Dog Training with “Aversives” or Punishment

When you examine the various advertisements for dog trainers or behaviorists, you will find a number of them describe the approach they use in training as “balanced”, or will indicate that they follow the “Koehler Method” or some other methodology such as the use of “e-collars”.  You should take the time to research what is meant by that terminology.   In general, these training approaches incorporate the use of “aversives” or punishment as part of the dog’s training.

What is an “aversive”?  Why are they used?

Essentially, an aversive is something that the training does to the dog when that dog does something undesirable.  They can take the form of an electric shock, an unpleasant spray to the face, throwing an object at the dog, making a sudden startling sound, jerking the dog’s collar, jerking on a prong collar or choke chain, or physically punishing the dog by hanging or choking.  In short, an aversive is an action on the trainer’s part to make the dog afraid of not obeying, or afraid to do something other than what the trainer wants.  The use of punishment in dog training is closely associated with the dominance or “pack” theory, in which trainers physically correct dogs with unpleasant outcomes for their actions.  This theory of behavior will be addressed in more detail in a later article.

A “balanced trainer” typically follows the training philosophy that punishments should be part of the trainers’ toolkits, along with incentives.  This is a carrot and stick approach.  Some of them claim that it is a science-based approach and point to the four quadrants of operant conditioning as justification for this thinking. Proponents of the Koehler method will state that dogs are being given freedom of choice about their actions and are learning to not make certain choices because of the pain or discomfort that they receive afterwards.

William Koehler (1914 – 1993) was a well-known, celebrity dog trainer and his book The Koehler Method of Dog Training was for many years considered to be the bible for dog trainers.  Like many trainers of the last century, he used extreme methods of punishing dogs for disobedience or for perceived “defiance”.  These methods included hanging a dog by a choke lead until he ceases moving and is unconscious, as well as the use of a weighted hose to discipline a rebellious dog by beating him.  In Koehler’s view, allowing a dog to be untrained or disobedient was more inhumane than using harsh methods to instill obedience in the dog (Koehler, 1962).    Koehler’s methods are still practiced by a number of trainers today, notably some of the trainers involved in the training of police or military K-9s.

In addition to the beating described above, trainers who incorporate aversives in their programs may use a wide range of tools, including but not limited to prong collars, shock collars, choke chains, thrown objects, loud noise makers and unpleasant sprays.  They can also use personal corrections, such as swinging the

Bull Terrier with prong collar

dog on its leash, hanging the dog by its collar, choking the dog, striking them, yelling at them, or a number of other physical punishments.

Why use aversives?

The use of aversive measures in dog training is based on the belief that the dog is intentionally and willfully being disobedient and that he needs to learn that this deliberate behavior leads to punishment.  Alternatively, these methods are used to form such unpleasant associations with certain behaviors so as to make the dog avoid performing them.  This second aspect is why these methods are sometimes called “scientific” by the trainers using them, as they involve some form of reflexive or Pavlovian behavior modification.

So what’s the problem?

The simple fact is that the use of physical punishment, intimidation and aversive measures in dog training isn’t necessary, or any more effective than positive training methods (Ziv, 2017).  In fact, the use of harsh corrections in training has been found to be counterproductive and actually increases behavior problems.  Studies have shown that punishment-based training not only increases a dog’s fear of his owners, it affects the dog’s social behaviors and overall trust of humans; the dogs actually become more resistant to training (Rooney & Cowan, 2011).     The use of aversives in dog training has been shown to be no more effective than positive training, and will actually increase serious behavioral problems (Hiby, Rooney and Bradshaw, 2004; Blackwell, Twells, Seawright & and Casey, 2008).  As mentioned above, dogs trained in an environment that incorporates aversives will actually be more stressed in training and resist taking part in it, due to their anticipation of physical pain and discomfort.  Their stress levels and anxiety during training are notably higher than dogs’ who are trained with positive methods.  In fact, dogs trained with punishments tend to avoid their owners and be less attentive to them than dogs trained with positive reinforcements (Deidalle and Gaunet, 2014).  These methods kill the dogs’ motivation to learn.

Studies have shown that the use of aversives and punishment in training are closely associated with increases in aggression and biting, due to the stress and strain associated with those training methods (Herron, Shofer and Reisner, 2009).  Such training methods actually endanger both the physical and mental heath of the dogs involved (Ziv, 2017).  The use of aversives actually causes dogs to be fearful and can create unintended negative associations for them – damaging their relationship with their owners and humans in general (Todd, 2018).

For these reasons, animal welfare organizations such as the RSPCA, the ASPCA, the HSUS, the AAHA and the AVMA have issued statements supporting positive training methods and condemning the use of aversives in pet training.  According to the AVMA “Aversive training has been associated with detrimental effects on the human–animal bond, problem-solving ability, and the physical and behavioral health of the patient. It causes problem behaviors in normal animals and hastens progression of behavioral disorders in distressed animals.” (AVMA, 2015).  The Association of Pet Dog Trainers, the International Association of Animal Behaviorists and the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers have all established the Least Intrusive Minimally Aversive  (LIMA) protocol, which emphasizes the use of positive training methods with an absolute minimum of any aversive measures.

Summary

The bottom line is that we have learned a lot about animal behavior and learning in the 60 years since Koehler published his training method, and have found that punishment and aversives are not only cruel, they are harmful to animals’ welfare, and result in behavior problems and fear-based aggression.  Further, they don’t get any better results that positive methods.  In spite of this, although many trainers and owners are resistant to positive-only training, citing their own expertise and questionable authorities.

