It is disturbing to read the scientific research we all use to train dogs. The most famous of researchers had to make a decision to treat their subjects as unfeeling machines in order to do their experiments, and to then mock those who were concerned or who described how those animals were feeling.
Science is a strange field, since it must rely on the observable. Or at least what the researchers choose to observe.
For myself, I could not bring myself to do what has been done to animals and people over the past 3 centuries in order to gain the knowledge we all use to manipulate animal and human behavior and medicine.
I’ve spoken with people who have argued that animals have no feelings, and thus, argue there is no morality in how we choose to treat them. Such has been the case since the beginning of all science.
I caution everyone that just because a process can be used to train an animal doesn’t mean it is good or moral to do it to that animal. Current animal behavior researchers are starting to accept that feelings do matter, they can be detected, measured and defined. The concept of affective neuroscience is one such approach, an attempt to meld what know about emotional states with the underlying biology and chemistry. We are still at the edge of this new frontier of research. You’d think we were further along in the science of behavior, but we are not.
You can be thankful that you can give an antibiotic to your sick kid, that your seatbelts work in a crash, your toothpaste doesn’t cause cancer, and your dog will come for a treat. All that is great, but much of that knowledge was gained through cruel methods. You still use those things, and by doing so, you are just as involved and are participating in the results. It is no different than the vegan who says they oppose animal cruelty, while at the same time the farmers of those crops are eradicating untold billions of animals and plant species and their habitats to ensure these vegans get their arugula salads and almond milk lattes. Everything that lives must survive on something else dying: that’s the way of the world. No one, today, can say they are not benefitting from the cruelties of “science” to live their lifestyles. We had all better think about what that means.
So, when someone is talking about dog training “science”, they are referring mostly to research that has been purposely silent concerning the other half of the equation regarding behavior: how the animal feels about what is being done. The “science” isn’t all in yet, and a lot is missing. Good trainers can see and work with a dog’s emotional states and don’t just rely on “the science”. In fact, most trainers have never even read “the science” and are just parroting what they heard someone else say.
Many scientific researchers have cast their motives for their work as a way of achieving some future utopia. Pavlov wrote about his vision, and so did Skinner. Utopian justifications like this are part of the amoral religion of some scientists to justify what they do. Many brilliant scientists are willing participants in obvious cruelty and need some kind of psychological cover for what they do. We should all acknowledge the serious ethical problems of using cruel research to justify our search for our own utopias.
Maybe the best we can do today is to not repeat these experiments, to use what was learned, and to find ways to solve these questions about behavior without resorting to painful, destructive cruelty. And to those trainers out there reading this, to avoid any method unless you are confident that the process and results have a high probability of success without undue pressure on the dogs you are dealing with. Sometimes you will have to do something that might be mentally or physically painful, such as using a method to cause a puppy to not chew through a live electrical wire, or compulsively engage in destructive behaviors, get in fights with other animals or people, or avoid interacting with dangerous animals. I get that. We have to teach kids these lessons, as well. But also be aware that just because “the science” says you can do this or that doesn’t always mean you should do that.