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On Gatekeeping and Other Toxic Culture

Updated: Nov 30, 2020

Perhaps I'm just more aware of it lately. Perhaps it's just bugging me more. Or perhaps there has been an uptick in it. Regardless of the reason, I have witnessed to a huge amount of gatekeeping in the dog community recently.

Gatekeeping is a concept that means: when an individual takes it upon themselves to grant or deny access to a particular community or identity.

This is a concept that has existed since time immemorial, but only in recent times has awareness truly been raised around the concept. And the problem becomes, it is such a tricky balance to walk: you want to make sure no one can damage something you love but you also want to share it with the world so other people can share your joy. But maybe...if you can just control who has access then no one who will ruin it will slip in.

Here's the thing. You can never have complete control. Not ever. There are always going to people who slip in who you don't like, who you don't agree. And now, if you made a big point of turning those people away you have the choice of trying to reconcile your differences, ignoring them completely, or systematically trying to drive them out of your community. And let me tell you, if you punish people for being interested in your community by telling them "No, they're not good enough" those people aren't going to be super receptive to you.

I love so many facets of the Azawakh community, so many people and passions. However, the Azawakh community can be terrible about gatekeeping. Perhaps they aren't as bad as the Belgian Malinois community who, at times, seems to be hell bent on keeping anyone from bringing home a mal. Honestly, there are many rare breeds, terrier breeds, livestock guardian breeds, and some herding breeds that breeders and fanciers will often try to scare away people. The exaggeration of traits is a common tactic: "They have to be exercised for 8 hours a day!", "They will never let a stranger touch them!", "They will never stop barking, ever!"

Another tactic to make stringent requirements before a person can bring a dog home: you need 7 references, you need to never have been late with a vaccination, you shouldn't be giving vaccinations in the first place, you can't rent, you must have a fenced yard, and on and on. Breeders aren't the only ones guilty of this. Shelters and rescues can put the same overly restrictive requirements on potential owners.

And sure, some people might look at those descriptions and obstacles and decide: Nope, that breed's not for me. But honestly, judging by my history of working with a wide range of breeds and clients, what happens more often is that those people who want that breed double-down and will stop at nothing to find a breeders (or rescue) who will give them the dog. So they go an find a Malinois from a back yard breeder. You import an Azawakh from overseas where it's harder to vet you. You get a Central Asian Shepherd puppy from a working farm who mostly only breeds for themselves and finds homes for their extra puppies. By driving people away instead of welcoming them and educating them with kindness we are helping disreputable breeders and rescues thrive and have a client-base. I get that there are some breeds that shouldn't be popular because they do take a particular type of owner, but instead of hitting on the importance of what makes a really good owner, often everyone is waved away.

Often times, the faults that someone finds in one breed are exactly what someone else wants out of a dog. So many people love Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers because they're friendly with every person and dog. In contrast, I really don't want to be dragged over to every stranger and dog. I'd much prefer if my dog ignore or even avoid strangers and dogs. So many people love pointing breeds because you can play fetch with them for hours all day. Which is cool, but definitely not something I want in my personal dogs.

A good fit for an Azawakh is going to be a person who wants to be their dog's world but understands they're like humans with fur. You have to treat them like partners, not like traditional biddable dogs. You have to want a dog that is okay disliking pushy dogs and doesn't want to play in the dog park where they'll encounter pushy dogs. They have a huge sense of dignity and if something offends it they might just opt out. You need to want a dog that is going to be focused on you, not other people or dogs and that will likely be at minimum avoidant and more likely standoffish if their boundaries get pushed. It's best if you enjoy socializing and exposing your dog to new things because I continue to socialize my dogs heavily up until they're two years old. Understand how to make the world a exciting and wonderful place to explore is even more key for this breed than most. This is a dog that wants a job. Doesn't really matter what that is but they need mental stimulation. Otherwise they will take on guarding you and the home as their job and tend to get neurotic. Think of them as working dogs in a sighthound suit. They'd be right at home in the working group ring. I would say everything else can vary in what you want but those are the key things. Do you want a couch potato who gets to free run and then take a nap? Great, they can do that (once they're not puppies). Do you want a performance dog? Great, they can do that. Do you want a hiking companion? Perfect, they're game.

