Thursday 5th October 2023
The following is the formal response to the SAWC request for answers relating to “aversive training methods” from the Association of Responsible Dog Owners® (ARDO®).
Questions are listed and answered in turn. Our response includes further questions we would like to ask SAWC.
“Questions regarding training devices other than e-collars
We’re keen to understand how and when training devices are used. Such devices may include sonic collar, spray collar, automatic electronic collar, vibrate collar, prong collar and choke collars. Please list additional devices as necessary.”
We note that SAWC’s initial request is as a result of “agreeing to look at other aversive training methods”, however the questions listed refer exclusively to “training devices other than e-collars”.
We have the following questions:
- Who has asked SAWC to look at “other aversive training methods”? In submitting our response, who are we ultimately answering to? We assume that as an independent advisory body, SAWC must be evidence gathering in direct response to requests from government. Is this correct?
- Why has it been deemed necessary for SAWC to be asked to look at “other aversive training methods”, particularly electronic collars when these devices were included in responses throughout the 2016 Scottish consultation?
- Is there a pressing, established animal welfare need underpinning the request? If so, what is that need and could we see the evidence for it?
- How are the answers to the questions expected to be used? I.e., Future government policy formation, independent research etc?
The request from SAWC lacks any definition when it comes to the term ‘aversive’. In our answers, we deliberately avoid referring to the term aversive as per the everyday Oxford Dictionary definition – “A strong feeling of not liking something.” It is of course, not possible to know with certainty the ‘strength of feelings’ (liking or disliking) of a non-communicative animal which lacks the capacity to self-report regarding its ‘internal environment’. Following such a rabbit hole opens the door to personal opinions, unknowable/unproveable presumptions and conclusions tainted with bias. In order to maintain accuracy and integrity, we use the term as per its commonly accepted meaning in behavioural psychology:
“Any stimulus or occurrence that evokes avoidance or escape behaviour [in the recipient]”
Therefore, the opening request from SAWC refers to any training method or device that evokes avoidance or escape responding of or from it by the subject animal. In other words:
Any intentional or unintentional manipulation of the animal’s internal or external environment through addition or omission of a given stimulus or stimuli, which elicits and/or maintains an escape and/or avoidance response in the animal.
Given the definition of aversive provided above, it is apparent that ‘listing additional devices’ is something of an impossible and largely irrelevant task. The aversive nature of a given stimulus (device) is determined not by the stimulus itself, but by the animal’s perception of it. Consequently, if we are also being asked to consider ‘aversive training methods’, then any such list would extend well beyond a mechanical device to include the individual characteristics of the person responsible for the animal at any given time, and indeed the environments to which the animal is exposed (or not) and the manner in which such exposure is conducted. Nowhere is this better displayed than in the video recordings of the trainers involved in the Defra-funded, Lincoln research project AW1402A. If SAWC has not seen these videos, we strongly suggest doing so.
We are assuming that the “training devices other than e-collars” supposes that those devices would be categorised as aversive devices? But no device is universally aversive. If any and all devices were simply attached to an animal, we would see no adjustment in the behaviour of that animal associated with escape or avoidance, so we are struggling to understand why SAWC is listing (and requesting that we add to) a range of collars/devices and inferring that they each fall under the heading of aversive devices? We welcome an answer to clarify that question to aid our understanding.
Q1. Which training devices do you use in training, and are they used for specific purposes?
Any training devices (or any intentional aversive interventions) are included for a specific purpose; to elicit maintain and encourage, healthy behaviours and associations; or to or to prevent, reduce or permanently suppress undesirable behaviours and harmful or improper associations. The training is focussed on securing the greatest welfare outcomes – the greatest state of affairs not just for the subject animal, but for other animals or people affected or likely to be affected by that animal in accordance with ethical, social and legal obligations. Such obligations do not start and finish at the end of our leads.
No social species on the planet lives a life devoid of aversive experiences, humans included. The capacity to recognise and act on unpleasant stimuli or stimuli perceived to represent risk is a fundamental basis upon which safety and wellbeing are maintained. Social harmony, co-operative existence, safety and freedoms depend upon the establishment and understanding of permissible social norms, boundaries and limitations. Those animals that fail to acknowledge or are failed in their teachings in respect of social imperatives seldom live a long life of fulfilment and freedom, as evidenced by our penal system and the destruction rates for healthy dogs under three years old due to ‘undesirable behaviours’ in both the UK and Australia.
Q2. If more than one device is used, are they used in a specific order? What evidence is used to decide to move from one device to another (i.e what sort of timescale is used to determine if something is working or not, or what behavioural response might suggest changing to a different device)?
The question suggests that the individual dog must fit a particular process rather than the process being adapted to suit each individual dog. It implies that training is conducted like some kind of factory packaging process, with set decisions to use set tools in accordance with set behaviours over set timescales. This is exactly why trying to understand the craft of animal training through a series of questions and answers will never result in an accurate, genuine understanding of animal training, nor a proficiency in the application of knowledge; just set answers to set questions.