References

American Veterinary Medical Association (2015). AAHA Releases New Canine and Feline Behavior Guidelines.   Retrieved from AAHA releases new canine and feline behavior guidelines | American Veterinary Medical Association (avma.org)

Blackwell, E. J., Twells, C., Seawright, A. and Casey, R. A. (2008).  The Relationship Between Training Methods and the Occurrence of Behavior Problems, as Reported by Owners, in a Population of Domestic Dogs.  Journal of Veterinary Behavior 3 (5). 207 – 217. doi:10.1016/j.jveb.2007.10.008

Deidalle, S. and Gaunet, F. (2014).  Effects of 2 Training Methods on Stress-Related Behaviors of the Dog (canis familiaris) and the dog-owner relationship.  Journal of Veterinary Behavior (9) 2. 58 -65.  Doi 10.1016/J.veb.2013.11.004

Herron, M. E., Shofer, F. S. and Reisner I. R. (2009).  Survey of the Use and Outcome of Confrontational and Non-Confrontational Training Methods in Client-Owned Dogs Showing Undesirable Behaviors.  Applied Animal Behavior Science 117 (1-2). 47 – 54.  doi:  10.1016/j.applanim.2008.12.011

Hiby, E. F., Rooney, N. J. and Bradshaw, J. W. S. (2004).  Dog Training Methods:  Their Use, Effectiveness and Interaction with Behavior and Welfare.  Animal Welfare 13 (2004).  63-69.

Koehler, W. R. (1962).  The Koehler Method of Dog Training, Kindle Edition.  Retrieved from Amazon.com

Rooney, N. J. and Cowan, S. (2011). Training Methods and owner-dog interactions:  Links with dog behavior and learning ability.  Applied Animal Behavior Science 132 (2011). 169-177.  doi:  10.1016/j.applanim.2011.03.007

Todd, Z. (2018).  Barriers to the Adoption of Humane Training Methods.  Journal of Veterinary Behavior 25 (2018), 28 – 34.  doi:  10.1016/j.jveb.2018.03.004

Ziv, G. (2016).  The Effects of Using Aversive Training Methods in Dogs – a Review.  Journal of Veterinary Behavior 19 (2017). 50 – 60.  doi:  10.1016/j.jveb.2017.02.004

Disposing of dog poo in a safe and eco-friendly manner

Your pets poop.  But what do you do with it?

Most of us who live with a dog or cat have the unenviable job of cleaning up after them.  Those of us who live in condominiums and apartments have fewer options than people who live in rural or suburban areas, but still have a desire to dispose of their pets’ waste in a way that is safe for the environment.  And, of course, there are a wide variety of products being marketed to address this need for an eco-friendly way to dispose of the poop.  I’ll talk about the various products that are being sold for this purpose, and then get into practical solutions.  Today, I’ll talk about disposing of dog poo – cats are an entirely different problem as far as waste disposal goes and will be addressed in a separate article.

First off, there are “compostable” or “biodegradable” poop bags.  These are plastic bags that are advertised as being safe for the environment because, unlike other plastics, they will harmlessly dissolve over time.  If you are a pet owner, you are probably being bombarded with advertisements for them.  The problem is, in all likelihood they don’t work in a way that would be useful for you1.

These bags are generally marketed as meeting ASTM D6400 standards, meaning that they are made of a polymer that will degrade in a few months in a commercial aerobic composting facility2.  The problem is that municipal landfills are not aerobic composting facilities and, if these bags wind up in a landfill, they will not break down any differently than any other plastic bag3.

And then there are water-soluble “flushable” bags.  These bags are made of Polyvinyl Alcohol (PVOH) and are marketed as dissolving readily in water.  There is truth to this, but your results will vary.  Not all of these bags are created the same; some will dissolve quickly in hot water but will take months to break down in cold water.  The good news is, once they have dissolved, they do not leave microplastics in the environment4.  The bad news is that they will not dissolve in trash or landfills; and can clog pipes and sewers while in the process of dissolving very slowly in cold water.

If you have a good-sized yard, you might consider a pet septic system, or “digester”.  These are generally metal containers with open holes or slots and an opening on the top with a movable lid.  They are intended to be placed in a deep hole in your yard, with only the top lid exposed and accessible.   The idea is to dump the dog’s poo into the septic tank and add chemicals from time to time to help it break down and leach into the surrounding soil.  These systems can work under the right conditions.  But if you have a high water table where you live, or if your soil has a high clay content, they are not effective.  Also, these systems do not work in cold weather – they simply do not break down biological waste when the weather is too cold (this is why household septic systems are buried below the frost line)5.

If you have a lot of outdoor space and a large garden of ornamental plants, you can establish a compost heap and dispose of your dog’s waste there.    But you absolutely cannot use animal feces in composting a kitchen garden or for growing any edible plants.  Feces contains bacteria, viruses and other pathogens that are dangerous to humans and should not be used to fertilize any plants intended for consumption.  And it will make for a smelly and unpleasant compost heap.  If you are interested in recycling your dog’s poop for composting purposes, The Bark, published an informative page that can be found here:  pet_poo_what_to_do_infographic_02.19.2020.pdf (thebark.com)

So far, I’ve discussed everything you can’t, or shouldn’t, do with your dog’s poo; along with all the products and methods that probably won’t work as advertised or have serious limitations on their usage.  So what can you do with it?

If you live in an apartment or house that is connected to a municipal sewage system, you can simply flush your dog’s poop down the toilet.  Your town’s sanitation system will handle your dog’s poop just fine.  The drawback, of course, is transporting the poo from wherever your dog leaves it to the toilet.  And you cannot flush whatever bag or wrapping you used to carry the waste to the toilet.  A word of caution – if your home has a septic system, be sure that it is able to process animal waste before flushing your dog’s poop.  And do not flush any bags of any kind into a septic system.

