Take More than Me with You: Changing Their Landscape Means Changing Ours
Updated: Apr 11
Imagine a world in which all dogs go to heavens known as Home. Home is where the humans have evolved beyond viewing dogs as property, or as subordinate members of the household. Home is where the humans practice life-long learning, and understand the difference between reinforcers and bribes. Home is where one dog is gathered round by all the other dogs at nail trimming time—because now nail trims predict every dog’s favorite form of reinforcement. The days of pinning down a dog are gone. The days of shock and prong and choke collars are gone. The days of kicks and flicks and spinning bound are gone. All the horrors unmentioned are gone. Home is where the phrase “entitled to the dog” has been replaced with the phrase “devoted to the dog.”
I came to canine behavior by way of running a dog rescue. I came because the mission of that rescue was not only to save, but also to protect and elevate the lives of animals. Soon after intaking the first dogs, I knew I was going to need more than volunteer experience, love, and an unbreakable determination if I was to honor that mission, so I began reaching out to respected trainers and behaviorists, who kindly provided consultations, to guide me in working with the most difficult cases. A lot has happened since then.
We are responsible forever for those whom we have tamed. It was running the rescue that cemented this Antoine de Saint-Exupéry sentiment for me, turning it from an inner sense to an outward purpose. Before that, I was like anyone else—I adored my animals and would ‘do anything’ for them. But the more I learned about operant and classical conditioning, the more reality continued to sink in that the companion animals we love need more than food, shelter, veterinary, and our relentless adoration. If that were all that they needed, we wouldn’t need so many rescues and shelters; there wouldn’t be so many dogs and cats neglected, surrendered, abandoned, abused, and killed. The very fact that so many companion animals end up in sanctuaries, shelters, rescues, and foster homes demonstrates that we as a society have not yet fully understood what these animals need, nor have we as a society gained the skills required to provide it. It seems fair to stipulate that those who care for animals should be able to meet the animals’ needs. If we want to see companion animals freed from the revolving doors of suffering and surrender, it is our job to learn about their needs and to be willing and able to gain the skills necessary to fulfill them.
By “our” I mean not only individuals, but we as a whole. I mean shelters, rescues, any and all
organizations dedicated to “Animal Welfare” and similar. I think most people in animal welfare, and many in animal training, agree that we need to do better to help animals. Various movements and methods have been promoted and implemented as solutions to what I will now call an animal welfare crisis. Nothing we have tried so far has worked well enough. That, I believe, is because it is we humans who need the “interventions,” yet it is our tendency to wait for a problem to arise then look for interventions for the animal. So far, we have put too much of the responsibility on our companion animals and not enough on ourselves. We expect them to carry our water. What do they expect of us? Most people care enough to want the answer to that question, but an accurate answer would require rigorous scientific investigation. For most people, that means acquiring new skills. And by rigorous I don’t just mean a research study or two done following scientific methodology; I also mean rigorous honesty, objectivity, thoroughness, and dialogue.
I propose that for now, the best way to serve and protect both human and non-human animals is an innovative human-to-human offering: Non-aversive training and behavior literacy should be imparted to every fosterer/ caretaker and adopter/ guardian of a companion animal, and confirmed before the animal is taken home.
In this brave new animal-well-being-centric world, your elderly friend would be a little less worried about what happens to her beloved dog if she dies before the little dog does, knowing that at least he will go to an adopter who will know how to kindly handle his fear, anxiety, or whatever odd habit he might develop—regardless of whether that adopter can afford to hire a reputable trainer. In this animal-well-being-centric world, when you take home a new companion, you also take home invaluable new skills that will serve you and all your companion animals for a lifetime.
The innovation that will make a truly positive difference for animals, changing the landscape
of Animal Welfare in a way that seals, not just temporarily barricades, the crush of revolving doors—the next step in seriously improving Animal Welfare—is this societal commitment to non-aversive animal handling literacy, led by the animal behavior & training, protection, rescue, and sheltering fields and supported by companion animal volunteers, fosters/ caretakers, employees, and adopters/ guardians. More simply stated, the way to best help companion animals now and into the foreseeable future is to decrease their need for help, by transforming adopters into skilled, responsible companion animal guardians—bundle of skills and duty in one hand, bundle of furry joy in the other. For every animal whose person adopts this innovation, one revolving door could be stilled forever.
