A contract with your dog

9513122595_9a7b43ba87_zIf you wrote a contract to your dog, what would you say?

Would you promise to provide food, shelter, water, and veterinary care? Certainly! But what about his emotional health? Would your contract include a behavioral clause that addressed training methods and how you would address any fearful or aggressive behaviors?

When we bring a dog into our home, we may not necessarily write a contract on a piece of paper and sign on the proverbial dotted line. But we do follow an unwritten contract of sorts, guided by who we choose as our vet, the food and enrichment products we purchase, and what training methods we use.

Your dog’s emotional well-being is just as important as providing daily meals, water and shelter. Disclosure: I am biased. My job is to help people work through behavioral challenges with their dogs, so I see first-hand the stress that comes from choke chains and prong collars, poor management, and the long-term effects of stress and fear. Cases with fearful and aggressive dogs, while not impossible, are more complex and take much longer to work through than basic obedience with a well-socialized puppy.

Bias aside, there is no denying that fallout from coercive training methods and repeated exposure to stressful events can seriously impact your dog’s emotional and physical well-being. The research is out there and growing in scope and nuance.

James LeDoux, who runs the LeDoux Lab at the Center For Neural Science at NYU, posits that fear is easy to install, and difficult, if not impossible, to extinguish. He also states that fear is not only impactful for humans, but is universal among all animals.

In one study, “Training dogs with help of the shock collar: short and long term behavioral effects,” (2003), researchers Schilder and van der Borg concluded: “…being trained is stressful, that receiving shocks is a painful experience to dogs, and that the S-dogs evidently have learned that the presence of their owner (or his commands) annonuces reception of shocks, even outside the normal training context. This suggests that the welfare of these shocked dogs is at stake, at least in the presence of their owner.”

From the physical end, Dr. Jean Dodds, a veterinarian and thyroid expert, advises owners that choke and prong collars can easily injure the thyroid gland, the salivary glands and the salivary lymph nodes.

Given the lack of regulation in the dog training industry, owners have an unbelievable freedom of choice, and an immense responsibility, when it comes to deciding what methods to use and which dog trainers to hire. Sadly, while many owners’ contracts with their dogs fulfill their physical well-being, the behavioral and emotional aspects fall short.

If you could write a contract to your dog, or if you could re-write the contract with your dog (because it’s never too late), what would you say?

Here are some starting points:

  1. I will not use pain, force or coercion to train you.
  2. I will train based on the science of animal learning, and use the most humane methods available.
  3. If you are afraid, I will not put you over threshold, and will help you feel safer in your environment.
  4. I will research anyone I hire to assist with training to ensure he or she has proper credentials and uses force-free methods.

– Maureen Backman, MS, CTC

Maureen Backman, MS is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project. To get in touch, email her at muttabouttownsf@gmail.com.