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The Responsibility of Rescue

doe eyed dog on a pink background

I have worked with many rescues in my life. Whether through my career choice or even before that as a foster home and running the chapter of a rescue, I have been very invested in helping forgotten and homeless dogs unite with those looking for their companion animals. From fostering, to behaviour assessments and work, to being on the board of directors of a few, I have seen rescue from all angels and in all it’s many forms. I have been inspired by some and seriously disillusioned by others.

It is, perhaps, a little known fact that every animal welfare agency in North America, has a position on training using force free / positive reinforcement methods. From the National and Provincial Veterinary Medical Associations to Humane Canada and any reputable SPCA across the country. They all recognize that mental welfare is as important as physical welfare. In fact, most have at the very least adopted a policy of adhering to the five freedoms of animal welfare.

All animals should enjoy, as a minimum, five essential freedoms, which were first described by the Farm Animal Welfare Council of the UK:

1.Freedom from hunger and thirst

2.Freedom from pain, injury and disease

3.Freedom from distress

4.Freedom from discomfort

5.Freedom to express behaviours that promote well-being

All are recognized as a guiding principal by force free trainers. The same is not true of balanced trainers who utilize discomfort, and suppression of natural behaviours. Many rescues still choose to work with balanced trainers as behaviour suppression gives a faster (albeit temporary) cessation to problematic behaviours. This is extremely dangerous however as behaviour suppression often has explosive consequences. Essentially releasing ticking time bombs onto an unsuspecting public. The result is a public becoming more and more disenchanted with the rescue world.

When one adopts, or even fosters a dog that has not been evaluated or worked with a qualified, force free trainer, they often get a dog that comes into a home and demonstrates an unwillingness to display natural behaviours. Once the dog becomes comfortable a few weeks later, problematic behaviours start to rise. If the rescue does not work with force free trainers or have the ability to call on them, the foster home or adoptive home is often left to their own devices or given outdated, punishment options that will inevitably either make the problem worse or cause other, even more problematic behaviour. How likely would you be to adopt or foster again if you received a dog with problem behaviours and no support?

Rescues with force free trainers on their board of directors, or even who work with them, will have a good understanding and prepare the adoptive or foster home for the behaviours. If new problems arise, they will be able to pivot and react appropriately and more quickly, with advise that is going to be appropriate for all members of the household, with safety for everyone in mind, and advise the rescue accordingly.

I, and most of my experienced force free trainer colleagues, will only work with rescues that demonstrate a willingness to adopt force free policies in training and welfare. Mainly to preserve our own mental wellbeing and prevent us from repeatedly banging our heads against walls trying to assist in behaviour modification. Trying to assist rescues and shelters deeply reliant on punishment will result in compassion fatigue rapidly. It is unreasonable to enlist the assistance of professionals willing to dedicate their free time and then summarily disregard their advise.

In Alberta, I was almost spoiled for choice. Most of the rescues having come to the same consensus regarding welfare and behaviour. In Saskatchewan, I must say, the rescues to work with are almost non-existent. I continue to see rescues utilizing prong collars, shock collars and choke chains on their foster dogs and recommending balanced training methods. The harms of this are clear from client comments and satisfaction of adopters. Something here needs to change.

In upcoming blog posts, I will be illustrating how to spot Red Flag Rescues and also, how rescues will benefit from adopting force free policies.

For now, I will leave you with a few nuggets of wisdom from the:

Saskatchewan SPCA - from the Animal Rescue Standards Guide which states

“Training methods must be based on positive reinforcement in accordance with current professional guidelines.

Under the UNACCEPTABLE heading - “The use of physical force as a punishment or in anger for behaviour modification.”

and the

SVMA - Saskatchewan Veterinary Medical Association

3.3.3. Training in the Code of Practice for Canadian Kennel Operations

Reward-based methods used in humane training have resulted in positive long-term impacts of decreased aggression, attention-seeking, and fear. There is also evidence that these methods improve a dog’s ability to learn. Behaviour modification through classical conditioning and/or desensitization and counter-conditioning can be effective when performed below the threshold that would cause distress, anxiety, or fear in a dog.

Aversive training techniques are strongly discouraged. These methods may include confrontational and/or physical methods of training such as the use of force, rolling dogs, scruffing, growling, muzzling, jowling, shaking, or staring dogs down. Such techniques create fear and therefore may increase the likelihood of a fear-induced aggressive response. Similarly, the use of aversive devices such as choke, pinch, prong, or electronic collars is strongly discouraged in favour of more humane alternatives.

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