To quote from the book ‘Blink’ by Malcolm Gladwell:
“We live in a world that assumes that the quality of a decision is directly related to the time and effort that went into making it…We believe that we are always better off gathering as much information as possible and spending as much time as possible in deliberation. We really only trust conscious decision making. But there are moments, particularly in times of stress when haste does not make waste when our snap judgments and first impressions can offer a much better means of making sense of the world. Decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.”
There is no pre-formed, prescribed process. The animal determines what, when, how, if and why. That process is organic and fluid. The trainer possesses an understanding and ‘a feel for the animal’ based on years of experience of trial and error and a sound (often un-learned) understanding of the species and assessing the individual animal without the need to ever consider ‘timescales’, or orders of interventions. Such things can and do change instantly and it is the skill of the trainer to act with immediacy and proficiency. We would never ask such questions of a professional boxer, a painter or a parent.
We use whatever is deemed necessary, if it is necessary and when it is necessary. To repeat, that necessity is focussed on securing the greatest welfare outcomes – the greatest state of affairs not just for the subject animal, but for other animals or people affected or likely to be affected by that animal in accordance with ethical, social and legal obligations.
Q3. What behavioural challenges are the devices used for?
There appears to be an assumption that ‘aversive training methods’ and ‘training devices other than e-collars’ are utilised only in terms of reducing or suppressing “challenging” behaviours through positive punishment.
Any training devices (or any intentional aversive interventions) are included for a specific purpose; to elicit maintain and encourage healthy behaviours and associations; or to prevent, reduce or permanently suppress undesirable behaviours and harmful or improper associations. Those behaviours are individually and contextually determined, as such, the provision of a full and accurate list is not possible.
Bizarrely, the e-collar – the most versatile, technologically advanced, uniquely precise, efficient, least invasive, physically safest, most rigorously researched, effective training device ever developed is excluded from the list of options as a result of SAWC’s April report.
Q4. What are the risks to the dog/others if a device is not used for a particular behavioural challenge?
We find this question difficult to understand? If the aim is to seek an answer as to the effects of withdrawing training options based on their perceived, hypothetical risks as opposed to actual, well-documented real-world harms caused, then the risks to both dogs and society are multi-fold.
We live in a world where causing a dog to experience negative consequences (however momentary) for life threatening behaviours is deemed more of a threat to the welfare of animals than sentencing that dog to lifelong restraint, sterile exercise opportunities, social isolation or destruction. In the case of predation, the horrific, heavily and repeatedly documented impact on the dog’s target animals or people is relegated to secondary concern status due to the political allure of appearing virtuous before a naive electorate.
Q5. What range of training methods are used before these devices are used? Is this always the case?
All dogs undergo a full and thorough assessment based on experienced observation and questioning.
There is no ‘range’ of training methods. All animal training comes down to
- Decrease behaviour
- Increase behaviour
- Maintain behaviour
- Weaken an association
- Strengthen and association
- Reinforce behaviours/associations through stimulus addition, omission or both
- Punish behaviours/associations through stimulus addition, removal or both
We also have the options of psychotropic drugs as an adjunct to the above, or the lawful destruction of the animal; healthy or otherwise.
The individual dog and the unique contextual impact factors determine the range of training methods used. In some instances, where the behaviour or associations held by the dog represent a clear and serious or proven threat to the dog or some third-party innocent, then training collars or aversive interventions are required immediately. An example might be coprophagia, pica, aggression or predation. Deaf and blind dogs too, can benefit immensely from haptic training devices, especially e-collars which can be precisely adjusted to serve as clear, consistent communication. Vibration collars are often either too invasive or readily ignored for this purpose, depending on the individual.
When faced with a rotten infected tooth, the dentist does not firstly recommend ‘an apple a day’ or flossing. The same logic applies to training dogs. We deal with the immediate requirements of the animal in front of us.
Q6. How do you assess that a device is necessary, and when/if it is no longer necessary?
A full assessment of the individual dog pre, during and post training together with the individual needs and potential limitations of the owner determine the answers to both parts of this question. Deaf or blind dogs do not benefit from the removal of devices intended to facilitate their safe responding and fulfilled lives. Equally, physically impaired owners may wish to continue using head halters (head harnesses) or prong collars for the entirety of their dog’s life to enable them to be walked safely. Equally, slip leads or check collars serve as a stimulus associated with a given behaviour (walking to heel) without the need to constantly use them to deliver an aversive event.
People have an absolute legal requirement to have full and proper control over their dogs, regardless of the environment. Providing them with the full range of devices to accommodate the full range of individual dogs is absolutely responsible.
Q7. Do veterinary surgeons refer behavioural cases to you for use of these devices?
That depends on the veterinary surgeon but in many instances, yes.
The recommended device most commonly referred by veterinary surgeons is the static pulse e-collar due to its level of sophistication, also sometimes prong and spray collars.
