A few weeks ago at the park, I met a dog named JJ, an adorable mutt with floppy ears and a lean, boxer-ish body. I noticed he was a bit rambunctious, and always being called on it by his owner, but he seemed pretty happy and goofy to me. The next time I saw JJ, I realized his “owner” was actually his trainer. His owner was a middle-aged woman, who explained that JJ had been “wonderful” for the first year and a half, then went “a little bonkers.” The trainer was there to help re-socialize him. As I went after my own dog, I heard her say something about learning how to deal with JJ’s behaviour, and the trainer reply, “That’s why I gave you the control.”
“Clicker training,” I thought, and turned to see. I’ve always wanted to try clicker training with Our Best Friend, but haven’t gotten to that point yet. Then I realized; he said “control,” not “clicker.” I looked back at JJ, and there it was. Above the chest harness, high up on his neck: a shock collar.
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In the late 1960s, Dr. Martin Selgiman, later to become president of the American Psychological Association, was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. In a behavioural experiment with dogs who were exposed to electric shocks, Seligman made an unexpected discovery. Dogs who could terminate the shocks by use of a lever would attempt to escape shocks in later parts of the experiment. Dogs who could not escape the shocks in the first part of the experiment made no attempt to escape the shocks in later parts of the experiment, even though escape was possible. They would merely lie down and whimper rather than attempt escape by jumping over a low partition. Having learned that they had no control over the pain in one situation, the dogs believed they had no control in any situation. Seligman called this response “learned helplessness.”
Since then, learned helplessness has been correlated to pessimism and depression in humans. Those dogs were pretty depressed, too. (In an interesting side note, today these experiments would most likely not pass an ethics committee and would not be authorized. Back then, there were no ethics committees. Psychology was the Wild West.)
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Our yard is not fenced, and I was very used to Blackie, who is extremely well-trained, has a docile nature and no prey drive. I could let Blackie out in the morning, she would trot off to do her business, then return to the back porch. If I got distracted (or fell back asleep), she would curl up on the porch and wait for me to come back. We couldn’t do that with Our Best Friend– he ran after every squirrel he saw. One time he took off through the back yard of the neighbour behind us. After 20 minutes of frantic searching, we found him back on our block, just standing a few doors away from our house, looking puzzled and not sure how to find home. We have only taken him out back on a leash ever since.
Given this behaviour, and the nuisance factor of bundling up in winter for a two-minute pee, an electric fence seemed like an excellent idea, but the cost was out of our reach. Instead, I considered a shock collar. But there was something about the idea of shocking my dog that I couldn’t stomach. I don’t know why the collar bothered me more than the idea of a underground electric fence; it was probably just the personal nature of actually administering the shock myself. I kept thinking of Seligman’s experiments and learned helplessness. I didn’t have the heart to press that button.
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My Dearest Friend has a friend named Leslie, who owns a large Rhodesian Ridgeback. For some reason I don’t remember, this dog became reactive to chocolate labs. Yes, chocolate labs. She would go nuts if one crossed her path. Apparently Leslie tried everything, until she finally resorted to a shock collar. That, MDF told me, solved the problem. As MDF uses a pinch collar on Duke, I kept my opinions to myself.
Then one October morning in 2011, I got up bleary-eyed to let Our Best Friend out to pee. I intended to go straight back to bed, so I decided to let him out in front on the extenda-leash while I hid in the house. When I opened the door, the first thing he saw was a squirrel. Dashing into the street in pursuit of the stupid rodent, he pulled the leash right out of my hand, yanking me forward, and smashing my face into the wall beside the door.
I screamed. My nose was dripping blood all over the stairs. The kids fell out of bed, the Ex came running. He went after the dog, brought him back inside, and we put him in “stay” on his bed. Our Best Friend had shame and guilt written all over his face, the Ex was livid, and I was scared out of my wits. It was stupid dumb luck that he hadn’t been hit by a car, and I wasn’t seriously injured (my nose wasn’t broken, but it was badly bruised and sore for several weeks).
“Leslie is right,” I thought. “I am getting a goddamn shock collar. And I’m going to write a post called ‘In Praise of Shock Collars.’ And too damn bad if people don’t like it.”
The post is in my drafts folder. The collar was never bought.
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My Middle Child slept through the first six weeks of her life. Then she woke up. And she continued to wake up every 45 minutes all night long until she was 16 months old. As you can imagine, it was quite exhausting. I was chasing a toddler and nursing a baby all night long. “Ferberize her,” Everyone said. (That capital E is not a typo.)”Ferberizing” comes from Dr. Richard Ferber, author of Cure Your Child’s Sleep Problems. Dr. Ferber believes that babies who wake frequently have not learned to self-soothe; if you let them “cry it out” for increasingly longer periods each night, within 2-4 week, baby will be sleeping on her own through the night.
The first night she cried for two solid hours. Then she started sleeping longer periods. But she still woke up at 2:00 a.m. and screamed relentlessly until I went in. I gave up after 5 days. That’s when I realized I wasn’t teaching her to “soothe” herself. I was teaching her, “It’s dark, there is no one here, and no one comes when I call.” Even if she had eventually slept through the night, she wouldn’t have learned to self-soothe. She would have learned she was helpless. And that she couldn’t count on me in times of distress.
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So back to JJ.
I don’t know what made JJ go “a little bonkers,” but I don’t believe that a shock collar is the answer to off-kilter social skills. It’s like swatting a fly with an elephant gun.
I don’t know what methods Leslie tried before resorting to a shock collar. Maybe she needed the problem solved fast, before her dog badly injured another dog. After all, you can’t live in a chocolate-lab-free-zone.
And maybe I’m a soft-hearted fool. Maybe my dog would be less in danger of injury or even death if he was too terrified of pain to chase squirrels. Or maybe a few good shocks would bring back that fear aggression that five years of of love and patience have all but eradicated. I don’t know.
I just feel in my gut that hurting animals is not the way to train them, any more than letting babies cry for hours on end teaches them to self-soothe. The Middle Child is now 14 and waking her has become the challenge. It has taken five years, but Our Best Friend’s anxiety and fears are lightyears from where they were in March of 2009. Instinct– and I stress that it’s instinct, not knowledge, not education, not experience– tells me that shocking my dog would have made things worse, not better. He responds to love, not fear tactics.
Babies and dogs can’t tell you what they’re thinking. You can’t know what a dog is thinking when that shock goes through his body, any more than Dr. Ferber really knows what’s going through an infant’s head in the dark of night. I don’t believe a baby is thinking, “I’m a spoiled brat, and I’m going to cry until I get my own way!” or “No one’s there? Guess I’ll go back to sleep.” I know a dog isn’t thinking, “Gosh, I deserved that. I won’t leave the yard anymore.” Instead, they learn that no one is there when you need them, that pain comes when you react to fear, or worse, when you’re only trying to have fun.
We aren’t teaching obedience. We are teaching helplessness. We’ve known since 1967 that this a bad thing to do. Why haven’t we learned the lesson?