The best solution that I have found is this:   If you have a yard, simply dig a small hole or trench about six inches deep, deposit the poop in the hole, refill it with the soil you removed and tamp It down.  The bacteria and worms in the soil will break down and digest the poo very quickly and cleanly, with no mess or smell.  But do not, repeat not, bury your pet’s feces in or near a garden used to produce food or if the water table is less than 18 inches deep5.

If none of these options work for you, then pick up the poop in a plastic bag, tie it securely, and dispose of it in your municipal trash (unless forbidden by your local municipal codes.  It will go into a landfill with all the other biological and plastic materials that your town produces, but it will at least be handled safely.

  1. The Truth About Biodegradable and Compostable Bags is Out – But No One is Asking the Right Questions — Water Docs
  2. Standards for Biodegradable Plastics | ASTM Standardization News
  3. Environmental Deterioration of Biodegradable, Oxo-biodegradable, Compostable, and Conventional Plastic Carrier Bags in the Sea, Soil, and Open-Air Over a 3-Year Period | Environmental Science & Technology (acs.org)
  4. Biodegradability of Polyvinyl Alcohol Based Film Used for Liquid Detergent Capsules (degruyter.com)
  5. web.uri.edu/safewater/files/Pet-Waste.pdf

Suburban Wildlife – Backyard Critters

Above and below: Local wildlife captured on a backyard trail cam

If you live outside of a major city, you might be surprised to learn that your home is part of an ecosystem.  Your yard is a place where animals roam, hunt, forage and raise their young; and you are part of it by virtue of the boundaries you place on it, the shelter and food sources that you create, and the dangers that you bring to it.

Set up a trail cam outside your house before you settle down to an evening of television and you will see what I mean.  In the mornings, you will see pictures of animal comings and goings in the night that you probably never knew were happening.  You will find that you are sharing your turf with opossums, rabbits, raccoons, skunks, woodchucks, coyotes, foxes, owls and other critters that you may never have been aware of.  They are your neighbors and live their lives right  under your nose.  They are the reason that your dog wakes you  up in the night and barks to go outside.

What’s your part in this?  The best thing you can do is be responsible and be aware of their behaviors.

First off:  Control your pets.  Always keep your cats indoors and do not let your dog outside at night without keeping an eye on him.  Your cats are predators by nature and will attempt to hunt and kill birds and any other small animals that they can get.  Further, your cat is prey for the larger predators in your area.   By keeping your cat indoors, you are increasing its life expectancy by 12 to 15 years1,2.

Second:  Keep your trash inaccessible and use bins that cannot be opened by wildlife.  We do not need to attract wildlife to our homes or invite them to visit us for food.

Third:  Do not feed them.  If wildlife is present in your neighborhood, that means they have plenty of food and do not need you to supplement their diets.  And, the fact is, the sugar, fat and salt content in our diet is just as unhealthy for them as it is for us.  You are not doing them any favors by sharing it with them.  I am not saying to take down your bird feeder, just don’t share your breakfast cereal or dinner leftovers with them.  And absolutely do not feed your pets outdoors or leave their food bowls outside.  Not only do your pets’ bowls attract wildlife – sharing them with wildlife is an avenue for diseases.

One of the main reasons to admire wildlife from a distance is that they can carry diseases and parasites that are dangerous to both humans and our pets.  Not only profoundly serious diseases such as rabies and distemper, but tick-borne illnesses such as Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, parasites such as mange, fleas and scabies, and other communicable diseases.   You can keep these illnesses and parasites outside by simply taking simple precautions about your pets and their food.

Lastly:  Leave them alone.  Do not try to make friends with them.  In fact, the more wary they are of people, the better.  If you see a critter that seems to be unafraid of you or tame; or if one approaches you, it is probably sick3.   In fact, animal welfare organizations across the country are seeing increases in diseases such as canine distemper4,5, a disease that can be spread to unvaccinated dogs.

Summing it up:  Just recognize that we share the world with wildlife, and we should respect their space.  We can enjoy them from a distance, but for our benefit and theirs we should minimize our intrusion into their lives.  We also need to protect our pets by keeping them from having any interactions with wildlife and keeping their vaccinations up to date.

References:

  1. Watson, S. Indoor Vs. Outdoor Cats: Health and Safety (webmd.com)
  2. www.thehumanesociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/indoors_outdoors.pdf
  3. Sick animals being reported throughout Bristol | EastBayRI.com – News, Opinion, Things to Do in the East Bay
  4. yubanet.com/regional/distemper-cases-rise-among-californias-foxes-raccoons-skunks/
  5. patch.com/virginia/arlington-va/newsroom-canine-distemper-confirmed-raccoon-population-north-arlington

 

Suburban Wildlife – Deer

Deer are becoming more and more common in human-populated areas and are establishing themselves as a fixture in our neighborhoods.  In the coming months we are going to see increased deer activity as fawning season begins in late April and May.  Depending on your viewpoint, they’re a nuisance and garden thief, or they’re an attractive addition to your local community.  In either case, there are some do’s and don’ts that you should keep in mind.

First off, do not feed them or do anything to attract them to your home.  For one thing, not all of your human neighbors would appreciate it – particularly those with gardens.  And any food that you might put out would also attract other animals that you might not want to have nearby, such as mice or rats.  The deer in our backyards are feeding themselves very nicely and do not need your help.  In fact, we do not want them to become even more accustomed to human habitats than they already are.   For their own sake, we want them to be cautious around humans and avoid us.  Another reason to keep them at a distance is that they carry parasites and diseases (ticks, mange, lyme disease, leptospirosis, salmonella and giardia, to name a few) that are contagious to us and our pets1.  Your pets belong in your yard; the deer may visit from time to time but do not need to be regulars.  In fact, it’s a bad idea to let them become regulars.

