Animal Welfare – Understanding Behavior; Why It Matters

On Wednesday, October 14th, Green Acres Kennel Shops Operations Manager Kate Dutra and I had the opportunity to address the Maine Federation of Humane Societies at their annual conference. I want to thank Maine Fed and all of the attendees who work so hard every day to take care of Maine’s homeless and sometimes abused pets. Your job is not an easy one, and you never get enough thanks, so THANK YOU!

Maine Fed-Image-1My presentation Understanding Behavior; Why It Matters, focused on why being knowledgeable about canine behaviors is so important to the work you do every day. I have posted a summary of what I talked about so that those who were unable to attend can find it here.

As I explained, I believe having a fundamental understanding of canine behavior is essential to every pet care professional and even the average dog owner. Most dog training classes focus on teaching owners how to train their dog to sit, walk nice on a leash, come when called and other basic manners. At Green Acres’ we have always felt classes should cover more, which is why we also discuss canine behavior, body language, and nutrition. I believe that if we are going to successfully and happily live with another species in our home, it helps to understand them and why they do what they do. Unfortunately, outside of Green Acres’ I have often felt that ourMaine Fed-Image-2 message was falling on deaf ears. Therefore, when the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) issued their Canine and Feline Behavior Management Guidelines in August of this year, I was ecstatic! This groundbreaking document acknowledges that behavioral problems are one of the top health issues for pets and recommends that every visit to the veterinarian should also include a discussion of behavioral concerns. It also discusses why behavior problems so prevalent.

The AAHA guidelines note that a significant reason for behavior problems are “Mistaken or misinformed beliefs…..” about canine behavior being perpetuated by breeders, pet care professionals, pet owners, and even humane societies, rescues, and shelters. The use of aversive training techniques and tools like; alpha rollovers, choke collars, prong collars, and shock collars, also are often the cause of behavior problems. When these methods are used to “correct” a problem, the animal often becomes fearful and exhibits more problem behaviors. Although not noted in the guidelines, other studies indicate that only about 5% of dog owners ever take their dog to a training class. Training a dog with reward-based techniques almost always prevent behavior problems from starting, I see very few dogs for aggression consults that have completed a training class. It would be in a shelters best interest to strongly encourage all adopters to take their dog to a training class if they want to minimize returns.

Maine Fed-Image-3As I noted above, a major reason for behavior problems in dogs is the perpetuation of misconceptions and erroneous information about what constitutes normal canine behavior.  For many, their knowledge of dogs is based on idealized notions about dogs that go back to Rin Tin Tin and Lassie. Portrayed as “canine perfection” in books, comic books, television shows and movies, Lassie and Rin Tin Tin were the dogs everyone wanted as his or her pet. Unfortunately, these brilliant pieces of heart-wrenching fiction have created unrealistic expectations for many first-time dog owners. When we expect a dog to be Lassie, we are setting them up to fail.

To stop or at least decrease the circulation of these myths about dog behavior, I want to discuss what I believe to be the four most damaging myths about dogs. These myths are 1)  dogs are wolves, 2) dogs are pack animals, 3) one must be dominant or Alpha over their dog and 4) you need to use aversives to train a dog. Then I will address two vital truths; aversive techniques and tools are detrimental to training a dog and dogs benefit from being trained.

I am fortunate in that I have had an opportunity to live with a wide variety of Maine Fed-Image-4dogs. Additionally, through my work and my client’s dogs I have learned even more. Learning about wolves at Wolf Park in Indiana did teach me a great deal about wolves; however, the most important thing I learned is that dogs are not wolves.

Wolves, coyotes, and domestic dogs are biologically the same species; that means they can successfully reproduce and give birth to offspring that can also reproduce. While these three canines had a common ancestor at one point, they started down different evolutionary paths tens of thousands of years ago and from a behavioral perspective are very different.

The myth about dogs being wolves has also led to their being misidentified as pack animals. A wolf pack is like a family. It is made up of mom, dad, the pups Maine Fed-Image-5and often pups from previous years. Like most families, they have some squabbles, but overall they work cooperatively to perpetuate the families genes. The domestic dog, when living outside of a home, is very different from the wolf. They do not live in family groups, but at best form loose associations with a few dogs. They may hang around together every day or only occasionally. While mom and dad raise the pups together in a wolf pack, the domestic dog dad does not stick around for any family chores.

Also related to the myth that the dog is a wolf is the idea that one most show the dog that they are dominant, or the “Alpha” to live in harmony and to prevent the dog from usurping the humans role as leader. This myth, more than any other, has done severe damage to the relationship we can have with dogs because it emphasizes a relationship based on fear, intimidation and training by force.Maine Fed-Image-6

What makes this even sadder, is the whole conflict-ridden alpha/dominance construct is not even true with wolves. As noted above, a wolf pack is all about working together to survive. Unfortunately, when wolf researchers started studying wolves back in the 1940’s they did not study wolves in the wild, but based their conclusions on observations of captive, non-familial wolves that they confined to small spaces. The wolves were totally dependent on humans for the resources necessary to survive. It was more like an episode of Survivor than reality. Alternatively, put another way, roughly analogous to studying a group of prisoners and concluding that their behavior is representative of a normal family.

The idea of the dog as a wolf and the dog as a constant “alpha-seeker” exploded in the dog world in the 1970’s due to books written by the Monks of New and Carol Lea Benjamin. These books were the first that I read about dogs and not knowing any better I accepted what them as the truth. They represented a philosophy of dog training that many pet care professionals followed for a long time. However, for several years more and more pet care professionals and organizations have been spreading the word about the inherent problems in the dominance construct. Today, the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA), American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB), the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT) the Pet Professionals Guild (PPG) and Green Acres Kennel Shop all have policy statements on the dangers of the dominance construct.

