An often heard and frequently read phrase in obedience training circles is, “It’s better to string the dog up (or hang the dog, administer severe beatings, electric shock, etc.) than to put the dog to sleep.” This assumes that in order to rescue the dog from the fate of euthanasia, any method of altering the dog’s behavior is justified. Although this concept of the ends justifying the means is a popular one, it deserves close scrutiny because it may not be as valid as we assume it to be.
However, it is important that the instructor attempt to overcome behavioral problems. Many students enroll in a class because of a behavioral problem with the animal, and they deserve the same consideration as a person wanting to complete a CD. To avoid these problems, or avoid using a method that may appear harsh to an inexperienced person is a disservice to the fancy, the student, and most importantly, the dog.
But many times, the attempts to solve behavioral problems are at too high a price. If we say we are trying to avoid euthanasia we may be avoiding the very thing that will be the most humane course of action. To repeatedly subject the animal to severe treatment, especially over a period of months or years because we want to “save” the dog may constitute far more cruelty than euthanasia.
And, harsh punishment may cause more behavioral side effects than it cures. By increasing painful punishment to counter aggressive actions toward other dogs, we may escalate rather than diminish the problem. Avoidance of the owner can also be conditioned with harsh punishments repeatedly administered after the original misbehavior.
Furthermore, if we are blinded by the “either or” thought, we cannot see other options. Every good instructor would like to produce well-adjusted, social dogs that can be well-mannered companions no matter where they are. Yet because of the wide diversity of skills, goals and values of the handlers, and backgrounds, genetic quirks and environmental influences on the dog, this is an unreachable goal. Perhaps the handler with a dog that aggresses toward other dogs could enjoy the animal in the home and backyard. While this may not be an ideal situation to the instructor, the handler may be willing to adjust to the dog. The handler may appreciate qualities in the dog that the instructor does not see. Options need to be offered so that the handler can make a choice, whether or not it coincides with the instructor’s choice.
To be sure, there are handlers that are not willing to compromise. A typical complaint is, “He’s digging in the yard and if he doesn’t stop, I’ll get rid of him.” Before rash action is taken with the idea of stopping the behavior at all costs, another side of this common coin needs examination.
This type of owner may be unwilling to live with any natural behaviors of the dog. If the digging were cured, this owner may then complain of barking, licking, chewing or scratching at fleas. Some people who will not tolerate any “nuisance” from their dog are not responsible pet owners, no matter how well behaved the animal.
Instead of attempting to stop the problem at all costs and keep it in an environment that has little tolerance for normal behavior patterns, it may be in the dog’s best interest to place it in another home. By pointing out to this type of owner that it is normal for dogs to chew, bark, need feeding, exercise and veterinary care, the owner may realize that the dog is quite normal, but his/her tolerance for normal canine behavior is low.
Before action is taken by the instructor, alternatives to “the ends justify the means” must be explored. Is this a problem that can be overcome with imaginative alternatives? Is the owner complaining of a problem that she/he has consciously or unconsciously created? Would a different home solve the problem? And is euthanasia actually a more humane alternative to prolonged and severe punishment? There is never a blanket solution to behavioral problems, and each situation needs to be evaluated on an individual basis. Perhaps there will be times when the ends do indeed justify the means, but it is imperative that the instructor is aware of another way of seeing the problem and its possible solutions.
©1981 NADOI Notes