In the spring you might encounter a fawn that is bedded down in a corner of your yard or in a wooded area.  This is common.  The fawn is fine, you should leave it alone and keep your pets and children away from it.   Unlike a lot of other animals, deer do not keep their unweaned young with them 24/7; they will leave fawns in a safe, quiet place while they graze nearby2.  So, if you see a fawn, just assume that it is most likely not orphaned or abandoned and does not need your help.  If you are concerned about it, set up a camera and watch it for a day or two to see if the deer returns.  If she doesn’t, call a wildlife rescue organization.

Summing it up, deer are cute and attractive animals.  Even though they live close to us, they are still wild animals and its better for all concerned if we leave them alone and admire them from a distance.

References

  1. American Veterinary Medical Assocation.  Disease Precautions for Hunters.  Retrieved from Disease precautions for hunters | American Veterinary Medical Association (avma.org)
  2. Mizejewski, D. (2015, April 15). Finding a Fawn:  What to do, retrieved from Finding a Fawn: What To Do • The National Wildlife Federation Blog : The National Wildlife Federation Blog (nwf.org)

CBD for Dogs

Does CBD have any medical uses, and can it be used safely for pet dogs?

What is CBD?

Cannabidiol (CBD) is a naturally occurring chemical substance that is an active ingredient in marijuana.  It is not a narcotic and has no psycho-active effects – unlike THC, the other major compound found in marijuana and hemp. In the past year, it has been extensively marketed as a beneficial treatment for a number of health issues and has turned into a huge industry.  You can’t drive past a strip mall without seeing stores advertising CBD products.

What is it used for?

CBD products are available in capsules, pills, topical creams, lotions, oils and tinctures, food additives, smoothies, gummies, vaping products and pretty much any other form that can be taken internally or applied to skin1.  They are marketed as treatments for a huge array of ailments, including anxiety, PTSD, chronic pain, arthritis, cancer, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s Disease, autism and Alzheimer’s disease2,3, in both humans and animals.

Does it work?

Does it?  We don’t know.

There is clinical evidence that CBD is effective in treating some forms of childhood epilepsy.  And early studies suggest that CBD has some effect on insomnia and anxiety in humans, and in treating anxiety in humans.  Early studies indicated that it may have some use as an anti-inflammatory4.   However, later testing showed no pain-relieving or anti-inflammatory effects in dogs5.

Recent testing has also shown that CBD was not effective in reducing anxiety in dogs, either alone or in combination with other medications.  In fact, it seems to reduce the effectiveness of other medications when used in combination with them6.

The FDA has issued warnings to several companies, ordering them to stop making unproven claims about CBD’s effectiveness.  However, these warnings have little effect, and the FDA is essentially playing whack-a-mole in trying to reign in consumer fraud regarding CBD.

Adding to the confusion is that dogs have entirely different digestive systems than humans and produce different digestive enzymes.  Products designed for human consumption don not always work with dogs.

What are the issues with it?

First of all, there’s a serious lack of testing.  And much of CBD testing has been of questionable quality, relying on owners’ and veterinarians’ impressions of effectiveness rather than objective testing.  An AVMA spokesman estimates that the placebo effect of CBD studies can be as high as 40% 7.   As discussed above, when controlled testing takes place, efficacy claims are placed in serious doubt.

Being an unregulated product, there is no way of knowing whether the contents of a pill, cream or other form of CBD actually match what’s on the label8.   Further, its available in a wide range of forms.  We don’t know it should be administered or what dosage may be effective – if it has any effect at all.

We do know that it can cause liver damage and that it can affect other medications.  It can also cause mood changes and stomach upset9.

What’s the bottom line?

CBD has some interesting possibilities, but we have to wait for the scientific process to prove or disprove the marketing claims.  It is probably safe in that it won’t cause harm to your pets, although side effects have been noted, but we have no reason to believe that it will be effective in treating any physical, emotional or mental conditions.  And we don’t know how it may interact with other drugs, how it should be administered, what form it should take and what dosage is needed.  Further, until it is regulated in some form, we have no way to know what’s in those pills or gummies that are sold online or over the counter.

My advice:  If you think your dog needs medication for some condition, talk to your vet.

References:

  1. Beginners guide to CBD.  Retrieved from Your Guide to CBD (healthline.com)
  2. Mother Jones. (December 2018) Sorry, Hipsters. CBD Will Not Solve All Your Problems. Retrieved from Sorry, Hipsters. CBD Will Not Solve All Your Problems. – Mother Jones
  3. Hazekamp, A., (2018), The Trouble with CBD Oil, Medical Cannabis and Cannabinoids 2018 (1). 65 – 72. doi: 10.1159/000489287
  4. Grinspoon, P. (August 24, 2018), Cannabidoil (CBD) – What We Know and What We Don’t. Harvard Health Publishing.  Retrieved from Cannabidiol (CBD) — what we know and what we don’t – Harvard Health Blog – Harvard Health Publishing
  5. Mejia, S., Duerr, F. M., Griffenhagen, G. and McGrath, S. (2021). Evaluation of the Effect of Cannabidoil on Naturally Occurring Osteoarthritis-Association Pain: A Pilot Study in Dogs.  Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association 57 (2), 81-90. doi:  5326/JAAHA-MS-7119
  6. Morris, E. M., Kitts-Morgan, S. E., Spangler, D., McLeod, K. R., Costa, J. H. and Harmon, D. L. (2020), The Impact of Feeding Cannabidoil (CBD) Containing Treats on Canine Response to a Noise-Induced Fear Test. Frontiers in Veterinary Science (2020).  doi:  3389/fvets.2020.569565
  7. DVM360, CBD in Pets, retrieved from CBD in Pets (dvm360.com)
  8. Grinspoon, et al.
  9. S. Food and Drug Administration. What You Need to Know (And What We’re Working to Find Out) About Products Containing Cannabis or Cannabis-Derived Compounds, Including CBD.  Retrieved from:  What You Need to Know (And What We’re Working to Find Out) About Products Containing Cannabis or Cannabis-derived Compounds, Including CBD | FDA

