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Show Don't Tell - Changing Hearts and Minds in the Dog World

Firstly, let's start off by acknowledging that 99% of people love their dogs or love dogs in general and want to do well by them. Their methodology and beliefs might be different than yours. Their level of care might be different than yours. But they love their dogs and we can't continue a dialogue without recognizing that common ground.

But there are bad people. There are people who abuse their dogs on purpose! Sure, yes. But that's not what this post is about. It's about people who want to do well by their dogs but struggle, for whatever reason. It's about those who believe their methods are the only way to correctly care for a dog (or animals in general). And it's about those who wish to impose those beliefs on others.

You cannot extensively change a person's mind simply by talking at them. It's just not going to happen often. You can open a dialogue and have a healthy debate, sure. But let's be honest, that's not particularly common in today's world, largely because a healthy debate requires the believe that both parties hold their beliefs rationally, reasonably and respect the other person's rights to hold a differing opinion. But you cannot change someone's opinion by talking at them, especially if they're not receptive to your attempts in the first place.

This is something I discovered relatively early on in my adult life. I am a reasonably skilled debater, in my opinion. I can articulate my ideas and beliefs clearly and succinctly. I enjoy a good, thoughtful debate. I hate when it turns into an argument instead and that's what I found myself embroiled in, again and again. I eventually found myself taking the age old advice of leading by example.

If I wanted others to work hard on my shift with me, I worked hard. If I was tired of people's bad attitudes with customers at Starbucks, I smiled all day long, until my jaw hurt. Starbucks has a program where they send corporate employees to spend a day in one of their stores and I remember we had one such time where it had been a hell of a morning. I can't remember the details now, but I remember feeling overwhelmed, short-staffed, and tired. And by mid-day things were finally running smoothly again and our corporate visitor turned to me and said- "I had no idea how much you can influence things just by smiling." Obviously his comment made an impact, because I remember that to this day.

In today's world, there has been much coverage on the plight of the rescue dog. For good reason. Particularly a few decades ago, shelter over-population was a huge problem, as were euthanasia rates of perfectly healthy dogs. So various organizations (both beneficial and malignant) undertook a giant campaign to demonstrate conditions in shelters, provide low cost spay/neuter clinics. They ran adds with heart-stirring music and images. They came up with catchy slogans like "Adopt, Don't Shop". And they made a world-altering impact.

That campaign was created out of a desire to do better by our canine companions. It brought to light how altering our animals can greatly aid in over-population. It discussed alternative options to breeders when welcoming an animal into your home. That desire to do good has done a great amount of good in the world. Vets are on board with altering your pets, trainers are on board with counter-conditioning, desensitization, enrichment rather than punishment and flooding. The campaign has been so successful it has, now, turned the general public against breeders, at times to a very ugly extent.

There are people who believe that breeding should be illegal. There are people who believe dogs shouldn't be domesticated and live with humans. This is an extreme view, but it is one that people genuinely hold. One of PETA's mottos is "Better dead than bred." Think about that and really mull it over for a second. They'd rather see a dog dead than have puppies. That is the most extreme version of animal rights activists ((ARA). (If you have never head of the difference between animal welfare and animal rights activists check out the National Animal Interest Alliance's statement on the topic.) But their concepts have bled over into almost every aspect of dog ownership.

  • Crates are inhumane because they cramped, little ugly spaces that dogs hate

  • Prong collars are inhumane because it's sticking the dog's neck with spikes. E-Collars are shock collars that leave burn marks.

  • Chain spots and tethering is inhumane because people just put a dog on a chain and leave them

  • Breeders are only in the business for the money. They breed their girls over and over until they die. These concepts have even bled over to honest breeders crying that they never make money because that is somehow evil.

  • People will let dogs out of their crates at dog shows

  • I attended a show where dogs were poisoned by people handing out poisoned treats, because again, "Better dead than bred" or shown or owned.

I cannot tackle these beliefs head-on. I just can't. No one is going to listen. I don't have videos of sad shelter animals or celebrities backing me. And the fact remains, I'm so glad people are helping dogs in need. But not everyone is a place to do that. I know so many children who have bitten by a newly adopted rescue with no known background. I see that first hand monthly. Sometimes it's okay to want a sweet, well-cared for puppy from a breeder with a known history and predictable reactions.

But here's the thing. The ARA aren't wrong - all of the above points can lead to abuse. People with ill intent (or even those who just got in over their head) can misuse or overuse a tool. They can neglect their dog or abuse them. But we shouldn't be judging people by the few and the worst. Animal neglect and abuse is already illegal everywhere in the country, so why the need to regulate chain spots and tools and breeding? Why not follow the laws already in place and prosecute those who are neglectful and abusive.