Examples of veterinary referral include coprophagia, pica, self-injurious compulsions, aggression or predation.
Q8. Describe how the devices are used, including frequency of use, duration etc?
The bulk of this question has been answered in the response to Q1.
- Static pulse e-collars
- Vibration collars
- Sonic collars
- Anti-bark collars (static pulse, sonic, spray)
- Containment system collars (static pulse)
- Manual collars (check chains, prong collars, slip leads, flat buckle collar and lead, martingale collars)
- Body harness,
- Head harness,
- Figure of eight head harness
Each can be used to punish or to reinforce behaviours, to strengthen or weaken behaviour depending on how they are utilised.
Q9. On what proportion of dogs that you work with are the devices used? How many dogs do you work with annually?
The Association of Responsible dog Owners® represents thousands of individuals, hundreds of which work with hundreds of dogs annually in a full-time, professional capacity. The association does not subscribe to prohibiting the use of any device, provided that the use is in line with our mission statement:
“We are real dog people with a steadfast ethical commitment to protecting and enhancing canine welfare. ARDO members are dedicated to securing safety and working for controlled freedom of behavioural expression.”
Q10. Do these devices have any adverse effects on dogs?
This question ought to be rephrased “CAN these devices …” To which the answer is simply, what cannot?
- The Elizabethan collar, used in thousands of veterinary practices around the UK is scientifically shown to negatively affect the welfare of the wearer. It is an aversive
- Simple dog crates feature heavily in many animal welfare prosecutions, far more so than any ‘training device’.
- Head harnesses are scientifically documented as being perceived as aversive to some dogs. They are also prime candidates for pressure necrosis and scarring on the muzzle area of the dog.
- Slip leads can be classified as aversive devices, having adverse effects on Yet they are used by veterinary practices and all major national animal charities – including the SSPCA.
- Catch poles (or choke poles) can ONLY be classified as aversive devices, yet they are used by all national animal charities – including the SSPCA and national vet practices.
- Commercial kennel environments are scientifically documented as having adverse effects on dogs. Yet national charities house dogs in that environment for extended periods of time regardless.
- Mouth clamping muzzles are aversive devices having adverse effects on dogs, yet they are used by national vet practices.
- According to our veterinary contributors who have helped formulate this response, a considerable percentage of dogs presenting with orthopaedic problems including arthritis, are walked on body harnesses which are notorious for adversely affecting the animal’s gait, having an adverse effect on dogs.
- The greatest threat to canine welfare in the UK is obesity.
- Over the past 20 years, the most commonly encouraged, heavily marketed form of training dogs from animal ‘welfare’ organisations is with ‘positive reinforcement’ or ‘reward-based’ training, which in almost every such training class throughout the UK involves a continual delivery of highly calorific, highly processed ‘high value treats’.
- We also know from veterinary research that 1/3 of healthy dogs under the age of 3 are destroyed by vets is as a result of undesirable behaviours. How many of these dogs were taught to behave well for a biscuit is undisclosed because it is unprofitable in a financial or political sense to know.
- We know too, that when asked by the Scottish government whether they have any evidence of harm caused to dogs through the misuse of e-collars either intentionally or unintentionally, both the BVA and the Kennel Club answered “NO”.
- We know that, according to the largest survey of electronic training collar users ever conducted, spanning 5 years and receiving over 2,500 first-hand responses:
93% of respondents state that the inclusion of the ETA resolved their problem behaviour and 98.6% of respondents state that there were no negative effects.
- Again, we know from research by Salgirli et al, that a verbal ‘quitting signal’ induced greater stress in the dogs studied – and therefore had a greater adverse effect than either the e-collar or the prong collar.
- Finally, we know that in April this year, despite admitting the presence of anecdotal and scientific evidence that their use protects both dogs and other animals that are being killed in their thousands annually – A clear and present animal welfare catastrophe – SAWC – of which 7 out of its 11 impartial members are directly affiliated with either animal rights group ‘Onekind’, or the anti-electronic training collar charities who are actively lobbying for a ban on all such tools – recommended that they are banned without exception or exemption. We understand that no conflict of interests was declared by any member. No abstentions.
We feel sure that SAWC can appreciate how, based on previous experience, this question-and-answer opportunity is perceived by thousands at ARDO and many others besides as just another box-ticking ‘we sought the opinions of’ exercise.
For The sake of dogs and their owners throughout Scotland and beyond, we are deeply concerned about the ability of SAWC to provide impartial, unbiased recommendations on matters relating to dog training and training equipment.
All references to support statements made are available upon request.
*To ensure that multiple experiences and opinions have been expressed in this response, 15 individuals at The Association of Responsible Dog Owners® discussed, contributed and agreed on what has been put forward. Contributors have decades of direct, combined experience. The contributors have the following combined backgrounds: Dog owners; professional dog trainers; veterinary surgeon and nurses; breed specific canine welfare charity; applied behavioural psychology experts; police; military and a legal expert of twenty years.