I’m on a bit of a social media theme lately. My journey has taken me to a place where I no longer pay as much attention to rescue matters and now concentrate on dog training, education and advocacy. If it hasn’t been clear before now, I love me some dogs. I love talking about them, living with them, training them, hanging out with them, meeting them, talking to them… well anything dog gets me going basically. That’s why I was involved in rescue in the first place. I don’t begrudge anyone their favorite animal… but mine is the dog, hands down. Anytime. Anywhere.
Anyone who is being halfways truthful will tell you that dog people are nuts. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s true; I just happen to think that there are different forms of crazy, and different levels of those forms. I like to think that I’m functional and contributing to the greater good in my craziness… becoming a professional dog trainer and dog welfare advocate is a huge part of that. I’ve indoctrinated my children from a young age about all things dog… and they could probably talk circles around your average doggie person, and hold their own with dog enthusiasts of all stripes. They count our muttley crew as some of their closest family. I’m proud of that. In a world where we live with dogs and understand them so little, I’m glad we’re doing our part to help change it and hopefully save some lives along the way. But – and this doesn’t often go with the territory, I’m just as loud and passionate about judging people. I hate it. Alright, those who know better SHOULD do better, and I have no qualms saying so. However, judging everyone and everything based on some middling assumptions gleaned from AR advocates or watered down science on the internet should be illegal. Call me naive, but I strongly believe that the majority of people want to do right by their dogs.
I’ve been guilty of jumping to conclusions online at times, but typically this has done nothing but relieve my personal stress and set me up to have to apologize later. Since I HATE eating crow, the consequence in these situations acts as pretty effective +P… and an overall suppression of my posting-before-thinking addiction. Unfortunately for some other people I know, it doesn’t have the same effect. Mind you, apologies don’t appear to be on their radar at all – so perhaps this is a good example of self-reinforcing behavior, just like my mini poodle cross and her barking. Super annoying and offensive for the rest of us, but it feels good to her.
In person judgments are harder to pull off. I know plenty of people still do it, but they are more likely to say it as an aside or text it to a friend. As professionals, however, we are paid to have an opinion and dispense advice, which can get pretty addictive on its own merits. “What did you do wrong? Well, I’ll be happy to tell you. In detail.” Uggghhh. I got to wondering why judgment comes so much easier to some of us than to others. Is it because some of us feel we have never screwed up ourselves? Is it because we lack empathy? Perhaps those two are more connected than we think.
In her brilliant book, The Human Half of Dog Training, psychologist Risë VanFleet talks at length about the challenges canine professionals face on a daily basis along their career paths. Drawing from her vast wealth of experience working with children and their families, she presents us with some very real tools that we can use to relate better to the people who own the dogs that we want to help. She walks us through what the client’s point of view often consists of, all with the aim to help us achieve more empathy for those we are working with. From the first chapter, The Human Client: “Almost always, people do the best they can under the circumstances, using the knowledge and skills they have at their disposal. When that knowledge and those skills are insufficient for solving their problems, they can feel bad about themselves. They may not say it, or they might even overcompensate with blustering and pontification, but underneath it all there can be a small internal accusatory voice telling them that they have failed. They engage a trainer to help, carrying this unspoken self-doubt with them. Trainers who understand this and show compassion for a client’s predicament are likely to develop good collaborative relationships with people. Those who fail to see this underlying vulnerability or who push their own agenda or plans without regard for the client’s feelings are much more likely to alienate their human clients, losing the chance to really help them change. When people believe that they have failed, they often worry about being judged when they seek help. If they do feel judged, their worst fears are confirmed, and they simply cannot absorb new information and skills very well under those conditions.”
Considering this information, we ought to err on the side of caution regarding anyone who asks for help. Having compassion for them can go a long ways in ensuring that we don’t inadvertently step out of bounds in this area and crush an already fragile ego. Thinking on our own screw ups (none of us are exempt – don’t even try to consider that) and how we felt afterwards can help us grow our empathy for others in the circumstances they find themselves. Many of us are perfectionists and don’t like looking at what we’ve done wrong or don’t want to reflect on how we’ve grown and changed over the years – something our clients may not have had the opportunity to do yet. Dr. VanFleet suggests we learn the behavioral skill of empathetic listening in our interactions, a challenge for some of us who are used to teaching behavior skills and not learning them ourselves. Beforehand however, we must open ourselves up to being receptive. Funnily enough, judging and being receptive are mutually exclusive concepts – contradictory in nature. While you do one, you can’t possible be doing the other. ” You are not judging the person’s motives as right or wrong. You are simply trying to understand his feelings and thoughts and how they play out in his relationship with his dog. You are seeking understanding of the person in the here-and-now so that you can better place your suggestions…. On a very practical note, there are four things needed to adopt the right empathic listening attitude:
1. Temporarily put your own thoughts and feelings on a back burner.
2. Focus on the here-and-now.
3. Try to see the world completely from the other’s point
4. Stop yourself from thinking about what to say next.”
Working with people is exhausting, frustrating and head bashingly painful. I get why dog loving people want to live the hermit life. As professionals, however, we don’t have that luxury. People pay our bills. People are the gateway to the the dogs we’re trying to help. People are the ones who will make their lives better. It would behoove us well to remember that. The next time you feel the urge to blast someone, online or in person, for their “stupidity” – take a deep breath and think about a time when you messed up. Remember how it felt. Ask yourself if someone judging you at that moment would have helped or hurt you. Remember how vulnerability sucks, especially online. Then proceed with caution. Hearts and egos are in your hands.
PS ALERT!!!!! There ARE times when judgment IS the right call. Some people use the above to justify never saying what needs to be said, regardless of what is happening. Judgements are often necessary in cases where people should and do know better and yet are still asserting their right to do as they please. Judgment is necessary when lives are at risk. Speaking up can often be an act of courage and keeping quiet, the coward’s way out. The escalation of the OAS situation is one such example of this. Giving people multiple chances to do right and not enacting a consequence is the diametrical opposite to doing the right thing. We ought never allow our fear of conflict to result in suffering of innocent beings. Knowing right from wrong and being willing to stand up against the latter is a cornerstone of any good civilization. Can I get an Amen????