OPINION: Shocking Behavior

anxious dogBy Wendy Whitelam

It was a beautiful Labor Day — a perfect day for a great meal outdoors. As we left our parked car and walked toward town, my eye caught a beautiful adult golden retriever. I remarked on what a nice looking dog it was, and at that moment the dog’s front end went up and then down almost to the ground, followed by the dog looking directly at the owner.

My companion said, “What the heck was that?” I knew all too well what had just happened, and pointed out the remote in the owner’s hands.

“The dog was just shocked by the collar around its neck,” I said.

“For what?” I was asked.

“Only the owner knows,” I replied. Thankfully, we changed direction and headed to Lambertville Station to sit outside and enjoy lunch.

Some people are people watchers, and I am a dog watcher. Everywhere I go, I’m the one who notices the dog who walks by, identifies its breed, and enjoys observing the dog’s behavior. While waiting for a table, I watched a Bernese Mountain dog enjoying the company of her owner. She was wearing an oversized choke chain that almost rested on her shoulders, and at no time was it tightened. She loved being the big dog on the crowded porch as everyone who walked by had to notice her and happily made her acquaintance. There were two other dogs on the porch at that same time — a labradoodle and a yellow lab. Both were wearing properly fitted, small-sized, discrete prong collars. Both dogs were also enjoying being out and sharing the day with their owners, and yet neither seemed thrilled with the volume of people or the amount of activity on the porch.

The restaurant was packed on the holiday afternoon, and there were crowds walking along the canal path near the outdoor tables. While still waiting to be seated, I observed a pug wearing a body harness happily waddling in true pug fashion alongside its owner. Another dog walked by going the other way — a scrappy little terrier with a flat buckle collar — trotting along with its head up, alert, and ready for fun and adventure. Next in the parade was a large-headed American bulldog with an oversized, thick-toothed prong collar. Again, true to the breed, the bulldog was pulling on its leash despite the large necklace.

The last dog I saw before being seated was a black lab heading out of town on the canal path. The dog was walking next to its owner, expressionless with its gaze forward. I thought the dog looked abnormal for a Labrador in such a circumstance. It was missing that popular lab smile and bright eager-to-meet-the-world look. Right as they passed by, I saw the shock collar and then the remote in the owner’s hand. That explained that.

Finally, we were seated at a small table toward the front of the restaurant. After the long wait and all the dog watching, I was hungry and ready to just sit back and enjoy. But I was sitting close to the sidewalk, and within minutes an older Maltese came strutting by at a slower speed than she used to walk. The dog was well groomed and had the luxury of a loving, patient owner who walked at her pace and allowed her to stop and smell the lovely aroma of both the fine dining and the news left behind by all the other dogs.

After she passed by, a young dog and his thirty-something owner stopped at the railing and hung out for awhile. “Oh no,” I found myself saying, “That dog is wearing a shock collar, too.” While deciding over my choice of lunch, I couldn’t help taking in all that was happening a few feet away. The owner was being attentive to the young dog, and made an effort to talk to him and petted him a few times, despite his constant hold on the collar remote. After placing my order, I realized that they were being seated in the corner just two tables away. Once the owners got settled in, the dog was encouraged to lay down, and was given a pressed rawhide ring to chew on. There was one occasion where the dog’s collar was activated during the settling down process.

Things seemed pretty calm in the dog corner of the dining area, until that happy Bernese Mountain dog came along. Her owner stopped and asked if the young brown dog was friendly. As soon as he saw her, the young dog bounced up and stuck his face through the wrought iron gates. He was shocked by his owner. He bounced back and then proceeded ahead again much more slowly. The Bernese came fast at him with her face pressed through the fence quickly. He snapped lightly at her looming muzzle, and was shocked again. He hung back, and with less enthusiasm than before, he focused in her direction with his tail reeling around behind him like a circling propeller.

Once the Bernese walked on, the brown dog was encouraged to lie back down and work on his chew toy, which he did after just a few more restless minutes. Even though they were only a table away, I never heard any verbal direction being given to the young dog except for being told to lie down. I was glad that the owner was making eye contact with the dog, and did make multiple attempts to non-verbally connect with the dog when the dog was being calm and still.

At the same time as the Bernese and the young dog were getting to know each other through the fence, a lovely adolescent apricot golden doodle walked by wearing an Easy Walk harness. She was light on her feet and bouncy. When her owners stopped to decide on their next destination, she instantly stopped and looked directly at the owner. They crossed the street and she happily took direction and walked on.

