Confessions of a Cross-Over Trainer – Part Three

In the previous two posts, I’ve told the story of my early involvement with dogs and what the outcome was for the dogs. (Those posts can be found here: Part One and Part Two)

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But what can I do with this experience now that it’s been had? Certainly Odin’s life can’t have been taken in vain.

I’ve experienced a whole range of emotions and responses over the years.  The most pronounced emotions have to be shame and guilt.  Once I understood the full extent of the situation there was nothing more I could feel.  Reflecting now, I can see that the dogs (even soft Arlo) were building punishment callouses.  The level of shock for Arlo started at 1/2, then 1, then 2.  Odin was anywhere from 3 to 4 or even 5 (the highest).  I never shocked myself above 2, and I can tell you it was painful – no niggling little tickle as e-collar enthusiasts would have you believe.  I think Odin tolerated such pain because of the nature of stress hormones and their dampening effect on sensations of pain.  Cyclically, the shock increased arousal, which increased stress hormones, at which point the level of shock was increased because it was not having the same effect at suppressing behaviour because the stress hormones were decreasing the painful sensation caused by the shock.  This isn’t to say that the increase in shock was justified because “he couldn’t feel it” – each shock aggravated the emotional response toward the original trigger and anything else that happened to be in the environment at the time. The world was a very scary place for Odin.

At the time, I recall noting that increasing level of shock for both dogs.  This did make me uneasy, but not having a language or context I attributed this in part to a malfunctioning collar.  I also recall questioning R.H.’s explanation of how the collar worked: as he euphemistically put it, the “tap” acted to “pick out” a word when we are speaking – press the button as we speak the command word. “sit/shock.” I can compare it now to the adults in a Charlie Brown comic, and one of the “Wah” noises is punctuated by a shock.  Arlo mostly figured out how to avoid the shock by quickly doing something and hoping it was what would stop the shock. One can see how this would create an entirely hypervigilant, anxious dog.

One may justifiably ask me why, with these inkling feelings, would I continue to use the shock collar? It’s not like I didn’t face hostility from park-goers and others pressuring me to discontinue its use.  The biggest reason I continued to use the collar was undeniably fear. I did not know of another way to “control” a dog. The shock collar seemed so reliable and had “worked” in the past.  In behaviourist language, I had a history of reinforcement in using the collar.  With Odin, the fear aspect might be clearer to an outsider.  With Arlo, the fear was of a different nature: I wanted Arlo to have off-leash adventures, and I was afraid that I would not have 100% reliability without the collar. Specifically, I’m not sure what I was afraid of. Getting hit by a car? Chasing wildlife? Disappearing? Honestly, I didn’t have 100% reliability with the collar! I thought I had Arlo’s best interest in mind in having him off-leash under these circumstances, but I realize now that it was by and large a very selfish decision.

All in all, these events were an abhorrent way for me to learn some very important lessons.  A most difficult lesson is a visceral understanding of why dog owners choose to use such punitive training methods, and even worse is how hard it can be to change those people’s minds.  I certainly thought I knew what I was doing.  I had a background in animal training with horses, I did a lot of reading, I had instruction by a real live trainer!  I thought I knew what I was doing, and I thought I was doing the right thing.  Today, despite my griping about seeing someone on the street with a prong on their dog, seeing a shock collar at the park, seeing someone yank or jerk their dog, I try not to forget where I came from.  This makes it all the more distressing because I was a stubborn blatherskite and a person would have been hard pressed to change my mind before I was ready!

In addition to this revelation, I can also understand what role owner emotion plays on the prognosis of a dog with behavioural problems, especially aggressive behaviours.  Stress is a huge factor in being able to think through a problem, follow through on a plan and ability to accurately assess progress and risk.  Just like in our dogs, stress hormones alter our perceptions of an event or situation. Even now I still feel a little jolt of adrenaline when I hear a doorbell – one of Odin’s triggers – and despite knowing that there is no danger I am still put into that state of arousal.  As I mentioned, stress also affects our ability to accurately assess risk, though of course education is a vital aspect of this as well. Looking back on Odin, despite his issues his bites were not severe.  Certainly, he had potential to cause harm simply in his size and location of his bites.  Every bite was directed towards the face but contact was made to an arm or hand that the person put up in defense. However, I don’t recall that he caused any punctures to arms, and he tore skin on one person’s hand (thin skin over bone, not a surprise).  This was before the shock collar, so I can’t so much comment on this after the use of shock.  Despite that, we had difficulty in assessing just how dangerous Odin was. We had no frame of reference for risk assessment and had difficulty in acquiring such a framework while experiencing the catastrophic thinking associated with the stress.

While I can’t undo anything I did in the past, I certainly hope that it has made me a better trainer and a better dog owner. While I still experience emotions of shame and guilt, I also think that it is very important that I speak openly about my experiences with both dogs.  People can choose whether or not they want to hear and I know that many will say “but my dog/situation/training/etc is different.” I do hope that sharing my experiences can influence some to “cross over” and save themselves and their dogs the grief of the fallout from aversive training techniques.

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