Conversation with a Vet

Ya know that feeling you get when you realize you're in the company of people that are truly aligned with your mission? It's a beautiful thing, taking a deep breathe and relaxing into the knowledge that you truly understand each other and speak the same language. It's even better when that alignment is based on critical thinking, reason and humane objectives.

I had this experience recently with a long time colleague, veterinarian David Steele of Advanced Animal Care of Mount Pleasant, here in the Charleston area. We'd carved out an hour to discuss partnering on a project and had a rare opportunity to connect more in-depth and outside of case work. We'd known all along that we held the similar beliefs about animal behavior and have worked diligently together in supporting our shared clients in their dogs' behavior needs. But this meeting was inspiring.

We found ourselves using the exact same language to reference the many facets of animal behavior and dog training. "OK, so what's the big deal, C.C.?" Oh, this is a BIG deal, my friend. You see, not only are there professionals in the animal care world who do not understand animal behavior as we know it to be today, but there are even fewer who purposely choose their words as carefully as Dr. Steele when speaking about the topic. The words we use are crucial and can even save lives. I'm not exaggerating in the least.

When speaking to fellow professionals and our clients about behavior, we have a responsibility that should not be taken lightly. It is our ethical obligation to communicate behavior clearly, present related concepts correctly and actively encourage the use of language that supports humane care of animals. One example, many clients say their dog is being "stubborn" when they are paying attention to other things and their person wants them to focus on them instead. I respond, "It seems they've actually got great focus, we just need to refocus them onto you a bit more to get the behavior you'd like." It's my job to show the human the many factors that can easily be adjusted to get the behavior they desire.

I asked Dr. Steele to share a few highlights from our conversation that day. Here are examples of how the words we choose are important. It's no surprise the first example he listed reflects a recent WDU Blog post on the topic, The Difference Between Dog Manners and Obedience.

There is a difference between "obedience" and "training." Obedience is a relationship built upon dominance and submission. This dominance is maintained by strength, intimidation, or by control of resources. The dominant in the relationship has no regard for the submissive's feelings or desires and expects nothing less than absolute compliance.  In this relationship, there is always conflict in which the dominant must monitor and control the submissive. Often the submissive will subvert the dominant, typically in a passive, non-confrontational manner. With this type of training, the dog's behavior offered is not because of love, respect, or trust, but rather the behavior is based on fear and avoidance of punishment. This is based on an antiquated notion of the social construct of canines. The canine pack is much more similar to a human family unit rather than a gang. A gang is often made of unrelated, similar-aged males in which the leader is selected through a process of dominance challenges. Think of [the game] "King of the Hill." How do you know if your trainer is using "old school" dominance training? Ask about what methods they use to train dogs. If the methods used to cause any degree of physical pain, emotional pain (fear, anxiety), or even the threat of pain, they are using dominance as their method of training.  

When my clients describe the relationship they have with their dogs, they use descriptions such as, "family member," "a child," "best friend" and even "significant other." In healthy relationships, it may not be equal (such as a parent and child), but there is deference to the other by both parties. A parent may know when to use their quiet voice, but kids know imaginative play, and each one defers to the other. In the "human world" such as being at the dog park, spending time at an outdoor event or just meeting others while on a walk, our dogs do best if they defer to us for direction about how to behave. We have the experience and knowledge to help them make good behavioral choices, and therefore, should defer to us rather than deciding on their own how to respond or behave. We, humans, are the ones who create problem behaviors. Our dogs know how to do things such as sit, and they already know to pay attention and listen to us. We know that the average dog has a working vocabulary of about 120 words, [they've learned] simply by paying attention and listening. How many dog words do you know?  We, humans, are not listening very well.

Think of modern trainers as therapists who are there to help you communicate better with your pet and to use more healthy and loving methods for changing a dog's and your behaviors.  Modern trainers consider the motivation and emotions behind your dogs' undesirable behaviors and help us learn how to teach dogs better behavior choices. Rather than "obedience training," you are looking for someone who can help you listen to your dog better and communicate better so that they can be polite and welcomed members of the community. 

Take a moment. Which words do you use to describe your dog's behaviors? Is there room for adjustment?

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