Why I Don't Do Canine Good Citizen (CGC) Testing

Questioning the priorities behind the CGC behavior assessment test
By Rain Jordan CBCC-KA, KPA-CTP, January 2019

If a dog sits when told to do so, some will say the dog is “obedient” or has “manners”; if that same dog sits when told to lie down, is that same dog suddenly lacking manners and obedience? What if the dog doesn’t lie down when cued because it is painful to do so at that moment?

Compared to observable phenomena (like “barking”) and specific objects or beings (like “dogs”) whose veridicality is not dependent on the thoughts, beliefs, or opinions of an observer, many of our words are little more than constructs—subjective ideas, labels that rely on infinitely varying opinions but that provide no facts. Constructs are abstract and subjective. The ideas of “manners” and “obedience” are constructs because there is no single, universally agreed upon definition for these words, and there is no one set of specific observable behaviors described by the “manners” and “obedience” labels. You might label a dog mannerless if s/he licks your hand whereas I might categorize the behavior as appeasing. If a dog runs away when his handler yells at him to “come,” you might call him disobedient. I might call him scared and ask you to consider the context—e.g., is this a dog who suffered a history of abuse at the hands of a screamer earlier in life? In life, whether human or canine, context is crucial.

CGC is the AKC’s manners and obedience program acronym for Canine Good Citizen. “Good” is a construct as is “good citizen.” This fact alone should be enough to raise questions about the viability and legitimacy of a program that declares itself “rapidly becoming recognized as the standard of behavior for dogs” and that actively works to influence government policy on dogs, as well as insurance industry standards and even HOA rules that could result in your dog not being allowed to live with you, or you not being able to find a home for you and your dog.

From the CGC website:

There are also an increasing number of apartments and condos that require resident dogs to pass the CGC test….The AKC’s Canine Good Citizen® (CGC) Program is rapidly becoming recognized as the standard of behavior for dogs in our communities. Canine Good Citizen® resolutions have been passed by 47 state legislatures and the United States Senate, insurance companies are starting to use CGC® to insure breeds they would not otherwise insure, and some condominium associations around the country now require that all dogs in the complex have earned the Canine Good Citizen® award. (emphasis added)

From the Best Friends’ blog:

There are more than 600 AKC clubs in the United States. The AKC produces or licenses more than 200 revenue-generating products sold through more than 7,000 U.S. retailers. AKC revenue for 2011 surpassed $59 million, with $23 million coming from registrations.

The CGC program is one of those products. Beyond concern some may have about possible underlying motives of that product, what concerns me is the potential for harm to animals and their humans. There are potential long term consequences to your rights to have your dog in your home as well as to your privacy, autonomy, and socioeconomic position—you can, for example, end up involuntarily defaulting on your home loan and therefore even lose your home if no insurer will insure you. But there also are short term consequences that may arise from the process of preparing a dog for CGC testing, and from its process of inculcation overall.

As a canine behavior and training professional, I prioritize the well-being of dogs. A huge part of ensuring well-being is respecting and assessing each dog as an individual, training and handling each dog accordingly, guided by the parameters of modern science. The CGC’s requirements appear to set priorities elsewhere. Even its “Responsible Dog Owners Pledge”—which is notably absent of any admonitions against using force, pain, or intimidation on dogs—is mainly focused on human comforts. While there are a few vague statements that might be interpreted to address the dog’s wellness, the pledge is heavy on ‘I won’t allow my dog to do x y or z that makes people unhappy.’ The most alarming of the pledge’s itemized list is one item that ignores basic dog communication—indeed, ignores basic Dogness—declaring that “I will not allow my dog to infringe on the rights of others” or “be a nuisance to others by barking…” For most, barking is part of being a dog. A dog that is barking is doing so for a reason, and that reason often is human-created, so it seems wrong to declare that you must not allow your dog to bark in the yard, et cetera. What are you to do if you can’t get rid of the leaf-blowing gardener next door? Panicking and frustrated owners have been known to take drastic measures. Tactics like forcing a dog’s mouth closed or surgical de-barking are not options for dog lovers. A primer on counterconditioning and training alternative behavior could be a good first step toward ousting unreasonable expectations from the pledge.