Cropping Ears and Docking Tails: Canine Cosmetic Surgery

Working at an animal shelter, you see a steady stream of dogs that have had their ears cropped and tails docked.  These are often pit mixes, or dogs that resemble pits regardless of their breed, with their ears cropped to satisfy some previous owners’ wishes.  The ears are sometimes cut so severely that they are reduced to tiny points, termed a “battle crop”.   Tail docking seems to be done somewhat less often and I have seen it done at random lengths – we have gotten dogs with tails cut so short as to be almost non-existent.

Of course, this “surgery” is done at the behest of breeders to make their dogs more marketable and to satisfy breed standards, or by owners to satisfy some desire to change their dog’s appearance.  At any rate, this subject is hotly debated by animal welfare organizations, breed clubs, veterinary organizations and dog fanciers in general.

Why is it done is the first place?

The practice began centuries ago, based on an ancient use of war dogs, a 5th century understanding of infectious disease, a 17th century understanding of religion and an 18th century tax code.

The Romans believed that docking dogs’ tails (and clipping their tongues) was a means of protecting them from rabies infection1 (Mills, Robbins, von Keyerlingk).  Dogs’ ears were cropped throughout the ancient Mediterranean civilizations as a means of keeping them from being harmed in fighting or hunting large game.  The puritans of colonial America docked dogs’ tails in the belief that they were possessed by demons2.

Figure 1 Statue of Molossian dog with cropped ears.  Believed to come from Epirus, 2nd Century BCE

One of the more practical historic reasons for tail docking goes back to 18th century England, in which it was determined that working dogs would not be taxed, but that a tax would be imposed on pet and hunting dogs.  It was further determined that working dogs would be identified by their docked tails.  This created an incentive for tail docking, although wealthier people who kept hunting dogs made a point of leaving their tails intact to demonstrate that they could afford to pay the tax3.

Over the centuries, these practices of cropping ears and docking tails became traditions and in Victorian England they were incorporated in written standards when the Kennel Club was established and developed the concept of dog breeds and their physical criteria for canine perfection4.  These established standards were adopted by the American Kennel Club (AKC) upon its establishment in 1884.  The AKC first published conformation standards for purebred dogs in 1929, and continues to do so today, including requirements for ear cropping and tail docking5.

Why is it done now?

In many countries, it isn’t done.  Ear cropping was prohibited in England in 1899 and tail docking became highly restricted under the Animal Welfare Act of 2006.  These surgeries are prohibited for cosmetic reasons in the European Union, Australia, and a total of 40 developed countries; and are highly restricted in others28.  In fact, there is currently a movement in the UK to close a loophole in their laws by banning the import of cropped and docked dogs from countries where this is still legal6.  The United States is distinctive as having no restrictions on these practices beyond some states requiring that the procedures be performed by a veterinarian.

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA)7 and The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA)8 are actively opposed to cropping and docking dogs’ ears and tails unless necessitated by illness or injury.  In fact, the ASPCA requested that the AKC remove cropped ears from breed standards as early as 1895, and the AVMA made a similar request in 19769.  That said, a number of veterinarians still perform these surgeries, possibly reasoning that they can at least ensure that the operations are performed safely.

The docking and cropping of dogs is primarily championed by breed clubs and show organizations in the United States.  Although the American Kennel Club has no rules requiring these surgeries or prohibiting the showing of dogs with natural ears and tails,     it has published a position statement stating, “These are important in not only defining and preserving breed character, but also to enhance good health.” That same position paper goes on to deny that cropping and docking surgeries are done for “aesthetic reasons”10 ,  ignoring the fact that AKA standards for showing dog breeds only address aesthetics.  In fact, the only justifications providing for cropping and docking in early AKC publications are to give dogs a more pleasing appearance.  To this day the AKC judging guidelines include clear standards for ear and tail modification in select breeds11.  And various breed clubs have published statements advocating cropping and docking dogs12, and standards for showing dogs that recommend severe penalties for failing to dock tails or crop ears13.

Proponents of ear cropping have stated, without any evidence, that ear cropping for specific breeds reduces the risk of ear infection later in life.  The fact is that although some breeds have a higher incidence of ear infection than others, and that the shape of the ear has not been shown to be a factor.  In fact, breeds such as German Shepherds with naturally pricked or erect ears, have been found to suffer from ear infections more frequently than others with floppy ears14.

Ear cropping has also been rationalized as a means of preventing injury to a dog, on the basis that a working dog’s ear can be wounded or injured.   The thinking behind this is performing surgery on the ears of all dogs in about 20 particular breeds will prevent a small fraction of them from needing some veterinary care later in life.   If you take time to examine some breed associations’ justifications for injury prevention, you will find that the possibility of “injury” is associated with organized dog fighting, which was the basis for modifying the ears of breeds such as cane corsos, Staffordshire terriers, and others.

