The Continuum Generator

Proponents of the use of pain and avoidance in training like to place themselves in the middle ground, using words like “balanced” to describe themselves and “extremist” to describe trainers who get the job done without hurting dogs.  The most cursory examination of this framing, however, reveals that the underlying assumption – the reasonable, middle position is to employ pain and fear along with rewards – is faulty.

It’s basically a rhetorical trick.  For instance, the force free could claim the middle ground by saying,  “I’m a balanced trainer because I use a judicious blend of prompting, shaping via approximation, capturing and reward removal.  I used to be more of an extremist, using and defending the use of motivators such as pain, startle and fear, but started migrating in the 1980’s toward this more reasonable approach.”

It’s also worth noting that, on scores of issues, “middle ground” approaches can be framed as insane or immoral.  Absolutist positions are common in society, especially regarding violence.  There is a pretty absolute moratorium on the use of physical force by spouses. Nobody sane attempts to defend a “balanced” position regarding domestic abuse.  We don’t quibble – and notably the American Psychological Association doesn’t prevaricate – about, say, dragging by the hair if the scalp isn’t bloodied in the process, or punches to the face if there are no really *big* bruises left.

I can’t think of anybody who’s very “balanced” about the use of physical coercion by teachers either, even though it’d likely be more motivating to use some electric shock on scholastic under-performers: “Sure, the desire to get good grades and the good careers that follow are okay motivators, but why limit ourselves to two measly quadrants when we can have the richness of four.  We would, of course, have to give it some other name than electric shock, which has unfortunate baggage.  Maybe E-ducation or something.”

I and everybody I know also have extremist positions regarding shaking babies, hitting children, flogging military personnel who go AWOL, using shock on the developmentally disabled, amputating the digits of violent offenders, briefly choking employees under one’s supervision if they are chronically late for work, waterboarding high-school bullies, or rendering the dead into food for the starving.  There are, in theory, more moderate, balanced positions on these and many other issues.

There was a time in recent history when all kinds of violent practices that would get one arrested today were both legal and considered a private choice.  Not that long ago, you could easily be labeled a pious extremist for suggesting that parents shouldn’t smack their kids around or that husbands couldn’t “discipline” their wives.  Dog training is headed, like other parts of modern society, like a steam train in the “it’s not okay to hurt and scare them” direction and it’s unsurprising that trainers who like shock are going down kicking and screaming as did their predecessors.  If you’re young enough, you’ll probably live to see the day of back-pedaling by organizations who would dearly love to bury their current policy statements that bless the use of any training tool at the trainer’s discretion.

Another rhetorical device you might have seen is the contention that everybody is using coercion because, look, you’ve got a leash on that dog when you take him for a walk!  The equivalent argument would be that a parent who holds a child’s hand while crossing the street is a hypocrite for lobbying against child battery.  I don’t know whether the coercion crowd are just throwing shit at the wall, arguments-wise, or whether they actually can’t tease out the difference between managing the behavior of a member of society who, with absolute physical liberty, could easily run out into the street, and the hitting, strangling or shocking of that same member of society.  It’s pretty eye-popping if you think about it.  But it often does seem to be their idea of a trump card.

I sometimes wonder who will be the very last self-selected – as opposed to legally mandated – crossover trainer, and if they’ll breathe a sigh of relief that their legacy, for all to see in succeeding generations, is that they weren’t among the very last hold-outs.

Click here for an in-depth article on shock collars.

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