Sharks & Shock - The story of a frog in hot water

In 2010 Premier Pet Products merged with Radio Systems Corporation. The main concern for many people in the humane non-pain dog training community was that RSC is the main supplier of shock collars in the US and that Premier would in some way now sell and endorse shock collars.

Janet Velenovsky was the head of Premier’s training and behavior division for 7 years. She resigned from Premier in September of 2011.

This interview was conducted via email and was not edited or embellished in any way by me. What you read is what was asked and answered.

Q 1 – At the outset of the merger between Premier and RSC the president of Premier Sharon Madere was very optimistic about the merger, as were many others in the pet dog training community, yet there was an equal if not greater part of the pet dog training community that was to say the least not happy and very skeptical. From your viewpoint what went wrong for you?

When I first heard the news two years ago, about a month earlier than most people, I literally cried for two weeks. I couldn’t attend company meetings or function very well at all. I knew intuitively this would end badly. I wanted to quit immediately.

Like most people, I needed to consider my financial situation. I also didn’t want to leave behind years and years of work and effort, nor the many strong relationships I had developed with people like Dr. RK Anderson and many other leaders in the industry. (Premier had an amazing relationship with the majority of veterinary behaviorists, veterinary and vet tech organizations, movers and shakers and organizations in the training industry, and lots of shelter people. RSC does not have those kinds of relationships, though they covet them.)

Not being in control of the situation at all, I decided to confer with as many of my mentors and advisors as possible, and to think carefully about all the options open to me and the ramifications of each choice. After a lot of discussion about potential collaborations with electrical engineers, a company with deep pockets for development, inventors with high-tech ideas, and using the knowledge of Premier’s friends and advisors in the training community, plus encouragement from others involved with Premier, I agree to stay with Premier for the time being. I set a goal to help bring education which could affect change to people who didn’t know a lot about dog and cat behavior.

Premier staff have been stalwart in trying to make the best of the situation. Despite assurances that Premier would remain its own company, not selling or promoting shock, and continue to service our customers as we had, Radio Systems doled out a continuous succession of small changes to processes, products, inventory, etc. It only took about 6 or 7 months to realize Radio Systems management did not intend to respect the Premier brand or mission in the way we’d hoped. For each of us, things we had previously had management of began to be taken away or realigned. In my department, Training & Behavior Education, we saw a steady decline in interest from the headquarters in Knoxville regarding our opinions and concerns.

The tipping point for me was an “ideation summit” held at a site halfway between Richmond and Knoxville. Associates from RSC and employees of Premier met to talk about trends in pet ownership and training, and to brainstorm new product ideas. Premier employees were paired with RSC associates on teams; each team was encouraged to come up with one new product idea and “pitch it” – in the style of the show, Shark Tank – to a panel of judges which included the COO of RSC. Despite several ideas involving enrichment, networking for educational purposes, or remote supervision and feedback for dogs suffering with separation distress, what did the judges choose to reward as the “winner”? You guessed it, a new way to use shock to limit a dog’s range of movement.

So, it was not any one thing that went wrong, it was many, many things. All of this reminded me of the fable of two frogs. One gets dumped into a pot of boiling water and jumps right out. The other is put in a cool pot, and the heat is turned on slowly. He doesn’t jump out right away because the changes are gradual. But, one day as he’s being cooked, he realizes the water has gotten very, very hot.

Q 2- Premier stated in its letter to the public about the merger with RSC that that they would retain their name and branding yet now we see they are changing their name. When and how did this get decided?

The Premier name is quite branded in the dog training community 20 plus years in fact. It was stated at the time of the merger that RSC “believe very strongly in the value of Premier – our products, our brand, and our reputation in the industry. RSC has made a strategic decision to focus on developing positive-based training products (hoping to launch a couple next year), and therefore a partnership with Premier makes a lot of sense for them

After the pain of that summit in late 2010, I knew I had to make a change. I reduced my hours at Premier to 20 per week, took a role as advisor to my department, and began concentrating on my own training & behavior business. Mid-2011, I heard that customer, veterinary, and trainer surveys were being conducted by the parent company to gauge the value of the different brand names used by Premier versus “PetSafe”. In addition, RSC was in discussion with several very big box stores about getting product (or more product) placement. These big companies wanted fewer brand names to keep up with. I wasn’t privy to all of the discussions, but I know Premier staff fought hard to retain the Premier brand and separation from the parent company. As usual, the phrase “follow the money” seems apt.

Q 3 - Why the rebranding then?

I can only surmise it is easier and more potentially profitable for them. What they are “tossing out with the bathwater” is the credibility, respect and all the relationships Premier spent 20 years developing with the training & behavior community.

If you haven’t seen RSC’s announcement yet, visit http://www.premier.com/View.aspx?page=about/premier/rsc/letterfromjasonhart-september2011.

I hope everyone who reads this will take time to write or call Jason Hart to express your anger and disappointment in RSC’s decision.  ([email protected]) They do not believe we trainers and other pet professionals matter regarding their bottom line profits. Let’s prove them wrong.

I also hope you will show your displeasure and protest by refusing to make purchases from the Premier booth at the APDT conference. Stop by the booth and offer condolences and support for the Premier employees, but investigate new vendors at the tradeshow and research replacement products for your training needs. Don’t reward RSC for this behavior. Don’t feed the shark.

