Here’s a pop quiz:
1. What should you do when your trainer uses harsh training methods?
2. What should you do if your veterinarian slams your dog on his back to show him who’s boss?
3. What should you do if your dog is scared of people, but someone insists on petting him anyway?
This is the easiest quiz ever, because all of the answers are the same: You stand up for your dog!
We’re taught early on in life to be polite. Women especially have the importance of courtesy and manners drilled into them from a very young age. We also learn to respect authority, and in most cases, that’s a good thing. But when someone is mistreating your dog, all bets are off.
I had a client once who came to me after attending a group class with another trainer. On the first day of class, this “trainer” (and I use the term loosely) showed the owners how to teach the dog what the word “no” meant, even before the dog had done anything wrong. This “training technique” consisted of whacking the dog over the nose with a rubber hose while screaming, “No!” The woman was mortified. She stood up in front of the entire class and informed the trainer that she would never do that to her dog. She then left.
The woman who walked out on that training class is a hero. She did two very difficult things: she stood up to someone in authority, and she did it in front of a room full of people. Don’t underestimate the power of group dynamics; many times a person will go along with something just because everyone else is doing it. No one wants to be ostracized.
Many years ago I attended a seminar given by a well-known behaviorist. A demonstration was conducted to show how a dog’s nails could be trimmed, even if the dog was scared or reactive. The dog was lying on his belly in a suspended sling contraption, with his legs dangling loosely down. I remember the terrified look on the dog’s face. I remember all too clearly the dog’s screams. The behaviorist trimmed the helpless dog’s nails anyway. I don’t know what this was supposed to show; it certainly wouldn’t make nail trims any easier the next time. But the scene made a lasting impression on me. I don’t have many regrets in this life, but I regret to this day that I didn’t stand up, said what I thought, and walk out. Upon speaking with other attendees later on, I discovered that many of them had felt the same way, but we were all too intimidated to say anything at the time.
I do better nowadays. When we first adopted Sierra, we learned that she’d been brought in as a stray, and had been impounded at the shelter four times. At home, we quickly discovered that she had the escape talents of Houdini. We extended our fencing and practiced vigilance. On the morning walks we’d take around the local park, I fell in with a group of dog owners who allowed their dogs to romp and run around the surrounding hillsides.
“Let her off leash,” one woman suggested. I explained why that wouldn’t be a good idea.
“Come on, you’ve got to let her have some fun,” another chimed in. I suggested that Sierra becoming lost in the hills and ending up back at the shelter probably wouldn’t be all that much fun for either of us.
“You’re a trainer, can’t you just train her to be okay off leash?” a man challenged. Sure. But I’d only had Sierra a few weeks, not a few years, and our bond and her training weren’t rock solid yet. Those well-meaning folks persisted week after week, until I finally told them gently but firmly to please stop asking, if they wanted us to continue walking with them. Looking back years later, being all too familiar with Sierra’s extremely strong prey drive, it’s a good thing I never gave in to that peer pressure. She’d have been one bunny away from disappearing over the mountains and far away.
Peer pressure, and pressure from authority figures, can be intense. People can be judgmental and condescending. Standing up to it can be difficult, and may mean risking social ostracism. You could be disinvited from a social group, or dropped as a client. But you are your dog’s advocate, the only thing standing between him and the big, bad world. You’re the one who understands his temperament, knows his behavior, and can predict better than anyone what will scare him or cause him to become aggressive. You are the one person he trusts completely, and looks to for safety. Hey, everyone’s got an opinion, and they’re welcome to it. My response to unrelenting peer pressure? Bite me! My dog is infinitely more important than what you or anyone else might think of me.