Part and parcel of ethics in the medical profession is the concept of “primum non nocere” which is Latin for “first, do no harm”. In a nutshell, it urges the physician to weigh the risks of an action against the possible outcomes.
Say for instance a doctor has a patient with very limited mobility. A new brace comes on the market promising better mobility with less pain if worn for just a few short weeks. However, there is a real risk the brace could actually diminish their mobility, and once diminished, the lost mobility would not return. Is promise of some relief worth the risk of permanent worsening of the original condition?
Primum non nocere is something I believe should be first and foremost in the minds of trainers, behaviorists, and owners as well, especially in dealing with dogs having behavioral issues like fear and aggression. We should always consider the risks associated with a particular method of behavior modification. I believe extra scrutiny is warranted for those methods that seem to offer quick or miraculous improvement in very short periods of time.
I’ve found that trainers who practice primum non nocere usually employ methods grounded in solid and accepted behavioral science. They favor consistency and repeatable actions that build trust and lay a foundation allowing animals to discover new and positive ways to react to situations, allowing them the discovery of their own volition.
While not an absolute, the price of primun non nocere as it relates to training is often patience, and as Hamlet might say, “Ay, there’s the rub!” We are programmed to seek quick solutions to problems. Often, in the case of behavioral problems in dogs, these quick fix solutions involve corrective devices treating the dog as a foil to the desired behavior and not a student of it.
If you are considering using a corrective device on a dog for what you consider to be a behavioral problem, please ask yourself this question:
Is a possible short term fix for the problem worth the possibility of making the problem worse?
I use the phrase “short term fix” for a reason. Behavior does not exist in a vacuum. While correction for undesired behavior may work, in many instances, you still haven’t given the dog an acceptable alternative for that urge. The extinguished behavior may reappear in a different and possibly more undesirable form.
Practicing pimum non nocere when considering methods of training will always provide you with a way to build trust, and isn’t that what it’s all about in the first place?
We welcome your thoughts as always.