Save Them All by Doing Whatever it Takes

I have strong opinions on certain issues; okay on many issues, particularly when it comes to dogs and dog training.  You may feel free to hold your own strong opinions and disagree with me. I’ve devoted many years of my life to learning about dogs, about learning and behavior,  and about how to help dogs live the best lives possible. Based on my experiences and my perspective I have come to hold certain strong views on these issues.

In an ideal world every dog would live in a happy harmonious home.  In an ideal world every owner would have a dog that fits perfectly into their family’s lifestyle and makes them happy.  We live in the real world though, and things don’t always work out the way we hope. This blog post looks at two related issues: the no kill shelter and the use of aversives for training.  

Lately there has been a lot of controversy on the internet related to Best Friends Animal Society (BFAS).  Their stated mission is to “save them all”. So they are, by definition, a no-kill facility. Their goal is that no animals are ever euthanized.  This seems like a really worthy goal, but sadly, it is not sustainable. First, it’s simply not realistic. By “saving” they mean “keep alive”. What about the safety of those interacting with the more dangerous animals?  What about the safety of the community in general if these animals are placed in homes? And what about the quality of life of the animal? It is typically assumed that any life is better than none. Sadly, this is just not true.  

I’ve heard truly horrific first hand accounts of dogs from no-kill facilities who ended up maiming and killing others, including humans.  There are animals who are simply are never going to be safe in the world, which means a hugely diminished quality of life if they cannot live in normal average homes and neighborhoods.  Often, solitary confinement in rescues and shelters is the only option for them.  

The second issue, which is connected to the first, is that BFAS made the decision to send some of their more “difficult” dogs to a trainer outside of their own huge facility (with their own in house trainers).  The rumor going around was that the intended outsourced training would be with aversives, including shock collars. I cannot speak to the veracity of this; it’s all second hand information to me. When this information became public there was a huge outcry from trainers focused on positive reinforcement based methods.  

The reason I began following this story is because a large professional trainer organization, the Pet Professional Guild (PPG), had booked their annual conference at BFAS in 2020 and I had agreed to speak at that conference.  When I agreed I was well aware of BFAS’ mission statement and I could live with that difference in outlook regarding behavioral euthanasia for the opportunity to share information about my training approaches and philosophy. What made me much less comfortable though was the possibility of being connected with an organization that condones the use of aversive training techniques.  

It turns out that the mission of the PPG runs directly counter to the use of force-based training approaches.  So this set up a conflict between the two organizations. In the end PPG decided to cancel their event at BFAS.  They did their due diligence to verify the rumors and did leave the lines of communication and assistance open should BFAS ever want positively based training advice and support.  

Of course, the internet is full of people who have opinions about all of this, myself included  People are debating the pros and cons of this choice. For myself, I have a huge issue being connected with a facility that feels comfortable using painful and unpleasant stimuli to “train” animals.  I feel very strongly that heading down the path of force is always the wrong option. The idea of taking dogs who have already had terrible life experiences and adding even more aversives to their lives is one I simply cannot accept.  It’s a hard line in the sand for me as a person and trainer. The idea that more force will fix an animal who already uses force themselves to hurt others, or is so anxious and stressed they cannot function, is not something I can live with.  Making them “better” by hurting them is not, in my opinion, a humane way to proceed. Nor is there any scientific evidence to suggest that aversive based methods will work when reinforcement has not. In general, the skill of the trainer and the commitment to a consistent and fair training program gives you the best chance for success.  

BFAS and any other no-kill facility find themselves in this predicament precisely because they are working so hard to keep dangerous and mentally damaged dogs alive.  They are looking for a solution for the hard cases that doesn’t involve euthanasia. I imagine that the thought process is that anything they do to the dog is better than death.  But is it really?  

As humans we often find ourselves in the position of having to make difficult choices about the well-being of the animals in our care.  The choices are not always good ones. We must take into account not only the best interests of the animal, but the interests of those interacting with the animal, the available resources we use for those animals, and the larger community in general.  It’s not as simple “always” or “never” calculation. And it is totally heartbreaking to make a euthanasia choice, no matter why. Sometimes, though, it is the right and necessary decision to make.  

Is every dog going to be safe to live in human society?  No, they are not. I wish they were. It’s certainly not the norm for dogs to be dangerous, most are perfectly fine and safe even when humans do stupid things to them, yet, those outliers exist.  What do we do about the ones who aren’t safe? That’s the heart of this issue. Do we say we will do “whatever it takes” to keep them alive, no matter how awful that life might be? This is the heart of the ends justifying the means argument.  The problem is though, that aversive training is no guarantee of success. What it does guarantee is pain and fear and more suffering. I’d love to see some data showing any level of long-term effectiveness in these cases. Aversive control might suppress unwanted behaviors for a short while, but the side effects and resurgence are going to be issues no matter what.    

The resources, both in money and manpower, that a facility uses to work with the truly dangerous cases could be used to house and train many more adoptable and safe animals.  Making those decisions is not an easy task, but it is a brave and selfless one. Saving them all is not a sensible real world option. I wish it was.     

Is behavioral euthanasia always wrong?  I have my opinions and you, no doubt, have yours.  Is aversive training always wrong? Again, I have my opinions and I’m sure you have yours.  Why did I take the time to write all of this out? I think that these are really important issues and I hope that people who own and work with dogs will examine their views very carefully and make logical and ethical conclusions.  

As a closing note I would like to be very clear that I do not speak either for BFAS or PPG.  My summaries of their positions and actions are based only on my own understanding of the information publicly available and freely shared by each group.  The rest is my own opinion.  

And finally, I hope that I have been clear in presenting and supporting my views, and have not come off as overly righteous and judgmental.  While I feel quite strongly about both of these issues people I like and respect disagree on both points.  That’s okay.  As thoughtful mature adults we can have very different views on emotionally charged issues without attacking or belittling each other.  My goal in writing this blog post is to do a halfway decent job presenting my own thought process and helping people understand why I hold the views and opinions that I do.