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Abusive Dog Training Practices and Informed Consent, Ethics and “Do No Harm”

by Niki J. Tudge

Dog trainers who use punishment-based approaches and equipment designed to work by causing fear and/or pain commonly market themselves under a variety of verbiage and marketing slogans such as “balanced,” “positive relationship,” “natural methods,” “relationship building,” “positive only,” and “no food necessary.” These are all taglines that are bandied around but mislead unsuspecting owners who are looking for humane ways to train their pets. Meanwhile, the terminology used may be carefully crafted to appeal to pet guardians who may not always understand the various training methods available, or the fallout and unintended consequences of making the wrong choice. Such trainers are thus not providing consumers the necessary autonomy to make ethical decisions on behalf of their pets, nor do they provide any kind of consumer protection. This, compounded with the inability of a pet to offer informed consent, further questions the ethics of such training practices given that the foundation for anyone working in behavioral sciences must surely be to do no harm (Pet Professional Guild, 2016).

Over 2,000 years ago, referring to the medical profession, Hippocrates (400 B.C.) wrote: “The physician must be able to tell the antecedents, know the present, and foretell the future—must mediate these things, and have two special objects in view with regard to disease, namely, to do good or to do no harm.” Working with animals, whether in the veterinary field or any other capacity, the moral and ethical obligation to do no harm is surely just as meaningful.

Abusive Training Practices

Listed below are just some of the abusive practices still seen across the dog training industry:

  • Hanging – the dog is raised off the floor by his collar or a leash, in some cases until he loses consciousness.
  • Swinging – the dog is swung around with his feet off the floor by his collar or leash.
  • Slamming – the dog is lifted up and slammed into the floor or a wall.
  • Shocking – electric shock is administered through a collar around the dog’s neck, stomach or genital area.
  • Multiple shocking – more than one electric shock collar is attached to a dog around the neck, stomach and/or genitalia.
  • Alpha roll – the dog is purposefully rolled onto his back as a means to control and intimidate, often paired with harsh, loud and offensive verbiage.
  • Kicking, hitting, prodding – the dog is physically assaulted with a human body part or a prod-type instrument.

In recent years, much credible scientific study has been given to dog training and behavior modification methods and their respective efficacy and consequences. The preponderance of the evidence shown by current research indicates that the implementation of training and/or behavior modification protocols predicated upon “dominance theory” and social structures (“alpha” or “pack leader”), and/or the implementation of physical or psychological intimidation, threats, coercion or fear are empirically less effective and risk creating problematic consequences, including “fallout” behaviors, such as growling, snapping and biting, that may be dangerous to the human and animal involved.

Defining Dominance Theory

According to DogNostics Career Center (2018), dominance theory is defined as the use within the same species to predict the winner of a conflict when fighting over a specific, context-oriented resource. Scientifically, dominance only applies to two beings of the same species, thus a human cannot be dominant over a pet nor can a pet be dominant over a human. In a wolf pack, the dominant beings are the wolf pups; however, wolf researchers have moved away from alpha terminology and are now using terms that correspond with the role of the particular pet in the family unit.

Using dominance theory to train dogs is today considered to be outdated and obsolete, with current scientific knowledge recanting the findings of previous studies that promote the implementation of alpha rolls and so-called dominance training.

Leading expert and board-certified veterinary behaviorist, Dr. Karen Overall (2016) states: “Dominance theory has shut off scientific research and has crept into medicine to the point where we think we can do things to animals whereby we are asking them to ‘submit.’ In pop psychology, dominance theory is insidious and has crept into everything we do with dogs and it’s wrong. It has gotten in the way of modern science and I’ve just about had it. Every single thing we do with dogs hurts them because we don’t see them as individuals or cognitive partners … Unfortunately, the dominance, discipline and coercion approach has affected every aspect of how we interact with dogs from basic training to treating troubled dogs. We must abandon these cruel, scientifically unsupported labels and approaches and replace them with a humane, scientifically based approach that is dog-centric and attempts to understand situations from the viewpoint of the dog.”

People may think that to work in the pet industry one must love animals, yet, in reality, how can this be possible given the varied topography of pet care?

In addition to the many documented cases of cruelty, abuse and neglect at the hands of pet professionals, we must also consider pet professionals who still rely on outdated training practices and cultural myths while ignoring the growing body of science that proposes specific, humane methods and approaches.

