Rationalizations and Unethical Behavior: Doing Your Best as a Dog Trainer

(Originally posted March 16, 2016)

This semester I was teaching ethics to my upper level undergraduate business students, and I assigned a really good article that examined how unethical behaviours come to exist within organizations, and why these unethical behaviours persist. Then today as I was driving to work, I was reflecting on why some trainers and a lot of the pet-owning public still subscribe to force-based training.
To start, let’s define what ethics are as they pertain to dog training. Ethics is defined as the “moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity” (Oxford Dictionary, 2016). Ethics define what is right and what is wrong; what is good and what is evil. One’s ethical ideology becomes particularly relevant when decisions may harm others. I’m not going to delve too deeply into ethics ideology and how people define right and wrong; however, behaviors that are known to harm the environment, harm animals, harm at-risk individuals have often been deemed unethical if not illegal.
(Again, the ideology one holds may alter the interpretation of it being unethical; however, the legal system tends to hold the rights of the harmed.) To the extent social pressure and evidence-based training promotes no-force training as the ethical and effective way to train a dog, the question remains, why are there strongholds of force-based trainers?
This is where the article by Anand, Ashforth and Joshi (2004) comes in. In this article, Anand and his co-authors explain the process through which corruption (unethical behaviour) becomes accepted and perpetuates, even in the face of pressure to change. They argue that individuals within organizations go through a process of rationalization to justify their behaviour. There are six rationalization tactics used:
(1) Denial of responsibility – it wasn’t their fault – they were following orders or they were made to do it because of ___________[fill in the blank]___________.
(2) Denial of injury – no harm was actually done by their actions.
(3) Denial of victim – the injured party “deserved” it; they “asked for it”; they knew better and needed to be taught a lesson.
(4) Social weighting – “Hey we aren’t all that bad…. Just look at those folks… They are WAY worse than we are!!”
(5) Appeal to higher loyalties – doing it for the good of the cause – for the brethren; for my fellow officer/mate/colleague.
(6) Balancing the ledger – “We were so good on that bit there – really stellar citizens – that we’ve earned the right to cut corners now.”
When faced with pressures to acknowledge unethical behaviours, it is very common for organizations, individuals, and even social groups in society to push back with these very rationalizations. So what does this mean for dog training? Whenever I discuss how force-based training is not evidence-based best practices, and could be construed as unethical as the trainer is charged (by society and the law) to care for the animal, I frequently hear these exact rationalizations in return.
People deny responsibility, “Well this is what I was told to do by my instructor.” “This is what I was taught by *that* TV show.”
People regularly deny injury, “Don’t worry, this shock collar / choke collar / pinch collar / correction maneuver doesn’t actually hurt the dog.” Even better yet, I had a university student ask me, “If my dad used choke collars and would hit the dogs in training, why did they love him so much? Why did they show attachment to him?” My response was “Who feeds the dog?”
People deny the victim, “That dog deserved that correction. He was being willful and deliberately disobeying me! His breed is that type you have to be rough with for them to learn and understand.”
People do social weighting, “Sure sometimes I use a pinch collar, but, hey! I don’t use shock collars! You should see THAT trainer!! I’m not nearly as rough as they are!”
I don’t see much in the way of appealing to higher loyalties as rationalization for force-based training, but I do sometimes here is in terms of the type of sport “In this dog-activity, you have to…”
Finally, people definitely balance the ledger as a rationalization for using force-based methods. “We use positive reinforcement here; we just balance that with corrections to ensure the dog understands.” In essence, the inclusion of positive reinforcement in the training regimen has provided the trainer the permission to make bank withdrawals with force-based corrections.
These rationalizations can be quite persistent, and the more direct pressure applied and social shaming, the worse it tends to get. In addition, Anand et al. (2004) talk about how individuals and organizations create social cocoons – basically social groups that buffer individuals participating in unethical behaviours from judgement. These social cocoons are seen readily in the dog training community in terms of clubs, training circles, and peer groups.
So how does one immunize or cure rationalizations? The answer is through the removal of social cocoons, open dialogue without raising defenses. Providing evidence of the harm meted out by their actions and decisions. Provide education and training to provide the skill sets needed to do differently, and illustrate how it can be better and why it will be better.
To that end, we are seeing a shift in the social psyche and gestalt (social dialogue) with respect to dog training. If you hear someone (or notice yourself) using these rationalizations, be kind and gentle. Using force tactics don’t work very well with humans either as they lead to defensiveness and even more rationalization.
In closing, each day we can learn more, and each day we can do better than we did before. As Maya Angelou once said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.”
REFERENCE: Anand, V., Ashforth, B.E., & Joshi, M. (2004). Business as usual: The acceptance and perpetuation of corruption in organizations. Academy of Management Executive, 18(2), 39-53.
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