Along with the dominance construct came a variety of aversive tools and training methodologies designed to intimidate the dog and cause discomfort or pain. Maine Fed-Image-7None of these tools are necessary to successfully train a dog, yet they are still sold and used. Not only are these tools unnecessary, but they can also cause significant behavioral problems when used. For this reason, the new AAHA behavior guidelines state: “Aversive training has been associated with detrimental effects on the human–animal bond, problem solving ability, and the physical and behavioral health of the patient. It causes problem behaviors in normal animals and hastens progression of behavioral disorders in distressed animals. Aversive techniques include prong (pinch) or choke collars, cattle prods, alpha rolls, dominance downs, electronic shock collars, lunge whips, starving or withholding food, entrapment, and beating.” The guidelines go even further, recommending that veterinarians do NOT refer to trainers and others that use these tools and techniques. It is my hope that organizations such as the Maine Federation of Humane Societies and its members vote to endorse the AAHA guidelines and adopt similar policies for their organizations.

One of the truths about canine behavior is that dogs do benefit from being Maine Fed-Image-8trained. Sadly, it is estimated that only 5% of dog owners train their dog. Many dog owners believe that training is only for dogs that participate in dog shows or dog sports. Most people who do train their dog do neither of those things but simply want to help their dog become a well-mannered companion. As a dog trainer. I spend most of my time teaching people how to train their dog to live successfully and happily in a human-centric world. Additionally, I also see clients that have dogs with aggression, resource guarding, or separation anxiety issues. It is rare for one of those dogs to have attended a training class. At the same time, it is also rare to see a graduate from a training class develop a severe behavioral problem such as aggression.

So why train a dog? Dogs that are trained: are less likely to develop behavior problems, typically have more freedom and can go more places with us, can be part of family functions, and typically have a closer bond with their people. As someone concerned about animal welfare one of the best recommendations you can make to someone adopting a is to enroll in a reward-based dog training class taught by an appropriately certified professional dog trainer committed to a philosophy of pain-free, force-free, and fear-free pet care. Now if they tell you “I took a class once before and learned all I need to know” feel free to tell them that professional dog trainers still take their dogs to classes. When I adopted my most recent rescue, Muppy, we started in a dog training class just like any other student.

Maine Fed-Image-9I have just touched on a few of the myths and truths about canine behavior. There is a huge amount of urban legend and old spouse tales being circulated about dogs that are just plain ridiculous. The internet and reality TV are full of dog behavior “experts” who are not always that knowledgeable. Just because it is on the internet does not make it true, and “reality” TV is seldom real. Sadly, many people do not understand that.

If you are unsure of how to answer a question from a potential adopter, it is much better to say “I do not know” then to continue to circulate wrong information. One of the reasons Kate and I were so excited to talk to you today is because as pet care professionals we feel it is important to teach others entering the field. We regularly present seminars on a wide variety of topics to pet owners and pet care professionals. If you want to learn more, please contact us and we can talk about the programs that we have available.

I want to leave you with three challenges today.

  • Never stop learning! We are learning more about animal behavior, husbandry, nutrition, and training all the time. True professionals realize that they do not know it all and continually seek knowledge.
  • Personally commit yourself to pain-free, force-free and fear-free pet care. You can start by joining the Pet Professional Guild (PPG) as a pet owner, it is free! Alternatively, you are a pet care professional so consider joining as a paying member and help support their work.
  • Ask your Executive Director and Board of Directors to join the Pet Professionals Guild and to adopt policies endorsing and supporting: Pain, Free, Force-Free, and Fear-Free pet care and the AAHA Canine and Feline Behavior Management Guidelines.

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Other Articles of Interest

Your Pet’s Behavioral Health Is As Important As Their Physical Well-Being: The New AAHA Canine and Feline Behavior Management Guidelines – <Click Here>

Dog Behavior – Dominance: Reality or Myth<Click Here>

Green Acres Kennel Shop Position Statement on Pet-Friendly, Force-Free Pet Care –  <Click Here>

Green Acres Kennel Shop Position Statement on the Use of Dominance and Punishment for the Training and Behavior Modification of Dogs – <Click Here>

The Unintended Consequences of Shock Collars <Click Here>

Introduction to Canine Communication – <Click Here>

Can You Trust What You Read on the Internet? – <Click Here>

Animal Welfare – Assessing Pets’ Welfare Using Brambell’s Five Freedoms – <Click Here>

Selecting A Pet Care Provider – Yes! A Trend Towards Kinder and Gentler Professional Pet Care – Green Acres Kennel Shop’s “Pet Friendly” Philosophy – Part 1<Click Here>

Selecting A Pet Care Provider – Yes! A Trend Towards Kinder and Gentler Professional Pet Care – The PPG – Part 2<Click Here>

Selecting A Pet Care Provider – Yes! A Trend Towards Kinder and Gentler Professional Pet Care – A Veterinary Perspective – Part 3<Click Here>

Dogs-Dog Training: A Holistic Approach to Dog Training (Parts 1 & 2)<Click Here>

Trends in Training – The Evolution of a Pet Care Professional<Click Here>

PODCAST – Dog Training Questions for Don and Kate with special guest host Dr. Mark Hanks – part 1<Click Here>

PODCAST – Dog Training Questions for Don and Kate with special guest host Dr. Mark Hanks – part 2<Click Here>

PODCAST – Dog Training Questions for Don and Kate with special guest host Dr. Mark Hanks – part 3<Click Here>

PODCAST – Pet Behavior Counseling and Don and Kate – with special guest host Dr. Mark Hanks – <Click Here>




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