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Should you speak up?

We often encounter people at dog sport events, shows, vets, parks and sometimes even friends who tend to treat their dogs quite harsh. Yanking dogs around, pinning them to the ground, staring them down, all those methods are out of date and rarely used anymore. But of course, you do get the people who stick to their ways. A lot of people feel that it’s their duty to try and convince old school handlers that what they are doing is wrong there and then. Naturally this often leads to a very unpleasant conversation, where both parties end up feeling furious with each other, and nothing was really achieved. So, how do you convince someone that their methods is wrong?

Let’s turn it around. How would you react if someone walked up to you and your dog and told you that what you are doing with your dog is wrong, while you believe that what you are doing is the right thing. There are a couple of things that would go along with that.

  • Embarrassment
  • Loss of control
  • Doubt
  • Anxiety
  • Rejection

All of which results in resistance and most of the time, anger. It is a proven fact, that the brain can not process two opposing beliefs at the same time. This is called cognitive dissonance. It causes stress and discomfort and completely messes up internal consistency. Internal consistency is something every single human being aspires to and seeks out.

The strongest reaction to cognitive dissonance, is to ignore the new information that poses a threat to the person’s reference frame, the tried and tested belief. Beliefs are created by repetition of information, which builds neural pathways in our brains. When new information comes our way that does not fit into our reference frame, the new information is often resisted and then discarded. Another reaction for this cognitive dissonance , is to go to further lengths to justify his/her position. Can you imagine where this is heading? They might become more harsh towards their dog or you, to prove a point.

If you think about it this way, what are the chances that you will be able to change that person’s mind then and there? A change of mind requires new thinking patterns, new behaviour patterns and the most difficult of them all, new neural pathways.

Most people are doing the best they can, with what they know. Perhaps a television show is the only reference they have, and by being critical about what they are doing might not be the best solution for that person or the dog.
So what can you do?

  • Show empathy and be non-judgmental. Try to understand where that person is coming from. Get the whole story.
  • If you are an experienced handler, you can offer your assistance, starting by asking permission first.
  • If you fully understand how training with punishment works, you can strike up a conversation.
  • People tend to be more patient when they see you know where they are coming from.
  • Set an example with how you handle your dog, and if you have to, with how you approach this person. Marching towards them with steam coming out of your ears, will not quite give them the force free experience.
  • Plant seeds, mention your favorite (force free) dog training website or book.   Don’t try to sell it to them though.
  • Focus on what the person is doing right with the dog, and build on that. If there is really nothing you can compliment, compliment the dog. Everyone loves to hear how beautiful their dogs are. A good question to start off with is ‘What do you love about your dog?’ This forces people to focus on the good things, rather than the bad things. It’s an inviting start to a conversation.

By Tersha, Trainer