Updated: Nov 6, 2021
The conversation surrounding the regulation of dog training tends to revolve around pet dog training. While that remains an important topic, and one that I hope the US eventually addresses on a nationwide level, companion animals are not the only ones left to languish in its absence. There is another demographic of dogs that unfortunately do not get as much press in that regard, our dear friends the working dogs. The dogs used for scent detection, conservation, military deployments, and police work would also benefit from the protection of regulation.
The prevailing use of cameras in nearly all aspects of personal and professional life has made the need for greater oversight in police work readily apparent in more ways than one. Instances of abuse of working dogs in the name of training are being brought to the public's attention more frequently than ever. A recent video from Salisbury, N.C. depicts a K-9 handler leashing his dog and swinging the dog over his shoulder before slamming the dog into a police cruiser (WATE, 2021, “Watch: Officer seen on video swinging K-9 over his shoulder by leash”). While experts have weighed in on this egregious act, pointing out the likely physical harm being done to an animal whose purchase potentially cost the police department between approximately $20,000 to $25,000, they also point out the setback such an incident is likely to have on the dog's training (WATE, 2021, “Watch: Officer seen on video swinging K-9 over his shoulder by leash”). What stands out in particular about the situation is the response made by Salisbury chief police Jerry Stokes. WATE reported that Chief Stokes remarked that “the officer's actions might have been part of training tactics” [emphasis added] (2021, Watch: Officer seen on video swinging K-9 over his shoulder by leash”). This clearly signals that there are no guidelines, standards of conduct, or standard operating procedures when it comes to the training and handling of working dogs within the Salisbury K-9 Unit. If such standard operating procedures do exist, they are not properly implemented. Such a glaring oversight should be of great concern to everyone involved.
A harsh contrast exists between the scientific literature behind animal training and the methods so often employed in dog training, regardless of whether the dogs in question are companion or working animals. There are numerous studies addressing aversive/punishment based training techniques and their attendant consequences on canine work and welfare. Methods used in applied settings continue to lag decades behind the science of animal behavior. While much of the literature is centered around companion animals, one can use this body of work as a jumping off point for working dogs. For example, a 2014 study by Cooper et al. examined the use of electronic collars, more commonly known as shock collars, to train a recall behavior. The authors concluded that “e-collar training did not result in a substantially different response to training in comparison to similarly experienced trainers who do not use e-collars to improve recall and control chasing behaviour” (Cooper et al., 2014, p.11). Simply put, using electric shock as part of the training program did not improve behavioral outcomes. We do, however, see favorable results when positive reinforcement is employed instead. In one 2012 study, the use of reward based methods was correlated with a more favorable outcome as reported by companion dog owners (Blackwell et al., p. 11).
The research done examining training methods and working dog performance illustrates that punishment based methods have no demonstrable positive impact on efficacy. This is in addition to the demonstration of detrimental effects caused by such training methods. The use of punishment marches on despite the fact that we continue to see the link between reward based methods and desired outcomes. For instance, in the context of Australian stock herding dogs, Arnott et al. found that “the use of positive reinforcement … was significantly associated with success rate” (2014, p. 4). In another study done on working dogs, Haverbeke et al. recommended that “DH [dog handler] teams should … undertake the usefulness of setting a new training system that would rely on: the use of more positive training methods” (2008, pp. 110-122).
The literature not only demonstrates that punishment based training methods have a negative effect on efficacy, but that the animal's welfare is negatively impacted as well. A recent study published by Vieira de Castro et al. reported that “aversive training methods, especially if used in high proportions, compromise the welfare of companion dogs both within and outside the training context” (2020, p. 1). Furthermore, the welfare of narcotic detection dogs has been demonstrated to be “important to the training and formation of a … detection dog” (Jantorno et all, 2020, p. 7). Much of the work being done on the effect of training methods on welfare is driven by a desire to improve the lives of animals. Considering that studies have shown that efficacy is not a variable independent of welfare, welfare should be of considerable importance within the working dog community.
It is clear that there is an urgent need for a nationwide set of standard operating procedures when it comes to acceptable training methods, in addition to guidelines for and oversight of handler conduct, within the realm of working dogs. The path to implementing such a standard may be by proving its usefulness in terms of improving the outcomes of the work being done by these dogs. Perhaps it is only by establishing and documenting beyond a reasonable doubt that positive/reward based training methods improve working dog efficacy that true change is possible. One way to create the foundation for the necessary procedural changes is by expanding the body of research on the subject of working dogs and training methods. I hope to see interest in this topic grow within the research and applied communities in the coming years.
Blackwell, E.J., Bolster, C., Richards, G., Loftus, B., & Casey, R.A. (2012). The use of electronic collars for training domestic dogs: Estimated prevalance, reasons and risk factors for use, and owner perceived success as compared to other training methods. BMC Veterinary Research 8 (93). http://www.biomedcentral.com/1746-6148/8/93
Cooper, J.J., Cracknell, N., Hardiman, J., Wright, H., & Mills, D. (2014, September 3). The welfare consequences and efficacy of training pet dogs with remote electronic training collars in comparison to reward based training. PloS One 9 (9). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0102722
Haverbeke, A., Laporte, B., Depiereux, E., Giffroy, J.M., & Diederich, C. (2008, September). Training methods of military dog handlers and their effects on the team's performances. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 133 (1-3), 110-122. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2007.11.010
Jantorno, G.M., Xavier, C.H., & de Melo, C.B. (2020). Cães de detecção de narcóticos: uma visão geral dos animais de alto desempenho
[Narcotic detection dogs: an overview of high-performance animals]. Ciência Rural, 50 (10). http://doi.org/10.1590/0103-8478cr20191010
Vieira de Castro, A. C., Fuchs, D., Morello, G. M., Pastur, S., de Sousa, L., & Olsson, I. A. S. (2020). Does training method matter? Evidence for the negative impact of aversive-based methods on companion dog welfare. PLoS One, 15(12), e0225023. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0225023
WATE (2021, March 3). Watch: Officer seen on video swinging K-9 over his shoulder by leash. https://www.wate.com/news/watch-officer-seen-on-video-swinging-k-9-over-his-shoulder-by-leash/?utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=socialflow&utm_source=facebook.com&fbclid=IwAR2f2uIoBWJo9byVVAgtxhk4QSZfhyYMIu2nPN2dEzcnjJywsdD8BAg9Q6A