Part of the reason for this push for regulations is lack of understanding. It's easy to say: "I would never put a medieval torture device on my dog." And be honest, it is sure easy to look at a prong collar and have torture devices come to mind. If you don't know how prong collars work by distributing pressure evenly across the neck so that the collar tightens evenly when the dog pulls. Are they aversive? Yes, and that's a debate I'm not going to get into this moment, but they are also safe when used correctly, and when used correctly, they can be faded away from completely when the dog understands how not to pull.

It is easy to say: "All the people putting their dog on a chain out in the yard are neglectful. I would never do that to my house dog." Nevermind the classist and abelist implications of assuming your a neglectful owner if you don't have a fenced yard. Nevermind the subtle heteronormativity at play with the fact that a dog on a chain is discordant with the vision of the nuclear family. Ultimately chain spots can be used safely and effectively. They can give a high energy dog room to roam, alleviate themselves, and shelter themselves when set up correctly. For those with large working kennels they give the dogs freedom a kennel couldn't. They can even be a powerful alternative for those who don't have fenced yards.

Every single point that the ARA raises has a counter-point. Do I use prong collars or utilize chain spots with my dogs? No, I don't. But that's not because they're evil tools. It's because I don't need that particular tool in this particular instance. I am not about to dictate to someone else what tools they use. How much time they spend with their dog and how they spend with their dog. I'm not going to tell them that working their dog through an uncomfortable situation is better than retreating an retrying another day. But if they come to me for advice, then I can help. Education is a huge key to rectifying misperceptions, but if someone isn't open to learning about different perspectives, we can't force them to until they're ready. So what can we do?

Model the behaviors we want to see. Demonstrate how we wish others to behave, without judging them. That doesn't mean taking a walk with your friend and their dog and pointedly noting- "I'm bothering to train my dogs. See prong collars are so great!" Or the flip side- "I'm bothering to train my dog and not using barbaric tools." That means take a walk with your friend and their dog and let your dog's polite behavior demonstrate the training you've put in. It means politely offering advice when your friend asks for help after seeing your well trained dog.

It means bringing my well-trained, polite Azawakh as demo dogs, every single day. It means showing how the breed can be discerning and work hard and thrive in an environment where they have a job. It means demonstrating the predictability of purebred dogs on a daily basis in my case.

I maintain a website and keep public health tests, even when my dogs fail that, because I hope others will some day join me. Because visibility is one of the only things we can do to counteract destructive ARA beliefs.

I show my process not as a performative "look at me, look at me" but because hopefully someone will benefit from it. I post about Ash's struggles with reactivity or Argos' seizures or Tabiri's hypothyroidism. I talk about struggling with Azhidar's energy level when I first brought him home. I laugh about Ami hiding from an electric toothbrush as she went through a fear period. Because all of those things are normal dog things and need to be normalized and understood. And if your trainer can't be honest that sometimes they struggle too, clients tend to get very discouraged that they're not perfect, that their dogs aren't perfect.

When it comes to breeding, I've faced a lot of questions. The number one question I get is: "Do you have any homes lined up?" And that question alone helped me realize how huge the gulf of misunderstanding there is between the general public and breeders. When I saw only two puppies on Ami's puppy count X-ray I cried because I knew I didn't have enough puppies to fill the number of fantastic potential homes I have. I started contemplating not keeping a puppy for myself, because I want others to experience this pairing (Anubi x Amidi). It never even occurred to me to breed a litter without having some homes lined up well in advanced. That is what I want to see from a breeder.

Often that question tends to pique their interest and we start talking more. About how I've shopped sales for three years to get supplies, about the seminars I've attended, the work I've done in trials. But more often, people see my posts online about progesterone testing or nomographs and they start to get curious. I've been approached by a number of my training clients, who have nothing to do with the breeding aspect of my life, and they tell me they had no idea that breeding was such hard work. They had no idea that breeder's intentionally build emotional resiliency with exercises and young exposure and games. They had no idea breeders health test or crate train or leash train. And there's no reason they should no, because it's something breeders take for granted and don't publicize. No, not every breeder uses a name brand socialization program, but all my breeder friends handle their dogs and expose them to the new and novel.

I'm not going to change people's hearts and minds by preaching at them. But I can see, in bits and pieces, people start to grasp a more complete picture, and it gives me hope.

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