I assume that most Whole Dog Journal readers are as upset as I am when I see someone treating a dog badly. What should you do when you see someone being rough with their dog? Hard as it may be, I urge you to be calm and take several deep breaths before you act. Then . . .
1. Assess the situation.
Calmly take a good hard look at what’s going on. Does the human appear to be someone who is simply trying to train his dog using outdated methods and who might be receptive to your assistance? If the person is applying hard yanks on a choke chain or prong collar, or blithely pressing the remote button for a shock collar, they are probably simply following the instructions of an outdated dog training professional and may not know that there is a far superior way to communicate with their dog. If, however, you see someone who has lost his temper and is deliberately abusing his dog, hanging, punching, smacking the dog repeatedly, or worse, this person probably won’t take kindly to your intervention and might just as easily redirect his anger onto you. If this is the case, you need to use extreme caution. The action you take will depend on your careful assessment.
2. Evaluate your options.
If it appears that the dog handler may be amendable to your suggestions, you might approach in your best helpful, non-threatening manner as a fellow dog lover, and offer to assist. If, on the other hand, the handler appears emotionally aroused and dangerous, I wouldn’t recommend approaching or confronting him. If the dog abuser appears violent or unsafe, a better option is to call the authorities.
3. Look for backup.
Regardless of how you proceed, look around for another person who can watch out for you when you step forward. It never hurts to have support; there is safety in numbers. Let your back up person or people know what you intend to do, and agree on a signal you will give if you want them to step up in a show of support or call 9-1-1. Ask them to otherwise stay quiet unless you ask for help; catcalls from the peanut gallery won’t help keep the situation calm and positive.
4. Carefully Intervene.
Approach the dog handler with a low key introduction; something like, “Excuse me, but I have a dog myself (or “I’m a dog trainer”), and if you’re willing, I would love to show you a different way to do that, a way that worked really well for my dog (or “works really well for my clients”).” If the person is receptive, you can coach him through a simple positive reinforcement exercise (you may have to provide the treats, if you have them – another good reason to always have dog cookies in your pockets!), and then explain how the exercise applies to what he was trying to get his dog to do.
Or, if the dog is friendly, you are confident in your abilities and the person is willing, you can take the leash and demonstrate one or more positive behaviors. Then leave the person with some good resources – local positive trainers, books, Facebook pages, Yahoo groups – so he will be more likely to pursue more dog-friendly training with his dog. (Consider keeping a one-page handout of dog-friendly training resources for times like this.)
5. Stay out of it and call the authorities.
If you think the treatment of the dog rises to the level of prosecutable or near-prosecutable abuse, or the person seems dangerously angry, don’t even think of attempting to intervene. If the handler is hanging, punching, slapping, kicking the dog – or worse – step back and call for help. Don’t worry about looking up the number for animal control, just call 9-1-1 and let them take it from there.
If you are carrying a cell phone with video capabilities, and you are at a safe distance, record as much as you can. Unless your support group consists of several large, strong guys who eat animal abusers for breakfast, you don’t want to risk getting yourself beat up in your humanitarian crusade. Do know that if the case is prosecuted, you may be called to testify in court against the abuse. Be willing to bear witness.
Arresting animal abusers was one of the most satisfying aspects of my 20-year career as an animal protection professional/humane officer. I have to say that, notwithstanding my own advice above, I might be hard-pressed to stop myself from physically intervening if I saw someone violently abusing an animal. I’m not saying you should, mind you, but I would understand if you did!
Pat Miller, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, is WDJ’s Training Editor. Pat is also the author of many books on positive training.