As dog lovers, it can be difficult to ignore when we see someone doing something we think is bad, harmful, or ineffective with their dogs. Sometimes what someone is doing is abusive or at risk of causing immediate serious injury to a dog, in which case stepping in right away or calling the proper authorities is important. In other instances, when you see people approaching training or working with their dog differently than you would, you can take time to try to learn more about why they’re doing it and attempt to gently change their mind. Just like we now know that training dogs with positive reinforcement techniques is important, it’s also important that we use that same approach when we connect with people about their dogs.
You might find yourself caught up trying to get other people to work with their dogs the same way that you do. While it can be a good personal goal to try to inspire people to be better and more humane dog owners, it’s important to be able to differentiate between a difference in training philosophy or skill, and a dog that’s actively in danger. If a dog is being abused, or is in immediate harm, don’t put yourself in harm’s way. Instead, call the appropriate authorities, such as the police or animal control—they’ll be able to investigate and formally assess a dog’s safety. If the dog isn’t in immediate danger, and you just disagree with the training or handling approach, then it’s possible to have a conversation with someone and try to educate and help them make different choices for their dog.
When you see someone doing something you don’t like with their dog, it can be tempting to approach the interaction by telling them what they’re doing wrong, or how their handling or approach could be improved. Although this might be your first instinct, it will make most people defensive and cause them to shut down and be reluctant to change behavior toward their dog—even if they might have been otherwise receptive to hearing about a different approach. It’s better to open conversations with other dog owners compassionately and from a strengths-based perspective that’s focused on the good things about their relationship with their dog. By developing or building on a positive relationship with that person, we will have more success over time in helping them make safer, more humane, and more effective choices for training, handling, and living with their dogs.
Lead with a Compliment
If you want to approach someone about their dog training or their dog’s behavior, it can be helpful to begin the interaction with a compliment. Find something about their dog’s behavior and how they’re working with their dog that is positive. Alternatively, you can open the conversation with a compliment about how cute the dog is, how it has a sweet face, how it’s one of your favorite breeds. Leading with a critique or suggestion will put someone on the defensive but starting a conversation with a compliment can make them more receptive to hearing your advice. They might then be much more willing to shift their approach to training or how they handle their dog.
Changing Someone’s Mind
Most of us are pretty set in our ways and our beliefs. It’s extremely hard to change someone’s mind about anything, especially with topics that can be emotional—like how someone works with their dog. Leading a conversation online or in person by telling someone what they are doing is wrong or bad might feel good to you, but it likely won’t actually make the life of their dog better or more comfortable.
Try to start an actual conversation before jumping in and telling someone what they’re doing is wrong. If possible, empathize with them about how challenging dogs can be. Share that you know how difficult it can be to have a dog who expresses their wants or needs through challenging behavior. Then ask if they are open to learning about what has worked for you, or what you have learned about dog training.
It’s also important to remember there are different cultural and family experiences and approaches to living with dogs that might not be the most up-to-date or effective. In some cases, someone who is utilizing an outdated training method doesn’t know there are more effective ways of engaging with their dog. Try to ask open-ended questions about why they’re working with their dog in a particular way. Remember, dog training is a diverse and also unregulated industry, so many people are following advice they saw online, on TV, or from friends or family who aren’t experienced with dogs, and they just don’t know any better. By being compassionate in your approach, you’ll learn more about why someone is handling their dog in a certain way and make them more receptive to learning why you work with dogs differently.
Once you’re talking to someone, before offering suggestions or critique about their training, it’s important to get consent to give feedback. If you aren’t someone’s dog trainer, vet, behaviorist, or other professional being paid to work with them and their dog, that person isn’t obligated to listen to your perspective and advice. You don’t know the history of the dog they’re walking or working with. What you see as bad behavior might be the result of an ongoing medical condition, the dog might be a recent rescue or a foster placement, or it might be a tremendous improvement from how their dog behaved a year ago.
You also don’t know if that dog and their owner are working with a trainer or other professional. Most people love to talk about their dogs, so if you strike up a conversation and you’re able to turn it to the dog’s behavior or their training approaches, ask if the owner is open to hearing your advice or perspective before offering it. Seeking consent first increases the likelihood your interaction will be positive and that someone will be receptive to your feedback. Remember that if someone says “no,” respect their wishes and don’t give feedback.
Sympathize and Empathize
Having a dog can be wonderful, but it can also be overwhelming and stressful. If you see a stranger, neighbor, or friend struggling with their dog and doing something you don’t agree with or know isn’t effective, try to approach them from a sympathetic place. Anyone who has ever raised a puppy knows how overwhelming it can be. Similarly, anyone who has lived with a dog who has ongoing behavioral challenges like reactivity or anxiety will know how stressful, scary, and overwhelming it can be trying to keep your pup calm and safe.
If you want to intervene, try to approach the interaction from the perspective that someone is possibly doing the best they can or the best they know how to do. There are a lot of conflicting approaches, myths, and outdated information about how to work with dogs. People who are doing things wrong may genuinely feel like they’re doing the right thing to support their dogs or trying to “fix” their dog’s behavioral issues. If you’ve worked with a trainer, you might like to offer to give someone their contact information, and share how getting professional training helped your dog’s behavior and supported you with having a better relationship with your dog.
Show By Example
When there isn’t an immediate emergency safety issue taking place, one of the best ways to shift the way that someone is working with their dog is by modeling a different approach when working with your own dog. This isn’t about bragging or showing off how great of a trainer you are, or how well-behaved your dog is—it’s an opportunity to subtly demonstrate a positive alternative.
If someone seems frustrated or cranky with their dog, try to be animated and encouraging with your dog. You might be surprised to find your approach and mood is contagious. Even if you don’t actually talk to the person about how they’re working with their dog, shifting the mood of a location and situation by working with your own dog positively can inspire someone to take a kinder approach to working with their own dog.
Protect Your Dog
There are many different approaches and tools used by people who professionally work with dogs and dog training is an unregulated industry. If a dog trainer, dog walker, or groomer is handling your dog in a way that makes you uncomfortable, it’s always okay to speak up for your dog’s comfort and safety. This person is working for you (and your dog) and that means you’re in charge.
Explain how your dog should be handled. If they aren’t able to respect the boundaries you have set, it’s always okay to explain why you aren’t comfortable with what is happening, and then take your dog and leave their establishment. In that particular moment, you can’t likely change someone’s mind about how they work with dogs. But by taking your dog elsewhere and explaining why, you may at least give that professional something to think about, which perhaps might lead them to reconsider how they handle dogs.
Communicate Your Dog’s Needs
If a dog’s behavior is impacting the safety and comfort of you and your dog, you may need to confront someone about their dog immediately. For example, if someone’s off-leash dog is running toward you and you are walking a dog who is sick, nervous, or uncomfortable around strange dogs, you will need to immediately say something to the owner of the off-leash dog that is rudely approaching you.
Instead of yelling, cursing, or being rude, try to be clear and calm. Focus on what you and your dog need to stay safe and comfortable. You can try to remind the person that off-leash dogs are not permitted in this area, but often that makes people combative. Instead, it can be more effective to shift another dog owner’s behavior by making the interaction about your dog’s comfort and safety. Quickly explain that your dog is shy, nervous, or unfriendly when asking the person to get their dog.
As frustrating as it sometimes is, we can’t force anyone to change the way they engage with or train their dog. But by demonstrating more positive methods, we can inspire other dog owners to shift their handling. Similarly, if we approach people compassionately and from a relationship-building perspective that shows we genuinely care about them and their dogs, we’ll likely have more success helping someone to make safer and more humane choices for their dog.