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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One of the things we checked out with a potential vet was not only how he reacted with Maggie but also us. We are very happy with the way she is treated when we visit as all three vets really care about the pet in question. We have also explained that she suffers from anxiety if she doesn’t know where we are and so are allowed to stay with her for pre meds and if there is any anxiety issue in recovery, they have promised to call us immediately so that we can sit with her.
I am a trainer that only uses positive reinforcement techniques. Clients have said they left other training sessions in tears as they watched the other trainer show the dog who is boss!
I’ve heard horror stories of shock collars, prong collars being used on fearful dogs to drag them across the training room floor while the dog is whimpering and crying.
Even after science has proven beyond all doubt that positive training is much more effective, some trainers and people still resort to using negative training methods that can hurt the dog physically and emotionally.
Excellent article. I’m just wondering what about vets that treat your dog in a back room someplace. The vet I go to does not have this practice but I know a lot of places that do.
Great post and great reminder. I have a very fearful dog. She loves to hike and walk with me, but I’ve had to be very firm in telling people not to approach her or try to pet her. Most ask, but some don’t. Fanny would never hurt them, but she is scared and that fear needs to be respected. The worst people are the self-proclaimed ‘dog people’ who think she will be different with them because ‘all dogs love me.’ I’d much rather offend a stranger than put my dog in an uncomfortable position. Sometimes I think we all have to suppress that learned habit of being polite and stand up for our dog.
Yes! And thank you, I should have included the point that this is also very important with a fearful dog in this type of scenario. Agreed about the self-proclaimed “dog people”!
Great post about an important topic! Cara, I am in the same boat as you! My dog is a formerly abused rescue, he has a lovely life now and is very comfortable & relaxed at home but very apprehensive and nervous about strangers. We have some great techniques that we learned from a trainer to help him gain confidence when we’re out in the world, and I specifically choose less-busy areas to walk him in so that I have time to prepare and lots of room to move about if we encounter a situation that makes him nervous. The ‘dog people’ are so incredibly frustrating because their actions are selfish. It’s not about the dog’s desires, but their own satisfaction in “winning over” a difficult dog. I am a pretty timid person but I have become very direct and firm for the same reason you expressed. At the end of the day, it’s my responsibility to keep my dog comfortable and safe, and if that means being rude to a pushy stranger, so be it. On the flip side, I am SO APPRECIATIVE when we encounter folks & other owners who see my dog’s body language and just get it, give us space, and we all calmly pass by one another. I sometimes want to call out “Thank you!” over my shoulder, haha.
Another excellent article! I tend to be very assertive when it comes to my furkids and this often puts other people’s noses out of joint. But I strongly believe it is our responsibility to advocate for our furkids as much as we do for our human children.
Oh, this brought back painful vet memories. Being too rough and insensitive to my nervous dog. I swear the groomers treat dogs better!
I carry a hiking stick, hate loose dogs running up to mine on a leash. So inconsiderate of owners who know we have leash laws in our area. Pet parents, you know in your gut what’s right and wrong. Stick up for your dogs!
I guess I like walks where it’s just my dogs and I, and nature best. : )
I agree with this article 100%. Maybe because I’m a retired. Emergency Dept. Nurse, I’m not afraid to speak out. I did it for my patients and I do it for my dogs. My current rescue Siberian Husky, was taken to my favorite Veterinary office for a general physical when she came to live with me and my husband. She had no physical issues that we knew of and only a certain shyness of strangers; no barking, no snapping, just a backing away and a tendency of finding someplace to hide. The Vet we were to see was new to me, but everyone I had brought my dogs to at this office, were professional, kind and comfortable with my dogs, my presence and my participation in my dog’s treatments. Every other person had examined my dogs while sitting with them on the floor, rather than putting them up on an exam table. This gentleman stood over my dog and started examining her while bending over her. As he moved from her head to tail, poking her and prodding her rather roughly, he reached under and palpated her abdomen. I will never know whether it was a combination of his position, or whether he poked a bit too roughly, but she turned her head fast toward his hand. She never opened her mouth or made any contact with his hand. He backed away so fast he hit the wall behind and at the same time, yelled for a tech and a muzzle. At that point, I volunteered to restrain my dog, so he could finish the exam. He refused my assistance saying, “I can’t let you do that because, if she bit you, you could sue me.” I laughed, then looking at his face and realized he was serious. I thanked him for his time, picked up my dog’s leash wnd walked out the door. I told the receptionist I wanted to schedule another appointment, with someone other than Dr. X, later in the week to give both my dog and me time to calm down. That was 6 years ago and we are still with the same Veterinary office, just not with Dr. X. I understand he does a lot of the spay/neuter surgery, which makes sense since his patients will be unconscious and suitably restrained.
We don’t go to dog parks. Even with training, I never do “off leash” except in a confined area where I can control the situation. She loves to go to Husky Club meetings where everyone understands how Huskies like to play (rough) and the other dogs are well socialised and owners supervise. Even there, not everybody gets to play off leash.
I wish more people were able to speak up assertively for their dogs as you did. I respect that you stayed with the same vet’s office but asked for a different vet. And “Husky club” sounds like fun!
I love, love, love your posts, thank you so much for them. I realized with my first dog, at a dog park, that your dog looks up to you to make decisions, and accepts your lead. My dog was not enjoying playing with one dog (not a bad situation, but an uncomfortable one),and she looked at me, as if to say — are you sure this is okay? I realized then it was up to me to tell her to come and we walked away, and she was much happier with that decision. I greatly doubt many (new) dog owners realize this – it’s fairly subtle, but it’s a huge responsibility (that I wish everyone understood). And now I understand that it’s up to me to speak out if I’m not comfortable with a situation — which I have with dog owners who I believe are not controlling their dog. (Fortunately I haven’t had a problematic vet.)