is a controversial term), I also believe there is a lot of grey area and while there are some universal guidelines, each and every dog is different, each situation is different and all of that might determine your personal choice.
But the reason why this sentence struck me as so true, is that I really believe your choice of training methods, your approach to the relation between yourself and your dog is an ethical stance. No more, no less. Some people claim that aversive methods don't work (while on the other hand disdainfully labelling them as "quick fix"), other people claim purely positive training doesn't work either - the truth is, dogs are wonderful creatures and are so adaptable and so forgiving, that pretty much every method can work, provided the dog can get at least some clarity what is expected of them. So yes, you can achieve results that you are looking for, with different methods. Therefore, the big question is: which methods work for your dog (and yes, that might differ depending on your dogs sensitivity, temperament, drive etc.) and which are morally acceptable for you.
I've read really interesting post today, unfortunately only in Polish, about giving dogs choice. It started with assumption that the very term of dogs ownership is somehow outdated, and more and more people are perceiving themselves as caretakers of their pets rather than owners. Personally, I don't really see it as mutually exclusive - I am my dogs' owner in legal terms (that also means I'm legally responsible for both their well-being and for their possible misbehaviour), but that very term means an obligation to take care of them in the best possible way - in terms of meeting their needs, providing them with food, exercise, appropriate veterinary care, training, cuddles (yes, there is an emotional factor for me as well).
But from that assumption of not really owning another living, feeling creature comes a conclusion that we need to give our dogs choice (and what follows is a list of situations in which we should do it and I generally agree with it) and this is something I've been thinking a lot about recently. And it actually determines the use of training methods. Because if I believe dogs should always have a choice, that limits my choice of methods to the ones that make my dogs happy, if I deny them choice, it means I use whatever methods I deem appropriate for getting a behaviour I want. So while I consider myself to be on the positive/ respectful end of the spectrum, I wouldn't be myself if there wasn't a BUT.
I somehow have a hierarchy of things pertaining to dog training. Some things are important. Coming when called is the most important. Accepting touch / grooming / veterinary procedures is important. Resting at house is important. Loose leash walking is quite important, because few things annoy me more than a dog trying to walk me rather than the other way round (oh, they do get offleash walks every day and they are allowed to run, smell things, roll in grass etc. to their hearts' content then). Doing agility is not that important. Doing tricks is not important at all. My dogs playing with other dogs is totally not imporant - they don't like it mostly and I protect them from people and dogs who think they should. And so on. How much choice my dogs are given relies on that hierarchy.
So yes, generally I want my dogs to have a choice, first of all, out of respect - they are living, feeling, thinking beings. Secondly, I want them to feel safe and let me know if they don't want to do something. I make sure their good choices (like working with me or doing what I ask them to do) are so rewarding that if they refuse to do it, they must have a very good reason, and usually it is a physical reason and a signal we need to head to the vets asap. But sometimes their choice can be really limited: if I think the reason for not working with me is that an adolescent male would rather lick bitches' pee, sure, he can choose not to work with me, but he won't be given the option to lick the pee either (so yup, there is a choice: you either do something fun with me or you don't do anything fun at that time). Bear in mind that I believe dogs have certain needs (food, safety, play, social contact, rest, investigating the environment and so on) and before you ask anything of them, you should be sure they actually satisfy those needs on regular basis - denying them this option is an abuse as well, but sometimes I'm the one to decide when they can do it.
I also avoid using physical coertion when teaching behaviours, particularly when it concerns agility, because, well, it's just agility. I want my dog to let me know if they are afraid of let's say, see-saw - they can refuse to get on it, they can jump off it, etc. I want my dogs to let me know if they find the exercise frustrating, difficult, if they don't understand what I want from them - then it's my job to adjust, explain, make it easier. If my dog ever left, refused to work with me - that would be a wake up call and I would try really hard to understand the reason and then, give them the better reason to keep working (not the "or I make you do it" kind of reason). I do my best to prevent such situations in the first place - for instance, I teach my dogs that keeping on trying pays off really well, that generally working for me pays really well and it's really fun, I plan my sessions, I analise them and so on.
But before you assume I'm all rainbows and unicorns, there are also some situations in which my dogs don't have a choice, same as there are situations in which my child doesn't have a choice, simply because sometimes I know better. Basically it boils down to any situation which concerns safety of my dogs, myself or any other being. Like at the vets, my dogs ultimately don't have a choice and I teach them early on to accept it. If I want to have their blood tested, the blood will be tested, even if the dog is like "naah, I don't feel like it today". If there is something painful and the vet needs to examine it, it will be examined. If my dog wanted to chase and kill another animal, I would stop that behaviour by whatever means and so on, and so on. I always start with positive approach and 99% of time, I get what I want. But if this is something I consider very important and if I'm not able to get the result I want by solely positive approach, I would eventually use other methods as well - this is sort of last resort, I give lots of consideration if it's really necessary (what I'm writing about here is conscious decision to use an aversive method or to deny a dog a choice and not getting angry at the dog and flying off the handle - which we shouldn't, but then, let him who is without sin cast the first stone).
Some things are not acceptable for me. Using a shock collar to teach puppy to sit is not acceptable (and stupid). Burning the bowl (that is feeding ONLY from hand in exchange for certain behaviours) is not acceptable for me either (well, maaaybeee it can come useful as a temporary measure in some cases). Dragging a dog that knocked down a pole back to agility field after it been yelled at and fled, is not acceptable. But then again - some behaviours are not acceptable either. Dogs do use aversives themselves (and they do is SO WELL: immediately, never dragging it on, stopping the unwanted behaviour once and for all... think of an older dog teaching a younger one not to disturb them when they are sleeping). And no, it doesn't destroy your relation forever (BTW, it is interesting how some people getting on high horse of ethics in dog training fail to represent truthfully the use of certain tools and methods).
That's my ethical stance. For now.