IF you saw somebody treating their dog, or any animal for that matter, in a way that you considered abusive, would you step in and do something?
That was the situation I found myself in when I witnessed a young woman using a training method that, although it is not considered abuse, is archaic.
Unfortunately what is considered abuse is rather subjective. For example, some people consider the use of e-collars, which deliver an electrical impulse (much like the vibration of a cell phone) to a dog as abusive. Yet I consider it one of the most humane methods of training a dog when used properly by qualified professionals.
Some people consider the overindulgence of food rewards, common in positive reinforcement training, a form of abuse. Even though there is no physical violence, the disregard for setting proper forms of leadership and boundaries while having no understanding of canine body language and behaviour creates a stressed, spoiled dog that often is obnoxious, frustrating its owner and sometimes leading to physical violence behind closed doors.
In the situation I observed, I personally considered the training being used as abusive because it was old-school. There was a time when we thought dogs were really stupid and nothing but robotic creatures that needed to be physically manipulated in a way that caused them to shut down mentally but still perform the task physically. This "shutting down" was considered a form of submission by the dog, when in fact the dog was no longer interested in the training and was not participating with enthusiasm but rather going through the motions, biding its time until the situation was over. No learning was taking place, only a great deal of fear and resentment, which would eventually lead to aggression.
We now know that dogs are highly intelligent and sensitive creatures that can easily be taught through gentleness, compassion and understanding. This does not mean the dog is petted, stroked and cuddled into doing something, but that those things can be used as an effective reward when a dog is guided gently yet consistently through a task.
There may be times when firmness is required as a correction but it is never done when the owner is angry because this instills nothing but fear in a dog. Oftentimes the least amount of pressure is required to correct a dog, when proper leadership has been established.
Our current dog culture is mixed with a plethora of training methods, all of which work and get the job done, some better than others, and everyone is highly charged emotionally about justifying their chosen methods. No one likes to be judged yet everyone seems to be willing to judge. But there is no denying that there are methods that still rely on fear and intimidation to train a dog (and horses!) and these methods are outdated and abusive.
Education is the best tool for teaching people that other ways of doing things - be it training dogs, raising children or living your life - are available. But unfortunately education is only effective if the person has an open mind. A closed mind is nothing but a waste of space. When I started in this business more than 20 years ago my methods didn't resemble anything that I am doing today with dogs. I went through many changes in my training methods over the years because I openly sought out and accepted the information I was learning.
Change is good, donkey! When you approach someone with a closed mind, lost in ways of doing things that are clearly not working for them, pointing out their flawed techniques is sure to get you nothing but negativity so it's best not to point out their flaws but instead plant the seed that a better way exists.
So that's what I did. I calmly approached this woman with a smile and commented on how she was doing the best job she could with the tools that she had and then gave her a card while saying, "When you are ready to learn a better way, give the number on this card a call."
Gentleness, compassion and understanding works just as well for humans as it does for dogs.