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Compendium July 2008 (Vol 30, No 7)

Editorial — Human Behavior and Animal Welfare

by Sharon L. Crowell-Davis, DVM, PhD, DACVB

    The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way in which its animals are treated. I hold that the more helpless a creature, the more entitled it is to protection by man from the cruelty of man. —Mohandas Gandhi

    Great strides have been made in the care and treatment of animals since Gandhi stated that the moral progress of a nation could be judged by the way in which its animals are treated. Nevertheless, there is still room for improvement. Treating animals respectfully and using training methods that involve positive reinforcement—that is, getting an animal to do what you want it to do because it likes the consequences of doing what you want it to do—is becoming more and more common. At the same time, there are still books on the market that advocate hanging dogs, hitting dogs, stuffing a dog's mouth with something it has chewed and taping the mouth closed, and holding a dog's head under water for extended periods short of drowning. There are individuals who recommend these books and trainers who use these techniques. In my opinion, such techniques belong in the dustbin of history along with beating one's wife and whipping children. They are, put simply, animal abuse. If waterboarding a human is torture, isn't holding a dog's head under water in a similar fashion abuse? Advocates of techniques using strong punishment and negative reinforcement cite presumed efficacy. However, since both research and practical experience by veterinarians and trainers tell us that desired effects can be obtained with positive reinforcement techniques and judicious use of mild punishment, does the end justify the means?

    Dogs, cats, and other pets live with us because we choose to have them as companions. Our expectations vary. Some people want a cat that is strictly a companion, and some want a cat that is a mouser. Some people want a dog that is strictly a companion, and some want a dog that can perform a specific task, such as herding, retrieving, or following a scent trail. Within the space of being companions and workers, animals are subject to our expectations and our treatment. Unfortunately, tradition, expediency, and a desire to control or have power over another living being often invade the relationship between a human and a companion animal, to the detriment of the animal and the human.

    Dog training techniques that were developed during a time of war and when we understood far less about animal learning and physiology than we do now continue to be practiced simply because of tradition and inertia. In some cases, people believe that aversive training techniques work faster than nonaversive techniques. Sometimes they do, but often they do not. Often, the use of aversive techniques has undesirable consequences in the form of behavior problems that manifest as a result of fear. Based on the cases that have come through my clinic over the years, in which an animal has developed a serious behavior problem originating in fear caused by trainer recommendations and practices, I believe that extensive use of punishment-based techniques is usually a result of an incomplete or inaccurate understanding of animal behavior, motivation, and learning.

    In the past several Understanding Behavior columns, I have discussed principles of animal learning and their relevance to the development, prevention, and treatment of behavior problems. Given that such knowledge is available, it is important for practitioners to consider the implications of decisions about animal management, care, and training that affect an animal's welfare, well-being, or experience of pain, suffering, or fear. It can be very easy to listen to an authoritative voice that says that using aversive techniques is good, appropriate, and necessary or that using training devices that cause pain and fear is acceptable, slipping into a jargon that ignores the reality of what such devices do. However, our knowledge of animal behavior has reached such a level that we need to incorporate our directives to relieve suffering and promote well-being into all of our actions and all of our advice regarding animal care, training, management, and handling.a

    Conversely, as our knowledge and experience of techniques to socialize, desensitize, and countercondition animals increase and the use of positive reinforcement training techniques, including clicker training, becomes more common, our ability to improve the quality of life for our patients and our pets improves. Ongoing research and development of improved training techniques are moving us steadily forward.

    To review the position statement of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) on the use of punishment, the AVSAB Guidelines on the Use of Punishment for Dealing with Behavior Problems in Animals, and related references, go to www.avsabonline.org.

    aDr. Crowell-Davis further explores the relationship between animal behavior and animal welfare in this month's Understanding Behavior column.

    Downloadable PDF

    Dr. Crowell-Davis discloses that she has received financial support from CEVA Animal Health and from Merial.

    NEXT: Reading Room — Atlas of Small Animal Dermatology