Why Welfare Matters When Choosing Methods

/ by Jasper Molloy

Lots of force free dog professionals discuss how welfare is critically important when it comes to making decisions about training methods, tools and who you hire to train your dog.

But some people might wonder why welfare is emphasised so much as a priority – some trainers believe in results above all else. So why should welfare be regarded in dog training?

What Is Welfare?

To start with, we need to define welfare. Welfare, regarding animals, refers to their overall well-being. To promote positive wellbeing, the animal’s health must be attended to, as well as ensuring they are provided with an appropriate environment within which they can express natural behaviours, and avoid suffering by being mindful of the animals’ emotions.

One approach to setting the standard for animal welfare is ‘The Five Freedoms’. These are as follows:

  • Freedom from hunger and thirst
  • Freedom from discomfort
  • Freedom from pain, injury and disease
  • Freedom to express normal and natural behaviour
  • Freedom from fear and distress

To give our dogs the happiest lives possible, it is important to think about decisions that impact their welfare. This includes decisions about training methods.

Our Responsibility To Our Dogs

In our dogs’ lives, we are responsible for providing them with everything and for ensuring that their physical and emotional needs are met. Dogs may only make up part of our lives, but to our dogs, we are their whole world.

Since they are dependent on us, we owe it to them to ensure that they are happy, healthy and cared for. It is not only a legal but a moral duty. Dedicated pet owners will do their best to provide the utmost care for their animals with the knowledge and resources they have available.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

Maya Angelou

Animal lovers often try to do diligent research to provide the best care for their pets. However, there is rife misinformation regarding dog training that is espoused on the internet, in the media and on television by people who have no formal education. As a result of this, well-meaning owners may implement suggestions that are outdated, ineffective and sometimes dangerous.

Why The Ends Don’t Justify The Means

Usually, the trainers making these suggestions have a staunch focus on results. Doing what works to achieve behaviour change, no matter the cost. Techniques may include lead corrections, choke chains, prong collars, shock collars, asserting ‘dominance’, or other forms of intimidation.

These methods tend to rely on introducing pain, fear, or discomfort, thereby contradicting the Five Freedoms and negatively impacting the welfare of the dog being trained with these techniques. As our dogs depend on us to keep them feeling safe, these techniques can lead to breakdowns in the trust and relationships between dogs and their humans.

Welfare matters because sharing our lives with dogs is not about control or robotic obedience, it is about fostering a positive bond.

Research tells us that aversive training that focuses on administering corrections or putting pressure on the animal leads to negative side effects. These side effects are referred to as fallout and can be dire. Some of the documented effects of using pain, fear or discomfort to motivate animals in training include increased aggression and anxiety.

Sometimes dogs that are trained with aversive methods will appear calm, quiet and well-behaved – but usually, the reality behind what is happening is that the dog is shut down. These are also signs of the dog being in a state known as learned helplessness, where the dog realises that they have no control over the stressful things happening to them and effectively gives up.

When it comes to choosing the methods to train your pet, or what type of professional to hire, as Dr Susan Friedman states, “Effectiveness is one criterion, but effectiveness alone is not enough”. Be warned that the introduction of pain, fear and coercion in training is associated with a host of negative consequences, you should consider these consequences and be selective about who you hire for training or behaviour support.