Is this really so different to a public policy that accepts the use by a medical professional of alcohol as an anesthetic, or leather arm cuffs as restraints as standard operating procedures? We are now in a position to know better. In fact, in most professions that involve counseling, mental health, education, or training, there is a professional expectation and, indeed, a legal mandate that, no matter what the field, a professional must practice according to the best, most reliable and up-to-date scientific research available.

Professionals and Cruelty

There are two important questions we can ask here:

  1. What causes people and, in particular, pet professionals, to be cruel to the pets in their care?
  2. How do said professionals accommodate the consequences of their behavior?

While there is no complete or consistent explanation as to why people are sadistic or cruel to pets, in those who choose to work with pets as an occupation a commonality would appear to exist in a tendency to view the animals as “other,” or significantly different to people. Hunter and Brisbin (2016) explain that the person may feel in some way threatened by the existence of the pet, whether it be emotionally, egotistically, or physically. Under such circumstances, any cruel behavior is seen to be “justified” as “teaching the pet a lesson,” and/or there may be a motivation to nullify the “other” by inflicting suffering. Hunter and Brisbin (2016, p. 19) conclude that cruelty “in its various forms is thus a human emotional and cognitive response to perceptions or predictions of unpleasant contacts with companion animals.” Meanwhile, from an animal’s perspective, it is in no way in his best interests to intentionally set out to be what a human may perceive to be “annoying” or “frustrating,” or to inflict pain on his caregivers, yet how many times do we hear a pet owner or professional say a dog is being “stubborn” or “naughty”?

In reality, applying labels to behavior that have nothing to do with the animal’s actual emotional state or motivation is anthropomorphic at best and, at worst, runs the risk of complete misinterpretation. While anthropomorphism has its uses, Patel (2019) emphasizes the importance of getting a measure on what is observable when analyzing behavior, which “allows us to put numbers on what we actually see occur rather than create a story in our heads.” All behavior “has a function and can produce a number of functional outcomes: The organism is always correct; they are just functioning on the conditions available to them” (Patel, 2019). Frightening or aversive environmental stimuli, including punitive pet training methods and scary techniques, are, more often than not, the cause of aggression from pets directed to people. But, states Patel (2019), “If you listen to the whispers, your dog has no reason to shout or scream.”

One might argue that passive cruelty or neglect tend to manifest from convenience or function. For example, professional groomers or dog trainers may be motivated by a need or desire to get results at whatever cost to the pet. Economically, they may be motivated by profit and the need for expeditious business transactions. These practices may include pinning down a dog to trim his nails or applying physical punishment, such as a leash jerk, to prevent a dog from pulling on the leash.

Returning to our second question, for those who elect to inflict cruelty on the animals in their care, how do they accommodate the consequences of their behavior? How does a dog trainer justify to themselves that hanging a dog until he almost chokes, shocking a dog to the point where he is so fearful he loses control of his bowels, or physically hitting a dog, is acceptable on any scale?

We might ask the same of the groomer who physically pins a dog on the grooming table if he does not immediately comply and stand in the required position for the perfect haircut. Bear in mind, in a situation such as this, no time may have been taken to train the dog to stand in said position or create a positive association for him, as opposed to presenting an aversive situation that he would now prefer to escape from or avoid altogether. States Martiya (2016), “If you have ever worked in a grooming salon, this scenario is probably familiar to you: The dog is on the table with a noose around his neck attached to the grooming arm above. He is moving about while the groomer is trying to scissor some part of his body. Frustrated by his movement, the groomer raises the grooming arm. The dog struggles, so the groomer raises the grooming arm some more. Now the dog stops struggling, but it is not because he has ‘learned to behave.’ He has stopped struggling because he is effectively being hung from the grooming arm and must devote all of his energy just to breathing.”

Adds Shelley-Grielen (2019), “Dog trainers, groomers and pet sitters often learn handling techniques by trial, error and guesswork with no guarantee that their intuition is correct or welfare focused … Individuals wanting to learn dog grooming at an actual brick and mortar school can complete a two- or three-month private school training course. However, due to the brevity of the training and lack of instruction on stress free restraint methodologies or handling protocols there is a resulting over-reliance on restraint such as muzzles, ties and aversive handling. Stress of this sort may cause a dog to submit to a grooming session but will cause more defensive resistance on successive grooming sessions.”

We may also ask the question of the dog walker who drags and chokes a dog to mandate that he walks at a specific and very unnatural pace. States Chamings (2018), “Training in this way gives a dog no choice at all; he is complying because he is avoiding discomfort.” Yet these are all examples of practices that some individuals—who have chosen to make their living training and caring for pets—find completely acceptable.

