To the guy at the park who kicked his dog, I want to apologize. I was totally in bounds and okay to scream “Don’t kick your dog!” at you, the part I’m apologizing for is the part where I followed it with, “What the FUCK is WRONG with you??”. I apologize both because this was unkind, reactive, and unhelpful behavior on my part, and because I already know what the fuck is wrong with you. It’s the same thing that is wrong with me sometimes, and with a zillion other dog owners at the park, and at home, and for crying out loud, at the Farmer’s Market. You are frustrated. You are angry. You are embarrassed by your dog’s behavior. You are tired of your dog acting like a jerk when you know he’s really a sweet dog and you love him. You’re saying to yourself, “What the fuck is wrong with me? How can I love this dog who is such a jerk? Why haven’t the things I’ve tried fixed this?” I’m sorry that you’re in this position. I’m sorry that your dog is in this position. You have a “reactive” dog. I don’t know if he’s aggressive, or just fearful on his leash because he feels trapped and forced to confront other dogs. It doesn’t matter. He’s sending some message to other dogs he sees, and that message is, “Steer clear of me! See me lunge, growl, snap, bark? Run away!”
You may have tried training. You may have come to a positive reinforcement based, behavior based, science-junkie trainer like me. Who may have told you things you didn’t want to hear. That it may take a long time. That you have to stop dragging him through the farmer’s market every Saturday, and in fact, may not be able to take him anyplace for a while. That he may need supplemental medication to settle down that brain chemistry so you can build new neural paths through physical repetition, for reinforcement, without bad consequences. New paths to feeling safe. This may have all been too much, or you may be trying to work through it, unsuccessfully, due to too much environmental stimulation, trying to go too fast, skipping steps, refusing medication, or whatever. Maybe you’re doing awesome and today was a one-off. If so, I hope you both recover quickly from the frustration. Maybe, like some clients I’ve had, the idea that your dog has feelings, opinions, fears, anxieties, is too much for you, and you cannot accept that, and “would prefer that the dog just lie on the climb…” Or it’s just “easier” to yank the dog around on the prong than to spend the time teaching him loose leash walking/jogging, and that it’s reinforcing to be in position next to you.
You may have gone to some of those other guys in town. The prong collar person who yanks, until the dog falls over, blue tongue hanging out. The shock collar guy who tells people, “It’s just like having a remote control dog!” Or you checked out one of the multitude of Cesar Millan, or Monks of New Skete books from the library. You’re working your dominance mojo. If so, apparently, that’s not working for you. I’m sorry that you haven’t gotten quality training and advice that’s in keeping with current research in learning and behavior. That may be because it’s not well advertised. That may be because it’s more expensive.
Why does this bother me so much? Why do I make it my business? Why am I so upset that I can’t even go to the park without seeing someone kicking his dog, or like yesterday, throwing his dog to the ground, lying on the dog, holding it’s muzzle closed and yelling, “NO, NO, NO!” in the dog’s face while jerking it’s head around?
There are several reasons this bothers me. The first is purely selfish and about me. Every time I see someone handling a dog that way, I feel it as a personal failure. A failure as a trainer. I have somehow failed, despite my education, dedication to dogs and humans, my attempts to be sensitive to this type of frustration and be caring to both the dogs and owners with whom I work. I have failed to adequately communicate the science, the emotional realities, why we should care if our dogs feel pain, either emotional or physical, why our relationships with our pets matter. Why the fastest way maybe isn’t the best way, even if it feels great to us to punish the hell out of the dog, and see him stop the behavior we don’t want, in that moment. I don’t enjoy seeing your dog go through this, I don’t enjoy your violence, or the dog’s suffering, and I really don’t like arriving home from walking my dogs rushing with adrenaline and shaking all over. I walk my dogs to relax and enjoy time with them, not to witness violence.
I feel guilt that I haven’t reached more people with positive training. That it costs a lot to see me. That most people don’t find quality training until they’ve already spent a lot of time doing terrible things to their dogs. Why am I not a famous celebrity trainer with a TV show? Because frankly, competent training is boring for those with untrained observation skills to watch. Incremental learning is not the stuff of which reality TV is made. Panic, biting, lunging, and the behavior we don’t want to cause, or ever see while training, is the plot point of reality TV.
The second reason is that, though I understand your frustration and have felt the same way myself, on occasion, I am an advocate for humane treatment of animals, and it is never, ever, ever, okay to kick your dog. It just isn’t. It’s also going to adversely affect your relationship with your dog, and in the long run, if your dog is the one who turns out to bite someone “With no warning!” it will be partially your fault, for this type of mistreatment of the animal. I know this, but I can’t communicate it to you in your moment of anger and frustration, and I will probably never see you again, until the veterinary behaviorist refers you to me after your dog has done something awful, which could have been avoided. I have a lot of guilt personally about this, as well. Why can’t I reach everyone, and help them see the issues with their dogs, whether genetic and requiring lifelong management, or trained, or trauma-induced, earlier on? Why can’t I get earlier intervention, help people work around the genetics safely, avoid the trauma, and train better from the start.
The third reason is I strive to practice ending violence and decreasing suffering in the world in general. By engaging in this behavior, you are spreading the practice of violence. Against your dog, against me as a bystander, against my dogs, who had to witness your dog’s suffering, against yourself. You can make the world a better place, for yourself, your dog, me, my dogs, everyone at the park. By witnessing and not intervening in this behavior, I am allowing the practice of violence to spread. I feel torn between minding my own business, not adding to your shame and pain, and intervening on your dog’s behalf, and on my own behalf.
Next time your dog starts to get tall, in anticipation of lunging and barking, try this, take a deep breath, turn yourself and your dog the other direction. Walk away, tell your dog he’s a good dog for coming with you. Go home. Pet your dog. Take a deep breath. Assess your relationship with your dog, your dog’s relationship with the world. Think about your dog’s feelings and your own feelings. Ask for help if you need it. I will try to be a better bystander and behavior teacher next time. I will still ask you not to kick your dog. But I will take a deep breath. I won’t ask what is wrong with you. I already know. I’ll try to help.
Take a deep breath. I will, too.