"Pleeeze to NOT hurt puppeh, OK?"
...So, I was stunned recently to hear from a client that her vet had recommended using a shock collar on her aggressive dog.
I'd been trying to help this family deal with a multiplicity of behavioral issues among their trio of dogs. The most serious of the three was an older dog who'd been abused by a breeder who'd used him as a show dog for several years, and was now displaying a nightmarish complex of fear, dominance and territorial aggression. Basically, he has canine PTSD, and apparently feels compelled to bite pretty much every new visitor to their house. Not a good situation, and this mixture of aggressive behaviors is very, very difficult to manage. Notice I didn't say fix, because it probably can't be fixed or completely solved. I see lots of dogs with various aggression issues, and just trying to improve such situations is neither easy nor fast.
When I started out as a trainer 13 years ago, I thought it was easy -- use a choke collar (I've never used shock collars, but the principle is the same) to punish and negatively reinforce bad behavior. The theory behind this is to stop the "bad" behavior with a harsh enough response so the dog will think twice about doing it again. And they really DO think twice, which is why harsh training methods can make it appear that the problem is miraculously fixed! But it's not, it's just masked under a new layer of fear.
Using pain to force a dog into submission is simplistic and crude, and fails to address the underlying questions, the answers to which might actually solve the problem (or at least make it manageable): Why is a dog having an unwarranted reaction to something? How can we change the dog's perception of triggers which are not truly threatening? How can we replace the bad behavior with a more appropriate one which reduces anxiety -- or, best case, eliminates anxiety?
At some point, it sunk into my own head that harsh methods could NEVER change a dog's perception and would only make the dog MORE anxious rather than less. And harsh reactions make the human the punisher, not the leader. Dogs need us to be their leaders, and punishment is a poor and ultimately ineffective method of leadership.
But I still needed a different and better method of helping dogs with aggression or anxiety issues -- which I found when I started reading articles and books by veterinarians like Dr. Nicholas Dodman and Dr. Karen Overall, leading behavioral experts at top vet schools. They deal with these problems all the time, and research them at the same time. And it's the information I've learned from these experts that I pass along to my clients.
Chances are pretty good that this particular client's dog will repeat his behavior and try to bite every new visitor. If his owners use harsh training techniques -- shock collar, prong collar or even plain ol' choke collar, all of which can inflict pain -- that would mean every encounter with new visitors would involve punishment. Which means he will associate new visitors with being punished. Which means he will dislike new visitors even more. That's the cycle we were trying to change by 1) prevention, 2) basic obedience training which he lacked, 3) human control and leadership, and 4) positive reinforcement of even the smallest good (or even neutral) behaviors.
When my client's dog got fear-aggressive at the animal hospital, the vet apparently scolded the owners for not harshly stopping the behavior and punishing their dog when it happened. I'm sure this vet meant well, but I think she was looking at it incorrectly (although vets understandably don't enjoy being bitten). Stopping the behavior means you've failed to prevent it -- and learning how to prevent it is the first step toward (hopefully) changing, moderating or eliminating the bad behavior. Every time this massively confused and anxious dog gets to bite somebody -- or even tries -- if his humans react with understandable anger and a harsh correction, they're inadvertently reinforcing the behavior they're trying to get rid of...which only makes it MORE likely to recur, rather than less.
(In the case of taking an aggressive dog to a vet, the short-term answer is for the owner to muzzle the dog at home -- using a basket muzzle which allows for panting, drinking and eating -- then play some fun games with treat rewards at home, continue those games at the vet -- and voila! -- not only can't your dog bite anybody, but he may not even mind the muzzle. Prevention!)
Unfortunately, desperate dog owners often seem to be looking more for somebody to tell them what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear. I see this when clients tell me I'm their third trainer and they've switched vets a couple of times. If you look long enough, you'll eventually find someone who tells you what you want to hear. But that won't solve your problem.
As I said, I'm sure this vet meant well. I just happen to think she's wrong. It's really time we moved past using pain and physical coercion to deal with dogs who misbehave.