The next dog to pass by was a German Shepherd puppy of no more than five months. He was wearing a choke chain, and was straining against the tightened metal links like a sled dog. Happy and eager to go, go, go, the puppy had no regard for the pressure around its throat. While I was watching the puppy go by, my companion said, “Oh no, another one. What was that for?”

I was quite confused, as I had not yet seen the ridgeback mix approaching from the other direction.

“He turned to sniff a dog as it walked by and was shocked so much the dog jumped a foot off the ground,” my companion explained.  “Oh no” was right. That dog was wearing a “service dog” harness and was being briskly walked by a gentleman holding the remote.  That same dog was visibly shocked eight times in the brief few minutes that I had the misfortune of observing it. The dog walked like a robot, eyes wide, with no expression. I watched carefully for verbal cues and any type of attempt to connect with the dog, and saw nothing from the handler.

All I kept thinking was, “How on earth was that dog ever going to be able to be of service to any human being?” I sat at the lunch table watching quietly, but my 30 years of experience working with dogs was beginning to create a hot fury within me. Thankfully, a woman walked by with a loose leash that was attached to the happiest, smiling, black and tan little dog sporting a pink body harness. Both dog and owner were walking briskly and confidently. I smiled big and took the time to genuinely enjoy them.

As it turned out, my lunch was delicious. But what I saw left me angry and despondent. They say history repeats itself, and God knows in the case of dog training methodology it certainly is true. When I began raising puppies for the Seeing Eye at age 15, I was taught how to properly fit a “training collar,” and was trained to properly give a correction. I loved dogs, I loved training dogs, and I was good at giving corrections. My timing was excellent, and my handling skills won me lots of ribbons and awards. I spent the next 10 years training dogs the only way there was — positive punishment.

Konrad Most had been training dogs in Germany with an iron fist in the early 1900s. Although his methods were correction based, his principles were very scientifically sound and far ahead of his time. Dog training didn’t take a serious turn toward dog abuse until William R. Kohler began teaching the world how to use choke chains and other devices in the 1960s and 70s. In addition to training dogs for TV and movies, Kohler authored numerous books, including such techniques as “helicoptering” (swinging a dog at shoulder height from a choke chain) and, for really “dominant dogs,” it was even suggested that the trainer hang the dog until it passes out.

Shock collars and prong collars existed in the 1960s and were being used only with military and police dogs. These early shock collars used in dog training were not as advanced as today’s collars and would frequently burn the dog right through the skin. The Kohler way is still being used and has regained popularity.

In the United Kingdom during the same era, Barbara Woodhouse was teaching people how to punish their dogs in the name of training. In addition to transforming the choke chain into a “training collar” and then the “Woodhouse collar,” Barbara Woodhouse even had a popular TV show on the BBC. Through the 60s and 70s, punishment based dog training was the norm. With the publication of her 1982 book “No Bad Dogs, The Woodhouse Way,” she became recognized worldwide.

Setting the stage for real change to take place in dog training was Konard Lorenz, B.F. Skinner, the Brelands, and Bob Bailey. As the 1980s began, thanks in large part to the tireless energy and influence of Dr. Ian Dunbar, Karen Pryor, Trish King, Dr. Patricia McConnell and others, dog owners began to realize that there were other ways to train a dog other than to hurt it.

In 1982, University of California, Berkeley graduate Ian Dunbar designed and taught the worlds’ first off-leash puppy class, and a year later, he founded what is now the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. He has successfully trained dogs using lure/reward methods for 50 years.

Karen Pryor is a behavioral biologist who became an authority on applied operant conditioning while working with dolphins as a part of the U.S. government mammal program. She began lecturing on dog behavior in 1987, and currently runs a training school for dog trainers and is working with techniques to help teach developmentally challenged children. Patricia McConnell, PhD, is another expert in animal behavior and has lectured dog trainers around the world teaching new and better techniques. Additionally, she has written many books and is best known for “The Other End of the Leash.”

As the 1980s came to a close, the dog training world was just starting to switch to off-leash puppy classes, treat bags, and cut-up hot dogs. Ruth Foster and R.K. Anderson had created and began marketing the Gentle Leader head collar in earlier in the decade, and suddenly, for the first time, there was a dog training tool not designed to cause the dog pain. Not long after, the Sensible Harness became available as the first front fitting body harness and began the transition toward pain-free walking without pulling.

Through the 1990s, dog trainers, owners and the dogs at the ends of the leashes were actually enjoying teaching and building relationships. Terry Ryan started running chicken training camps to help trainers hone their skills with fast-moving animals. Animal shelters were training staff to clicker train their dogs to increase the dog’s appeal to potential adopters and to help reduce stress within the facility. Most of the country was on board with dog-friendly training that was based on the science, learning theory and the ethology of the domestic dog.

