I was on the phone with a friend listening to her recount something that had happened at agility class. A dog in class was running up to jump setters and the “judge” (instructor) and they decided to “fix” it. The ring crew were armed with spray bottles, and the dog was given a squirt of water to the face if he chose to visit. This is not an uncommon solution and something I did to my own sweet Kelso 15 years ago. But my friend is a smart trainer with a keen eye for dog behavior and she was so horrified by this that she took this dog’s turn to walk her dog outside.
“So, you didn’t leave, you just walked your dog until they were done?” I asked.
She hesitates, realizing the error in her actions, “Sarah, why didn’t I just leave?”
If we’ve been involved in dogs for any length of time we have probably asked ourselves the same question. Ten or so years ago I was at a seminar with a colleague put on by a pretty famous and well-respected dog behavior consultant. She has a healthy business healing serious behavior problems in pet dogs, and she has written some excellent books. Three of them sit on my shelf as I write this. And the reality of what she did before my eyes made me sick to my stomach. The heavy-handed coercion, the choice to ignore a dog’s pleading eyes, the admittance that while shaping might be kinder, forcing a dog was faster, were all making my palms clammy and my throat dry. I sat there for two straight days, as did my equally-horrified colleague. I was snapped at and shut down by the defensive presenter when I questioned her choices. I was told not to be a “one trick pony” (my trick, apparently, being positive reinforcement).
Why didn’t I just leave?
It’s easy to sit back and say you would have left, in either situation. Being there is different, believe me. Leaving when you are uncomfortable has to be a choice you make before things go sour, or it may not be what you do in the moment. There are issues of authority, and deeply-seated self-worth struggles at play here. If you’ve ever stayed in a crappy job or a bad relationship too long, you know where I am coming from here. Continuing to attend that obedience class where they tolerate your clicking while they jerk and pinch their dogs is no better than staying in your underpaid and undervalued dead-end job. You deserve better. Your dog deserves better.
Speaking of the dogs, how do we help them best? Is getting up and walking out the best solution for them, or should we stay and fight; try to encourage a cultural shift? The answer of course is that it depends.
Usually, and certainly in both cases above, speaking out will do little to help because the culture of the group is too far in one direction. We will not convince those that are not already on the fence. When we can’t save them all, we should at least save ourselves. Get up. Walk out. Do not return. It may be that that simple act will have the effect arguing never could.
And if you decide to speak out, do so from a place of kindness. Remember that you don’t know if people are doing their best, but it will make your job easier if you assume that they are.