Dogs vs. Fiction

BY LISA SKAVIENSKI

OCTOBER 11, 2016

I recently wrote a blog entry addressing the fallout caused by the absence of regulatory controls and licensing requirements in the dog training industry. It was hardly the first to highlight the glaring discrepancy between fact-based information from learned animal behavior experts and the dangerous misinformation routinely peddled by so many in the largely uneducated dog training profession. I felt compelled to write the piece, in part, by my frustration that the arguments between pursuers of scientific data and purveyors of behavioral fiction were even still occurring, particularly among those actively involved in dog advocacy, rescue, and shelter work. It was an attempt to suggest we all have an obligation to access legitimate information from recognized academic authorities; and that dogs and their owners deserve an evidence-based approach to their training and overall care. Anything short of that really isn’t in line with the goal of animal welfare.

Given this continuing entrenched cognitive divide, perhaps the most achievable near term goal is to steer people toward critical thinking with the hope of capturing those persuadable fence sitters at least willing to consider the evolving science and consequent data. Until the middleman dealing most frequently with dog owners is intellectually current, the valid stuff isn’t trickling down any time soon.

That’s a problem because even dogs living in loving homes are not totally free on some level from the fictions mankind has built around them. Years of misinformation about their nature, faulty speculation about how they think and what drives their behavior erroneously presented as fact over and over again, and our own familiarity with dogs all have a way of dulling our perceptions and snuffing out curiosity. Instead of a climate of inquiry about this species we share our lives with, there often still prevails a dull-witted acceptance of fictional constructs that only serve to justify our chosen approach to them. Not good news for dogs. Even worse news for dogs labeled “pit bull.”

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Pit bulls are finally embraced by most in animal welfare, but some of the most recognized names in their advocacy are among those who strongly eschew the current science of animal learning and behavior. In fact, some of these groups are very vocal proponents of aversive training tools and methods, in spite of the stark divergence from all of the available scientific research.

The one area in which everyone in the animal welfare community seems to share common ground and embrace evidence and critical thinking is the opposition to breed-specific legislation (“BSL”). One might think such a commonly shared position a win for dogs everywhere; yet as we saw last week in Montreal, valid facts are hardly enough to protect these dogs from the fiction-based, misinformed agendas of man in plenty of other arenas.

When Montreal proposed banning pit bulls several months ago, a responsive multifaceted effort immediately commenced to provide city council members with data proving the ban uninformed and misguided. Position statements from highly credible sources in both Canada and the U.S. were presented: The veterinary community (Ordre des medecins veterinaires de Quebec, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, the American Veterinary Medical Association, and the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior); government agencies and national associations (Ontario Health and Safety Board, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Animal Control Association, the American Bar Association, and even the White House); and scores of animal welfare organizations and trainers’ associations. All of them stated their unequivocal opposition to BSL based on ethics and any such program’s clear lack of efficacy.

Reputable sources informed the city council about what actually leads to dog bites and how to prevent them, along with the clear data confirming that BSL is not conducive to dog bite prevention. Communities are no safer, the cost is astronomical, and the lives of thousands of innocent dogs are needlessly lost in the wake of BSL. In the Montreal case, there was only one vocal minority pushing the BSL agenda from the outside. A fringe hate group led by a woman – a former internet fortuneteller – who was bitten by a dog years ago. She has no credentials in animal behavior or statistics; she simply has a vendetta and a small group of loyal disciples. Much to the horror of any rational thinking person, the city council members chose to pass this genocidal ban with a sickening in-favor vote of 37-23.

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As a dog trainer, a longtime advocate for pit bulls, and guardian of two, the Montreal decision is extremely upsetting. Recognizing the failure in empathy and reasoning by your fellow man feels a bit like being swallowed by a tidal wave of despair. There is a moment of questioning whether all of this advocacy is worthwhile. Why do we keep doing it, day after day, year after year? Why is it so hard to get people to understand facts and how to constructively recognize and question information sources? Why is it so hard for people to realize that not everything is subjective? And in those moments, it’s tempting to give up, because it’s clear that so few seem capable of getting their heads around this species in any meaningful way. Quite briefly, I allowed myself to detach in sheer disappointment.

