Tuesday, May 24, 2011

When Do You Speak Up?

The other day a new guy came to the dog park. He had a medium-large mutt with him, mostly black with a white-and-beige belly and chest blaze. I'd never laid eyes on either the guy or his dog before, and I didn't pay that much attention when they came in, since my own mutt was at the other end of the dog park when they entered. I never even got a clear enough look to determine whether the new dog was male or female.

I did notice that the dog looked a little uncomfortable as it came in through the gate: stiff-legged posture, tail slightly upright and wagging in short sharp jerks, chin lifted, mouth closed. But a lot of dogs are uncomfortable right at the gate, especially if they're new to the park and getting mobbed at the entrance. Often they shake it off (literally) and are fine once they get inside. This dog didn't strike me as overtly aggressive -- I got the impression that it was more anxious and uncertain than anything else -- so I just made a mental note to keep an eye on it if it came near Pongu and resumed watching my mutt puppy.

Moments later, a spate of snarls, yelps and barks erupted from the far side of the park. The new dog had gotten into a disagreement with another dog. Like most canine disagreements, it sounded worse than it was -- despite all the snarling, neither dog was biting, both were running alongside one another, and it wasn't clear to me whether they were on the verge of fighting or were just making "scary noise" play. The new dog kept trying to rest its chin on the other dog's back or shoulders, but the other dog was dodging away instead of snapping back.

Sensibly, both owners intervened before the dogs' rowdy not-quite-play escalated into a fight. But it was how the new guy intervened that astounded me.

Most of the owners who come to our local dog park practice positive training methods. While misbehavior isn't tolerated -- owners are generally quick to step in if their dogs are getting snappy or hump-happy -- most owners simply interrupt undesirable behavior and reinforce desired behavior with praise or rewards. You don't often see people using the older, punishment-based methods to "train" their dogs.

But that's exactly what this guy did. He called his dog over, then yelled at it angrily, grabbed it by the jowls, and shook its face while lifting its front feet off the ground. A few seconds later, he hauled the dog off to the side of the park by its collar, lifting it high enough that, from some 20-30 feet away, I could clearly hear the dog coughing and choking. When that didn't achieve the result he wanted, he took his dog out of the park.

And neither I nor anyone else said a word. I just watched it happen, sitting on my bench and holding my own dog out of the way until the conflict was resolved. It all happened very fast, but there probably would have been time for me to speak up if I had tried. I just didn't.

Would speaking up have been the right move? I still don't know. It seems unbearably presumptuous to tell someone how to train his dog, just as it would be presumptuous to tell a stranger on the street how he should raise his kids. Different approaches work for different people, and there may always be unique, complicating issues that are not obvious to an onlooker. And I'm not anything close to a certified dog trainer; I'm just an enthusiastic amateur who sometimes fosters rescue mutts. I don't have any special credentials or expertise to tell other people what to do.

On the other hand, it seemed abundantly clear to me that what this guy was doing was not likely to work. By punishing his dog after it answered his call, he was punishing the recall, not the original misbehavior -- not the wisest move, particularly in a dog park where one's dog has already shown some anxiety and snappiness. And there are the other concerns about punishment-based training, too: the harm it does to the dog-owner bond, the potential for provoking real aggression from a dog that feels trapped, and so on.

So... at the end of the day, what do you do? When do you speak up?

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