by Jean Donaldson

If dogs could march on Washington, what would they march about?  Adequate food, shelter, veterinary care?  Big ticket stuff, but I doubt it.  When people march, it’s never for something everybody already agrees on and for which there are laws on the books.  Everybody gets it that it’s Wrong and Bad and Illegal to starve dogs.  It’d be like people marching on Washington against burglary.

What about dog fighting?  It’s a hellish scourge, which the world finally found out about when Michael Vick hit the news.  But the consciousness-raising on that issue has gained traction.  No sane people are for dog fighting in 2014.  Plus, in terms of scale and lack of recognition of the problem, dogs have got something even worse to march about.

Dogs would like us to understand that they’re fed up with our utterly cavalier rampant destruction of their psychological well-being and, most of all, with our nightmarish acts of “training.”  It is 2014 and it is still okay to use electric shock and collars that dig spikes into their necks.  It’s okay to choke them with metal chains or with rope collars that are specially designed to fit really high and tight against the non-muscle-protected part of their throats.  It’s okay to hit them, kick them, throw stuff at them, pin them on their backs until they urinate in terror, and strangle them until their tongues turn blue or they pass out.

It’s not only still legal* to do this stuff, it’s done by well-meaning people, people who recycle and consider spousal battery heinous, who work to end school bullying, people who donate to the humane society.  It’s also done by some of the humane societies themselves.

The thinking about how insane this might be begins and ends with the means to an end argument.  If we don’t shock and choke and hurt them, we’ll have to kill them.

Really?  In 2014 you’re still trying that one?

These practices are elective.

They’re elective on easy dogs and they’re elective on dogs with behaviors we dislike, including dogs who lunge and pull on leash and growl and snap and bite.  More sophisticated behavior modification and management technology that is without any violence has been widely disseminated.  Thousands of trainers and I’d wager millions of owners train their dogs – easy dogs and challenging dogs – and manage their behavior without any of this stuff.  They don’t hurt them at all to train them.  Not once.  In other words, the use of violence in dog training is not correlated with particular dogs or with particular behavior problems.  It’s practitioner-correlated.

Now let’s consider the rest of dogs’ lives, when they’re not being trained.  They have adequate food, water, shelter and veterinary care but a huge proportion of them are warehoused in yards, kennels or garages, by themselves almost all the time.  If they bark, it’s a behavior problem.  If they dig, it’s a behavior problem.  If they touch the owner’s stuff, it’s a behavior problem.  If they get excited at passersby, it’s a behavior problem.

If they get to live in the house, and they chew it’s a behavior problem.  If they get excited and jump up to lick someone’s face, it’s a behavior problem.  If they try to play the way dogs play, it’s a behavior problem.  If they’re interested in smells on the ground, or in other dogs on walks, it’s a behavior problem.  If they don’t immediately do as they’re told, it’s a behavior problem. If they get on the furniture, it’s a behavior problem.  If they eat anything but dog food (ever tasted dog food?), it’s a behavior problem.  Come to think of it, the entire dog ethogram is a behavior problem.

From the perspective of dogs, they live in a police state.  Everything they do is subject to our approval and control.  Imagine if you could be killed at the whim of the state (your “family”).  Imagine eating the same thing every meal for the rest of your life.  Imagine that the state finds watching movies, playing video games, sleeping on the most comfortable surfaces, engaging in social discourse or walking in the direction you’d like to walk on the street – just one time – an affront, a problem and something to be cracked down on.  Medical procedures are performed against your will, with you handcuffed and held down if you panic, struggle or fight back.

Imagine getting a death sentence for arguing.

The state also can’t tell the difference between your laughter and your terror.  As a matter of fact, you could be bullied and tortured on TV for entertainment purposes.  Dog lovers will watch this, and most will defend the perpetrators.  The official story is that it’s for your own good.

Dogs don’t march on Washington because they can’t.  They have next to zero status in our society.  We can hurt them with virtual impunity because, by evolutionary fluke, we’re more clever and we have more might.

If they could their placard would look like this:

Trainers who hurt dogs frame their doing so as an issue of personal freedom of choice and the good of society, very much like beating children and wives was framed a few generations ago.  They also use increasingly obfuscating language, the one sign that they get it that what they’re doing is one day going to be looked back on in astonishment.  You could do that and not go to jail?

Animal welfare organizations, whose mandate is advocacy for animals, seem a logical bet to march on Washington on behalf of dogs.  But while some applied behavior practitioner organizations, such as the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB), are on record that the use of aversive stimuli is unnecessary, outdated, inhumane, and side-effect laden, most animal welfare organizations don’t touch dog training, and some even endorse trainers using these 30 year-old nightmarish and invasive practices.

Next time you see a dog having his airway compromised by some bully, or wearing a not quite fully concealed shock collar, imagine him asking you: “Is anybody ever going to march?”

*While it’s gradually being made illegal elsewhere in the western world, as of this writing it is legal in most jurisdictions in the US.