If asked, we’d all say that of course we would stand up for our dogs; we’d do just about anything to keep them safe, healthy, and happy. But the reality is that situations arise where, due to social pressures and other factors, we don’t speak out when we should. For example, I cannot tell you how many training clients I’ve heard say things like, “The vet was really rough with Bella. I could tell she was scared. The vet slammed her on her back and held her down, and Bella became even more afraid.” Having worked at a vet’s office, I understand that some restraint and firm handling is necessary for certain treatments. But some vets are simply better than others about reading canine body language and working with dogs instead of using brute force to achieve their medical objectives. Unfortunately, very few owners will stand up to a veterinarian to voice their concerns.
I’ve also seen situations where an owner stands by as a professional trainer works with their dog in a way that concerns them. The dog may be in obvious distress because the trainer is being very rough with the dog while saying things like, “You have to show him who’s boss.” The owner is clearly distraught but stands silently by watching as the trainer uses excessive force to get the dog to do what he wants, not daring to intercede.
In both of these situations, part of the issue is that the person in charge is an authority figure. We are conditioned from a young age to respect authority figures, which can, unfortunately, make it challenging to speak up. Women in particular are taught to be polite and not make a fuss. (Gavin DeBecker’s excellent book The Gift of Fear illustrates how this conditioning can put women in harm’s way.) But it’s not just authority figures; sometimes it’s simple peer pressure. When I adopted my girl Sierra from a rural shelter, I was told she’d been there four times previously. I soon discovered that not only did she have a serious case of separation anxiety, but she could run like the wind. The latter wasn’t surprising for a husky mix, and I only let her run free in safe, enclosed areas. But a group of owners I’d encounter early mornings at my local park regularly let their dogs run free in the surrounding hillsides, and they invited us to join them. I politely refused, saying I hadn’t had Sierra very long and didn’t yet feel comfortable allowing her off leash. They kept at it, eventually moving from encouraging invitations to asking why I was so adamant about not letting her off leash. “Oh, come on, It’ll be fine” was their constant refrain. Well, maybe it would have been fine and maybe not. I did like the people and it would have been fun to join in, but I knew my own dog’s behavior better than they did and knew what could happen. Peer pressure or not, I wasn’t going to take that chance. It actually took the better part of a year until I felt comfortable letting Sierra off leash, and I don’t honestly care who thinks that’s a long time. Nowadays I can let her loose without worrying, as she has a solid recall and we have a very close relationship. But who knows what would have happened had I given in early on?
Peer pressure is constantly at work at dog parks as well. I don’t personally frequent them, but I have seen many times where dogs who are playing display warning signals in their body language and vocalizations. The owner of a dog will turn to the one who expresses concern and will say, “Don’t worry, they’ll work it out.” Maybe they will and maybe they won’t, but if you’re the person whose dog is in potential danger, it’s up to you to say you don’t feel comfortable, or better yet, just say, “Have a nice day!” as you take your dog and leave. If people think you’re overly careful, so what? A little social pressure is nothing compared to a serious injury to your dog. And remember too that not all injuries are physical; a dog who is attacked or traumatized by other dogs might well develop fear-based reactivity toward other dogs. I’ve seen it happen way too many times, and it’s much harder to fix than to prevent.
The bottom line is, even if someone is in a position of authority or has a string of letters after their name, it doesn’t mean that they know your dog like you do. You know that little voice inside that tells you when something is not right? That is the voice you should be listening to, not anyone else’s. You know your dog best, and you know when he’s uncomfortable or is in potential danger. We can’t keep our dogs from every stress in this world, and some things, like medical care, are necessary. But beyond that, we must be the ones who speak up for our dogs, be their best friends and their lifelong advocates.
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