Since the dawn of humanity, man’s best friend has been beside us. Dogs have long served a number of purposes, from herding sheep to keeping watch to providing companionship. It’s safe to say that they’ve quite earned their title. But K9 dogs, under the direction of the police (and military working dogs (MWDs)), are often not receiving the treatment that they deserve. Instead, they frequently face brutality and danger that they simply do not deserve.
From training to deployment to eventual death, many K9 dogs undergo levels of abuse that are simply unparalleled. By utilizing operant conditioning, police and military officials are able to transform man’s best friends into tools for their own, often immoral bidding.
Since Skinner developed his theory of operant conditioning nearly 100 years ago, society has taken great leaps forward in the area. Specifically, it has changed the relationship between humans and dogs. In most cases, it has allowed for the furthering of training in a positive way, integrating dogs better into our rapidly-changing society. Guides now help the blind walk, and support animals help those suffering from mental stress. But like many things, dog training has the potential to create positive and negative outcomes. In the case of military and police dogs, the latter is often true.
Operant conditioning relies on two factors: reinforcements and punishments. In the case of positive reinforcements and punishments, something is added to the environment (such as a cookie or a beating, respectively). For negative reinforcements and punishments, something is taken away (such as an alarm clock stopping or taking a privilege from a child, respectively).
K9 Dogs and Positive Punishment
In 2012, citizens of Vancouver, BC found a badly beaten dog in a dumpster. After experiencing horrible abuse, it died one day later of cardiac arrest. This prompted Pivot, a legal firm in Canada, to investigate possible injustices in K9 training.
They found that the dog, who they identified as Captain the German Shepherd, had failed K9 training. His owner was reportedly afraid of him, beating him and ultimately leaving him to die. Of course, he plays a major role in what happened to Captain. But the trainers who left the dog incapable of being handled by an untrained man are not without fault, either. After months of research, Pivot learned what training practices can do to dogs, especially the 98% who do not make it through.
In K9 training, dog trainers frequently use positive punishment in order to teach dogs obedience. Police One readily admits to using choke collars as punishments for disobedient dogs. However, another K9 trainer has moved away from this, asserting on video that this strategy was not any more helpful than more humane tactics. Despite this, choke collars are a common practice today.
Pivot took their research further, finding even more examples of abuse against Canadian K9 dogs. They discovered that training centers use prong collars and choke chains to force obedience. Some locations even forcefully grabbed dogs’ testicles, administering immense pains in order to bring about the results that they desired.
It should go without saying that these practices are grossly inhumane. Positive punishment is a useful tool, but it should never come in the form of physical abuse. For those that both pass and fail, the mental and physical effects can be crippling.
Dogs in Danger
Unfortunately, once the training period is over, the trauma for K9 dogs is not. On a daily basis, they face countless immoralities that they had absolutely no choice about doing. This ranges from routine police work to military deployment.
Last year, a report detailed the fact that K9 dogs are dying across the country in the fight against opioids. Frequently, police departments use dogs to sniff for drugs. But when this occurs, particles of the drugs themselves can become airborne, especially in close proximity. As a result, dogs are dying every year from drug overdoses.
It’s unclear just how often this occurs, but it certainly is a reality. In 2016, three dogs died in Florida from sniffing Fentanyl in a home. When the dogs smell the drug, small particles latch on to sensory receptors within the nose. So, the inhalation of the drug smells can actually lead to the dog ingesting the drug itself.
Once again, this calls into question the training of dogs, this time for sniffing drugs. If they must be accustomed, then trainers must expose them to the smells many times. Except in cases of severe trauma, this classical conditioning (conditioning a stimulus with a response over time) takes multiple trials to develop. So, in order to condition dogs to react strongly to certain drugs, they must have exposure to the smell in a number of instances. In other words, particles of cocaine, heroin, fentanyl, and other substances are going into the nose of dogs on a regular basis during drug training. Though this clearly does not kill dogs every time, it certainly cannot be beneficial to them.
MWDs Under Fire
For a long time, the army has used MWDs to help fight their wars. Dogs, of course, do not have the same rights as humans, so it would be unfair to evaluate their position in the same way as conscription. However, it is still immoral to take a dog off to a faraway land to kill. If civilians were to use dogs as trained killers to invade foreign lands with, we would call it animal abuse. Especially in cases where the dogs died as a result, there would be massive public backlash. Yet, this exact thing happens on a regular basis but receives little attention.
In the Vietnam War, Americans took dogs with them into combat. As a result, 232 of them died, but this didn’t stop the Americans. During the invasion of Iraq, from 2001 to 2013, 92 more MWDs died, the majority from either gunshot wounds or explosions.
No Skin in the Game
Humans, at least, are capable of understanding the decisions that they make for themselves. Though war under any pretense is abhorrent at best, at least Americans today knowingly consent to it. Killing on some other country’s soil is a moral wrong, but it is even more of a wrong when another species is doing it without having any qualms with the opponents.
Dogs, unlike humans, have no conceptions, either real or otherwise, of alleged American enemies. It is fair neither to the dogs nor to opponents to use beings who have no stake in the fight. Likewise, it is unjust to use K9 dogs for dangerous drug operations and to train them with violence. The government’s treatment of military and police dogs is not at all representative of the love and respect we should give to “man’s best friend”.
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