A Brief Critical Review: European Society of Veterinary Clinical Ethology Position Statement

Often, my students ask me to comment on some articles or studies in the dog world. I want to clarify that I don’t use, promote, or like the materials referred to in this position statement. I don’t need to use them in my work, and if I had, I will reject it and change work, disregarding the studies showing the opposite. Still, it is my duty as a tutor to show and guide my students in the best way, so this is a perfect example that our personal beliefs or agendas should not bias our critical thinking or integrity.

This article’s primary goal is to aware the viewers of the importance of reading and analyzing a document before sharing it, and encourage you to do the same. A study doesn’t prove anything, as I often read. Research shows a result based on a specific hypothesis and method of analysis and should be criticized to improve the evolution of the scientific process.

Note: I never ever criticise the authors or persons in this study/document. I’m analysing facts and arguments.

This brief critical review will focus on the Masson et al. 2018 paper on the European Society of Veterinarian Clinical Ethology’s (ESVCE) position statement, a curious name since Ethology is the study of animal behavior in its natural environment. In a controlled or clinical setting, the correct term is comparative psychology.

1- “e-collars can solve behavioral issues that no other technique can […] no evidence of this could be found in the scientific literature available.”

My comment to point one: Not true. The author ignored the study of Tortora (1983) where the e-collar is part of a comprehensive protocol (safety training) in suppressing avoidance-motivated aggression, a form of aggressive instrumental behavior in dogs: “The findings of the present study seem to indicate that safety training (a) permanently eliminates avoidance-motivated aggression, (b) produces a high probability of extinction-resistant pro-social responding, (c) establishes a pro-social avoidance response set, (d) reduces fear and other reactions to stress, and (e) is correlated with positive changes in the dog’s carriage.”

2- “Because dog trainers and lay owners lack knowledge of the scientific literature, they may know that the efficacy of these collars has not been proven to be greater than other alternatives such as positive reinforcement training.”

My comment to point two: Is the author suggesting that all dog trainers know nothing about science? Which references support this severe and offensive statement?

3- “Hence, ESVCE encourages education programs which employ positive reinforcement methods and avoid positive punishment and negative reinforcement, thereby promoting positive dog welfare and a humane, ethical and moral approach to dog training at all times.”

My comment to point three: Yes, but the ESVCE statement also suggests an alternative: “spray collars could be used under veterinary or qualified behavioural supervision, instead of bark activated collars and remote controlled collars. This would allow the cause of the behaviour problem to be addressed and not just the symptom.” […] “Electronic boundary fences could be replaced with actual fences (even actual electrified fences) which would prevent the electronic fences being used incorrectly and the dog not being given opportunity to learn; for example if the owner does not use the flags which should be supplied to condition the dog to where the fence is.”
Which references do they have to suggest these aversive tools? Before the quote above, they state that “This said, the aim of ESVCE is to improve dog welfare.” What is their definition of welfare?

According to the quote above, are punishment and aversive techniques allowed to improve dog welfare if used correctly? If so, why do they state that “Punishing training methods induce higher risks of aggression, fear, anxiety and undesirable behaviors, while they decrease the quality of the dog-owner relationship, dog welfare and dog-human team performance, compared to non-aversive techniques.”?

What do they mean by “under veterinary or qualified behavioral supervision”? Are general veterinarians now specialized in behavior modification?

My questions are related to two coincidences. Dr. Masson (et al.) is a veterinarian and states without any references that dog trainers lack scientific knowledge. In her (et al.) article, the main focus is a statement from a veterinarian community where she is part of the working group. In a quick search on some of the authors’ work, I found promotion of their courses about companion animals behavior modification and “behavior modification technicians.” Could this be a conflict of interest?

4- “Similarly, confrontational methods have been found to increase aggression in dogs (Herron et al., 2009), causing risk for owners and any third parties.”