But what about the unreasonable expectations of the test itself? Passing it is contingent upon several requirements that should give all dog owners pause, perhaps the most dangerous of which is this: “Any dog that growls…is not a good citizen and must be dismissed from the test.” This edict dismisses a majority of dogs, since many dogs’ natural communication behavior is to growl to inform us of their discomfort, fear, et cetera. Anyone working in dog-related professions, especially those influencing public policy, needs to understand canine behavior, and that means to understand, for starters, that the growl is part of a normal, early warning system for dogs, and that training a dog to suppress the growl is setting up a dog to feel that s/he has no option but to escalate to advanced warnings or actions. Rejection of the growl by the CGC program and the concomitant labeling of a dog that growls as a bad citizen is misguided at best, and dangerous at worst. Up-to-date expectations and practices, on the other hand, result in humans recognizing, respecting, and reacting properly to a dog’s early warning system. That means more safety and well-being for everyone, dogs and humans.

Another natural, normal behavior disallowed by the CGC test is the basic biological function of elimination: “Any dog that eliminates during the test must be marked failed.” Many CGC tests are done outdoors, which makes this automatic failure even more dissonant. Furthermore, some dogs, especially those who had been abused in their history, will involuntarily urinate when nervous or afraid, or as a submissive behavior—yet ironically, it seems that submissive behavior is the kind of behavior the AKC desires.

Then there’s the disallowing of dogs who show any sort of concern, discomfort, or fear. Fail will be the grade if your dog does not welcome a “friendly stranger” to approach you, if your dog does not allow such a stranger to pet or handle her, or if your dog does not walk through a test-crowd of strangers “without evidence of over-exuberance, shyness, or resentment.” It is worth remembering our history in regards to trusting “friendly strangers”—especially for women as well as our dogs; it is not in our or our dogs’ best interest to automatically trust a stranger just because s/he acts friendly. Similarly, if something alarming happens, I want my dog to respond accordingly, but the CGC program requires that if your dog is not “confident at all times” in distracting situations that the CGC rules stipulate as “common,” such as dropping a chair (!), she will get her letters but they won’t be the ones you wanted. Instead, the Scarlet Bad Citizen label will fill the air around her. In the CGC’s opinion, your dog should even accept being suddenly left with a stranger on the other end of the leash while you disappear; a dog with the condition known as separation anxiety, however well-trained otherwise, would be marginalized. Sadly, all of this means that shy and fearful dogs need not apply and shall not be considered good citizens. This is terribly unfortunate because shy and fearful dogs are already severely marginalized and too often are needlessly euthanized. Yet most shy and fearful dogs are also devoted, loving, and gentle dogs, and pretty much all the fearful dogs I’ve known have been wonderful ‘trainees,’ especially when their basic needs for survival and a sense of safety are met.

I won’t go so far as to examine the potential of CGC program requirements leading to learned helplessness. One hopes that no owners are so determined to gain the CGC label that they inadvertently or otherwise employ tactics that risk the learned helplessness malady. Too, I will stay away from parsing how evaluators are accepted and the “Self Assessment of CGC Knowledge Test” other than to mention that I feel confirmation of humane handling, and R+ and ABA (positive reinforcement and behavior modification) literacy should be requirements. I cannot avert my eyes, however, from the disenfranchising of disadvantaged dogs and their devoted, sometimes quite knowledgeable owners. I ask you, too, to set your gaze on the plight that CGC creates for many dogs and their families, and to not be lured by dangling golden stars of pride and over-control. Better to look to the shooting stars high above, pinning our wishes, and our efforts, on the day when Dogness is not only accepted but celebrated.

Rain Jordan is a Certified Canine Behavior Consultant (CBCC-KA) and Certified Dog Trainer Professional (KPA-CTP) specializing in counterconditioning for fearful, feral, and traumatized dogs and skills training for all dogs. She writes for the Seaside Signal and Cannon Beach Gazette, is the Oregon coordinator for the Pet Professional Guild's Shock Free Coalition and is the owner of Elevate Dog Training & Behavior.

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