This blog post has come about following comments made and advice given on a welfare page for hounds. A lady was really struggling with a foster dog, who was barking to the extent that he was returned from his new forever home, and no progress has been made with any training. Despite not knowing any more than this basic information, the recommendation was made to use a rattle can to deter the dog from barking. Although I politely explained that this is outdated advice and is considered aversive, therefore punishment-based, she continued to defend and promote this method. Hence, this blog!
WHAT IS A RATTLE CAN?
If you haven’t come across them before, a rattle can is a device for creating noise. It is basically a tin containing coins, stones, or something similar. Their purpose is to startle a dog sufficiently to stop them from doing something undesirable, such as barking. There are many issues with their use, along with other tools such as spray bottles, citronella bark collars, sonic collars, shock collars, prong collars, and so on.
Some might argue that a rattle can is fairly inoffensive compared to a shock collar, but all of these tools work in exactly the same way: they are unpleasant enough to stop the dog from doing something. If that outcome is achieved, then the dog has found it aversive. Adding something unpleasant to reduce the likelihood of a behaviour falls under the quadrant of positive punishment, therefore rattle cans are undeniably punishment-based, and intended to be aversive.
Let’s stay with the rattle can example, and the scenario of using it to curtail barking.
Fido is in the kitchen with his human, who is clattering about, making breakfast, rushing around to get out of the house. Fido is restless, and wanders around the kitchen, getting underfoot. As breakfast is cleared away, he starts to bark, and jumps up at his human. He is pushed down and ignored, so the barking increases, in order to make himself understood. He starts to climb up his human. Annoyed, they grab a rattle can and shake it, just as Fido jumps up again. He is startled mid-bark, and he moves away from his human.
Yes, the barking has stopped, but what was he trying to express?
Possibility number one:
Fido has undiagnosed separation anxiety, and as he recognises the signs that his person is getting closer to leaving, he becomes increasingly upset, and begins to panic, barking and climbing up his human, seeking comfort. His behaviour is dismissed as clinginess and “bad behaviour,” and he is punished with a shake of the rattle can.
Possibility number two:
Fido is getting on a bit in years, and is beginning to show signs of cognitive decline, unbeknown to his human. Fido has toileting problems, and needs to go out more often. He tends to wander around aimlessly at times, and gets a bit worried by the feelings of disorientation and confusion. His only way of conveying his needs is to bark and jump up, until he is understood. When he is ignored, and then has toileting accidents, they are viewed as him behaving out of spite because he didn’t receive any attention, and he is punished with a shake of the rattle can. (Can you see a theme building yet?).
Possibility number three:
Despite being a young dog, Fido has started to get some aches and pains due to a sporting injury, but because of his age, his human doesn’t realise. Fido finds it difficult to settle due to the physical discomfort, and struggles with noise sensitivity. The clattering of the pots and pans becomes just too much to bear, and he tries to escape the kitchen, barking and jumping up as he panics. His human feels that Fido is being over-exuberant and a nuisance and, guess what? He is punished with a shake of the rattle can.
These are just a few reasons why the same set of behaviours might occur, all met with the same response, which will be hugely detrimental in each case. The use of punishment only serves to suppress those behaviours, and doesn’t take into account their function, or the emotions driving them. Using punishment creates and increases physical and emotional discomfort, and does nothing to address the needs of the dog.
In all three examples, the use of the rattle can will stop the barking, probably only temporarily, but will increase fear and anxiety in the process, not only towards the rattle can, but there will also be that negative association with the person using it, too. In addition, there is no knowing what else in his environment he might be associating with it. Nothing will change for the dog, and he will learn that asking for help only results in something unpleasant, from the very person he should feel safe with. This dog is at real risk of emotional shutdown and Learned Helplessness.
The bottom line is that we cannot meet the five freedoms of animal welfare if we expose our dogs to fear and discomfort as a means of trying to teach them something. This also applies to those that say, “I don’t need to use it any more, I just show it to him and he stops”. Intimidation through the threat of use is just as damaging; it is an abuse of trust. There is no need to use threat or punishment when we have more effective ways of coaching which are kind and ethical, and do not carry that risk of fallout; our actions have far-reaching consequences.
For further reading on behavioural challenges, why not take a look at this blog post:
As always, any behavioural challenge or new behaviour emerging is cause for concern, and warrants a thorough veterinary examination in order to rule out pain, discomfort, and any underlying medical conditions. This should take priority and any necessary treatment put in place before attempting training, in order to reduce the risk of exacerbating the situation further, and so that the animal is treated at the earliest opportunity to prevent prolonging their discomfort.
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