A rock solid belief of mine was broken along with my heart a few months ago. Though the experience centered around dog training, I only spoke about the details to my most intimate friend and kept to myself how it continued to affect me emotionally and physically. I thought posting about it publicly would cost me clients, who would reject me in disgust for being too soft and sensitive and not agreeing to the tenets of our anthropocentric domination culture. But then I thought price-shoppers will never read this. My services are most useful to those who will at least entertain the idea that dogs are thinking, feeling beings whose bodies and brains are not ours to own, but to form conscious partnerships with for mutual benefit.
My former belief, long-held and multitudinously reinforced, went like this. Humans harm other beings because of a lack of education and experience with alternatives. Once they are informed and experience the effectiveness of nonviolent strategies to meet their needs, they will choose the more compassionate approach.
Months ago, I had several in-home puppy clients in the same distant area. Private training is like accelerated tutoring to fit individual needs and schedules and is highly practical. In addition to my private training, I recommend safety-conscious, positive reinforcement puppy classes for the social learning opportunities. Not knowing any dog trainers in this distant area, I searched and called some trainers about puppy classes. It happened that a new training facility was having a grand opening in about a week and yes, they said, they used positive reinforcement with the puppies. Their website, however, used the usual code words for physical force and showed a basic misunderstanding of the principles of learning.
It was a beautifully mild, sunny day as I chatted with a local small business owner at the grand opening. I had toured the small, well-appointed training room and was waiting to speak to the owner about puppy classes for my clients. My name suddenly rang out behind me. Walking toward me was a former student of mine who had been in my own puppy class a few years before. She had arrived with my former colleague from a time when all three of us were involved with the same training facility that used positive reinforcement techniques. With barely a greeting, my former student dove close to my face and verbally attacked me.
Feigning a calm demeanor, I would not agree with her that it’s necessary to yell at and use physical force on a dog, instead noting that it’s our responsibility to communicate in ways dogs understand and consider all possible reasons for nonperformance before blaming them as “stubborn.” She yelled, “I’m the OWNER! I OWN my dog!” when I used the term “guardian” for a dog’s person. Sure, whatever, these are just a bunch of words, I thought. I was too rattled to guess what she was really needing in that moment and wished she would go get some tea and take her anger out of my space.
One of the center’s trainers began working his dog. More students had arrived with their dogs, who were outfitted with steel prong collars and choke chains. Much jerking and yelling was going on across the property. Every little movement of the large dogs was commanded or “corrected,” and the dogs were tense and anxious, panting heavily with ears and lips drawn back, hanging tails, coiled like compressed springs, eager for release. The trainer’s dog was complying with almost every command in fits and starts, slightly relaxing his facial tension when praised, but also obviously on the edge of exploding past this tightly repressive physical control. My stomach lurched and threatened to expose me with a vomit giveaway.
I managed to complete my errand by getting information about the behaviors taught and techniques used in puppy classes. Supposedly, puppy class is taught differently than what I was witnessing. It turned out that the owner was also a former colleague of mine, whom I hadn’t met before because she trained at a different location for the positive reinforcement training company.
While my emotional reaction to the situation was so intense it led to physical illness, the most disturbing part was discovering that people who love their dogs and have had experience with learning as fun for dogs will choose to use punishing force instead. They learned how to recognize the more subtle dog body signals of fear, anxiety, and pain that uninformed people often don’t perceive. They have at least a cursory knowledge of the research showing that aggressive training methods tend to increase aggressive behavior in dogs. They had the education and some experiences of confident dogs freely offering mutually beneficial behaviors and still they made a conscious choice in favor of violence.
These are not “bad” people. In no way do I believe that my striving to behave with compassion makes me a “good” person. Besides, my striving is sometimes an effortful quieting of my ego and not always successful. I’m also a recovering control freak with an understanding of the vulnerabilities that lead some of us to use strategies of excessive control, even violence, to protect ourselves. Like our dogs, we as beings aren’t “bad” or “good.” We are just beings with needs, using our behavior to get those needs met.
I would like to understand what needs are being met by the behavior of overpowering dogs with physical force and intentional intimidation tactics. The spin I just gave with my word choice hints at one of my hypotheses, but I don’t actually know what needs individual people are attempting to meet. It would take courage and self-awareness to even have this conversation and I’m not sure I have the communication skills. Yet, this is such a point of pain and confusion for me that I can’t help but be curious about what I do not know.
All I know is what it was like for me when I was trying to control dogs with force and intimidation. Yes, in the past I used some “traditional” training methods. I’m a human being and I continue to learn more effective ways to meet my needs without causing harm to others. I study and practice (and practice and practice) nonviolence because I have to, not because I’m already an angel of lovingkindness with all beings, including myself.
I no longer believe in education as a universal cure, but I do still believe in compassion.