This week has been miserable. It has featured an aspect of our work that I generally choose not to discuss publicly, not because I am ashamed or feel guilty, but because there are fractions of society that look for any excuse to condemn the RSPCA. So, to avoid the vitriol that comes from these quarters I generally keep such things to myself. What am I referring to? Euthanasia on behavioural grounds.

I suppose you could argue that my decision not to disclose is an act of cowardice and evidence of shame and wrong doing, but it isn’t. The decision to euthanize, no matter what the circumstance, is never taken lightly and never, ever gets any easier to bear. In most instances I accompany the animal to the vets and wherever possible stay with them. I do this because I feel the need. It’s hard to explain why, but I do. I guess it’s all about being both accountable and making sure I have made the right decision.

This week has seen two such decisions. This is rare; we probably don’t normally have more than one a month. What’s more, we’ve admitted an animal this week that we already know has a likelihood of turning out with the same tragic end. Whilst I feel strongly about giving animals a chance, unfortuantley I have a strong sense of foreboding with him.

It always strikes me that a proportion of the animals that most need a second chance are the ones that we cannot rehome. This is the case whether it be ill health or psychological trauma. I once heard these animals described as ‘damaged’ and that is an apt description. Through no fault of their own they have been damaged by their custodians and sometimes beyond our capabilities to ‘repair’.

This week saw the arrival a dog who has had the most revolting life. It’s so bad I couldn’t share it through fear of causing distress. I shall skirt round the issue by saying he has been repeatedly beaten by his previous owner. I cannot disclose any more but needless to say this poor dog is damaged. He’s been in RSPCA care for two months as a case animal and transferred to us this week for assessment to see if he can be rehomed. He is large breed dog, which in itself causes problems – both the breed and size that is before we start to unpick the behavioural problems that he has.

It is with a heavy heart that we start a journey with him that could well end in the ultimate tragedy. My staff know it and I know it, but our commitment to do all we can for him (and all the others like him) never waivers.  He will get all the help that we can possible afford him and we will do all we can to rehabilitate him, but we acknowledge our limitations and our duty to society to protect them from harm.

This week tickets go on sale for Cesar Milan’s tour of the UK in 2013. Many people know him, but for those of you who don’t he is a self-styled dog ‘trainer’. His methods are based on the outdated belief that we need to ‘dominate’ dogs and show them whose boss. He achieves compliance in the animals by afflicting pain and stress. He uses ‘techniques’ that are easily replicated by the lay person, which makes his ideas all the more lethal.

The physical chastisement Cesar Milan applies does nothing to address the route of the animal’s behavioral problem. Punishment is a quick fix that merely serves to temporarily suppress fear and anxiety in an animal. By adding abusive and aversive techniques to an animal’s existing fear or anxiety it will only serve to create a ticking time bomb. Inevitably what will transpire is a temporary suppression of the undesirable behaviours but in the long run this will only make the animal unpredictable and create even more problems than there were to start of with.

Punishment does not fix a problem, it simply creates more.

I heard someone defend Cesar Milan this week by saying isn’t it better to punish an animal than to put it to sleep? The naivety of this statement betrayed what little knowledge that individual (and Cesar Milan) has of the way animals, in particular dogs, learn.

In this video Cesar Milan seems to be trying to teach a dog not to perceive the chicken as prey. All he is actually achieving with this technique is to teach the dog to have negative associations with him (the handler) and in the process physically and emotionally abusing both animals. This is not socialisation but abuse. This is context specific and too brief an exposure to the chicken for the dog to have become habituated to the chicken. Moreover, the dog’s avoidance of the chicken will only be temporary.

Take a look at this video:

If you’ve had the stomach to watch it then you’ll be left feeling quite distressed from seeing the repeated abuse of animals. What Milan has done in this instance is applied the technique of  ‘flooding’ alongside a skewed version of counter-conditioning using physical punishment. In lay terms all he’s done is layered more problems on top of the underlying behavioural problem the dogs have.

Take the skateboard example. The bulldog clearly has a phobia of skateboards but rather than gradually accustom the dog to the presence, sound and movement of a skateboard the dog is repeatedly kicked to suppress his fear response. What’s going to happen? Well, in the long-run the fear of the skateboard is not addressed, if anything it’s more likely heightened and eventually that suppressed fear could result in the dog redirecting his fear as a aggression and someone getting hurt. In addition, the dog has learnt to fear other aspects of that learning experience – the handler, the environment, others around him, the noise of the skateboard that he may transfer to other similar sounding stimuli.

So, to simply state that hitting an animal is kinder than euthanasia is just too simplistic and doesn’t address the
real root of the problem as to what the extent of the ‘damage’ is to the animal, i.e. what are their problem behaviours and what are they rooted in? With our new admission this week we are yet to discover in what way his problems are manifested, but one thing you can be sure of, if we can work on them and help him to recover and find a home then we jolly well will.

I’ll leave you with this video, an excerpt from The Alan Titchmarsh Show this week:

Alan Titchmarsh gets hero of the week award, that’s for sure.