One of my private training students was recently recounting an incident in which her anxious, reactive dog left her side during agility class, ran over to another student who was holding her dog, and jumped up towards the dog, growling and snapping.
“I've never thought of him as aggressive before,” she told me, “but that scared me.” Then she said something that made my heart fall: “I'm thinking about using a shock collar the next time something like that happens.”
Long-time readers know that I am not a fan of hurting or scaring dogs in the name of training, especially in the name of a sport. There are good reasons for this, like the possibility of serious unintended consequences, but mostly I don't want to hurt my dog. I love her. Of course, my student loves her dog too, and so I kept my thoughts to myself and simply said, “Yeah? Tell me what you're thinking.”
We talked through the situation; what was happening before and after, what the class instructor said, that kind of thing. My student told me that she was scared that her dog might hurt someone else. She was angry, because she thought her dog was beyond that kind of behavior. And she was losing hope that she would ever be able to take her dog to agility trials. I empathized with her. I've felt all those things, too.
“Well,” I said, “I would be lying if I said that using corrections doesn't work. But your dog is already pretty anxious, and I'm concerned that if you were to use a shock collar on him, it would only increase his anxiety.”
She nodded. “Yeah. Our agility instructor was worried it might create a negative association with the obstacles, too.”
We talked a little longer about the idea, and I concluded by saying that while every person and dog is different, I don't think she needs to use a shock collar on her dog. He's trying so hard to be good, and there is a lot she could do increase the odds that they will be able to compete in agility together some day. Still, I told her, that decision is ultimately hers.
“Thank you for not shaming me.”
“Well,” I said, “It wouldn't have helped, would it?”
She laughed and said no. Then, more seriously, she shared that when she's suggested the idea to other positive trainers, they've reacted so negatively that it shut her down completely. Not only did that make her feel bad, but it also meant that she didn't get a chance to learn about why they felt it was a bad idea, or to learn other options.
That makes me sad, because I really believe that my job as a dog trainer (and for that matter, as a social worker, too) is to educate my clients about their options, share my recommendations, and then empower them to make their own decisions. Of course, I hope that they will follow my advice, but if they opt not to, I want to be able to refer them to a trainer who has the skills needed to minimize the risks inherent in the use of punishment.
Besides, I like people. I don't want to shame them- that's just mean. And if I wouldn't be mean to a dog, why would I do it to his owner?