Setting Judgment Aside

Nov 7, 2016 | Animal Behavior, Training


Carter’s owners worked for years to try to help him with his aggression issues; his legacy now serves as an inspiration

Professional dog trainers and behavior consultants who use force-free methods are some of the most compassionate people I know. We couldn’t do this work if we didn’t care deeply and want the absolute best outcome in every situation. So it pains me to think about these same individuals judging their clients for the choices they make.

When I decided to become a professional dog trainer, I didn’t realize that counseling people would be such a large part of my job. But I find myself doing it on a daily basis. Just yesterday I spoke with three women about extreme behavioral issues each faced with their dogs. Every one of these women felt sad, resentful, guilty – and afraid of their own dogs. One was asking for help re-homing her dog because she was fearful for her young children. Another was agonizing over possibly having to euthanize her best friend due to aggression.

While each was hoping for some magical answer to their problem, what they really needed in the moment was an empathetic, supportive listener, free of judgement. It was an emotionally exhausting day for me, but I am thankful I could be there for these women. Perhaps it is because I remember how I felt when I was in their shoes.

Eleven months ago, my husband and I made the excruciating decision to euthanize one of our own dogs. We had worked diligently for years to help Carter overcome his severe issues with aggression. We implemented strict management and structured behavior modification. We tried every over-the-counter product on the market and then sought the guidance and support of two board certified veterinary behaviorists. We went through six different medications attempting to find the right fit for him. The breaking point came for our family when Carter injured one of our other dogs who then needed emergency vet care. It was not the first injury he had caused in the home.

This was one of the worst experiences I have ever had, and yet I am so thankful for it. My struggles and heartache trying to help Carter taught me so much about myself, about dogs and about empathy and compassion for my clients.

As professional trainers and behavior consultants, we can get tunnel-vision about “fixing the problem” with the dog. But is it fair to only consider what the dog is experiencing? Instead of overwhelming them with training plans, exercises, management techniques and schedules, some clients need us to just stop and validate what they’re feeling. They are seeking the advice of a professional, but they also need to feel comfortable enough to tell us if this is something they can’t handle. If they are contemplating the heart-wrenching decision of re-homing or euthanizing their dog, they need to be able to talk about that. We can’t make these difficult topics “off limits” because they are part of the reality of being a dog guardian.

If we focus on listening to our clients’ fears and concerns it could cause them to be more open to the training plans we have in mind for their dog. Once their feelings are validated we may have a more positive outcome for everyone involved. If they don’t feel understood or we just brush their concerns aside and push on, we are not providing our client with what they need.

Those of us who have worked with fearful, reactive or aggressive dogs for years can lose sight of how scary and overwhelming it can be for someone experiencing it for the first time. I know many trainers who live with dogs with severe behavioral issues. They alter their lives to fit the needs of these dogs and it becomes their “normal”. I know this because I am still one of them. So sometimes I have to remind myself that my willingness to turn my life upside down for a dog does not give me the right to judge someone because they can’t or won’t do the same.

There have been many times throughout my adult life that I have felt judged because my husband and I made a conscious choice to remain childless. Some people have been rude in the way they have tried to convince me that having a child was the right thing for me. The bottom line is I know myself. I know what I can handle and the things I am willing to do. I have to trust that my clients are the same. It is not up to me to decide if their dog is the right fit for them or if they are able to financially or emotionally afford three, six or nine months of hard-core behavior modification. It is my job to provide them with as much information and support as I can, and then explain their options moving forward.

The reality is that it doesn’t always work out when a person adopts a dog. Whatever the reason, it is valid to that person. We don’t have to agree with it or like it. But judging a person doesn’t define who they are, it defines who we are.