Tonight I am sitting to write this blog out of the surge of emotions I am feeling. I usually take time to process and settle, but tonight I want to share my thoughts while I still feel shaky from what we witnessed and angry as to why this is happening around us all of the time. I will do my best to keep myself censored within this post, but feel like one day I have to just let it all out.
While driving home from a wonderful night of classes of Reactive urbanK9 we witnessed ‘dog training’ happening in a small green space by our home. A boxer type dog was attached to its human on a leash and a prong collar. As the dog took a few steps forward he would receive a heavy correction by a quick jerk on the leash that would cause him to jump back to his spot. This hurts the dog and to avoid the pain they stop. However, this dog was terrified and stressed and really had no idea what to do next. He continued to walk ahead which then resulted in the male of the pair kicking him hard in the side. He did this twice. It was heavy enough to move the dog backwards and lift its back paws off the ground. I saw red and when into my own form of fight mode and I did not conduct myself well. Let’s just say I had some strong communication with them out the window. And then we called the police. We are sitting waiting for them to arrive now and I was thrilled with how seriously they took it.
I used to feel that to conduct myself professionally, I must not do anything. That I must walk away when I witnessed physical abuse to an animal. I would never walk away if it was a child. And it never felt right and made me feel like I was conceding. Those that know me, know that I am a fighter and not afraid to speak up. Well, every time I was walking away, I was allowing this to happen and not giving a voice to the poor dog that does not have one. But what were my options? No one wants to be educated in these settings. No one is happy to have someone give their opinion or advice, no matter how gently one may choose to approach it. So, I started doing small things. Like stopping and just staring at them until they noticed. No expression on my face, but just watching. And every single time I did this, when they saw me, they stopped. Some were embarrassed and just slunked away. Some would get defensive and yell nasty things to me. And then some would just pretend they didn’t see me and walk away giving their dogs pets and speaking to them kindly. Each time though, every single person stopped. Doesn’t this point to the fact that they know they are doing something wrong? If this happened to me while I was out with my dogs, I would smile and go on my way, not stopping a thing that I was doing.
I know as a trainer, that they are learning how to do this from dog trainers. Any one can call themselves a dog trainer nowadays. Or they are learning and trying these methods from some popular trainers on television. We can sit and argue about why one way works and one way doesn’t. Or why you need to do certain things for certain dogs. Or whatever else we need to say to make ourselves feel right and justified with what we do. And I understand that this situation I witnessed tonight was extreme. And regardless of who this fellow is learning from he is likely going to apply some extreme punishment to his dog. However, it is people like him that caused me to remove all physical corrections from my training.
Years ago I was a new trainer in a puppy class. I was teaching what we called a puppy correction. It was for when a puppy was mouthing and getting too excited and could be an extremely effective tool. The goal was to hold onto the puppy’s collar and place a hand over their muzzle. You were not to apply any pressure and it would often work at settling the dog. The next week a lady came in with her shepherd cross puppy. As the class was getting settled and I was taking attendance, I noticed the puppy jumping and getting excited to be in class. The owner moved towards him and he clamped on her hand and up her arm. I understand this was extreme behaviour for a puppy and there was probably a great deal more surrounding this. However, I knew that this was a result of the puppy correction. Of course we would expect that most dog owners would apply this out of frustration and with heavy hands. At that moment, I vowed never to use a technique that could be used out of frustration. My responsibility as a trainer is to do the absolute best job at preventing physicality towards dogs. Any time you teach a correction (whether it be a small kick, a collar correction or a jab) you are teaching dog owners to interact physically with their dogs. You are not giving them the proper tools for when they feel that frustration. It doesn’t matter how well you teach it. There will be one that will take it too far. Like the guy we saw tonight. And one out of 500, 5000 or even 500,000 is one too many for me.
I’ve said this before, and I will say this again. This is not just about dog training, but rather every professional or person that interacts with dogs. They are not humans. They are not here just to please us. They are not plotting to take over the world. They do not need us to control them. They need us to listen. They need us to learn. They need us to take the time to teach them. What I witnessed tonight was upsetting and filled me with anger. I will do a better job with my own behaviour, but it just builds inside when it seems you cannot go anywhere without seeing stressed, confused dogs being punished. I will not turn a blind eye and ask you not to as well. I’m not sure I have the answer yet, but you bet I have the fight. I will continue to lead by example, reach as many people as I can through dogma and do whatever it takes to make our voice louder. But right now, I will think about the poor dog I saw tonight. Keep his face strong in my mind and vow to him that things will change. Who’s with me?