My comment to point four: Not really, Herron, 2009 study says that: “There were several limitations in our study. First, the dog owners surveyed were recruited from a population of owners making appointments at a referral behavior clinic; in many cases, the behavior problems were significant. The frequency of aggressive responses and effectiveness of training methods might have been different if we had sampled a general population of dog owners. Next, the survey did not request a temporal description of these interventions and many of them may have been applied well before the presenting behavior problems occurred. It is, therefore, difficult for us to determine whether owners attempted specific interventions to alter aggressive behavior or whether aggression developed as a result of their use. It is also possible that owners misinterpreted the meaning of the “effect” section of the survey. The terms “positive”, “negative”, and “no effect” are subjective, and judging a technique’s effectiveness based on theses (typo in the original) options may not be accurate. (…) Finally, the retrospective nature of the survey prevented the possibility for direct comparison of safety and efficacy between aversive and non-aversive techniques.”

5- “Moreover, coercive methods they may increase or cause stress to the animal and overall diminish its welfare (Fernandes et al., 2017) (…) Two recent reviews of the literature regarding aversive training techniques conclude that, although more research is needed, aversive-based methods generate stress in dogs, can have unintended outcomes and put dog’s welfare at risk (Fernandes et al, 2017; Ziv, 2017).”

My comment to point five: Fernandes, 2017 says in his paper that: “Based on this review we conclude that although currently there is limited scientific evidence of the effect of training method on dog welfare, the existing literature indicates that, at least at some level, aversive-based methods generate stress in dogs. However, further studies are needed to draw strong conclusions on the topic. In particular, empirical and experimental studies are needed. (…) Finally, in addition to the effects on welfare, the efficacy of training methods is also relevant to consider in the choice of training method and, regardless of what science will have to say about the effects of different training methods on dog welfare, it is important to note that the choice of the training method should not be based only on its effects in animal welfare. Dog training is a purpose- built tool and, hence, its efficacy should also be considered in the equation. At present, there is also a lack of scientific evidence on the efficacy of different training methods and it would be relevant to combine this aspect with research on the effects of different training methods on dog welfare.“

Ziv, 2017, says that: “In summary, the reviewed studies suggest that aversive training methods (e.g., positive punishment and negative reinforcement) may negatively affect the behavior and welfare of dogs. Moreover, none of the studies showed any evidence that aversive training methods are more effective than reward-based training. (…) However, two limitations are noteworthy. First, while observational studies provide more robust data than surveys, they still do not necessarily provide support for causation. Second, in the first study (Rooney and Cowan, 2011), only the researcher who visited the dogs rated their behaviors. This researcher also interviewed the owners. Hence, as the authors mentioned, there is a risk for unconscious bias. Similarly, in the second study (Deldalle and Gaunet, 2014) only one researcher recorded the behaviors of dogs while visiting the training centers. In the third study (Haverbeke et al., 2008), the authors did not report whether more than one researcher rated the behaviors. In future studies, two researchers – preferably blind to the hypotheses or study groups should code behaviors, and inter-rater reliability should be reported. Lastly, since only two training schools were compared by Deldalle and Gaunet (2014), individual variations could have led to some of the reported differences. Hence, as the authors of this study suggested, future studies should include a larger sample of training schools to compensate for these individual variations.”

Conclusion:

The ESVCE position statement is an emotional, political statement, not a scientific document. There is a clear flawed line of argumentation, conflict of interests, avoidance with the livestock/farm industry (that’s why they recomend the el-fences), and a monopoly agenda on the dog training area, with the continuously disqualification of the dog trainers.

References:

Abrantes, R. 2019. Enough is Enough! Positive, Force-Free, Reward-Based Dog Training—A Positive Critical Review. Ethology Institute Articles.

Fernandes, J. et. al. 2017. Do aversive-based training methods actually compromise dog welfare?: A literature review. Elsevier. Retrieved Aug. 7, 2019 from https://doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2017.07.001

Masson et al. 2018. Electronic training devices: Discussion on the pros and cons of their use in dogs as a basis for the position statement of the European Society of Veterinary Clinical Ethology. J. Vet. Behav: Volume 25, May–June 2018, Pages 71-75. Retrieved Aug 11, 2019.

Tortora, D.F. 1983. Safety training: the elimination of avoidance-motivated aggression in dogs. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Vol. 112, No. 2, 176-214. Retrieved Jul. 24, 2019.

Ziv, G., 2017. The effects of using aversive training methods in dogs–A review. J. Vet. Behav.: Clin. Appl. Res. 19, 50-60

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