Injury prevention is also used as a rationalization for tail docking, on the theory that some 50 breeds are at risk for injuring their tails in the normal course of work or play, so amputating their tails shortly after birth prevents some of them from needing veterinary care later in life.  And yet, this thinking is applied only to specific breeds, ignoring the fact that related breeds or breeds with similar working lives are left with full tails:  Schipperke’s tails are docked close to their bodies, while Keeshonds have full natural tails.  Pembroke corgis’ tails are docked so close as to be nonexistent, while Cardigan corgis’ tails are left alone.  German shorthair pointers’ tails are docked while English pointers’ are not.  A Rottweiler fancier once gave me a heated lecture about the need for their tails to be removed because they were once used at cart dogs.  He was unable to explain why Bernese Mountain Dogs and Great Swiss Mountain Dogs, which are still used to haul carts, are left with full natural tails.

This advocacy of tail docking as a means of preventing future injury has been thoroughly debunked.  A survey conducted by the AVMA found that tail injuries requiring surgery are extremely rare and are experienced by only one out of 500 dogs.  The study calculated that a dog has a 0.23 percent chance of needing tail surgery any time in its life15, 16.  A Scottish study of undocked spaniel dogs concluded that it would be necessary for 230 dogs to have their tails proactively amputated in order to prevent injury to one of them17.  Another rationalization for tail docking is that it is done on puppies without anesthesia when they are only a few days old, and they don’t feel pain because their nervous systems are undeveloped18.  This has also been thoroughly debunked.  Studies have shown that they experience severe pain during the surgery19, 20; but at that age they are simply unable to communicate it as well as older dogs21.

The fact is that these surgeries are done solely for cosmetic reasons, to satisfy breed standards that were established two centuries ago and have been discarded by the country that originated them as being unnecessary, harmful and cruel. Dog fancier publications from as early as the 1850s denounce these as cruel practices done for purely cosmetic reasons22 and publications from the early days of Kennel Clubs list dogs’ appearance as the only reasons for cropping and docking23 .   And the notion that these surgeries are needed to preserve a historic or traditional function for the dogs is simply ridiculous.  There are innumerable cruel and inhumane practices that were once justified as “tradition” and are now outlawed.

Is docking and cropping harmful?

In a word, yes.

For starters:  It is unnecessary surgery.  In addition to the pain and trauma to the dogs, these procedures entail the risk of applying anesthesia, post-operative complications and infection24.  Tail docking has been shown to have long-lasting effects on the dogs’ musculature and development, affecting the use of their hind quarters and elimination.  And early trauma has been demonstrated to have long-term effects on dogs’ emotional lives and fear responses25.

Perhaps the greatest damage caused by these surgeries is the effect that is has on dogs’ ability to socialize and communicate.  In the years since cropping and docking were adopted, we have learned that dogs have highly sophisticated means of non-verbal communication involving their postures and facial expressions.  Ear and tail position and movement are key factors in their ability to express themselves to others26.  By removing or cutting them, we are rendering them incapable of socializing with other dogs, leaving them vulnerable to aggression or outright attack.

These pictures are of two young pit bulls that were recently placed in a shelter from the same household.  The one on the left, who was given a “battle crop” by a previous owner, is left with his ears permanently fixed in an upright and forward position, giving other dogs a clear signal that he is aggressive and about to attack.  His younger brother, on the right, has natural ears that give him a softer expression and allow a range of communication with other dogs.  A recent study found that humans have a natural tendency to consider dogs with cropped ears as being more aggressive and dangerous than those with natural ears27.

Figure 2 Side by side comparison of young pitbull terriers.  The dog on the left has a “battle crop” and the dog on the right has natural ears.

Similarly, dogs use their tails to convey their moods and intentions.  The position of the tails conveys detailed information about their emotional states, ranging from relaxed and confident to fearful.  The simple act of wagging their tails communicates information to us and other dogs about how they are feeling and how they are likely to react to situations, including showing friendliness, willingness to play, fear, anxiety or submissive behavior.  By removing them, we limit their ability to get along peacefully and happily with other dogs.  We limit their social development and put them at risk.

In conclusion:

In spite of claims to the contrary, there is no evidence that ear cropping or tail docking has any beneficial effects, or prevents illness or injury.   In fact, there is growing evidence that these procedures entail risks to the dogs and can have long-lasting adverse physical effects.  The popular assertion that tail docking does not cause very young puppies to experience pain or trauma has been thoroughly refuted.  And the notion that performing veterinary surgery on an entire breed of dogs in order to avoid veterinary care for a small fraction of them defies logic.  These surgical procedures also severely inhibit dogs’ abilities to interact with each other safely and peacefully.  At this point, there is a legitimate question as to why the American breed associations still advocate these cosmetic procedures in the face of all the evidence that should convince them to stop, along with the breeders and fanciers in the rest of the developed world.

A last word:  In colonial America, ear cropping was a common punishment given to people for petty crimes.  This practice was later abandoned as being cruel and inhumane.  Why would it be considered overly cruel for human criminals, but acceptable for dogs that have committed no offense?

References:

