Dogs: my philosophical position

Canis bonus position statement on currently debated dog issues.
By Laure-Anne Viselé, July 2010

Below, you’ll find my position on many of the disputed issues in the dog world. Do suggest more if you think of them.

Vote on the Canis bonus ‘hot dog’ poll

You can let your opinion on these issues be heard by voting for your preferred position on each of them on the Canis bonus poll page.

Read on to find out more about my own position on these debated issues.

Dog training methods and philosophies

— Science-based behaviour interpretation —

For, for, for! Let’s work on facts, not impressions and myths.

— Gentle methods of dog training —

For, for, for! No you won’t end up with a spoilt dog.

— The Pack and dominance theories —

Against, against, against. Disproved, outdated, ill-adapted.

I expand on the subject in The D-word.

—Use of food lures in training —

For. Although strictly for initial training. Of course the idea is not to need a treat every time you want to put your dog in the sit position.

— Use of rewards in training —

150% for. Not only is there a reward-based solution for most training conundrums, it is also a lot more humane than punishment-based methods.

— Clear and consistent rules for your dog’s expected behaviour —

For. I am not about wishy-washy ‘the dog will read your mind’ kind of training. If you have a house rule, teach it to the dog, and make sure you enforce it (using gentle methods).

— Aversives-based training —

150% against. Unnecessarily harsh at best, and counter-productive with anxious and aggressive dogs at worst.

— Leash jerking —

Against, against, against! Stop taking shortcuts. Take the time to teach your dog not to pull on the leash, rather than forecefully (and often unsuccessfully) stopping him from doing it.

— Clicker training —

For, but not passionately so. Extremely quick for shaping an initial behaviour, so I love it for tricks training, but I have not extended it to my general training.

— Dog sports —

Kind of against a lot of them if they are aversive-based and the dog is not having fun. Basically, if they objectify the dog.

— Good Canine Citizen program —

For! Great flagship project for gentle training methods.

— Punishing growling —

Against. Although I find applying this extremely counter-intuitive, I abide by the view that systematically punishing a dog for growling carries the risk of the dog biting without warning (you’re loosing the ‘amber light’ from the dog’s repertoire). I find growling towards a human a huge concern, though, and would admonish the owners to get to the root cause of the problem without delay.

Dog jobs professionalization and qualifications

— Canine first aid certificate for all dog professionals —

For, for, for! Our customers count on us with their dog’s life.

— Recognized and required qualifications for the dog professions —

For, for for! Let’s all become knowledgeable, qualified and well-informed professionals

— Clear and universal service delivery standards for the dog professions —

For, for, for! Build standard expectations for public for dog trainers, groomers, behaviour therapists, walkers, etc.

Training equipment

— Crate —

I am for the use of crates when the dog is home alone with the following proviso:

  • The dog was humanely habituated to the crate, and is clearly comfortable using it
  • You do not leave the dog alone in the crate for hours at a time
  • It genuinely adds value (e.g. your dog has separation anxiety and you’ve seen that it helped, or you are house-training your dog)

— Remote-controlled electric collars —

Against. Proven to increase symptoms in anxious dogs, and the timing has to be unrealistically perfect (which cannot be expected of a non-pro)

— Electric fence collars —

Against. Their use is linked to a rise in obsessive barking and barrier frustration

— Citronella barking collars —

Against. The punitive smell hangs around long after the barking, so the timing is really imprecise and therefore presumably not all that effective as an operant conditionner. Also, where does the stress go now that the dog is no longer barking? Please address the trouble at the source

— Electric barking collars —

Against. Where does the stress go if no more barking outlet? Also, can electric collars create anxious, frustrated dogs. Why take training short-cuts and not address the problem at the source?

— Half-choke collars —

Against if used incorrectly. Despite the ‘half’ word, they remain an aversive control mechanism used to support leash yanking. Used correctly (i.e. too wide to strangle the dog, but too narrow for the dog to Houdini itself out), they can be a great help for the dogs of the thick-necked/small-headed persuasion.

