You did WHAT to your Dog?

Some dog trainers refuse to have lengthy phone conversations with potential clients; they want to sell their services and keep the initial chat as brief as possible. While that’s understandable and maybe even commendable from a business point of view (besides, who really wants to be on the phone for an hour?), I don’t mind spending a bit of time getting to know someone’s concerns, what they’ve tried so far, and their goals. I find that it actually benefits the business as well, as it gives me time to establish rapport, which greatly increases the chances of the caller becoming a client.

While most conversations are pleasant enough, some are difficult at best. I recently got a call from a woman who had a five-month-old Labradoodle and two young kids. Predictably, the dog was jumping and nipping at the kids. The family wanted the behavior stopped, yesterday. Pretty typical stuff. Then the woman went on to tell me what she had tried so far: a spray bottle; “clamping the dog’s nose;” and, finally, “hitting him as hard as I could.” I was silent for a beat, processing that last one. She continued on to explain that when she hit him, the dog thought she was playing, and just got more amped up. I was silently grateful that the dog hadn’t been traumatized. I maintained a calm, friendly tone as I told the woman I could hear that she was very frustrated; that I was sure it’s difficult to deal with two young kids and a rambunctious dog; and that I knew she didn’t want to have to resort to hitting the dog that way. She agreed completely. We chatted a bit longer and, thankfully, she ended up setting up an appointment.

After I hung up, I suddenly burst into tears. It’s not a reaction I’ve ever had before—in this business, I hear about disturbing things on a regular basis, and I deal with it. Maybe I was just having a rough day. The thought of someone hitting a dog “as hard as they can” is pretty awful in itself, but that hadn’t been the only troubling dog-related behavior I’d heard about that day. That same morning, a trainer friend had told me about two young men—big, burly guys, from her description—who had a young Aussie mix puppy with them at a basketball court. The pup was behaving very well, lying calmly at the edge of the court as they played. My friend was walking her two dogs in the surrounding park area, being careful to maintain enough of a distance so as not to be distracting. At some point one of her dogs barked, and the puppy stood up and trotted off a few feet to investigate. One of the men immediately yelled at the puppy to get back there and lie down. The pup skulked warily back toward him, but apparently it wasn’t fast enough. The man grabbed the pup by the collar and dragged it across the asphalt, yelling close to its face all the while. My friend didn’t feel she could safely intervene, but she felt terrible, as did I, just hearing about it.

These are certainly not the worst examples of the abuse dogs suffer at human hands—believe me, I’ve heard a lot worse. But this type of thing happens so often. These are just two more examples of the kind of low-level abuse that goes on daily, in millions of homes, in the name of training. And the truth is, most of these owners are not terrible people; they’re frustrated with their dogs’ behavior, and don’t know how to get compliance any other way. It’s ironic, because just like the dogs, they just don’t know any better. Just as we train dogs gently and kindly, we trainers have to keep our cool with owners regardless of the awful things we might hear, in the hopes of changing the person’s behavior.

In any helping profession, it’s easy to get burned out. All we can do is to keep on having respectful conversations, and keep on putting the education out there. And so, that one emotional outburst past, I go back to keeping my balance on the fine line of hope that at some point the tide will turn and positive, gentle training methods based on cooperation and communication will become the norm.


16 Responses to You did WHAT to your Dog?

  1. Oh, I’m sorry, Nicole. I have situations like that, too, that really get to me. When you do your appt with the family, you’ll see it all turn around and get to feel good about your involvement. There’s a real disconnect, isn’t there, between how we think of dogs as our best friends and the human behaviors that crop up when some people get frustrated.

    I think part of it is because we think dogs should be “good” and are surprised/angry when they are not. I like to turn that around and think that dogs “should” be “bad” because they are animals living in our houses as if they are supposed to know what to do — and then marvel and appreciate all the things they CAN do well.

    Some of that goes back to a bit of the best parenting advice I found in a book years ago. The author was talking about how children are SUPPOSED to be annoying so don’t be surprised when you are annoyed and/or think the child has to change right that moment. His reasoning was that children behave in childish ways that are not the way of adults. Once you understand that that’s just the way of development, you can resist taking it personally and be more objective about whether or not to modify the behavior.