But instead I could say: this is a breed that HATES strangers, that will NEVER be a dog park dog (I don't go to them, but I have two Azawakh that could handle and even enjoy a dog park setting), that can be very STUBBORN and independent and primitive, etc, etc. All of these are examples that I have actively seen in the community. But here's the thing: their dislike of strangers bonds them strongly with their people, their bond with their people give them good natural recall, their disinterest in other dogs and people can make walks very freeing and pleasant. All of the faults can lead to benefits in and of themselves.

At the same time, we have to be honest. I'd assert that I never had rose-colored glasses about the breed. I knew they can be prone to biting, prone to reactivity, and sometimes be completely unstable in public. However, when I first had Anubi, I couldn't imagine him being the least bit sharp or guardy. He loved every person and dog he met. And then at nine months, his guarding instincts started to really develop and he got really insecure. It was such an abrupt change I was stunned. Other people has told me that it could happen. I've seen teenage dogs of every breed become wild and out of control, but Anubi had been such an easy puppy. So when someone gets their first Azawakh puppy who doesn't show much guarding instinct as a puppy, I encourage them to wait before recommending the breed with wild abandon to people. It is quite common across breeds that a dog's full instincts will kick in much stronger as the become teenagers (it makes sense, right? As puppies they don't need to retrieve a bird or herd a sheep, so puppies that are showing strong instinct tend to have truly unshakable instinct as adults).

It saddens me when people new to the breed feel like their Azawakh developing reactivity or resource guarding as teenagers means that their dog is broken or badly bred or they're doing a bad job as owners. Those behaviors are common across breeds (especially breeds with any variety of guarding instinct). It's our job as owners to help them understand what is and isn't a threat. It's our job to help them understand when to guard and that takes a lot more guidance when your Azawakh (or really many other breeds too) is an insecure teenager (I find generally 9 months-2 years roughly).

But just because someone is new to the breed, it doesn't mean they should sit down and shut up. How many experience fanciers and breeders are truly active on Facebook and other social media forums? How many people routinely answer questions about your breed in all breed groups? I would say most don't, because the culture can be elitist and draining. It can be time consuming. So let your new owners be ambassadors. Educate them so they can educate others. Let me tell you as someone who got into dogs as a young 20-something. The best words you can ever say to a young, prideful fancier who desperately wants help but is scared to ask are: "Can I give you some advice?" Give them the option to take your wisdom or leave it and I guarantee, those who take you up on that offer will keep coming back for help and guidance.

And as an experience fancier, I know It's easy to say: well, you should ask that question of a long time breeder, a new owner shouldn't be responding. But how many long time breeders take the time to respond to forum questions? There are many many who do, but I would argue there are substantially more that don't. So then those questions and curiosity about the breed go completely unanswered. Compared to the general public, especially in a rare breed, a new owner is still comparatively an expert. New owners are enthusiastic. They almost always are just excited to share their knowledge. They're not high and mighty and convinced they can do no wrong. They are trying to share what they've learned.

In contrast, new owners have a responsibility to listen. Even when they don't ask questions, listen to Pure Dog Talk, read books and articles,scroll through old questions about the breed in breed Facebook groups. I'm honestly embarrassed to admit to the hundreds (yes, three digits) of hours I've spent doing the above plus talking to people I know within the breed. I will say though, it would be nice if people would ever assume that you've done your research rather than assuming you're speaking from a place of ignorance of lack of research.

In short, the dog world operates on a social contract, just like all of society. But lack of clarity of what that social contract is and should be leads to so much conflict and toxicity. Gatekeeping isn't going to protect our purebred dogs. Shutting down new enthusiasts just serves to isolate the community from the public. But, at the same time, know when to ask for advice and when to shut up and listen.

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