Ethical questions

by | Aug 21, 2019

As a trainer-teacher we are always working with behaviours. We make decisions on what behaviours to work with and these are often based our individual ethics, experience and beliefs.Some behaviours we consider need adjustment to assist compatible and comfortable living for the dog and their companions, some behaviours are for the interest and enjoyment of the partnership.

Example: one of my collies has a very strong eye can can often spill over into bullying the more vulnerable dogs in the house. Development of this behaviour is inhibited towards other dogs, but channeled towards a more suitable outlet.

Example: I do not teach my dogs to crawl. I understand that some dogs exhibit this quite naturally but as a movement for entertainment I am uncomfortable seeing a dog crawling. In addition to which young, male adult dogs often exhibit this behaviour for quite undesirable reasons and “get themselves into trouble”.

We also have to consider the future purpose of a behaviour we are training, or adapting and the long term impact of either suppression or extensive repetition. This may impact on how we teach it. It may be a component of a future behaviour.

The key questions I ask about teaching a dog to crawl are:

Is this behaviour going to benefit this learner?

Having spent many hours standing a young Cavalier dog in a sink of cold water my answer is clearly “no”.

Is this behaviour ethically acceptable?

For me it is not, as an aspect of the species carrying out a behaviour that is somewhat demeaning: “me master, you dog, crawl to me”.

What is the future of this behaviour?

Lots of repetition of a behaviour may or may not reduce the benefits. A behaviour that may be easy for a young dog may not be easy as the dog matures, and the physiology may change.

Another example may be the behaviour “beg”, or “sitting pretty”. This behaviour does not occur beyond about 6-7 weeks in dogs. Puppies will sit-up when feeding from a standing bitch, but I have never seen the behaviour occur naturally in an adult dog.

Is this behaviour going to benefit this learner?

I can see some benefit for building specific muscle strength from this behaviour in the dogs that have the structure to easily support it. Larger and deep chested breeds can be compromised with the disproportionate weight to muscle capacity. This may be beneficial for some individuals but cause harm to others.

Is this behaviour ethically acceptable?

I can clearly see that for some people the begging dog may have uncomfortable associations.

What is the future of this behaviour?

It may be used as a foundation behaviour for other behaviours, we often see a dog in a freestyle routine wipe their face with both paws for instance. Additionally the mobility and strength from careful repetition of this movement/maintenance may compliment specific agility of the dog.

We have the training tools and skills to teach our learners anything within their physical capabilities. This does not mean we should, just because we can.

Our thoughts on this are not only limited to physical actions, ethical considerations but also we must consider the emotional component.

We can teach a dog to “be friendly”. We already teach our animals to tolerate handling from strangers, some of which they would not normally allow. Ethically we have to make a decision that although the animal may not choose to do this we are making a decision for their (long term) benefit. Husbandry and veterinary care is not something our animals have the capacity to understand, although we may see relief from pain or discomfort become an activity the animals experience and seek repetition of. For instance: “Get this burr off my coat”.

We also teach our animals to tolerate events that would normally trigger a different reaction – such as proximity of other dogs and people, bolting from loud noises, aggressing at aggressive intrusion.

We can teach our dogs to “enjoy” something they would not have naturally enjoyed. We may be able to teach a level of arousal to achieve an unnaturally fast response. We may need to counter a learned fear of an event that is beneficial to the animal.

Training is a powerful range of
strategies and protocols that
must be used with care.

There is always some elasticity in how far we work from the “not natural” behaviours. Often the answer is based on that individual, in these circumstances, at this time. But what questions do we need to ask? How far away from “natural” are we prepared to travel and for what reasons?

Sometimes you may begin to teach something and realise that this is not for this learner’s benefit, but another learner may be quite comfortable progressing with the same behaviour. It is rarely black and white.

Ethical considerations need to be explored and shared with care. Ethics have a right to be modified and changed as knowledge and understanding improves and changes. Only you can make your decisions on your ethical stand, but this may be unfixed as yet.



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