Save a Life at any Cost? When Rescue Isn’t

At what cost do you save a life?

Or is that not even the right question to ask?

What motivates this story is local dog trainer, near where I live, who was recently “outed” for alleged use of aversive methods to save lives.

That in itself sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it?

When animal control agencies and rescues have nowhere else turn, some turn to him – and others like him around the country – to “rehab” aggressive dogs.

And these trainers may succeed. Or do they really?

Are Aversive Methods a Must?

Many dog trainers suggest they use aversive methods only to save lives and that they succeed. Well, that depends on your definition of success.

The reality is that saving lives has become increasingly paramount—arguably too paramount. Shelters and rescues find themselves with aggressive dogs they believe may be salvageable.

I make no apologies for my view that you can’t save them all. I believe placing truly dangerous dogs back into the community isn’t beneficial to anyone and is clearly a potential risk in every way.

Having said that, many aggressive dogs can be worked with. These dogs can be saved, and they should be. And then adopted into the right home.

Aggressive dogs are mostly fearful. They learn that the best defense is a strong and sometimes terrifying offense. There are numerous reasons for their aggression, and when trust is built, many dogs do settle into an even-tempered existence, albeit with limitations.

Sometimes certified animal behavior consultants or veterinary behaviorists do this rehab work. There’s little doubt their techniques will be based on positive reinforcement and include a variety of humane tools.

However, in reality, it’s mostly dog trainers taking on this difficult life-saving task, and they must out of necessity work quickly and with little budget. They’re under pressure from the shelters and rescues they work with. Also, the truth is that too many trainers – even under the most ideal circumstances – still prefer electronic-collars to cookies, and use what they know best, which may be punitive methods.

Dogs chosen have limited time left on their clock to live in the shelter or rescue, or are temporarily boarded and trained. With so little time and lots of pressure to succeed, does that justify a “just get it done” approach?

The answer is no. And that answer is not negotiable.

Veterinarians have historically been taught, “Do what you need to in order to get the job done.” If it takes five people to hold down the dog for a blood draw, so be it. Consistent with the Fear Free mission, this just-get-it-done approach is no longer acceptable in veterinary medicine. There are more humane alternatives, and those approaches are likely to be more effective long-term.

Shelters and rescues may feel good about saving that life – but do they really know what’s happening in that new home once adopted?

Everyone’s personal tolerance and justification varies for tools and techniques. I have zero acceptance for physically punishing a dog or using electronic collars.

Building Trust

I argue that since trust is required for this at-risk canine population, trust builds more slowly, if at all, when aversive methods are used. Being compliant isn’t equivalent to trusting. Numerous scientific studies demonstrate long-term advantages of positive reinforcement training.

If a dog is retrained and rehomed, and at some point reaches a threshold and bites – that dog’s life isn’t only at risk, a human family member has been harmed.

That tradeoff isn’t acceptable. Shelters and rescues must begin to consider the approach used and expertise of those individuals chosen for the uniquely virtuous tasks of modifying behavior and temperament of at-risk dogs. The goal to succeed long-term should be to boost, not diminish, canine confidence.

One argument is that in some communities, trainers with that level of Fear Free understanding aren’t available or simply cost more money if they do exist. I believe that where there is work, trainers will modify what they do to get the job. We need to adjust the level of acceptability.

If we really want to save dogs, we need to save them. You don’t save a drowning person who isn’t able to swim by rescuing him from the ocean only to throw him into a lake.

Dogs deserve the best of what we know. Arguably, dogs without homes, who have been through so much as it is, deserve it even more.

We can no longer tolerate mistreatment. And based on what we know today, punishment-based techniques, even coming from well-meaning dog trainers, is mistreatment.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.