Arluke’s (2006) ethnographic study of animal control officers, animal hoarders and shelter workers “illustrated how an individual’s identification of animals interacts with emotions, professional standards and practices, willingness to obey authority and personal identity” (Hunter & Brisbin, 2016, p. 19). These components along with early childhood socialization and experiences can create a social confusion regarding the ethical treatment of animals (Hunter & Brisbin, 2016).

Hunter and Brisbin (2016) also reference other studies that indicate a desire for power, social background, or other demographic factors may have an influence on individuals in terms of whether they may display passive cruelty or neglect toward animals. Alternatively, it may just be that cruelty is influenced by the direct visibility of the act or differing interpretations of cruelty toward different species. As noted by Hunter and Brisbin (2016), O’Sullivan argues that animal cruelty is impacted by the visibility of the harm to the animal versus the normative assessments of cruelty and the current legislation to protect the animal.

When sadistic behavior, passive cruelty or neglect have taken place, pet owners may resort to moral disengagement to justify this. As such, the offender may be able to reconstruct or reframe their behavior as acceptable without feeling the need to change either their moral standards or their behavior: “Moral disengagement is behavior designed to avoid censure for injurious conduct” (Hunter and Brisbin, 2016, p. 20).

Vollum, Buffington-Vollum and Longmire (2004) surveyed Texas residents to gauge the perceived severity of numerous violent acts against nonhuman animals as well as the preferred criminal justice response and indicated their surprise as the “findings lend some (albeit limited) support for an important theory of animal abuse (Agnew, 1998), as well as Bandura’s (1990, 1999) compelling theory of moral disengagement.”

According to Bandura (2002), however, disengagement does not instantly transform an individual from being kind and considerate to being cruel, but is a more gradual process as said individual is exposed to more and more, for them, uncomfortable situations. In the case of a dog trainer or pet groomer, the individual may have started out by using aversive practices on pets and found that they paid off, thus making them able to tolerate the acts because of the benefit associated with them. These might involve saving a groomer time thanks to the ease of working with a dog who is pinned to the table, or, in the case of a dog trainer, expediting compliance via the use of electric shock while suppressing potentially irritating but normal canine behaviors such as wandering, sniffing or lack of focus. Situations such as these may apply in a pet care or training environment for the professional who is on a time schedule, lacks knowledge or has little empathy for the pet in their care.

Progressive Disengagement

Over time, “progressive disengagement of self-censure” occurs and “the level of ruthlessness increases, until eventually acts originally regarded as abhorrent can be performed with little anguish or self-censure. Inhumane practices become thoughtlessly routinized” (Bandura, 2002, p. 110). It should, then, and indeed must be of great concern to public policy makers that when a person inflicts cruel actions on a pet and undertakes moral disengagement such as this, “the continuing interplay between moral thought, affect, action and its social reception is personally transformative. People may not even recognize the changes they have undergone as a moral self” (Bandura, 2002, p. 110). Consequently, this should also be enormously concerning to pet owners given that pet professionals, more often than not, avoid being held accountable for any cruelty toward the pets in their care, pets who have little or no say in their own well-being and welfare.

Ultimately, all parties involved need to exercise moral agency. This has the dual purpose of being both inhibitive and proactive. The inhibitive form embodies the power to refrain from behaving inhumanely whereas the proactive form is expressed in the power to behave humanely. Therefore, people who practice higher-order morality do good things, as well as refrain from doing bad things (Bandura, 1999).


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Overall, K.L. (2016, November). Current Trends: Beyond Dominance and Discipline. Pet Professional Guild Summit Keynote Presentation, Tampa, FL. In S. Nilson. (2017, January). #PPGSummit 2016: Beyond Dominance. BARKS from the Guild (22) 10-11. Retrieved January 4, 2019, from

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Vollum, S., Buffington-Vollum, J., & Longmire, D. (2004). Moral Disengagement and Attitudes about Violence toward Animals. Society and Animals 12 209-235. Retrieved December 31, 2018, from

This post was adapted from Tudge, N.J., Nilson, S.J., Millikan, D.A. & Stapleton-Frappell, L.A. (2019). Pet Training and Behavior Consulting: A Model for Raising the Bar to Protect Professionals, Pets and Their People. Chapter 3: Professionals Should Exemplify and Promote Anti-Cruelty Statutes (pp. 37–54). DogNostics Career Center Publishing. The book is available for purchase here. 

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