— Choking collars —

100% against. Potential mechanical damage to trachea, and poor track record of addressing leash pulling. Why not teach the dog to not pull, rather than physically force it a million times per walk?

— Prong collars —

100% against. I am glad to see that they are banned in many countries. Teach your dog to walk without pulling on the leash, rather than cause him discomfort and pain for non-compliance

— Haltis/Gentle Leaders —

Kind of against. I have concerns about their misuse by non-professionals, and the physical consequences to the dog. Also, it is essential to desensitise and countercondition the dog to them first, or it can be a rather stressful stimulus

— Extendable rolling leash —

Really not all that against it. I think it has its place, but not during training class and provided your dog’s short leash walking is regularly maintained.

Lifestyle

— Dog home alone —

Not entirely against. Most certainly not if it’s a choice between staying in the shelter or being adopted. It’s the sad fact that most of us work 4 to 5 days a week, and I think you can make it work if you can provide for a dog walker, or work from home regularly, or a daycare centre, or swop dog-sitting duties with the community, or take your dog to work regularly, etc. etc. etc. With a regular sep-anx prevention and maintenance regime, there are lots of ways to make it work.

— Dog in a car on a warm day —

Against, but I can see how you can be tempted for a minute. Opening the window slightly has never been proved to offer any relief. Even on temperate, but sunny days, the car can reach dog-lethal temperature within about ten minutes. Just don’t take that chance. You could be delayed, or loose your keys

— Yard-only, no-walk dogs —

Against, and I can understand the misconception. No matter how large your domain is, there is no substitute for coming across new sights and new smells every day. Also, left to its own device, many dogs will not exercise at all, no matter how large their play area is. Depending on your dog’s size, please take it out at least two to three times a day for twenty minutes

— Dog park —

For, with caution. I am aware of the risks of unpleasant, or even injurious dog-dog encounters at the dog park, where there is such an intense concentration of dogs in one place. But it hones my dog’s manners in meeting and greeting strange dogs. I think the dog park must be handled very very very carefully to avoid achieving the exact opposite effect (exposing your dog to stressful or dangerous dog-dog encounters, thus damaging his social skills). I also think that we must address the problem at the source and apply social pressure to anti-social dog owners who let their ill-behaved dog spoil the fun for everyone

— Spoilt, unruly, misbehaving dogs —

Against. I want all dogs to be good embassadors to the dog cause and every time a dog causes inconvenience or irritation to the public, my dream of a a world where dogs are accepted unleashed everywhere (office, beach, park, restaurant…) takes a hit

— Play fighting, rough-housing, tug-of-war —

For. Especially with puppies. Great to teach Acquired Bite Inhibition and to put grabbing/letting go/calming down on cue.

Breeding and breeds

— Home-breeding of mixed-breed litters —

Regretfully against, because I totally see the temptation. It’s just that the shelter system is absolutely overflowing, do we really need more dogs on the market before these guys are taken care of?

— Shelter adoption —

For! Before you go and buy your dog, please give your local shelter a call to see what’s available. You’d be surprised, they often even have puppies. Besides, there are great advantages to adopting an adult dog, but most importantly, watching an ex-shelter dog bloom is hugely rewarding.

— Shelter volunteering —

For! It’s healthy (generally involves taking dogs for a walk), and you’re making a huge difference. By giving a shelter dog even ten minutes of one-to-one attention, you’ve already made its day.

