While waiting in the lobby at my veterinarian’s office yesterday, I kept myself occupied by admiring all the animals and chitchatting with various pet owners. Across from me was a man with an older-looking, sweet-faced Lab in a big, shiny prong collar. The Lab was obviously social and attempted several times to mosey toward a passing person or dog to say hello. Each time he tried to do this, he received a harsh, “No!” and a leash correction from his owner. The dog would respond by whining a bit and lying down next to his owner.
I felt sorry for the dog, angry at the owner, and very anxious. I wanted to run over there and tell the man everything I know about positive reinforcement training. I wanted to explain to him the potential fallout of correcting the dog for just being social and friendly. I really wanted to go pet that dog, take off the painful collar, and tell him everything would be okay.
It’s often difficult to know when you should say something in these circumstances, and sometimes even trickier to know what to say. What some of us would call abusive simply does not fall under the legal definition of animal abuse. The dog owners who might upset you are often not breaking any laws.
I didn’t speak to this man for several reasons. I’ll share with you some of the guidelines I’ve come up with making the decision to speak or hold my peace when faced with these scenarios.
1. Is the dog in immediate danger?
It’s true that some dogs can suffer behavioral damage through the use of punishment over time. However, it is also true that some dogs simply don’t. I have no real way of knowing if the Lab I saw at the vet’s office will eventually become aggressive to strangers, other dogs, or his owner. I can suspect it, but for all I know that dog has been on a prong collar since he was six months old.
Had his owner been kicking the dog, hitting the dog, or hanging the dog up off the ground by the collar, there would have been immediate danger of physical trauma. In those cases, I certainly would have stepped in, and I suspect I wouldn’t have been the only one in that lobby to do so. Yes, a prong collar can do physical damage over time, but again, I had no evidence to support that.
This is also a good question to ask concerning the issue of leaving dogs in cars, which becomes a hot topic this time of year. Not every dog left in a car is in immediate danger. Many very good dog owners will purposely park in the shade, crack a window, and limit the time they leave the dog in their vehicles. It isn’t an automatic emergency.
2. Is the owner open to discussion?
This is where things get subjective and will require some good social skills. I could tell by watching the body language of the man at the veterinarian’s office that he was confident in what he was doing. I have seen other dog owners give reprimands or use prong collars who seem half-hearted. They appear to be doing something someone else told them to do, but they’re obviously open to other alternatives.
This man seemed quite proud of his dog’s response to his corrections. He almost appeared to be showing off. That commitment to his choice of training methods informed my decision to not say anything. My comments would have been as welcome as a slap in the face.
Sometimes the issue becomes credibility as well as willingness. This guy didn’t know I was a professional dog trainer with more than 10 years of experience. I was just some random person in the vet’s office. If he’d shown up to one of my classes with his dog on a prong collar, I would have had more leverage due to my implied credibility. If the veterinarian were to tell him of the potential risk of using a prong collar, he would probably listen, or at least be open to discussing other training options.
3. What is the point?
This is important, for me. Before I say anything to a dog owner, I like to be clear about my intentions. If I’m angry and just want to shame the owner, I can do that quickly and successfully. However, embarrassing the dog owner doesn’t help the dog. Expressing my anger, frustration, or disgust won’t help the dog either.
If my goal is really to help the dog, then I have to think past my emotions. In the instance of the man with the Lab, I probably would have started with compliments. I would have told him what a great dog he had, how obedient he was, and asked questions about the dog’s age and background. I might have asked if the dog could have a few treats, then demonstrated how easy it was to control the dog without touching the leash. Being a dog trainer, I could have told him that I’d love to have him in one of my classes so we could get his dog off the training collar and move toward off-leash control. If I were a dog owner and not a trainer, I could tell him about the awesome dog trainer I know who could do the same.
In some situations, the point is to save the dog from physical harm or death. In these cases, none of this finesse and careful wording is necessary. In fact, I don’t think any words to the dog owner are necessary. Instead, communication should be saved for the police and animal control. If someone is beating or otherwise harming a dog in public, speaking to them will only serve to escalate the situation. You need authority figures who are trained and able to take action.
This also holds true for a dog left in a hot car. If the temp is high and the dog owner obviously did not take steps to be responsible, like leaving a window open and parking in the shade, it is time to call the authorities. Breaking into their car is not the way to go! First, you are breaking the law. Second, you could actually make things worse for the dog, causing them to panic, become aggressive, or even run away.
This is a difficult subject to write about, due to the plethora of variables. I will tell you that dog trainers talk about this subject a lot, and it is rare that any of us feel that we did exactly the right thing, in the right way, at the right time. Thinking about it will help, though.
One of the greatest dogs I ever lived with came to me as a foster because someone stepped in at the right time and said the right thing. She was only 12 weeks old, and a bystander saw a young man beating her with a skateboard in a public park. Instead of freaking out, she calmly walked up and said, “Would you like me to take that dog off your hands?” Fortunately, the man replied, “Take her! She’s the dumbest dog EVER!” The bystander simply took her leash and walked away. No lecture, no shaming, she simply got the dog out of the situation.
That dog’s name is Emma. She is now six years old and living in the lap of luxury with owners who love her very, very much.
Have you ever confronted someone abusing or training their dog in an unsafe manner? How did it go? Tell us about it in the comments.
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