Filling in the blanks…

Earlier today I placed a post on Facebook sharing my displeasure with the guidance one of my clients received from her veterinarian regarding her 11 month old intact male dog’s behavior.  The behavior in question is intermittent humping on her leg. The guidance provided by the veterinarian was to “light him up” or in more clear terminology, put a shock collar on him and shock him when ever he humps.

To be sure, placing that post on Facebook allowed me to vent a little bit in support of my client and several of my Facebook followers chimed in with support and suggestions as well.  I’ve since been thinking that I need to do more.  It’s not fair and is quite presumptuous of me to believe that the general population reading my Facebook page actually understand the reasoning behind my displeasure, except of course the knowledge that I take my professional oath of “first do no harm” and that I am very against the use of harsh tools, including shock collars. So I am writing now to clarify some of the reasoning behind my position and hopefully to provide food for thought for folks to share and discuss.

When talking about behavior, the first thing that must be understood is that behavior does not happen in a vacuum.  ALL behavior has a purpose, is intended to meet our needs and is influenced by how we perceive and act on our environment.  Dogs do not bark, jump, hump or fail to follow instructions “just because”.   Often times dogs are just being dogs.  Doing what comes naturally in their exploration of their environment, burning energy, staving off boredom or simply playing.  Frequently the dog has not been trained to fluency to offer a different behavior in the desired situation.  Sometimes the behavior of dogs is influenced more by their emotional or physical state; fear, anxiety, frustration, fatigue, hormones, pain or just not feeling well.

A barking dog may be demanding attention, may be alerting you to a visitor on your property, may be conveying that the dog is not comfortable with the presence of a stranger or may be just something to do when home alone and locked in the back yard.  Similarly, humping comes from a variety of places in a dog’s repertoire.  A dog who is humpy or mounts other dogs, people, pillows, toys, etc. is often times in a state of arousal from play or other interaction with a friend and his (or her) arousal comes out in humping …a biological response to an emotional state.  Likewise, a humpy dog may be anxious about something, uncertain expectations, stress from an uncomfortable interaction or environmental context.  Of course, mounting / humping happens as a function of reproduction and sometimes just for the enjoyment of the behavior.  While less common, social situations and competition for higher rank order placement in a social group may also be a motivator for humping other dogs.  Here in lies the problem…

Before you can resolve or change a behavior, any behavior, you MUST take the time to determine what the motivation for that behavior is and resolve the cause of the behavior.  Jumping to stop the behavior without first attempting to understand and resolve the underlying root cause is at best ineffective and at worst just plain harmful to the dog physically and emotionally.  Imagine having a normal biological response such as blinking, breathing, hiccoughs, sudden reaction to cheer for your team when they score a goal….something you do not plan and just happens, and getting shocked, poked, yelled at, choked, when you do.  Will being shocked stop the behavior?  Maybe for the brief period you are able to forcefully manage it but at some point you will have to blink , breath, etc. Now imagine the stress and anxiety you will experience trying to stop a behavior that is reflexive, something you have limited control over?  Oh, it gets worse.  Imagine now that you are not really sure exactly why you are being shocked (yelled at, hit, or otherwise corrected) or what alternate behavior will save you from the unpleasant and sometimes torturous correction?  Remember, shocking the dog does NOT teach him what to do instead so even if he does have control over the situation, he has no idea what more appropriate behavior to offer. He’s already offering normal dog behavior.

Now, I have another beef with the guidance to put a shock collar on a dog who is humping.  The trusted professional, who must know what he’s talking about because he is after all a veterinarian, did NOT explain to the client the possible side effects of using a shock collar to stop behavior.  He did not explain that the shock is not going to teach the dog what to do instead, so training a desired behavior is still necessary.  He did not explain that the humping behavior is a natural, normal response from the dog and that shocking him is not likely to solve the problem in the long run and he did NOT explain that even the most skilled trainers often lack the necessary timing and consistency to ensure that appropriate intensity (not too high or too low) happen EVERY TIME the behavior happens.  He did not explain that there are common and well documented side effects caused by the use of aversive training methods that include increased fear, anxiety, neurosis, aggression, emotional shut down and overall detrimental health impacts.

In this trainer’s mind, the dog’s owner was not provided the information needed to make an informed decision about how to resolve the unwanted behavior of her dog and she was set up for potentially devastating results.  When professionals are in a position of influencing how people act, we have a responsibility to ensure we are not inadvertently leading folks down a slippery slope.  Thankfully, even though she is a first time dog owner, she has resisted much coaching and guidance from well meaning but misinformed individuals.  Her dog is a lucky dog to have her as his mom.

Side note: I have tremendous respect for and work very closely with many members of the veterinary community.  This blog is in no way intended to shed a bad light on veterinarians; they have a very challenging job and are the everything in our dog’s overall health management.  The intention here is to point out that as dog owners, we need to ask questions, not believe blindly, do research, not on Google but in scientific journals and with professionally educated and skilled behavior professionals.  Ask about side effects and potential dangers of advice given.  Ask the person giving advice what specifically their education in animal behavior is.  Follow your gut…if it feels shady or uncomfortable, it probably is something you want to avoid.