Steve White broke away from traditional police dog training after more than 30 years as a K-9 officer, and ultimately supervisor of the Washington State K-9 program. Steve White worked closely with Karen Pryor and also lectured throughout the world on positive training for K-9 dogs. Along with those noted above, many more very educated, very experienced and very outspoken individuals committed to enacting a positive change in dog training to help teach trainers how to get results without causing pain.

After 20 years of educating training professionals and opening their eyes to not only the negative affects of compulsion but also to the importance of teaching dogs using science without pain and force, a word-wide community of trainers joined together to do better. And then along came the self-taught, egotistical, self-proclaimed “Dog Whisperer.” Ceasar Millan entered this country illegally when he was 21 and after working as a dog washer and limousine driver, he began calling himself a dog trainer. Millan’s TV show brought dog training to TV screens throughout the country in 2004. And that was the end of the good that Millan and his show have brought to dog training.

Suddenly, the choke chain was the newest item for dog training, as if created by Millan himself. Science, education, understanding of behavior and how dogs learn, and even the dogs themselves, were discounted, and all of the abusive techniques of the past were back in every home as if they were groundbreaking. All of those committed watchers didn’t get that it was TV and they were only being shown what the producers wanted to be seen.

In 2006, a New York Times article headlined “Pack of Lies” referred to Ceaser Millan as a “charming one-man wrecking ball.” Lawsuits, violence, and lots of bitten trainers have been the result. Millan began by emphasizing a premise of calm leadership, but has shown anything but calm leadership. Alpha rolls, choke chains, and prong and shock collars have become the real truth of the Whisperer’s techniques. Millan has made lots of money, and dogs are paying the price.

That’s because the flawed premise of force-based training is that you wait until the dog does something wrong, and then you punish it so that it doesn’t seek to repeat that behavior. Positive punishment literally means you are adding a punishment to stop a behavior. If done properly with good timing, a skilled handler can usually stop a behavior from repeating with only two, or at most three, applications of punishment. Very few trainers and even less dog owners have the experience and education to provide well-timed corrections. As a result, the dog is being punished sporadically and inconsistently, resulting in anxiety and confusion. Additionally, once given license to cause pain to the dog, it is all too easy to cross the line to abuse when frustrated or having a bad day.

What the world seems to have forgotten is that aggression creates aggression. If you are aggressive toward an aggressive animal (or human) you will see more aggression. Our beloved canines have basically three options when aggression comes their way: they can flee (if possible), they can shut down emotionally and just take it, or they can meet the aggressor where they are and respond in kind. The majority of dogs just shut down. They become shells of their former selves and exist carefully hoping to avoid future aggression.  Rescue dogs who have been abused or experienced violence in their past may run from a room and hide should their new owners get into a heated argument.

The majority of dogs want to just escape violence. The term hand-shy refers to dogs who drop their head and/or front end as if they are going to be hit when any hand comes toward them because they have been hit in the past and want to escape. The dog that has had enough, and just isn’t going to take it anymore, is usually the one who bites and bites hard.  Unfortunately for those dogs, they didn’t stand a chance. Very few dogs are truly born violent and aggressive — most are taught how to be that way, or have no other recourse.

Take the story of the Rottwiller puppy who started out life as a fun-loving, sweet and kind canine, but didn’t live to see his first birthday. He was the smallest of his litter, and had to fight to get to one of mom’s nipples just to stay alive. He learned within his first few weeks that you had to work hard for food, and just as hard to keep your position at the feed station. He doesn’t understand that his owners are going to put food in his bowl two to three times a day even without him protecting what he finds there.

It starts when he’s only 16 weeks old or so. His owner forgot to add his daily vitamin to the bowl, and while he’s eating, a hand comes down toward the bowl – his bowl. He has to growl because the human is now, like his litter mates, trying to take his food. He gets yelled at, and maybe even smacked for growling, and the food bowl is removed.

“If you think you can growl at me and still eat the food I gave you, you’ve got another nerve,” he hears. He’s being a dog, doing what his litter mates taught him was necessary for survival, and his aggression is met with aggression from his new owner. Particularly because the bowl was removed, he will now have to fight harder to keep his food, should a human attempt to take his food again. Eventually his behavior escalates, with a growl and snap that is then met with more physical punishment and the removal of his bowl.

