Is training with rewards, without the use of physical corrections inherently more ethical than training with which utilizes other tools such as a leash and training collar, or an electronic collar?
For a significant number of trainers, the answer has always been “Of course!”
I think however if we look more objectively at things, it is less of a black and white distinction than many would like to believe.
When we train dogs, we are always utilizing various types of pressure. Reward based training uses primarily what I term Resource Pressure, or the internal pressure that one feels when they are trying to achieve something of a strong desire. There are Physical Pressures, such as leash pressure, electronic collar pressure, and guidance from our hands. Social Pressure is the innate desire of socially oriented animals to please other members of their social group. Lastly, we often use Spatial Pressure, which often involves using our bodies/body language to “push” or make to dog yield space to us (often used by pet dog owners around doorways etc.)
Training that focuses primarily on resource pressure has often been touted as the most ethical for a variety of reasons. It is minimally invasive, and virtually impossible to abuse (unless you are going to starve a dog to create more pressure). Does that however, make using it inherently more ethical?
To be clear, typically trainers who use this philosophy are also using social and spatial pressure, but almost never use physical pressure and the associated tools (choke chain, prong collar, electronic collar etc.)
There are many factors to consider, such as the ease of learning, frustration created if the goal is not met, and the ongoing stress involved if the particular approach to training takes excessively long (consider that many dogs brought to professional trainers are there due to behavior problems, these problems typically lead to added stress for both the dog and the human, and limited freedom for the dog.)
Although resource pressure often creates a fun, healthy type of pressure, it can indeed be very stressful for dogs as well. Consider this study conducted in Hannover from 2008. The goal was to compare three different training methods, their learning effects, and their effects on stress. The methods were prong collar, electronic collar, and quitting signal (non-reward, a form of resource pressure). At the conclusion of the study it was found that the electronic collar had the highest learning effect, and the lowest stress. The quitting signal (resource pressure) had the lowest learning effect (so low that it could hardly be compared), and a considerable amount of stress for the trials where the learning effect was significant. Another way of looking at this is that the reward based technique, caused a considerable amount of stress in the dogs, for virtually no reason. The training via this method was not nearly as successful as the electronic collar, and caused as much or more stress. So in this study which type of pressure was more ethical? It seems the electronic collar takes the cake.
It still isn’t that simple. This study involved very highly motivated working dogs, in a very specific training scenario. The more motivated a dog is, the more stressful resource pressure will be. If you were to re-create this experiment with a lower-motivation dog, and a different training scenario, you may achieve results that were quite different, if not the total opposite. The results of this study were inconclusive at best to make any general statement about dogs or dog training. In other words, Pressure is relative.
At this point you may be wondering, “Well gee Tyler, then what do think is the most ethical type of training/pressure?”
The answer to that is: There is none!
The modern trend of dog training to limit ourselves to a single modality of training, or to try and eliminate specific tools or approaches is in my opinion, not only foolish, but also disrespectful to the animals we are working with. Today we see trainers on both sides saying things like “I never use prong collars”, or “I never use treats”. We see trainers that use almost exclusively food during training, and trainers relying heavily on electronic collars for every detail of learning. The worst part is that these factions consistently behave at odds with each other.
In my opinion the most ethical trainer is the one who makes it their duty to understand and have experience with the various uses of all the tools and techniques available to them. That way they can pick and combine approaches based on the situation so that the dog has the optimal learning experience. This means the dog learns quickly and reliably without unnecessary stress. Sometimes this will mean relying heavily on resource pressure, sometimes on physical pressure, but most often the dog will have the best experience when we combine various types of pressure which all are urging the dog in the same direction.
The reality is that all types of pressure are relative, to both the dog and the training context. Three words I try to avoid when discussing training tools and approaches: Always, Only, Never.