Non-aversive training is a need for every companion animal. If you disagree, I have one word
for you: Housetraining. Rational people will agree that their companion dogs need to be housetrained (or pad, or box trained), and indoor cats need to be litterbox trained. People do not want a pet eliminating in their newlywed bed, their child’s playroom, or their foyer, where every guest’s first impression is that certain scent. But there are myriad other examples—just think of the last thing your pet did that left you feeling embarrassed, frustrated, or scared. Conditioning dogs’ reactions that allow them to operate in the world of humans helps us meet other humans’ requirements—whether we like them or not—such as politeness and caution, which thereby helps us comfort and protect our dogs. Training our companion animals makes each of us a more responsible guardian, and it helps provide each of our dogs with safety—a basic need. A gentle, stable dog handled by a cautious, skilled guardian is not likely to be accused of or guilty of aggression, and therefore not likely to be confiscated or euthanized by animal control.
Learning non-aversive handling also enables guardians to manage and condition a dog in fear of scary situations, which fulfills more of the dog’s basic needs: 1) A sense of security and 2) A measure of freedom from fearful reactions, which in many cases may also prevent perceived “aggressive”reactions such as growling, lunging, chasing, snapping, and biting. Again, a dog who is deemed aggressive often is in danger of confiscation and quite possibly euthanasia, so our innovative adopter would be providing the dog the best possible chance of survival—the most basic of needs.
An adopter who not only feeds, shelters, vets, and loves, but who also properly, non-aversively manages and trains her/his dog, in order to provide the best possible safety for that dog and for others around that dog, is truly caring for the dog. This is a dog whose most crucial needs are met.
Not only are we responsible for meeting our companion animals’ survival needs and safety/ security needs, but ideally their belonging and esteem needs as well. Non-aversive training can also help meet their belonging and esteem needs. We all have seen dogs and cats lose their places, their homes, their families—their belonging—as they were surrendered for behavior reasons. We have seen dogs and cats suffer loss of esteem the same way, in varied contexts including quite painful ones. The reality is this will continue until we change—until we stop expecting our companion animals to satisfy unreasonable, unearned demands, and instead start treating them like the sentient beings they are.
It is time to make another giant leap. We’ve come a long way from the 1800s, when for a while, shelter animals were publicly killed in horrifying ways. But have we made enough significant change since then, relative to progress in other fields? Absolutely not. Without ensuring that adopters are ready, willing, and able to provide for all of their adoptees’ needs, simply increasing adoption numbers is not enough, and placing all the responsibility of ‘good’ behavior on the animals is not appropriate. We expect them to adjust to our world, but the world of each individual adopter is unique; therefore, it is the adopter who must know how to help—without adding harm—the adoptee cope with and eventually thrive in those new conditions. Instructions on how to make an animal more adoptable, how to make an animal more appealing to an adopter, are now commonplace—there are even sizable grants given just for this purpose. Yet rarely are we taught how to make an adopter more suitable for an animal! Imagine how the lives, how the futures, of adopted animals would change if that were the norm.
The next phase of excellence in animal welfare requires knowledge and skills grounded in the science of R+ learning theory and classical conditioning--further informed by ethological considerations and the latest scientific discoveries in canine cognition--and a focus on teaching non-aversive training, behavior, and handling skills to all animal guardians. It might sound hard, but it will be easier than rescue. Certainly it will be easier than each of the terrible, depressing paths leading to the euthanasia of 1.5 million or more pets every year, not to mention the 6.5 million or more pets that enter American shelters every year (ASPCA, 2018)—and these numbers do not even include the animals in the 10,000 rescues in the USA. (HSUS, 2018)
In our society, dogs are judged and treated, by people and institutions, based on how they behave. Until we make non-aversive training and behavior literacy part of the adoption process for adopters, empowering animal owners and guardians of every ilk to help at-risk animals blossom while simultaneously protecting them from fear, force, intimidation, and pain, our beloved companions are still, always, going to be at risk, no matter how many homes we continue to find for them. No matter how many shelter kennels we continue to empty and re-empty.
Note: “Belonging” is Maslow’s label for what I’ve called “Social” for canines and “Esteem”
is Maslow’s label for what I’ve called “Accomplishment” for canines in my own Companion Canine Well-Being hierarchy above. -RJ
American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Shelter Intake and Surrender: Pet
Statistics. Retrieved July 30, 2018
The Human Society of the United States. Pets by the Numbers. Retrieved July 30, 2018
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
A different, edited-by-the-magazine version of this essay first appeared in Barks from the Guild.