In what sense, if any, can dog training ever be truly moral?

Mara-Daria Cojocaru & Florian Steinberger

Abstract: There are a number of ways in which people object to dog training and these hinge, of course, on what ‘dog training’ is taken to mean. People object to methods that compromise the animals’ welfare – and vehemently disagree as to which methods do have that effect. People also take issue with the very idea of habituating dogs into ways of being that they did not choose themselves and cannot escape. From e-collars to haltis, from food luring to captivity, the most ancient human-animal-relation is increasingly subject to moral scrutiny. Accordingly, discussions in the “dog world” revolve around concepts such as ‘consent’, ‘responsibility’ or ‘trust’, and thus go beyond a simple or classic concern with animal welfare. The precise explications of these moral terms, however, are not necessarily reflective of canine morality or, more specifically, morality as it pertains among or is lived by (specific) dogs. These explications, arguably, have more to do with the moral fashions among humans. Now, we assume that for a practice to be ‘truly’ moral in a philosophical sense, everybody who participates in it must have some sort of agency. And philosophers interested in animal issues have long distinguished between moral agents and patients, with some increasingly acknowledging that some animals are not just moral patients. 

Instead of asking whether dogs are moral agents per se, our goal is to ask whether they, if they live as pets, can participate in the practice that concerns them the most in a way that makes it truly moral. How, in the specific context of modern dog training, can we assess whether the moral concepts humans try to bring to bear on the practice have any actual meaning to the dogs? 

We propose to, first, question the morality of dog training to the degree that it considers it as just a learning event for the dogs. Instead, humans, too, must perceive living with dogs as a learning opportunity. Second, we offer the idea of an ‘animal-informed philosophy’ as a framework for precisely these shared learning events and outline the theory behind it. Third, we compare discussions around the concepts of ‘consent’/‘force’, ‘responsibility’/‘irresponsibility’ and ‘trust’/‘deception’ with how certain learning events might have been interpreted by specific dogs whose lived experiences will serve as examples to inform our philosophical exercise. We will end by pushing back against the idea that dog-human-relations can satisfactorily be mapped by concepts that people already know from other areas of moral life. Moreover, some of the discourses around dog training run the risk of creating a false sense of moral security. Instead, humans should navigate life with dogs with caution and be open to revise their moral self-understandings in light of what specific dogs have to teach us.

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