By the time the owners are feeding him in a special room and just staying out of there until all of the food is gone, they decide to call the trainer that the breeder suggested months ago. The dog is really nice to people and other dogs who he meets and used to be very attached to the family and affectionate. The dog eagerly meets the trainer as a new visitor in the home. The trainer explains to the family how they need to be the pack leaders and teach the dog who’s boss. The dog is fitted with a choke, prong, or e-collar, and the trainer demonstrates how to use the device in the presence of the food bowl.

The dog is shaken, and on its best behavior with the assertive stranger, and stops the behavior cold. For the next few weeks, any time the owner is near the food bowl there is violence and corrections. If the dog objects with a growl or snap the violence gets worse. The challenge over the food bowl spirals upward, as the corrections get stronger and/or more frequent, and the dog’s aggression quietly rises, as well.

Not long after the dog lunges for the arm holding the remote/leash, and gets the mid-torso instead. It is a deep serious bite that requires surgery. The dog is euthanized. This really happened. There are hundreds and thousands of the same stories available from the mouths of dog trainers throughout the country.

It’s the same old story with all breeds and all items that they deem important enough to defend for whatever reason. As soon as it becomes a challenge of dog versus owner, and aggression is part of the scene, the outcome is the dog shuts down just to avoid the situation, affecting the human/dog relationship, or the dog looks to win as much as the human, and someone gets hurt. Possession aggression is easy to identify in young dogs, and is easy to overcome without violence as soon as it is noticed. Don’t wait to get help. The puppy won’t grow out of it. It will get worse as the dog matures. Once the pattern of violence begins it is harder to turn back the situation, but it certainly is possible.

In the case of the dog described above, the first step would be to get rid of the food bowl and hand feed. The dog would need to be taught that food was always coming, and was not something to defend. By treating that dog with respect, real leadership and understanding, he could learn to trust the human around food and know that he had no reason to worry about the bowl, his toys, bones, or any other food he found around the house.

As I write this, I find myself no longer a trainer of dogs, but a teacher instead. For over 20 now, it has been my job to teach dogs how to behave — to show them and their owners how to live together, have fun, and form the lasting partnership common between our species. As I watched the dogs in Lambertville on Labor Day, I was saddened. It was such a reflection to me on how we as a society are losing our humanity.

Prong collars should never be used to give corrections as choke chains were designed. There is a place in the dog world for prong collars, like assisting in walking when the dog to human ratio is greater on the dog’s side. Better yet, take the time to teach a dog how to walk properly using the many other pieces of equipment designed to stop pulling without pain. While teaching the dog, you also develop a relationship and foundation for future training, as well as nicer walks.

Also, electric collars have been a lifesaver for dogs wearing them within the boundaries of their yard. Electric fences are a good second choice for those who can’t erect a solid fence to contain their dog. With electric fences, the dog is taught what the beep means, which direction to go when they hear it, and they are taught that there is a consequence for not following what they have been taught. Plenty of dogs have not been shown the rules of the new fence, and just unconsciously walked over the border and shocked by unprofessional fence installers. Those dogs sit at the back door for a month or so and never leave the safety of the house because they don’t know what else to do to avoid being traumatized again. Just imagine the dog simply walking down the street and being shocked for an assortment of behaviors in the name of training.

Many years ago, George Bush spoke of creating a kinder, more gentle nation, and yet here we are three wars in the Middle East later. From what I saw, 40% of the dogs on the streets of Lambertville were being shocked, and 30% had prong collars. The city of Chicago has had more murders this year than ever before. Bombs are being left on busy streets intended to kill innocent passersby. The presidential race is — well you know.

Where are we headed as a people?  What happened to us as humans? Where is our humanity? Dogs do nothing but share unconditional love, and all they ask of us is the same. It’s time to reconsider how you treat your best friend, and how you teach them to be the dog that you would like them to be.

Wendy J. Whitelam, BS, is also CPCT-KA, ABC-L2, CGC Evaluator, and ABC Mentor at the Pet Campus in Pineville.


(The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Free Press.)

















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  • “Electronic” collars are.very useful and gives a dog freedom to exercise and under control of the owner, a legal requirement.
    The shock portion of the collar is hardly ever used by anyone who has been properly trained. There is a beep and a vibration option before resorting to shock, which has a range of levels to match the dogs temperament. It is a useful tool, properly applied. From the writers observation, many are using it wrong.

  • I could not finish reading this article. The torture the dogs were experiencing with the shock collars was both raising my blood pressure and bringing me to tears and I just couldn’t continue down that path so early in my day. I’m assuming the history of dog training that Wendy was giving us, would be against using a shock collar, so maybe New Hope could ban the use in town, for visitors and residents as well as tethering dogs.

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