Art & Standards | My Response to an Anxiety Protocol

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I recently read a post on a dog trainer group I belong to on Facebook. The post contained a written explanation and a video outlining a ”Protocol” for dealing with dogs with anxiety.

The post was quite lengthy, but I will try to summarize it here:

  1. Teach the dog the basics of Place command.
  2. Once the dog understands that staying on the place will be rewarded, and attempting to leave before granted permission will be corrected, then make sure you find an object for them to ”place” on that is deliberately uncomfortable, and too small for the dog to lay normally on. (Suggested objects are milk crates and recycle bins.)
  3. Make them stay on this object for at least seven hours at a time.

This process is repeated every day throughout the first week of the training program. He recommends this practice not only for the most extreme cases, but for virtually every dog he trains.

His theory is that the dog eventually has to learn to cope with being uncomfortable, and has to self-sooth and learns to relax. The protocol is titled “Teaching the dog the art of doing nothing.”

What was most alarming to me were the comments below the post from other members of the group: “awesome stuff man,” “Great job, I can’t wait to use this,” “brilliant!” Over 40 comments of this nature were posted.

My heart sank.

There was not a single comment, which questioned the nature of this protocol. I felt compelled to speak up, but I did not want to start an argument on Facebook, and this particular group has rules about criticism.

I decided to send a private message to the owner of the group. Although his original comments were in support of the protocol, he began to understand my concerns. I was pleased when he posted a comment publicly questioning some elements of the protocol. He encouraged me to join the conversation, but I wanted to sleep on it in order to choose my words carefully. The next morning I posted a response on the thread:

“I would encourage you all to look again at the protocol outlined in this post. And to reflect deeply and authentically about what kind of dog trainer you want to be, and why you got into this business. I am sincerely saddened, not only by the original post, but also by the response to it, and what it says about the future of this craft.”

I am not saying this protocol won’t work; I have not tried it, nor will I. However, while “working” may be necessary, it is not sufficient to qualify something as “good” dog training.

If the standard by which you measure your self as a dog trainer is simply “Did it work?” then the result will be nothing more than a factory turned out product, rather than the work of a master craftsman.

As a matter of fact, I am quite confident that this process will yield a result that may resemble the desired effect (reduction of anxiety), especially to the untrained eye.  However, I am also quite confident that what is being seen is not actually the rehabilitation of anxiety, but something quite different and quite undesirable. That something is called Learned Helplessness.

Learned Helplessness: a mental state in which an organism forced to bear aversive stimuli, or stimuli that are painful or otherwise unpleasant, becomes unable or unwilling to avoid subsequent encounters with those stimuli, even if they are “escapable,” presumably because it has learned that it cannot control the situation.*

 Learned helplessness occurs when an animal is repeatedly subjected to an aversive stimulus that it cannot escape. Eventually, the animal will stop trying to avoid the stimulus and behave as if it is utterly helpless to change the situation.

What is worse is that learned helplessness theory goes on to argue that as a result of these negative expectations, other consequences may accompany the inability or unwillingness to act, including low self-esteem, chronic failure, sadness, and physical illness, and has been known to lead to clinical depression and other forms of mental illness.**

Simply analyze the protocol: Fido is made to stay on an object. The object is deliberately uncomfortable (as per the guidelines of the protocol); the object also must be small enough that in order to lay down the dog has to curl up in a tight ball.  If they leave the object, they are corrected with either a prong collar or an electronic collar. There is not enough room for them to stretch their limbs, if they sleep too deeply they are at risk of falling off.  No matter what they do, they are uncomfortable, and they have to bear it for 7 hours.

Let me stop here and make my opinion very clear. This borders on animal abuse, it is a form a torture, and it is morally reprehensible. There is no “art” in this.

I also want to address a common counter to my argument. Some may state that if you were to put the dog in a crate for seven hours, as often is done out of necessity and concern for the dog safety, it would be equally as bad. I disagree with this statement for a number of reasons. Let us put aside for a moment the fact that the vast majority of dogs in our training programs learn to relax in their crates within the first day simply by virtue of the normal training protocols that they receive. So, assuming that the dog is not relaxing in it’s crate let’s take a look at this argument:

First and foremost the crate can be large enough that a dog can lay naturally and with her joints and limbs not cramped, and made to be comfortable so that although the dog maybe anxious, they have the ability to get comfortable, truly comfortable. The discomfort a dog perceives if they are anxious in a crate is subjective, not objective, it is mental not physical. If the dog is in a crate, it is still an autonomous being. Furthermore, when the dog is in a crate, any movement that may come as an expression of their anxiety is not met with the threat of punishment (if you have ever been anxious, then you may know that sometimes you need to stretch and “shake it off”). The discomfort that a dog perceives if they are perched on a milk crate or recycle bin that is too small for them is objective. No change of their mental state, or decision they make will relieve that discomfort. In the protocol outlined above the dog’s autonomy is being removed completely.  In this protocol regardless of what they do, and what choices they make, they are going to be uncomfortable (if you do not believe me, try curling up in a ball for 7 hours, without the ability to stretch your limbs, on a hard object that you barely fit on, knowing all along in the back of your mind that if you try move you will be punished.)

Perhaps it is a matter of opinion, but I do believe that anxiety with autonomy is better then learned helplessness.  But again, this entire argument becomes irrelevant when we consider that the anxiety in the crate can be resolved reliably in more compassionate ways. Even if it requires a momentary correction or “interrupter” it would be far more humane than 7 hours of torture day after day.

Furthermore, this protocol is not being advised for only the most extreme of cases. On the contrary it is being promoted as a go to protocol for any and all dogs who show anxiety upon entering his board and train. As somebody who owns a training facility I can tell you that the vast majority of dogs who enter a boarding situation for the first time we’ll display a certain degree of anxiety. This is understandable, as the dog does not know where he is, what is going on, or where his family went. In most cases this anxiety will go away as the dog settles into his new environment, without the need for such drastic measures.

Some people may like this protocol because it is simple, and it does not require a high level of skill or experience to be able to replicate the results. But good dog training is an art and rehabilitating anxiety in a way that is compassionate and cooperative requires skill and intuition, and cannot always be broken down into a step-by-step set of instructions, no more then replicating a work of art by Michelangelo can be done with paint by numbers.

Whether this actually works is questionable, and depends on how we define “working”. Undoubtedly the end result will be something that is easier for the human to live with than an anxious and reactive dog. But, is the dog truly in a better place? Are they relaxed, or depressed? Have we accomplished real rehabilitation? Or simply systematic suppression and a dampening of the dog’s spirit? These are questions that need to be asked.

* Nolen, J.L. “Learned helplessness”. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved January 14, 2014.

** Seligman, M. E. P. (1975). Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman. ISBN 0-7167-2328-X.