— Professional breeders —

Against for a couple of reasons. Although I am an inveterate breed-spotter (I get undescribably excited if I see a King Charles, for example), I see the breeding profession as ill-aligned with the severe shelter overflow. I also think that breeding good stock involves much genetic know-how and great time investment per puppy, which is difficult to achieve on a large scale. Finally, I think that the constant inbreeding cannot be good for the genetic quality of the dogs so-produced

— Dog conformation showing —

Against. As much as I enjoy it, I don’t think it makes the dog world a better place because of its deleterious impact on breed quality (dangerously high genetic representation of a small number of male champions, and inordinate focus on physical traits)

— Breed Specific Legislations —

Kind of against. There are so many issues with it:

  • It does not address the fundamental issue of responsible ownership
  • There are no reliable statistics on dog bites in relation to breed. There are no reliable statistics on dog bites to start with, but how on earth can you expect the witnesses, or the person bitten, to accurately identify the breed, when even vets often get it wrong. Are you going to call in a conformation show judge at every bite incident for 100% fool proof breed diagnosis? Will you do a genetic test?  
  • There is no reliable (measurable) data on aggression and breeds, to my knowledge. To be convinced, I’d not only like to know the type of bite delivered per breed per year, but also the proportional representation of that breed (you’d expect labrador bites to make it right to the top of the list if you didn’t take their popularity into account). 
  • I would like to know the exact measurable genetic extent of the tendency for ‘aggression’ (whatever that means, so, whilst am at it, I’d like a convincing definition of that word, and one that is useful in this context) for each breed. How on earth do you separate it from the environmental factor? If the genetic component turns out not to be that strong, what will be the next wave of breeds that will be bred for aggression and owned for intimidation? Will they be banned too?
  • I think that even if the above weren’t problems, it would only drive the breeding and keeping of these breeds further underground, leading to cruel husbandry practices, and even more irresponsible dog ownership (they’d no longer visit the vets for starters).
  • Also, how on earth do you police it and what breeds do you include.

So don’t get me wrong, I think the status quo is not exactly acceptable: a bunch of really intimidating dogs and their often intimidating owners allowing them to bully us and our dogs out of dog parks, but I just don’t think that BSL can work.

— Allowing large or otherwise intimidating dogs to roam around unchecked in public —

Against, against, against. I don’t care whether your dog is really a teddy bear. If he’s large or otherwise intimidating, keep him next to you if people around you are looking uneasy.

— Tail docking and ear cropping —

Predictably enough, against. Way back when when I was volunteering at my first shelter as a teen (a Bouvier breeder and rescue centre), I had to help take care of the recently docked/cropped litters. Back then, it was still totally acceptable, and it was not the done thing to make a fuss. So I kept a low profile and helped nurse the puppies, keeping my qualms to myself. Having seen it with my own eyes, I can safely say that it wasn’t pretty, and that’s quite the understatement.

As I am yet to read a convincing account of the benefit of this practice (to the dog), and as the process causes them undeniable physical  harm, this can only be defined as a cruel practice in my humble opinion. This is notwithstanding increased concerns by the animal rights’ community about the limiting effect of this operation on the dogs’ communication repertoire.

Food

— Raw food —

I have reservations. I think people take to the notion because it gives them the romantic idea that their dogs are really wild predators, and that this diet is closer to what they would get in nature. Truth is, there is no such thing as what a dog would get in nature. It’s a domestic animal.

But here’s why I have reservations:

  • Dogs are omnivorous scavengers. Sure, most of their diet should be made of protein, but only protein? That can’t be balanced.
  • The majority of dogs actually don’t really like raw meat.
  • Raw meat with bones, which is often the practice, brings about real chocking and internal injury hazards (risk of shards from splintered bones). Sure, your dog may have been eating raw meat with bones for years without a problem, but I just don’t think it’s worth the risk.
  • Uncooked meat carries an increased risk of parasitic infection.

— Moist versus kibble —

I am a kibble user, but not a die-hard fanatic or anything. I’ll try any reasonable diet. Here’s why I like kibble:

  • My dog has a tendency to put on weight, apportioning the daily ration is really easy with kibble.
  • Moist food may contribute to tartar problems. But that’s nothing that a regular dental hygiene routine can’t take care of.

If you use kibble, it’s a good idea to sprinkle it with water so that it doesn’t swell up in the dog’s stomach, potentially stomach aches, or even bloat.

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