But the next day, like every single day without fail, I am contacted by prospective clients who tell me their previous trainer instructed them to bully their pet dogs with prong collars or electric shock or forcing them into situations that scare them so they learn to “toughen up” – that it made the dogs worse – and I then know I can’t give up. I see national welfare organizations promoting this kind of dangerous trainer as a “behavior expert” to shelters across the nation. I see a prominent pit bull advocacy figure making a snide comment on social media that training dogs with food makes them “obnoxious” and how she cannot wait to contact a famous punitive trainer when she comes across a dog “needing” to be electrically shocked. These are people who stand squarely in the way of the facts getting to the public, regardless of what good work they might otherwise do in advocacy, which makes this willful ignorance extremely dangerous – they have the ear of so many in the dog-owning public. Their heavy handed, simple solution position has nothing to do with the full and tested body of scientific evidence and truth, and so how can we give up?

Every day, somewhere on the planet, inhumane and ineffective legislation claims the lives of innocent dogs, tearing families apart under the guise of “public safety.” No amount of reasoning seems capable of breaking through the sensationalized media-driven image of a man-eating beast for those who support such laws. Ironically, it is abusive treatment that is a primary cause for aggression in dogs (among other important factors, none of which include the arbitrary physical characteristics of the dog), but that fact is conveniently ignored by most. It is madness, and further evidence that there is no room for giving up.

Because there are those who continue to place their own misinformed agendas ahead of the welfare of dogs, and even the well being of people, it isn’t okay to give up.

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I shouldn’t need to tell anyone that just like it’s not okay to beat your wife or scare a child, it isn’t okay to choke, prong, or electrically shock a dog. Not ever. I shouldn’t need to because there are studies clearly proving the harm of aversive methods to dogs, even if there aren’t yet laws (at least in the U.S.), and we have non-invasive alternatives available – a point where all valid experts in the field of applied behavior concur. No, not the pseudo experts being held out as such because they’ve been intimidating dogs and their caregivers for a decade or two; I’m talking about legitimate, academically sound experts. The very people those in the animal welfare arena and training industry should be looking to for guidance. But not all of them are.

Likewise, I shouldn’t have to tell anyone that banning a type of dog based on its appearance – and make no mistake, that is precisely what it boils down to – is not okay, because the verdict is in on this, as well. These bans don’t work because they don’t target the reasons dog bites occur. That’s what the facts tell us – no, not that pseudo “facts” that a single hate group with an official-looking website touts, but actual facts from legitimate sources. No one should need to be told that law officers entering someone’s home in order to forcibly remove and kill a family pet because it has a blocky head is appalling. But clearly they do.

Whether a rescue, shelter, dog trainer, policy maker, civil servant, or animal welfare organization, we all have an obligation to let go of dangerous fictions about dogs. Like it or not, there is a reality that exists outside of our personal agendas. Where there is an absence of critical thinking and empathy, there will be times when deeply entrenched fictionalized thinking will be challenged. To many, this can be an unwelcome and uncomfortable exercise. But this is the way social change and progress always occurs. Challenging harmful bias is unpleasant, but necessary.

It simply is a long, messy road to a world in which unhealthy, unfair, and destructive behavioral constructs are less prominent in the dog world. So long as mankind is exploiting dogs to suit its own needs with the audacity to say it is for the good of dogs and/or people, I am committed to this fight for rationality. And lucky for the dogs, I’m not alone. In the battle between dogs and the fictions we human beings have saddled them with, there are plenty of us willing to keep speaking out. And fair warning: we have science on our side. Policy will follow, as it eventually always does.

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