Can aversive methods save dogs?

Updated: Jul 21, 2021

One of the arguments I often hear from trainers who use aversive methods, is I will save the dogs that rescues put to sleep. If only I could use a shock, prong, choke chain on the dog, I could fix them, they wouldn’t need to die. What this says to me is a huge lack of education regarding how rescues work.

I suggest anyone wanting to add to their dog training skills, should work, volunteer or have some involvement in rescue. Ultimately, your goal as a pet dog trainer, is to prevent dogs going into rescue, so you need to know the ins and outs of what you are preventing. If you are doing rescue rehabilitation, then it’s useful to know what the dog has gone through during its time in kennels. Plus, you learn fast!

To say that you could have saved a dog that has been put down for behavioural reasons, screams a huge knowledge gap. I believe there is a fate worse than death, and that’s for a dog to be in kennels all their life. No kill shelters are some of the worst places I have seen in regard to animal welfare, overcrowded, dogs never being walked, developing OCD behaviours and injuring themselves due to stress.

So why are dogs put to sleep for behaviour reasons? I worked for a London rescue with a non-selective intake policy. That means they take in any dog, with any behaviour issue and any breed. This is unusual for a rescue, most will turn away mild behaviour problems and certain breeds as they are harder to rehome and the longer they stay in kennels, the more likely behaviour issues will develop. These rescues often say they don’t put a healthy dog down, because they never take in any dogs that would ever need to be.

One typical rescue takes in around 6 – 8 dogs a day. 6 to 8 dogs a day! That’s a lot of unwanted dogs. Some of these dogs have suffered abuse, lack of socialisation, genetic issues, poor breeding, never been walked, been beaten with chains, been taught to fight, been taught to be an attack dog, belonged to drug dealers, been in many different homes.

On top of that, dogs don’t cope well in kennels. You can throw all the enrichment at them you can, provide all the stress reduction, reduce as much noise as possible, find a foster if you can. But it doesn’t help, dogs who have spent all their lives in a home with humans around just don’t understand what’s happening and they break down, shut down and their personalities change. It’s so easy to blame the rescue, but we should be blaming the reasons they are there in the first place. Owners who didn’t think things through, breeders who bred for profit, landlords who won’t allow pets.

So of these dogs who are afraid of people and act aggressively or are aggressive towards other dogs, they are worked on. They go through training. There is always at least one person fighting for them, crying for them, loosing sleep over them and often more within that rescue. But sometimes they can’t be fixed and they pose a risk to staff, other dogs or the public. The safest thing and kindest thing is to humanely give them peace. If you think about it, if you were bitten or your dog attacked by one of these dogs, you would question why this dog had been rehomed. And staff get bitten, badly. They never blame the dog, they take nerve damage, bone breaks, permanent scars mentally and physically as part of the job.

When families come into rescue, they don’t look for the dog that bit several people. That you will never be able to fully trust in public. That will need ongoing extensive training and will probably never be a happy dog. It’s hard enough to rehome the perfect black greyhound or the loving older staffy. So no, there is no one lining up for those dogs that need extensive work.

What people definitely won’t want is a dog they need to shock. Owners generally aren’t looking to get a dog that they need to use an electric shock on. A dog they need to stay on top of with physical punishment to stop it from causing injury to another animal or human. A dog that becomes a supressed ticking time bomb. And the last thing that these dogs need, is this. Most of them have come from this kind of treatment, some of these behaviours have stemmed from some sort of physical abuse. Or if it’s genetic and just can’t be fixed and so being punished for something they are unable to control will not result in a happy life. So I ask these trainers who say no dog needs to die with your methods, are you prepared to rehome them all? Thousands of them? I hope you have a big house. Are you prepared to hand them over to a family with kids and reassure them that their previous bite history wont matter now as they are fixed? Could you truly handle that responsibility?

Don’t get me wrong, not a day goes by where I don’t dream I saved them all, where I don’t wish I could. Where I go through every possible scenario in my head and I still loose sleep over all those faces. But we need to fight the source, educate and stop these dogs entering rescue in the first place. It’s not about saving one dog in rescue to stroke an ego, it’s stopping all dogs going there in the first place.

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