  1. Mills, K. E., Robbins, J. & von Keyserlingk, M. A. G., 2016, Tail Docking and Ear Cropping Dogs:  Public Awareness and Perceptions, PLoS One 11(6),  doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0158131
  2. Brasch, W. March 18, 2009, The Painful Cost of ‘Breed Standards’, The Scoop. Retrieved from The Painful Cost of ‘Breed Standards’ | Scoop News
  3. Broughton, A. L., 2003, Cropping and Docking: A Discussion of the Controversy and the Role of Law in Preventing Unnecessary Cosmetic Surgery on Dogs, Retrieved from Cropping and Docking: A Discussion of the Controversy and the Role of Law in Preventing Unnecessary Cosmetic Surgery on Dogs | Animal Legal & Historical Center (animallaw.info)
  4. Worboys, M., March 25, 2019, Dog Breeds are Mere Victorian Confections, Neither Pure nor Ancient, Aeon, retrieved from Dog breeds are mere Victorian confections, neither pure nor ancient | Aeon Ideas
  5. American Kennel Club, Judges’ Study Guides, retrieved from www.akc.org/sports/conformation/judging-information/judges-study-guides/
  6. Petition to Stop the Rising Numbers of Ear-Cropped Dogs in the UK, retrieved from petition.parliament.uk/petitions/574305
  7. Ear Cropping and Tail Docking of Dogs, AVMA Policies, Retrieved from www.avma.org/resources-tools/avma-policies/ear-cropping-and-tail-docking-dogs
  8. Ear Cropping and Tail Docking, AAHA Position Statements and Endorsements, Retrieved from Ear cropping and tail docking (aaha.org)
  9. Veterinary FAQ: Ear Cropping and otitis in Dogs.  DVM360.  Retrieved from Veterinary FAQ: Ear cropping and otitis in dogs (dvm360.com)
  10. Dog Ear Cropping/Tail Docking/Dew Claw Removal. Retrieved from Microsoft Word – crop and dock- 1 page.doc (akc.org)
  11. AKC, Judges’ Study Guides
  12. Ear Cropping. Retrieved from Ear Cropping (canecorso.org)
  13. Boxer Standard, Cropping & Docking. Retrieved from Boxer Standard, Cropping & Docking — US Boxer Association)
  14. Veterinary FAQ: Ear Cropping and otitis in Dogs.  DVM360.
  15. Diesel G, Pfeiffer D, Crispin S, et al. Risk factors for tail injuries in dogs in Great Britain. Vet Rec 2010;166:812-817.
  16. Canine Tail Docking FAQ.  Retrieved from Canine Tail Docking FAQ | American Veterinary Medical Association (avma.org)
  17. Cameron, N., Lederer, R., Bennett, D. & Parkin, T (2014). The Prevalence of Tail Injuries in Working and non-Working Breed Dogs Visiting Veterinary Practices in Scotland. Veterinary Record 3 (174), doi: 10.1136/vr.102042.
  18. AKC Staff (2013), Issue Analysis: Dispelling the Myths of Cropped Ears, Docked Tails, Dewclaws and Debarking.  Retrieved from www.akc.org/expert-advice/news/issue-analysis-dispelling-myths/
  19. Noonan, G. J., Rand, J. S., Blackshaw, J. K. & Priest, J. (1996), Behavioral Observations of Puppies Undergoing Tail Docking. Applied Animal Behavior Science 49 (4). 335 – 342, doi:  1016/0168-1591(96)01062-3
  20. What are the Animal Welfare Issues With Docking Dogs’ Tails? Retrieved from What are the animal welfare issues with docking dogs’ tails? – RSPCA Knowledgebase
  21. Brasch, W. (March 18, 2009) The Painful Cost of ‘Breed Standards’. Scoop Independent News, Retrieved from The Painful Cost of ‘Breed Standards’ | Scoop News
  22. Youatt, W. (1852). The Dog.  Retrieved from The Dog by William Youatt – Free Ebook (gutenberg.org)
  23. Lane, C. H. (1901), All About Dogs, A Book for Doggy People, London and New York, John Lane
  24. What are the Animal Welfare Issues With Docking Dogs’ Tails?
  25. Tail Docking FAQ
  26. Handelman, B. (2008). Canine Behavior.  Norwich, VT.  Woof and Word Press.
  27. Fratkin, J. L. and Baker, S. C. (2013). The Role of Coat Color and Ear Shape on the Perception of Personality in Dogs.  Anthrozoos  26 (1). doi: 10.2752/175303713X13534238631632
  28. Why Do Some People Crop Pitbull Ears? The Truth Behind This Controversial Practice (March 19, 2021).  Your Dog Advisor.  Retrieved from yourdogadvisor.com/crop-pitbull-ears/ 

Seresto collars

There has been great deal of interest and reporting about the EPA’s report on dog illnesses and fatalities linked to the Seresto flea and tick collar.  Like most dog owners, I’m interested in this reporting.  But I’m bothered by the reporting for much different reasons than most others whose comments I’ve seen.

The story, which first appeared in USA Today on March 2nd,  (www.usatoday.com/story/news/investigations/2021/03/02/seresto-dog-cat-collars-found-harm-pets-humans-epa-records-show/4574753001/ ), states that 1,700 pet deaths have been attributed to Seresto collars.  As stated in the article “Seresto, one of the most popular flea and tick collars in the country, has been linked to hundreds of pet deaths, tens of thousands of injured  animals and hundreds of harmed humans, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency documents show.   Yet the EPA has done nothing to inform the public of the risks.”  The article provides a link to the EPA’s website, containing an aggregate summary of pet deaths attributed to Seresto collars from 2012 through 2020.   The report contains information about the total number of reported illnesses and deaths, along with reported severity of the illnesses.  However, that’s all the information that was provided.  The article doesn’t provide any amplifying information about the data collection.

For example, the article provides a link to the aggregate reporting of pesticide incidents attributed to Seresto, but does not state the source of those incident reports.  There is no explanation as to whether the incidents were reported by private citizens, veterinarians, state agencies or the manufacturer.  Every one of these potential sources can contribute to the EPA’s database, with varying degrees of reliability ( www.epa.gov/pesticide-incidents/introduction-pesticide-incidents ).  And, although part of the data collection for incident reporting, the aggregate database cited in the article contains no information about the probability that the incident was accurately reported.

The fact that the article apparently used raw data without further examination leads to some questions about the data itself.  For example, in previous investigations of flea and tick treatments, the EPA has found that a significant number of incidents were based on improper use of the products, including applying the wrong amount of treatment for the animals’ weight or age, or using the product for the wrong species of pet ( www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/safe-use-flea-and-tick-products-pets  ).  The EPA has addressed concerns with other topical flea treatments by requiring modifications to their safe use ( EPA Evaluation of Pet Spot-on Products: Analysis and Plans for Reducing Harmful Effects | Protecting Pets from Fleas and Ticks | US EPA ).

