Sunday, June 2, 2013

JUDGEMENT CALL





Humans are social animals.  For reasons that hit deep into the DNA of our species we are set up to live together in groups and to trade favours in order to get along better.  Trading favours is one way to describe an evolutionary concept called reciprocal altruism.  In other words, you scratch my back and I will scratch yours, and presumably, mutual back scratching will improve the likelihood that each of us will survive long enough to survive long enough to pass along our genes.  One of the most important ways that we have to trade favours is to warn one another of dangers, especially if they are avoidable.

What would you do if you observed the following:

Image credit: waldru / 123RF Stock Photo


Would you call out?  Would you help?  If you knew a train was coming, would that impact your choice of response?  Would you be angry if someone tried to help?  Think about it.  As an adult coming across a child playing on railroad tracks, if I saw this, I would say something, especially if I knew that a train might come along.

In the past two weeks, I have three times been accused of interfering, being judgemental and being an expert without empathy.  Maybe that is a sign that people are beginning to read my blog.  Maybe I am just rude; not my intent, but I would allow for that as a possibility.  Maybe people know that they are doing things that are not a terribly good idea.  And what have I alerted on that is so horrible?  I have told people when their dogs were showing signs of stress in images.

The point has been made that the images are but a moment in time, and this is entirely true.  When a camera takes an image, it is taking a picture of that one instant in time.  Have a look at the image below, and think about what you see.  Is the child happy?  Or sad?  In the moment, there is a definite emotional event happening.  Believe it or not showing an image of a child who is sad in the moment does not mean that child has a terrible life; it means that at one instant in time, the child was unhappy and a picture was taken.

Would you send your kid to basketball camp, if this were the type of image that was used in advertizing the camp?  Do you think your child would be interested in going to basketball camp so that he or she could feel this way too?  Image credit: duplass / 123RF Stock Photo


Now let’s think about advertizing.  If you were looking for a child’s dance class, would you want to take your child there if all the images of the children in the advertizing literature were crying?  This is a situation I face when I cruise through the websites of some of my competition.  I see page after page of accurately working dogs who universally look unhappy.  I see long series of pictures of classes full of dogs showing whale eye, pinned ears, head drops and occasionally a snarl. 

I also face this day in and day out when I see family pictures of my non dog training friend’s and their dogs.  I see children hugging dogs, and people putting dogs in awkward positions, and the dogs are clearly showing signs of discomfort and distress.  In fact, a lot of the images I see are not just dogs who look sad, but dogs who are in the early sequence of getting ready to bite.

I see this sort of image in my Facebook feed on a daily basis.  This dog is helpless and unhappy and has begun to bite the child.  Often the image is posted with a caption such as "Missy and her new puppy are bonding; aren't they cute?"  All I can think about is "If I don't say something, this child is going to get hurt.  I don't want the child to get hurt."  Image credit: tonobalaguer / 123RF Stock Photo


When I talk to people about these pictures, they regularly tell me that the dog often looked like that and was perfectly happy and that the dog never hurt anyone.  I am tired of telling people that they were darned lucky.  All too often, I get first contact with a family after the dog has bitten and often after the dog has bitten a child.  Here is a news flash; dogs don’t like being hugged or kissed.  They really don’t.  When you look at hundreds of images of dogs showing signs of stress and you know you are going to be talking to the families at some point down the road about behaviours that lead to biting, then it is incredibly frustrating to hear that you are being mean, unkind, thoughtless or misusing your education when you speak up.  For me, to see an image of a child hugging a dog, while the dog is giving whale eye, is squinting, or has pinned ears is like looking at a picture of a kid running into traffic.  It turns my stomach and makes my blood run cold.  The reason that I get so upset about these images is not that I don’t want people to have great experiences with their pets; it is because if a bite comes and I didn’t speak out, I feel like I was complicit.  It feels like I could have prevented a bite, if only people didn’t think I was attacking them.

Several of my colleagues have pointed out that I am willing to do unpleasant things to dogs from time to time in order to suppress or decrease behaviours, and that not everything we do to dogs is always wonderful and pleasant.  My colleagues; you are right.  The images I am talking about are moments in time, and they show the dogs in discomfort or distress for that moment.  I am not saying that the dog is being abused, or that the dog’s welfare is at risk; I am saying that at that moment in time, the dog is uncomfortable.  Sometimes the dog is showing me that he will bite and soon.  When people use these pictures to show their best work, it is a sad situation.  When people knowlingly put their dogs into this sort of a situation, and then take a picture of that situation, it is not fair to the dog.

So here is my problem.  I see the situation.  I comment.  Inevitably, someone takes offence that I have an opinion.  Sometimes they get angry.  Usually they are upset.  Should I comment?  I feel compelled to comment for so many reasons.  Like the Lorax, I speak for a creature who cannot speak for himself.  When I am working as a behaviour consultant, I advocate for the dog within the family.  Often when people can see the discomfort they can change what they do, and the dog’s overall welfare improves.  Not only that but the safety of the family improves.  When it works, I feel like I am contributing in a positive way to society.  When it doesn’t I feel outcaste and like a failure.  When I cannot reach the client or the family or the community and a bite happens, I feel even worse.