  2. Marni Fowler says:

    Damn. I so admire you for being able to handle those types of situations. It was *exactly* those types of situations that made me have to stop training. You rock!

  3. Lynn says:

    Excellent article Nicole! Thank you for sharing it with us!

  4. Diane Garrod says:

    It is okay to be frustrated with this, to cry. Your tact, cool, and last statement on continuing to focus on gentle training methods and communication means planting one seed at a time. Often, as dog trainers, we lose the perspective that it is also important to educate, empathize (not sympathize) with the client or potential client. Teaching what else to do is most important. Crying comes with the territory – it shows compassion, concern and commitment.

  5. Karen says:

    With all due respect, I have to disagree with your comment of “they just don’t know any better.” Excuse me? You think that this woman did not know that it is wrong to hit a dog???? Anyone who abuses an animal or child lacks empathy and compassion. In my opinion, these are the “terrible” people. I find this outrageous that this woman hit this dog “as hard as she could.” Where was her empathy and compassion? This woman was not frustrated, she was just plain angry! Can’t help but wonder if she hits her kids too. I don’t care how frustrated a person gets, if you have empathy and compassion, you don’t hit or abuse in any way! And, the SOB on the basketball court is nothing but a bully and qualifies as a “terrible” man in my opinion! I seriously doubt if your friend had gone up to this jerk to tactfully discussed his behavior toward his dog that it would have done any good at all. The few times I have tried to intervene on a dogs behalf, I got the same response, “It’s my dog and I’ll do what I d–n will please!” Abuse to an animal or child is not a question of “they just don’t know any better.”

  6. I’m with you Nicole and know just how it feels to not be able to get rid of the disturbing image of a puppy having his nose rubbed in his excrement or having his mouth held shut whilst being yelled at.

    I too am happy to talk to people on the telephone about their dog or puppy for as long as they want me to and like you have found that it makes good business sense to do so because I am far more likely to get them as a client. Even if that wasn’t the case I’d still chat and give help over the telephone or by email just for the sake of the dog and because I love talking dogs. 🙂

  7. Hi Nicole, I enjoy reading your articles and today’s has been no exception. It can be so frustrating when callers explain what they have done with their dogs, yet we would class there actions as abusive.
    I get similar calls myself and when I do get some of them booked in for an appointment, I then put the phone down and think that it is another dog that is going to benefit from being understood, and hopefully it is also a chance to educate another owner.

    Keep your chin up Nicole, and keep up the splendid work you do.

    All the best


  8. It comforts me knowing you feel this way too. I am a new trainer (2 yrs) and it breaks me somedays hearing similar stories and seeing people in public and holding my tongue. It is a real uphill battle to educate people and vets and shelters for that matter about how to teach dogs effectively without harming them in the process. All across the country there are the yous and mes doing our job day in and day out helping one dog and owner at a time. Keep up the good work.

  9. Janet Finlay says:

    Great article Nicole – I know that frustration – the trying to remain calm and be helpful for the sake of the dog when inside you are screaming “WTF?!!!” @karen – to be honest I don’t think some people do know any better. After all – abuse of dogs in the name of training is all over the internet and the TV. People are told it is OK to hit/kick/hang/roll a dog that is over-excited/nipping/fearful and they see TV/internet “experts” doing it and apparently getting results. Experiments show that most people will administer what they believe to be electric shocks to another person if they are told to do so by an expert – even when they can hear the other person “screaming” in the next room – so what chance have dogs got with “experts” telling people this is the way they need to train? When people are told the lie that non-compliance is about dominance and that they need to “be the boss” then they go along with it because they are told by an expert. And the result of that is that they buy into the belief that “bad” behaviour needs to be stomped down on hard. I am sure that there are people out there who, as you say, are simply bullies – but I really believe there are more (at least I meet more) who are doing what they have seen or believe to be the way to train dogs without thinking about it. Ignorant they certainly are but not deliberately abusive. It is miserable and heartbreaking and I can only hope that we can turn the tide in favour of the dog. 😦

