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How Can You Tell When It's Cruel?

Thinking and Deciding

This page is not for the person who wants answers. This page is for the person who wants to think, to explore. It's purpose is to help improve awareness about how we form opinions, and how we make decisions. Oh! and for the person who wrote me and said "I think your ideas are really "way out there". Are you doing this for attention, or are you for real?" Don't get your knickers in a bunch. If you don't have a sense of humor, if you can't appreciate irony and hyperbole, for heaven's sake don't read this!

How can you tell when it's cruel?

In discussing dogs people often toss out the phrase "oh, that's cruel" in circumstances that make me doubt that they understand the word, or if they do how to truly identify cruelty. What do you think? How do you know when its cruel?

Let's start with the dictionary definition:

"Cruel: 1. willfully or knowingly causing pain or distress in others. 2. enjoying the pain or distress of others 3. causing or marked by great pain or distress 4. rigid, stern, strict, unrelentingly severe."

Hmmm, small wonder most people react angrily when someone calls them "cruel".

Can we judge cruelty to dogs by our own standards, or do we need to refer to the nature of the dog? I don't much care for the casual tossing around of that phrase "it's cruel" unless the person using can define exactly what it is that makes it "cruel." Presumption, assumption and anthropomorphism make very poor guides for determining whether something we do with our canine friends is indeed "cruel." Is giving a dog medication by slipping it into a chunk of raw liver cruel to the dog just because you think liver is really disgusting? Below I've listed some of the things we do to our dogs that might sound "cruel", but are they?.

I believe that evaluating purpose (the balance of the distress applied as against the distress to be avoided) and perception (whether the party on the receiving end perceives it as distressful) is important to evaluating whether something is cruel.

For example, is rubbing a dog with a dead fish cruel? How can you tell whether it is, or it is not? Does it matter that the dog was only moments before gleefully rolling in that same dead fish? Take a dog that feels pretty well and subject it to surgery to remove a cancerous tumor, after which the dog suffers the normal pain of the incision and the itchy irritation of the healing wound (not to mention the fear and anxiety of the hospitalization). Is that cruel? Does it matter whether the surgery changes the prognosis for a long and healthy life?

Let's say we are going to apply a training method called snarfly to teaching a dog to come reliably on command. What are we looking for in deciding whether the method is acceptable? Does the body language of the dog have any part in our evaluation as to acceptability? If you have never used the method and don't know anything at all about it can you judge whether or not it is cruel by watching it in application? What about variation in reaction between dogs. If some dogs show enthusiasm, and confidence, while others show depression and uncertainty is the method cruel? Or perhaps the method is acceptable as to some dogs, but unacceptable as to others?

Do you suppose that sometimes the language we use to describe things influences our perception of them? Does our use of language sometimes cause us to form impressions diverse from reality? For example, I used to teach in environmental education. I'd ask the students how many of them enjoyed eating such things as dead birds, rotten milk, or bee spit. After the expected reaction I'd explain I was simply talking about chicken, cheese and honey. Interestingly on occasion a parent would complain that such a description would put them off the items. Why? Its character hadn't changed.

If I tell you that it is a good idea to poke a hollow length of sharpened metal under the skin of your dog would you believe me? Would you even think, at that moment, that I was talking about vaccinations? I doubt the dog finds it pleasant. What factors do you use to decide whether that poke with the hollow length of sharpened metal is a good thing, or cruelty?

Do the circumstances make a difference whether something is cruel or not. For example, yelling sharply at a dog thereby causing it to stop dead in its tracks and show timidity and submission. Is that cruel? Does it make a difference if the dog is about to set foot into a busy street? Does it make a difference if it is not your dog, and not your fault that the dog is about to go into the street, but the power of your voice can stop it?

Let's go back to the training method called snarfly. You are watching a class of fifteen dogs being trained by this method. After class you will be given an opportunity to examine the dogs. You note that the training is very effective in that the dogs follow the commands given, seem to learn quickly, and appear to retain what they have learned. What are you going to be looking for in deciding whether this snarfly trainer is a genius or a cruel and thoughtless person? How, exactly, are you going to decide whether you want to condemn or condone this training that you are observing, but otherwise know nothing about?

Are you still with me? Have I got you thinking? Good, let's go on and see if you can separate cruelty from kindness.

Are we cruel?

Some of us recently discussed the things we do with and to our dogs and how some of them might appear to be cruel. So I put together this list. What do you think? Would you do this to your dog? Are you sure?

We deliberately expose our dogs to a form of radiation well known to cause cancer in humans.

We amputate our dog's body tissue.

We deprive our dogs of their natural camouflage.

We destroy their self-preservation skills.

We take strips of dead animals and fasten it around our dog's neck.

Some of us prefer to use long dead plants and animals that have been further heat and chemical refined to form filaments resistant to tearing.

If we want something more colorful we might use the protective coating for reproductive organs that has been stripped, twisted, woven then painted with chemicals.

We deny them their closest companions.

We destroy long-standing relationships.

We frequently touch our dogs with a bit of bio-mechanics directed by electrical impulses.

One of the most effective ways of teaching some dogs not to wander off is to cause them great distress.

One of the most effective ways of getting a dog to come is to cause it great distress.

We can gain great control over a dog by looping something around one of the most sensitive areas of a dogs body

We imprison them.

Sometimes we apply a vacuum-powered bio-mechanical apparatus to our dog's face.

Some of us put bits of toxic waste filters into our dog's food.

We force them to become polite members of human society.

We restrict their natural movements.

We tease them, withholding vital substances they want almost to desperation.

We incarcerate them and subject them to motion sickness tests

We give them solvent to drink. If they refuse the solvent, we may force them to drink it.

Sometimes we dissolve some animal bodies in the solvent.

We occasionally cover our dogs with the solvent dihydrogen monoxide causing their ears and tails to droop in distress.

Most of us require our dogs to sustain themselves primarily on desiccated animal bodies.

When we feel generous we may add bits of rotted cow secretions to their feed bowl.

We take our dogs to have sharpened bits of steel shoved under their skin.

We deny their reproductive freedom of choice

We subject them to unwanted medical care

We rake their skin with multiple metal spikes

We limit their choices of bathroom facilities

AND - We don't let them drive or vote!

Have you made up your mind? Are you confused? I've added a little more descriptive information to this list on the web page at: Maybe that will help you make up your mind. Of course if you are not a thoughtful person you will already have decided.

The next time you find your mouth opening with "oh, that's cruel" consider, if you will, exactly what it is that makes that thing cruel. The point isn't that nothing is cruel, nor that everything we do is cruel. The point most certainly is not about agreeing as to what is cruel and what is not. The purpose of the above is simply to better improve your ability to make decisions by making you aware of what things influence your opinions.

  Want to explore training equipment? See:

Dog Owner's Guide: The Prong Collar

Dog Owner's Guide: Head Collars

Prong Collar Info

The Gentle Leader Headcollar

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Copyright © 1998-2003, Diane Blackman     Created: September 11, 1998     Updated January 15, 2007    

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