Don’t get me wrong; this is not all about me, but on the other hand it is.  As a society we have grown so far away from our agrarian roots that we often don’t recognize the signs of stress in our dogs.  When we recognize them, we often dismiss them as unimportant.  We put ourselves and our dogs into situations that are unpleasant and often dangerous.  We have both high and low expectations of ourselves and we translate those expectations on our dogs.  We expect that life will be hard and we put up with that.  We expect that our dogs will tolerate discomfort and put up with that too.  How is this about me?  It is about me because I have been trained to recognize the signs of stress in dogs.  Once you know what you are looking for, it is really hard not to do something when you see the signs. 

When I point out a dog in distress this is not a judgement about you or who you are, or your family or your value to society or if you have a nice dog or a not nice dog.  This is not a judgement about the choices you made.  I assume, correctly more often than not, that you don’t see the signs of stress because you don’t have the training I do.  This isn’t a bad thing, it is just a thing.  When I point out that a dog is in distress, and I tell you about it, to me it is like telling you your shoelace is undone.  I want to participate in the co-operative behaviour of a society and protect you so that if I am in danger and you know about it, you will tell me.  For me, this is no more judgemental than “I noticed that you didn’t turn off the stove when you left the kitchen; shall I go check and turn it off so we don’t burn down the house?”

This blog is a bit of a rant, and I am aware of that.  I don’t often write about how my job impacts my life, but it does.  When I go to a family picnic and I see a dog being harassed by the kids, the picnic is no longer any fun for me because I know that the dog is uncomfortable and that the only way he can avoid the discomfort is to warn and then bite those who are causing discomfort.  If I say something, then I risk that you will think that I am judging you and ruin your day.  If I don’t say something then I risk that I will be sitting in yet another appointment with a friend or a family member and have to explain to them why their dog bit their child.  Some of the time, not saying something results in the dog behaving so dangerously that the family chooses to kill the dog.  For me, the stakes are very high, and the last thing I want to do is share in the heartbreak of yet another family who got a dog because they love dogs, and end up afraid of dogs because mishandling led to a tragedy.

4 comments:

  1. Remember that it's often not what you say, but how you say it. Have you read "The Human Half of Dog Training" by Rise Van Fleet?

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  2. A timely post. I got scolded this morning by a parent of a toddler who thought it was funny when her 18 month old ran up to my dog and bopped him on the head with a pail and then took exception to my firm (but VERY kindly spoken) "No. Ouch. That hurts him". "Oh come on", said the Mom, "he only wants to play. Your dog doesn't mind!" My dog probably didn't mind too much. He's used to the unpredictability of children and is a fairly laid back kind of guy. In fact, he was probably eyeing the bucket and judging whether it was worth the risk to snatch this great new dog toy from the small toddler. And I really, really don't think the Mom would have liked it if my labrador retriever DID decide to play with her toddler. I don't let my dog play freely with small children - not after watching my teenager leave his feet and fly through the air after Vincent chased him and shoulder slammed him during a game of chase. I tried explaining to the Mom that not all dogs liked being hit (go figure) and that just as we teach our children not to run onto the road just in case a car happens to zoom by, we should also teach them not to hit dogs just in case they happen to hit one who will bite. Or just because my dog didn't react badly doesn't mean I should let people hit him. She wasn't buying it, though.

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  3. You were more circumspect than I would have been. I would be tempted to ask her how she would feel about my 80 pounds of dog playing with her kid. Blarg.

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  4. As a relative newbie to dogs, I have at the advantage of perspective paired with a little bit of knowledge. Until I read several books on dogs and training, and until I had several mentors and instructors teaching me various aspects of dog showing, agility, etc, I had NO CLUE about dog body language. I had NO CLUE that dogs don't like eye contact, hugs, etc - that they mean different things to them. I have been exceedingly lucky that I have dogs that have learned to tolerate my intrusions on their personal space and the weird things that I do (in their mind) as a part of our relationship. I think by and large, most casual pet dog owners (as opposed to hobby breeders/people who show and/or train dogs, etc) are well meaning and extremely lucky they have found dogs tolerant of their "rude" (but well intentioned) behavior. I think we need MORE experts willing to butt their nose in and point out what they are seeing in our interactions with our dogs. It would make our relationships with our dogs that much more meaningful. Sometimes, the message may not come across as politely as intended, but at the end of the day, if you've hurt somebody's feelings a bit but end up saving a child and a dog from a mauling/euthanasia, then I think it's absolutely worth it! I appreciate your blog and your freely sharing your hard learned knowledge!

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