Learning to Be Your Dog’s Advocate
By Chelsea Murray

The dog world can be an emotionally challenging one at times. Most of us get into the competition world because we absolutely adore our dogs, and we are looking for more activities we can enjoy together. We are looking for more ways to grow as a team and new ways to have fun with like-minded people. As we start getting more involved in the dog world, we can realize that not everyone feels the same way as we do. When it comes to topics that we are passionate and emotional about that difference can be tough to swallow.

As a reward-based dog trainer and someone who adamantly believes everyone deserves to feel safe when learning, facing someone head on in conflict is not an easy feat for me. I often used to find myself short on words, unsure of myself, worried about how to appease the person in front of me without offending them all while keeping my dog out of stressful situations. That is too much to tackle in the moment. But the more I grow as a human, the more I realize that standing up to be an advocate for yourself and for your dog is part of life. And the sooner we gain a toolbox on how to do that, the more comfortable we will become with the process and the easier these confrontations will be to peacefully navigate.

One of the first conformation classes I attended, I went in wanting to help my puppy learn to focus with distractions, have fun in new places, and start to learn this new game of conformation that we would be playing. I was repetitively told to put a choke collar on my 4-month-old puppy and correct him when he couldn’t gait straight, stand still, or when he happily woo’ed to say hello. The trainer was unkind to me, unable to see a benefit from my reward-based methods and continued to offer dangerous advice that I was unwilling to do. After watching a young dog choke and spit up on the down and back from his harsh correction, I knew this was not the right place for us. In order to help my puppy continue to have fun and prevent myself from being in a negative learning environment, I smiled and nodded at the instructor’s tips and did not return to week two of the class.

Later on down the road, I was gaining more tools on how to groom my dog for the show ring. It was our second time out together, and my happy and enthusiastic teenager was on the table taking in all the sights. He was emphatically wagging his tail and moving around a little, which was frustrating for the person showing me some grooming skills. They reached out to grab my dog’s face with one hand and hit him in the head with the other as they exclaimed “Knock it off! Stand!”. With my quick reflexes, I fortunately was able to get in between my dog and their hand to shelter him from this contact. I thanked the person for being willing to show me some grooming tricks and excused myself back to our own private grooming area shaking with adrenaline completely shocked about what had happened.

The list of uncomfortable situations like these examples continue. For some I was on my feet quickly and able to interject on my dog’s behalf and some others, I was not as prepared. Thank goodness my dog is resilient, forgiving, and has a big reinforcement history with me and all our games! After I experienced a few unpleasant moments, I realized I needed a game plan for myself and for my dog. These words and this course of action needed to be planned so I could reflect on previous situations and learn how I could manage my environment and the people around me to reduce or prevent future undesired encounters. I also needed to plan and practice my new course of action, so that even if I was experiencing stress it would come to me easily and smoothly and would not be offensive to someone who might be truly trying to help me out. And I needed a toolbox to help me recover, because even if a confrontation was avoided, my stress level would be increased and that would not be a productive place for me or my dog to sit in.

The first thing I did was reflect on some of these moments to see if I could find a common denominator. Finding a link between events is a helpful way to determine common threads – it could be a specific individual, a certain environment, or a specific topic of conversation. Any information you can compile as you reflect, will help you figure out if there are ways you can prevent future situations from happening again. For me, many of these situations all happened around people who were not my tribe –they were people who utilize training techniques that are different than mine. They still might be a wealth of information about other topics relating to dogs, the show world, and breeding, but not dog training. So, I learned how to compartmentalize people and be strategic about conversation topics that I brought up and times I would or would not have my dog present with me. I was able to keep some of them in my life and continue to learn from them in the areas that were comfortable for everyone.

The second thing I worked on was developing a few set answers that I was comfortable saying. I wanted to make sure that these responses would not be offensive to a person who might be honestly trying to help me out. I also knew I might need to have a way to quickly get me and my dog out of a situation. By planning these phrases ahead of time and rehearsing them, I allowed myself time to become comfortable with these thoughts. In a time of stress, muscle memory will help you sound confident and kind, instead of flustered or rude. A few of my common responses are:

“We’re still learning, and I will add that to my training to do list at home. Can you tell me what the end behavior should look like?” – I use this phrase when someone points out what we have done wrong, and maybe recommends a correction. This lets them know I hear them and appreciate the advice to help my team improve. Something might not be going quite right, and they might know what is going wrong and maybe what it should look like instead. Learning takes time, and the show ring is not the place to “fix” something. If they can explain what the end goal behavior should look like, I could work up a training plan (or get a trainer involved) to help me and my dog get there. This is much more helpful and productive than a recommendation to use punishment to suppress a behavior.

“I’m not comfortable using those tools/methods on my dog. Thanks for the thought though!” – This is similar to the comment above but does close the door a bit. If you know that this person might not be a good source of information for you, you might not want such an open-ended thought that can lead to more conversation. I do think it is important to be kind and polite to others, but not to the expense of myself and sometimes I may not want or need to engage in further conversation.

Smile. Nod. And walk away. – Sometimes a comment is not necessary. There are times emotions may take the best of us; whether you are angry or so shocked about what was said you are speechless. Sometimes simplicity can help you maintain composure, so you can remove yourself and the dog from the situation peacefully.

The final piece to the puzzle is learning how to decompress from a stressful encounter and get your head back in the game so you can be a good teammate for your dog. Sometimes this is an in the moment act of closing your eyes and taking a few deep restorative breaths – in for three seconds and out for four. Sometimes you will have more time and the ability to go listen to a happy song and take a walk with your dog. Learning how to process events, let go of them, and move on is essential. If you are still stressed, your dog will feel it. You might find that reaching out to your tribe of people – in person or virtually can offer some uplifting thoughts and words of encouragement as well. Above all else, don’t be afraid to look down at your dog and smile. That sweet face and happy spirit is what you are here for.

At the end of the day, we are here to have fun. Learning and growing is absolutely a part of the process no matter how long you have been in the game, but learning doesn’t need to be physically or emotionally harsh for you or the dog. By reflecting on some of your previous experiences, coming up with some phrases to use, and developing your own toolbox for decompression, you and your dog will be more prepared to tackle the world together.

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Vicki Ronchette is the founder of Show Dog Prep School and a Certified Professional Dog Trainer. Vicki has been working with dogs professionally for over 30 years as a professional dog trainer and behavior consultant, groomer and veterinary assistant. She is the author of Positive Training for Show Dogs, From Shy to Showy and Ready? Set. SHOW! Vicki presents workshops and seminars all over the country on how training show dogs.