Life, Love and Learning: the ethics of living with dogs

How Should I live?

Our ethical beliefs are important as they dictate how we choose to live our lives and how we create the world around us. All of the decisions we make and the things we do are guided by our ethics. Ethics answer the question ‘ how should I live?’

It may seem strange to talk about ethics in relation to dog training, surely it is as simple as getting a dog to sit, stay, come when called and generally do what we say? But in reality it is a field full of ethical contradictions, varying philosophies, passionately argued points of view. Even the statement “…do what we say” has a hotbed of ethical considerations.

Take the simple “sit”. There are many methods to teach it: you can wait for it to happen and capture it, you can lure it, you can push the dog’s rump to the ground. If the dog does not “sit”: you can growl at him, you can yank on his collar, you can walk away and ignore him, you can take out a treat and try again, you can look for reasons why he may not sit at this time and retrain. The choice you make will be largely based on what you believe to be the “right thing” – your ethics. Of course knowledge and education play a big part in this, sometimes we do what we think is right despite what we feel; we simply don’t know differently. Our feelings often highlight when our ethics are being compromised.

Our ethics provide a framework for everything we do, for the judgements we make and for the way we live our lives. My ethical beliefs are one of the main reasons I want to educate people on how to train their dogs. It also guides my choices for my own dogs and selects the kinds of clients who will choose me as their trainer.

As well as this my ethical stance is changing. The more I learn, the more I value different things. As I change it is important to remember from where I came because that cultivates compassion.

Perhaps the easiest way of explaining the values behind my training is by looking at the evolution of it with my own dogs.

Snuffy came into my life when I was 19 years old. He lived a long, long time (19 years) and we were very happy. I gave him a full life with lots of play and attention and took him everywhere. I also scolded him if he didn’t do what I thought was right. I did the best I could and no one could deny that he had a wonderful life, but it was a life unexamined. I had no knowledge of dogs or training I was just lucky that he was ‘one of those dogs’.

Rumble was not ‘one of those dogs’.

He didn’t give his affection unconditionally. He wasn’t interested in toys or food or people. He looked out and away, didn’t bond or connect easily. It took a lot of time and education to learn how to create a fulfilling relationship with Rumble. I tried different methods of training some of which made me intensely uncomfortable, but in my desperation to work him out I gave them a go. My ethics kept me firmly away from physical punishment, but there are different types and degrees of compulsion. Even positive reinforcement training can strip away choice if not done with care.

I used positive reinforcement training with Rumble but insisted that he ‘obey’, a quiet calm insistence but one that did not always recognise his feelings or needs. The blame for disobedience was placed on him; my emphasis was on being his ‘leader’. That is what I had been told would create a better relationship.  The conflict between what I valued and what I had been told caused me a great deal of anxiety and this anxiety proved to be a compass that pointed back to my ethics. I dropped all of the leadership stuff and learned more about the science behind behaviour and training. I learned the difference between a command (you must!) and a cue (would you like to?), I shifted the responsibility for how well he could do a behaviour onto myself as the trainer and turned my eye to looking for what he liked, didn’t like and most importantly to learning who he is.

 Rumble was the catalyst for a great deal of learning. If my ethics hadn’t guided me, I would have had a quiet, obedient dog, but I wanted the spark, the fun, the uniqueness of Rumble. I wanted a method of training that cultivated this. I found it with Kay Laurence at Learning About Dogs (LADs)

Then came Merlin. He was going to be The – Perfect – Puppy. He would be the one with whom I could implement my training knowledge; we would compete in canine sports, I would take him into classes. He would be my TAKL dog, my Clicker Excellence dog. He would be my Perfect Dog.

However as a pup Merlin ate something that made him very sick, this lead to chronic gastro intestinal problems and an accompanying, occasionally crippling, anxiety. All of my goals now have to be re-examined – at 2 years of age Merlin is teaching me more lessons about my ethics.

Merlin has reminded me to focus on who he is not what I want from him. This was a lesson I learned from Rumble yet somehow forgot again. I had my goals firmly planted on Merlin’s handsome shoulders.

As with all disappointment if you remain open, some really exciting things can emerge. In examining Merlin’s needs a whole new understanding of building confidence through choice is opening up. I can feel my ethics shifting again. There are some very clever trainers around the world who are taking teaching to an entirely new level and creating training programmes where the dog, horse, bird, giraffe, rat etc. can say yes or no to what the human is asking them to do. They can be taught to ask for what they need or want thereby developing a two-way conversation rather than a monologue. They are using these processes in agility training, for domestic animal husbandry procedures and in zoos. The responsibility is now on the trainer to make the process one in which the animal chooses to participate. If they don’t want to, they can say so!

I don’t expect my ethical beliefs to remain as they are today, I will continue to learn and as new dogs enter my life they will teach me more.

So here in a nutshell is my ethical belief system as it relates to dogs:

  • Dogs are dogs with unique doggy behaviour; this needs to be understood and respected.
  • Dogs are dogs with unique doggy needs; these needs must be understood and met as best as possible.
  • Dogs are individuals. We need to learn who they are, what they like and don’t like and structure our interactions around this. This is where the best reinforcers are born.
  • Developing a wonderful relationship is the key to health and happiness. It is also the foundation upon which successful training is built.
  • A wonderful relationship is dependent upon trust, bonding and connection. These are built with kindness, compassion and understanding.
  • Do not deliberately use fear, pain or compulsion in your training as these erode trust.
  • Do your best to avoid fear, pain or compulsion wherever possible, as these erode trust.
  • Aim to teach what you want rather than suppress what you don’t want; this avoids the use of fear, pain or compulsion.
  • The responsibility for training success and failure belongs to the human teacher. If a dog makes a mistake (doesn’t ‘obey’) it is information from which we can learn.
  • Understanding the science behind how beings learn is necessary to be an effective trainer. It enables us to be rid of labels and to view what is really happening. This way we can structure training programmes that truly meet an individual’s needs.
  • Learn as much as you can…and apply a critical eye to all!
  • Above all delight in your dog!!

One comment on “Life, Love and Learning: the ethics of living with dogs

  1. Having shared this journey with Julie, I can only reinforce the value and wisdom of these words.

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