  10. Sandra says:

    I had a phone call yesterday and this woman told me amongst other things that she “beat the sh*t out of him with an umbrella and left him on the balcony all night”. The dog has bitten her kid and it wasn’t the first time, so the only reason I didn’t hang up was because I hope she will call again (as she said) and I will probably be able to help. I felt horrible for the rest of the day and I still feel bad when I remember her words. :((((

  11. Tracey S says:

    Wow, Nicole. Nice reminder. I have actually had the same reaction to a potential client phone call before, and I’m selfishly glad it’s not just me. It IS hard to be kind to people when they tell you things like that they hit their dogs. I also never reprimand them. I try to suggest they do something else instead and, if I feel it’s necessary, tell them why in their lesson. This is partially thanks to you and some of your seminar talks. Thank you for helping to remind me to be empathetic to the people as well as the dogs.

  12. JJ says:

    This is an interesting read, reminding us that empathy, compassion, and understanding can be helpful…but it can take a lot out of you, too.
    I am pretty jaded to the “I got so peeved that I hit the dog” or similar lines – it’s the norm over here. To be honest, while I care and regret that someone would resort to whacking their dog, I am much more concerned with fixing the problem than becoming emotionally involved in it.
    I also know that it takes something for an adult to admit that they are wrong and that they can’t handle a problem and – worse yet – need help.
    If only we’d step back and take a long look at that statement. I commend anyone who calls a trainer and says, “Help, please!” because it takes something to be able to admit that you might not be able to solve a problem on your own.
    Also, I grew up with methods that make Koehler look positive, so I tend to get emotional about things in a rather backwards way. With people like Karen (no offense – I understand where you’re coming from), it makes it hard to switch. IE: When I became an adult and got my dog, I DECIDED how I wanted to train her, and I found someone who does train positively. But I didn’t come from those methods – I come from the place where beating the living daylights out of the dog is considered a-okay. I can only imagine sitting in a classroom and hearing her talk about how horrible people like that are. I would have stuck with a prong collar rather than be talked to like that. And I kind of agree with her. I just don’t like to be called stupid or abusive. No one does. And if you’re trying to make a switch, that can be the difference between the methods you ultimately use.
    Watch what you say, kiddos. It does matter. Yes, you’re allowed to feel horrified, but the goal is to help the people help themselves. You can change the way they think about working with their dogs, but you can’t do it by reacting emotionally.

  13. As a vet nurse, it can be difficult to hold ones tongue because something that should have been brought in earlier wasn’t simply because the owner “didn’t know” and it can be for the most basic and seemingly obvious things – BUT they genuinely DON’T know.
    Or they might convince themselves that the vet visit will cost a fortune and there is not help available – but if they HAD have come in earlier it wouldn’t have cost so much and we could have saved the animal but because they left it so late it has become self prophesising. I go home at night sometimes, wondering why I do this and how I can keep my sanity – I know, I DO IT FOR THE ANIMALS!

    People genuinely don’t know any better – there is so much (conflicting) information out there, on the internet, on TV, on radio, in print and people get desperate and will try anything. Even in the veterinary industry we still constantly battle against “old wives tales” on how to treat certain problems, or people will diagnose the problem themselves and treat to what they think is correct, only to have everything wrong.
    I have personally been abused by a client after she told me she uses an electric shock collar on her dog to contain it, I warned her that the item was actually illegal in our state – she shouted at me that she didn’t care and in her opinion it “was saving her dogs life” because she had no other means of control over it. Another client, was good enough to apologise to me, virtually in tears, after his dog barked through the pain of an electronic shock collar burning a hole in her neck the size of a tennis ball – I had also warned him of the possible consequences and he chose to ignore me because he was frustrated and felt the trainer I had sent him too (a positive trainer) was taking too long to get results.
    Most people think if a product is being sold it must be ok, and someone mentioned it on the TV or on the internet – and that person has been scathing about positive methods because it takes too long, to the person dealing with that problem in that moment, thinks that makes sense! An advertising leaflet I received at the clinic recently for electric “pulse” devices clearly stated that many people were unhappy with reward based training because a) the animal ended up only working for treats and or b) it took too long. We are constantly told dog training should be quick and easy, and something must be wrong with the animal (either its dumb or “dominant”) not recognising something must be wrong with us or our delivery. We forget we send human children to school for at least 13-4 years minimum before they are sent off into the world and we are supposed to be the superior beings!

