Today, with a few of my students, I attended a “dog friendly” fund raising event for a very worthy cause. We arrived with hungry dogs, clickers, treat bags, and anticipation – this was going to be fun for the dogs!
Or so we thought.
There were many, many dogs in attendance, it was a rather large event. Numerous vendors had established tables, offering their wares. Dogs everywhere.
Now I’ll be the first to admit I live in a bubble of positivity when it comes to the dog owners I encounter. I am fortunate enough to be surrounded by amazing clicker trainers – both my students and my teachers. I don’t think I’ve ever met a clicker trainer I didn’t like. I have the privilege of working with many, many dogs, all of them are clicker trained. None of them trained with physical aversives, and none of them wear prong or choke collars. I don’t really spend time around many dogs on prong collars, choke collars, and shock collars. I do spend a lot of time getting dogs out of these collars and onto dog-friendly equipment.
Both my students and myself were stunned by what we saw at the event. I would estimate that over 80% of the dogs attending were on prong or choke chains. Man y of them had not been trained to walk politely on a loose leash and were pulling so hard they were gagging. Five year old girls walking dogs on prong collars, getting dragged around by dogs twice their size, holding on to the leash white-knuckled.
While this event was supposed to be fun for dogs, my observations lead me to conclude that the vast majority of dogs at the event were not enjoying themselves. I saw hundreds of stress signals – tucked tails, look aways, lip licking, hackling, shake offs, drooling, whale eyes, ears pinned back against their head as if superglued, etc. It was awful.
Most of the handlers were blissfully unaware of just how uncomfortable the situation was making their dogs.
“HELLO, CASEY! DIDN’T YOU GET THE MEMO? THIS IS FUN FOR DOGS, THAT’S WHY IT’S CALLED ‘DOGGONE FUN.’ SEE THE SIGN? DOGGONE FUN. IT’S FUN. REALLY. PAY NO ATTENTION TO WHAT THE DOGS ARE TELLING YOU. WE’RE TELLING YOU, IT’S FUN FOR DOGS. CAN’T YOU READ?!”
There certainly is a lack of reading going on here. The problem is not, however, my inability to read written language. The problem is, people don’t know how to read their dogs!
I did see the signs (those that the dogs were giving) but apparently, I missed the memo. What I saw did not look like fun for the vast majority of dogs in attendance. Since when do humans get to decide what dogs think is fun? Can I decide what you find enjoyable? (If so, please contact me via email. I will decide you find cleaning my house enjoyable and we’ll see where it goes from there!)
We saw a beautiful doberman. She was nervous about being approached by another dog and growled to communicate her discomfort to both the approaching dog and her handler. Her handler took a frisbee and smacked her in the face with it a few times to correct her for growling.
I saw children and adults drag their dogs over agility equipment by their prong and choke collars. I saw dogs “corrected” for not responding to “commands” with enough force to lift their front feet off the ground.
I saw dogs forced to greet dogs and humans they obviously did not want to interact with and would have given anything to avoid; only to be punished for any behaviors which indicated their discomfort.
I saw tables lined with rows of hamburgers (to feed the human attendees) being rushed by twenty, forty dog handler teams at a time. If I were to write a recipe for creating a resource guarding situation, I would suggest “tables lined with rows of hamburgers being rushed by twenty, forty unacquainted dogs at a time.” Community water bowls on the delightfully warm, sunny autumn day also proved fertile grounds for resource guarding behaviors.
I saw no clickers besides the ones in use by myself and my students.
I’m going to be frank – it was a very stressful situation for me. I expected, any minute, for a child to get hurt, a person to get bitten, a dog fight to break out. We left early, before someone got hurt or I got arrested for intervening on behalf of the dogs.
I believe that if I had taken a survey, nearly 100% of the people in attendance would say they attended the event so that their dogs could have a fun day while they helped a worthy charitable organization. From my informal survey of the dogs, I can say that very few of them were having the fun they’d been promised on the signs. They didn’t get the memo either.
In any case, I will never again bring Mokie to an event like this. She was a trooper and as she always does, made me proud, but she also failed to get the memo and did not particularly enjoy rude greetings from unsocialized dogs, Nor was she a fan of the blaring loud music and people shouting through microphones. I wondered if it hurt her ears; it nearly gave me a headache and she hears better than I do.
I wanted to get her home right away. She seemed relieved.
I returned to Karen Pryor Academy and talked with Steve, the KPA students, and one of my advanced students about the events of the day. One of the KPA folks said, “it sounds like doggy hell.” She, like me, Mokie, and most of the dogs in attendance, also missed the memo.
I won’t bring Mokie again next year. I will, however, be reserving a vendor’s table. I’d like to have a booth where I can have an “exchange your dog’s prong or choke collar for a no-pull harness” trade in program and do a clicker/loose leash walking demonstration. (Steve said if I do so, he’ll help me purchase the harnesses.) I’ll also come well-equipped with information on dog body language, stress signals, learning, emotion, as well as positive training information and tips. Even if I only get through to 1% of those in attendance, it’s one dog who will have an infinitely happier life because her owner now understands her and ensures her well-being through socialization, management, and positive reinforcement training.