Positive Training and Animal Advocacy: A Catch 22?

Marc Bekoff is Professor Emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado and an animal rights advocate. He’s a high profile ethologist who uses his position of influence to better the lives of animals: captive, domestic, and wild. Bekoff was invited to present at the Professional Animal Behaviourists Association conference a couple years ago. In one of his excellent lectures he addressed the subject of animal rights and welfare, a topic in line with the theme of the conference that year. He was advocating a vegan diet for his dogs in the name of the welfare of those herbivores that could have ended up dead and in the dogs’ bowls. In the Q&A I asked him what might be used as a primary reinforcer, and particularly how to pursue counter conditioning, if we are not to use animal products in training. His suggestions involved cantaloupe and crackers.

Dogs, and all creatures including us, can be motivated in essentially two ways: they can work to gain something of value (tripe, Mr Squeeky, etc) or they can work to avoid or relieve something aversive (shock, “tssch!”, correction, time out, etc). With this as our jumping-off point, let’s say that we don’t enjoy scaring or hurting our dogs so we choose to teach behaviours employing primarily positive reinforcement. What is highly motivating, is most easily dispensed and is most quickly consumed in preparation for the next trial? That would be food. Not to say that other motivators such as toys can’t be used for training, but food allows for precision and rapid-fire trials, where as toys can be ‘clunky’ to train precise behaviours. The time it takes to play eats away at the time allotted to further trials.

Looking at food specifically, what is most motivating for a dog? Sure, a lot of dogs will eat anything from a kleenex to a bottle cap (that would be my cousins’ old dog, Jessie.), but if you put that piece of yam jerky to the right of the dog and a juicy steak to the left, which direction do you expect the dog would move? Similarly, if a dog is terrified of nail trims, a yam jerky will do little to change her mind about the whole process.

Positive trainers, with few exceptions, have chosen to train using force-free methods because they prioritize the physical, mental and emotional well-being of dogs. It is an effective and scientifically sound methodology, and there is no denying that is is also more fun and less stressful for the dog.
What is rarely discussed among talk of canine welfare is the welfare of the animals we feed to them as reinforcers. It doesn’t take much research to find out that animals bred for food are most frequently born, raised, and slaughtered with minimal regard to their well-being (for more information visit www.farmsanctuary.com) With few examples, such as the pigs raised on the farm featured in this documentary, farm animals live a life and die a death that would be well equated with torture. Can we really call ourselves animal advocates if we purchase meat from an industry of this nature?

I will hasten a guess that if I started counter conditioning with cantaloupe and crackers I would lose a good portion of my clientele due to poor results. A primary reason for a dog losing focus in a group class is the dry crunchy biscuits her owner crumbles up for her in a fumbling attempt at positive reinforcement. Effective positive reinforcers and, with regard to counter conditioning, the power of unconditioned stimuli are key to whether a dog will succeed in a given training scenario. Without this in place we are left with corrective training, motivating with aversives or the threat thereof, and this is counter to the reason many pursue this hobby or career.

So here’s the Catch:

Can a corrective trainer claim to be an animal advocate if they use pain, force and coercion to train their dog – but no animal flesh?

Can a positive reinforcement trainer claim to be an animal advocate if they use animal flesh to train their dog – but no pain inflicted on the dog?

So what are our options as positive trainers? An important consideration is what our dogs eat for their daily caloric intake… aka ‘meals’. A correction-based trainer can’t lord over us weenie-tossers by claiming not to use animal flesh as positive reinforcers IF they are offering a chunk of a cow’s shoulder to their dog for dinner. Meat into the dog is meat into the dog, regardless of whether it happens in the form of a meal or the form of a training treat. Dogs have a daily caloric requirement that must be met in some manner if they are to continue living and breathing.

We do have some other options that can cut down on the amount of animal flesh used in our training. For example, employing functional rewards where possible rather than using meat. We can train easy behaviours in low-distraction areas using plant-based reinforcers. If tolerated well by the particular dog, we can feed a diet that includes sources of plant protein as well as animal protein. We can purchase only humanely raised, pasture-finished, thoughtfully slaughtered animals for use in our dogs’ meals and training programs.

I handle more meat on a daily basis than any self-respecting vegan should ever care to admit. I use exclusively meat treats for training my dogs and client dogs. If I tried to put Arlo on a vegan diet, I have no doubt that he would wither away. He doesn’t recognize that plants, other than grass, might be a food source. Elsie would most likely have further complications with her health. Additionally, despite not being obligate carnivores, I can’t justify eliminating animal products from the diet of my dogs. Dogs are not herbivores. As I conclude this blog post, I am on my way to the kitchen to put a chunk of lamb into Arlo’s bowl and a chunk of beef into Elsie’s. I don’t know if I can call myself an “animal advocate” when my practise aligns at this distance from my ideals, and I don’t have a clue how to reconcile this.

4 thoughts on “Positive Training and Animal Advocacy: A Catch 22?”

  1. Good post and interesting perspective. The problem is that a species appropriate diet, with dogs being semi-omnivorous and cats being obligate carnivores is instinctual. No hyena is going to eat grass but no one’s advocating a vegan diet for zoo animals because (good) zoos are about species conservation and letting animals be as natural as possible, including with food. Why do we not recognize that with our pets if we’re so concerned about their welfare?

    I am not vegan (Cheese!) but do support humane practices for raising animals for slaughter and a decrease in human meat consumption for the resources it uses. I think animal advocate means humane and natural circles of life for animals who eat on instinct. If we feed meat to our animals we have an obligation to ensure humane and dignified life and death for the animals slaughtered to our best capabilities. I grew up with livestock in pastures. Feed lots are not the way to go but, sadly, they are the cheapest way to get meat to the masses, including in a lot of kibble, canned and raw food and commercial treats. My other thought is that we can start with high-value stinky meat treats and move to lower value treats like peanuts, fruit or cheese as the skills allow.
    FWIW, Max will eat anything, including veggies (and paper towels). Good luck with the move!

    1. Oh how I miss cheese!! I admit I do feel better on a rational level for not eating dairy, but I can’t honestly say I’d be any more than vegetarian by choice if it were not for the allergies. Apparently four months is still not enough to do away with the cravings.

  2. Many animals eat meat; my understanding is cats are obligate carnivores and dogs are more omnivorous but would naturally have a fair bit of meat in their diet. My problem is not with meat eating as such, but the way animals are treated in our modern industrialised world, everything from feedlotting and the breaking up of natural family units to long distance travel to mass slaughter. If you can source animals which have been humanely raised and killed, and who lived as natural a life as possible, I think you need not feel bad about using meat in your training.

  3. It’s impossible to never cause suffering to an animal, even with the best intentions (vet visits are a perfect example). I don’t consider a person who feeds their dog a vegan diet an “animal advocate”, as they’re not doing right by the animal closest to them. I find it odd that someone would care less about their own dog than animals that not alone will they never meet, those animals will never exist as individuals to them. Do they not have a bond?

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