As the head of training & behavior for Premier you would obviously be involved in the development of any new “positive – based training products” as was touted at the time of the merger.

Q 4 - Where are they with the development of these positive-based training products?

After the initial announcement of the purchase, I encouraged a very strategic development of the most inventive and attractive electronic reward-based training products first, giving a “slam dunk” to the Premier unit to demonstrate our value, and rewarding the Premier fans for their patience and faith. The Click-R™ Duo got first place in line, and is on the market now, but I don’t think that was our best idea. Some other good ideas from inventors were started; several may leave the stable, a few are staying. I am no longer knowledgeable about all the details. Suffice it to say, you will not see amazing revelations at APDT’s conference as you did last year.

Companies sell products and products make people “long money”. Meaning if they have their name on it and are on the patent they reap the biggest financial rewards.

Q 5 – Would you say money is at the heart of the issue for the people involved on all fronts at this point with RSC?

Sadly, I think profits are the main driving force for most sizeable pet product companies, including food and treat manufacturers. And, because of a focus on the financials over the quality and ethics of products, many will be on the losing side of things – pet owners, pet trainers, and the pets themselves. One of the things I loved about Premier was the balance Sharon Madere strived to achieve between what was good for the brand, the company, the employees, the owners, the pets, and the allied professionals who contributed to, endorsed, and/or used the products themselves. We actually considered the pets to be one of our customers. I don’t see that with most manufacturers we know. It was a unique model.

I do believe there are some very responsible companies out there. I sure hope they can avoid being eaten by sharks.

If I knew any brilliant economists, I would like to ask the question – “Why do companies have to keep growing exponentially to be considered successful? What’s wrong with providing good, quality US-made products at a reasonable price, employing people with living wages and good working conditions, and making products people and their pets can trust and enjoy?”

It would appear from the outside looking in to this merger and how it has progressed that dollars not dogs is the motivation for the higher ups at RSC.

Q 6 – Would that be an accurate assessment? Because the skeptics and those that were not happy about the merger will be saying, “we told you so”.

Yes, sadly, for a company that claims it wants to be the most trusted, I believe they do very little to earn that trust amongst pet professionals. I hope those professionals will not feed the shark.

And, I’d like to address the “I told you so” thing. Yep. And now what?

Each of us has to make decisions based on our own situations. I respect those who chose to stop purchasing or promoting Premier products right away. (I do. I considered it myself.) But, I expect them to at least try to understand why I did what I did. Each of us proceeded with best intentions. And who is to say either of us didn’t plant seeds in the minds or hearts of shock collar customers or manufacturers (or their employees) which might bear fruit one day? We’ll just have to wait and see.

One of the most debated and discussed topics in dog training and behavior is the use of aversive means, force, fear, pain, choke and shock. Some people are convinced that “shock does not hurt”, yet anyone with a shred of insight into how behavior works, especially in dogs; would know that positive punishment (P+) adding and aversive to decrease behavior has to have some type of harm or pain/fear/aversion other wise it will not work; it is in the quadrant, Skinner and others are saying this will cause some harm or at the very least discomfort but how much remains question and then there is the responsibility – ethics – emotions and knowledge about dog behavior of the person administering the shock. That’s a tall order considering most dog owners cannot deliver a reward at the right time.

Dr. R K Anderson, my mentor, friend, and teacher, reminds me repeatedly that punishment is a normal part of learning. But, of course, there is a huge difference between punishment and pain, between consequences that reduce behavior because the subject doesn’t care for them and those that cause pain, fear, aversion, or constant abuse and annoyance.

I believe pet professionals and manufacturers should adhere to the “First do no harm” pledge that veterinarians do. If one creates, promotes, or uses a product that can be misunderstood or misused, it is that organization’s (or person’s) responsibility to educate the consumer on the correct usage (if there is one) and/or find ways to limit who can purchase or use it. I believe Radio Systems has failed miserably in owning and shouldering that responsibility. They repeatedly employ the euphemism “static” when referring to shock products, they do not empathetically investigate claims of injury, they sponsor “studies” which will bolster their position on shock collars, and they provide “do it yourself” shock collar fencing even though they know that the education piece is essential to effective and safe use. Heck, most of these guys won’t even train their own dogs with the shock collars they sell; they hire someone else to do it.

Q 7 – What is your stance on the use of electronic shock by trainers or pet dog owners to decrease behavior or contain dogs in boundaries?

I personally will not use shock in any way. I’ve been training for 10 - years and have never come across a case where there were not several viable options to consider rather than using shock. In addition, I have spent many hours helping owners and pets to overcome the fallout from the use of shock products, including aggression, bites to humans, and universally fearful behavior. To me, there is no reason to gamble with the uncertain outcome of shock products when one knows how to use the entire spectrum of learning science. I will not do it.

In your training & behavior career you must have seen dogs damaged and made behaviorally unsound by being shocked.

Q 8 – (A) Had anyone ever brought the risks and fallouts of shock to the folks at RSC, and if so (B) what was their level of concern for dogs that would be severely damaged? (C) How much research into the detriments of shock has RSC done?

(A) Absolutely. Repeatedly.

(B) Level of concern for the dogs? In my opinion, negligible.

(C) Concern for paying consultants for defensive language to counter concerns about shock collar burns or other fallout? Significant.

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