Although the article questions the safety of Seresto collars, it fails to consider how many reported incidents may be inaccurate.  Or how many deaths and illnesses are attributable to other causes.  Or how many reported incidents are the result of incorrect use.  For example, one active ingredient in Seresto collars, imidacloprid, has been found to have no adverse side effects when applied topically, but is extremely toxic when ingested ( www.dogaware.com/articles/wdjmdr1.html ).  This raises the possibility that dogs licked or chewed on a collar, or that the insecticide was ingested by excessive grooming or licking a hot spot, rather than becoming ill through normal use.

All this is not to say that the Seresto collars should not be re-examined for safety concerns and that mitigations may be needed.  And there is clear evidence that the EPA has been lax in enforcement in recent years.  But the article took one data element that is used to evaluate product safety, and drew somewhat inflammatory and potentially misleading conclusions from it.  We need to be mindful that this is only part of the story.

Dog thefts

 

Dog Theft:  Is it really on the rise?

Like everyone else who watches the news, I was shocked by the recent assault on Lady Gaga’s dog walker and the theft of her French Bulldogs.  I was heartened by their quick return (Lady Gaga’s two French bulldogs have been returned safely, LAPD says – CNN), and more so by the fact that her dogwalker is getting the best of care and seems to be out of danger.

In light of all the press coverage, I had to wonder how prevalent dog theft really is, and how the pandemic is affecting the frequency of pet theft in the United States.  There is a great deal of information on the seriousness of dog theft in the United Kingdom; the reporting of pet thefts has increased over one hundred percent in 2020.  This is due to several factors:  The stringent pandemic lockdowns in the UK have created an increased demand for puppies and dogs as Covid companions; while the lockdowns and European travel restrictions have created a shortage of purebred dogs for purchase or adoption (Huge increase in UK dog theft blamed on COVID-19 restrictions | Euronews).  This has resulted in an increased demand and a sort of black market for desirable dog breeds.  There is little doubt that the rate of dog theft is drastically increasing (Puppy shortage amid COVID leads to uptick in animal thefts (radio.com)).

With regard to the United States, it turns out that it is hard to determine whether the pandemic is resulting in an increase in dognapping.  There simply isn’t a lot of available data on this subject.  Most states do not have dedicated statutes for pet thefts – these are considered to be crimes against personal property.  Only fifteen states have specific criminal codes regarding dog theft.   I have seen some reporting that dog thefts in the United States has increased substantially, but haven’t been able to locate any actual figures to support those claims.  Many of the claims are anecdotal and, frankly, the media accounts are generally written to maximize their emotional impact.  Also, since the AKC’s statistics have been derived from media reporting, this has the potential of being a self-licking ice cream cone:  As public interest in dog theft increases, media outlets are more inclined to cover these thefts which, in turn, increases the number of thefts that appear in media-derived statistics.

Here’s what we do know:

Small breeds are very vulnerable to theft, simply because they are easy to snatch and hide (ref).

Stylish breeds, such as French bulldogs, are targeted by thieves because of their size and popularity.  They are easy to sell.

Small, pure-bred dogs are generally stolen by dog-flippers, who sell them for profit, or by people who simply want one for themselves (Dognapping: How to Keep Your Dog Safe When Pet Theft Is on the Rise (akc.org)).

Only about ten percent of stolen dogs are recovered and returned to their owners (The Alarming State Of Stolen Dog Laws & How To Prevent – CanineJournal.com ).

The number of thefts has been steadily increasing in recent years, so it is reasonable to assume that we have had a significant increase in the number of thefts in 2020.  Although our lockdowns have not been as widespread and draconian as in the UK; there has been a definite increase in the demand for small companion animals (ref) and breeders and rescues have had difficulties in transporting dogs.

And the fact is, from the standpoint of the criminals, dog theft is a relatively low-risk crime.  Even in states with criminal statutes regarding dog theft, they are generally considered misdemeanors with minor penalties.  Also, without compelling evidence such as high-quality video recording of the theft, these crimes are hard to prove.  A thief can simply say that he found the dog wandering on the street (The Alarming State Of Stolen Dog Laws & How To Prevent – CanineJournal.com ).

So, if you have a puppy or a dog that happens to be a popular breed, what can you do?

First off:  Microchip your dog. Although this may not prevent your dog from being stolen, it greatly increases your ability to positively identify him or her.

Second:  Don’t leave your dog unattended in a public place.  Don’t leave them tied up outside a store, or in your car.  And if your yard is plainly visible from the street and can be accessed by passers-by, don’t leave your dog unattended outside for any length of time.

Third:  Be conscious of your surroundings while walking your dog.  Make sure that you are aware of cars that are driving too slowly, or that you see more than once.  Be aware of who is walking behind you.  Carry a whistle or other kind of alarm.

Lastly:  Be aware of your dog’s social media presence.  Do you really need to show him off to the entire internet?  You do not know who is looking for available dogs in your neighborhood.

Stages of puppy development

A friend of mine recently expressed some exasperation that her 10 month-old puppy suddenly seemed to forget everything he had learned and was actively resisting training.  I asked her what she was like when she was an adolescent.  My friend’s dog is somewhere in the adolescent or juvenile stage, and is being a brat.  Its just a good thing he’s cute.

Like us, dogs go through stages of emotional and physical development, and their behavior changes during those phases.  Here’s an excellent brief on the subject, courtesy of the Arizona Humane Society.

Developmental-Stages-of-a-Dog