by Jean Donaldson
Years ago I was chatting with a friend about the lay of the land in dog training and mentioned that in the US it was still legal to use electric shock on dogs, by anyone and at any time. She, who is not in dogs, said something to the effect of, “isn’t that extreme?” This exchange popped back into my head recently because she had used the word extreme—a word which had just been leveled, ironically, at trainers who refuse to use shock on dogs. It was done by an ostensibly force-free trainer. In the aftermath of this, a few trainers on the force-free side expressed some hurt and confusion. There is some serious burnout burden among competent trainers who daily clean up the messes made by “balanced” trainers – that is those who use pain, intimidation and force along with positive reinforcement – and friendly fire is particularly painful. I saw my students and graduates reeling. Training without shock or aversives is being an “extremist?” Then, to add injury to injury, these few expressions of disagreement kicked off a narrative about how force-free trainers were piling on one of our own. Wait, what? Those few carefully-worded dissents – plus a small handful of inflammatory jerks it must be said – is we positive reinforcement trainers eating our own? That’s some mighty bold spin-doctoring. But they need to spin it, don’t they. They’re running out of time.
A little context here. There has been well over 30 years of education offerings to trainers on how to work effectively without aversives. Organizations such as APDT in the early 90’s took a big-tent approach, and, 30 years ago, this seemed a reasonable hypothesis: be inclusive, offer education and humans will naturally eschew electric shock and other aversives once they see how effective other means are. Easy peasy. There is now no shortage of educational offerings, and in every conceivable format. There are long and short-form programs and courses, conferences, seminars, webinars, books and videos.
But still they do it. In 2023. Still they electrically shock dogs. And not only that, they ridicule those who don’t. Just drop in on “balanced trainer” threads, among themselves and in comment sections when force-free trainers make their positions clear. To then claim that the force-free crowd, by holding a clear ethical position and being disappointed when one of our own labels it extremism, is somehow unprofessional or a pitchforked mob, is gaslighting. Because it’s not just my friend, a thinking person, who thinks that aversive stimuli such as electric shock is too extreme to be on the table as an option. The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, the American Animal Hospital Association, Quebec, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Germany, Scotland, Wales, Austria, increasingly in Australia, in England as of 2024, and increasingly other countries all disallow electric shock. What this means is a bunch of politicians – who normally can’t agree on anything – get it that electrically shocking dogs is too cruel to allow by law. And some professional trainers are doing it and defending it? That’s extreme.
But still they do it. In 2023. Still they electrically shock dogs. And not only that, they ridicule those who don’t.
Well, you might say, it’s a matter of opinion. Is there any research? Well yes, a ton actually. The research has exploded on this topic in the last 20 years and has been overwhelming in its conclusion that aversive stimuli are unnecessary, less effective than non-aversive means and carry a side effect we never want: fear. For a list of references, see the Training Methods PDF at the top of our home page.
Well, you might say, that’s the research. What about the real world? Well, there’s a ton here too. There are thousands of trainers getting the job done every day without electric shock or other aversives. On all case types. How do trainers – and it’s safe to call them extremists – who support the use of electric shock account for this? Oh yeah, they claim we’re just killing dogs or something. Rather than mopping up the messes they make of dogs.
I can see that if there weren’t dogs being needlessly shocked, a live-and-let-live approach would be defensible. But dogs are being harmed. Daily. And needlessly. And competent, aversives-free trainers are indeed the mop-up squad. Stay tuned for a future post with some of these case studies.
It was gaslighting to be told that, by taking a clear ethical stance against the use of aversives, we were somehow injuring trainers who do use aversives. It was gaslighting to be told that, by advocating for dogs, we are somehow “piling on” shock apologists, or being unprofessional. It’s rather like saying those who opposed domestic violence against women were injuring domestic batterers. Or should watch their tone—especially considering that tone policing is a ready bed-mate of gaslighting. Given all this, it’s a miracle we maintain the civil and professional tone that, for the most part, we do.
What on Earth are advocates of a position supposed to say if something is not acceptable? We really do think that it’s simply not okay to shock dogs in the name of training. At all. And we have an army of scientific studies, professional organizations, jurisdictions and successful practitioners getting the job done without it to back us up. I think it’s time to reality test—that is, check which narrative aligns with reality. I would submit that training with electric shock is extreme. Really extreme. Studiously avoiding it and using stuff like food is not.
I would submit that training with electric shock is extreme. Really extreme. Studiously avoiding it and using stuff like food is not.