Dogs and the Ethics of Training
This article originally appeared in the December 3, 2010 issue of Dog News.
It’s a fact that many of the breeds we have today were originally bred to do some very tough jobs. We have mastiff breeds which were dogs of war at one time. We have terriers who not only bolted but killed fox and vermin. We have sighthounds who coursed wolves, deer and hare; and we have other hounds who could corner bear, raccoons, and wild boar.
Times change, of course. Bear baiting was made illegal in England in 1835, resulting in changes to many breeds which had been used for that sport. Breeders worked hard to change the temperament of many of the bully breeds which had been used for bear baiting prior to that time, making them excellent family pets today.
However, there are many breeds today which are still used for their original purposes, at least part-time. Greyhounds still race and course. Many sporting dogs are still used as working bird dogs. And foxhounds and other treeing hounds are still used for hunting.
Recently in South Carolina the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) released film footage of the practice of bear “baying.” This is a training exercise during which a bear is staked out in a pen and hunting dogs (in this case Plott hounds) are taught how to attack the bear without getting hurt. The bear is not allowed to be hurt either.
You’re probably wondering why anyone would want to do such a thing. The answer is that Plott hounds are still used for actual bear hunting. They corner or tree bears and, in an actual hunting situation, the dogs need to know how to approach a bear without being torn to shreds. It’s the dogs’ job to hold the bear in place until the hunter can arrive on the scene. Presumably, if you simply take the dogs out to hunt without any training or experience they would be at greater risk of being killed by a bear they try to tree or corner. So, bear baying serves a training purpose.
South Carolina seems to be the only state where bear baying is still legal, according to HSUS.
Now, is bear baying a pleasant experience for a bear? I’m sure it’s not. Does it prepare the dogs for meeting a bear under actual hunting circumstances in the woods? It seems likely that it does. Is bear baying something that I personally approve of? That’s not really relevant. Done properly, the bear is not supposed to be injured during bear baying as the dogs are supposed to learn how to hold the bear in place without injuring the bear or being injured themselves. That’s the whole point of the training.
You should keep in mind, too, that bear “baying” is NOT the same thing as bear baiting, which was a bloody sport which resulted in the death of the animal.
This case has become important for several reasons. The American Kennel Club asked the American Plott Association to disavow bear baying and the club refused to do so. As a result, the AKC has severed ties with the parent club over this issue.
It’s easy to sympathize with the bear in this instance, but it’s important to remember the purpose of this training: to keep dogs safer during hunting.
This is not an easy issue. Before you decide that the AKC is correct in this instance, consider that there are many breeds which have advanced training which could be construed as being “cruel” by some observers. For example, shepherds and sheepdog trainers often train herding dogs with cows and sheep which will give them a kick in order to teach them better herding and nipping skills. Some gundog trainers in the U.S. use electronic collars, which are considered “cruel” in the UK — the Kennel Club in Britain is seeking to have them banned by the government. Hunting fox, deer and hare with dogs in the UK is banned as cruel, despite the fact that we have countless breeds which were developed for these purposes. There are people in the United States who believe it’s cruel to use hounds to course hare and other animals.
Just where do you draw the line?
In this case, HSUS has produced, once again, a video that certainly looks terrible, on first viewing. It looks like a bear is being abused by dogs. However, there is often more to consider. I would hate for any dogs to die during hunting because they were not properly trained, especially when bears are not physically harmed during the training process.
Many of us have breeds with long historical traditions. We’re proud of those traditions and some people try to maintain them as much as possible today. That’s not easy to do in an increasingly urban world. I don’t think we should be so quick to label those traditions “cruel” or try to eliminate them, especially without more evidence or without making more effort to understand them. Afterall, part of our job as breed custodians is to maintain our breeds and their traditions. That includes the work that our dogs were bred to do.