  14. I think the punishment comes from how we are treated as people. How often do you get letters in the mail…. Pay this bill/fine/charge or we will cut off your electricity/report you to social security etc etc. Our world revolves on punishment and therefore it is just carried over to our animals. I seem to live my entire life anti to all those dog owners i see all day long. Just the other day I was walking a dog on a long lead in an off lead area and another dog attacked the dog I had. I got the dogs separated only to find the owner of the attacking dog punishing the dog who had stopped attacking and was returning to the owner. I got abused for saying he should now be praising the dog. Yes we change one dog at a time but it is a drop in the ocean and there are so many “experts” out there, every dog owner will tell you they know all the answers. I have left the industry to go back to normal work for just this reason. Sick of being abused as I am the odd man out.

  15. wildewmn says:

    Thank you all for your kind and thoughtful comments. I’m sorry so many of you are having to deal with the horrific things that befall dogs, ones that could largely be avoided if the owners were better educated, or perhaps kinder/more patient. Believe me, in all the years I did shelter work (at one of L.A.’s high-kill, horrific shelters back in the 90s), rescue work (with wolfdogs, wolves, and dogs), and training, I’ve seen and heard about a lot of things I wish I could forget.

    It’s almost funny that such a comparably innocuous thing got to me the way that phone conversation did–but some days are better than others. The important thing is that no matter how bad the thing you see or hear about, going off on the person isn’t going to make it any better for the dog. And so we take a deep breath, and do our best to educate in a compassionate, non-judgmental way. And yes, perhaps every now and then we fall apart. But we keep on doing it for the dogs. Hang in there, everyone, we ARE making a difference.

  16. Nicole- recently a client lost her beloved elderly lab. She expressed a desire to get a new dog in her life (she has another elderly spaniel cross).
    Although a mature aged, retired woman, she is strong, fit and healthy. She loved her former Lab, always saying she was the perfect puppy and dog.
    On asking my advice, saying she wanted another lab she could take for long walks, I suggested she adopt an older dog, not a puppy. As the owner was now 15years older, and in reality didn’t really have much to do with the puppy rearing stage as she was working – her husband did all the puppy stuff. I diplomatically said to her I felt that she would not cope well with the puppy stage at this stage of her life and also considering she wanted to take a dog for long walks the best option was an older dog that had already stopped growing etc.
    The client disagreed with me and chose not to follow my advice. The problems with for the owner with the puppy started pretty much immediately. The owner was and is indeed unable to cope with puppyhood. Unfortunately the client received conflicting advice from the breeder and us regarding all aspects of the pups training, feeding and eventual lameness problems caused by both inappropriate diet (which was suggested by the breeder, who criticised our advice) and over exercise (again against my advice).
    This poor puppy is now 8 months old, has had to have arthroscopic surgery on the elbows because of the inappropriate diet and over exercise (and genetics). If the owner had followed my advice in the first place, she would have what she wanted – an adult dog that is capable of going for long walks.
    Now the owner is giving me a hard time because she has an active puppy that is on enforced rest and unable to do much physical activity because it is recovering from surgery. And to make matters worse, when I suggest other ways to stimulate this puppy (i.e. by stimulating it’s brain with food dispensing toys etc) – she wont spend money on toys and she continually tells me they wont work, haven’t got time, etc.
    It is very frustrating – the puppy is a really lovely pup and has loads of potential, unfortunately the owner has no patience and won’t follow advice – of either me or the really exceptional trainer I put her onto. All the owner can think of is taking the pup for “really long walks”!

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