Is dog discipline the same as dog abuse? In Boulder, Colorado it is.

Via Waylon Lewis
on Mar 9, 2009
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dog abuse v training

The below has been altered only to protect the names of the concerned parties. Update at bottom.

Where does calm, assertive discipline end…and aggression or abuse begin?

Dog Whisperer…or Dog Abuse?


There’s nothing more serious, in this world, than aggression—particularly toward those less powerful than us. Whether on a macro level, when a country invades another without provocation (which international law now considers to be illegal) or in a domestic situation, between loved ones. It could be said that abuse, or aggression toward our most helpless friends, animals, is symptomatic of our relationship to our planet as a whole. Whether its causing polar bears to lose their habitat, or the fact that elephants will be extinct in the wild within 10 years, our casual relationship toward our own energy use and consumption is having far-reach effects.

But closer at home, too, we see a microcosm of our ability, or lack thereof, to live in harmony with our world. When it comes to domestic animals—dogs, cats, etc.—whether we buy them from a pet farm/pet shop or choose to rescue an otherwise homeless pet is a vital decision that reflects whether our desire for a pet is self-ish or self-less—whether it’s about our own pleasure or the benefit of our furry friends.

But this relationship, of course, only begins at purchase/adoption. How much we exercise, how well we feed, and how we train (and discipline) our charges both determines how healthy a pet we’ll have, and how easily obedient, well-adjusted and happy he or she will be.

When I adopted Redford—literally the cutest dog in history—from the Humane Society a year and a half ago, I knew it’d be a big responsibility, and a big joy. What I didn’t fully realize is that, every step of the way, Redford would be training me, too. I’ll be a better father for it, when it’s time for all that. As an environmentalist, and a Buddhist, and a big loud generally fun and caring man, I’ve had a great time raising Redford. He’s a lot like me: social and all get-out, alternately ecstatic and relaxed, healthy, active—and in need of an occasional firm reminder of the present moment. As they said at my Summer Camp as a child, 

If you Lose your Mind, Come Back!


Two or three days ago, I was in my favorite pet shop buying wet food (organic) for my dog, Redford—when, inexplicably, he raised his leg and peed on some dog food. It was shocking, almost funny—since he’s thoroughly house-trained, and I’ve only ever seen him raise his leg to pee a few times (though he’s nearly two years old, he still pees in a squat, as puppies do). Just as my mom did with my childhood dog Pumpkin, I hollered “NO!” (I’m a big, loud guy), grabbed him by his collar and dragged him back to the pee, stuck his nose in it and rapped him twice on the nose, again yelling “No!”

I did hit him—but no harder than I could hit myself on the nose, twice, any time. Happy to demonstrate on myself if we run into each other on the street!

I then took him over to the pet store’s staff area, told him to lie down until he did, and went about cleaning up the pee.

Finally, I bought the wet food, apologized (I thought rather humorously and respectfully) for the fuss, mess, and spectacle, and (holding a bike helmet’s full of dog food cans) exited the store, Redford wagging (literally) along behind me, off-leash.

I put the food in my bike basket, mounted, and Redford and I ran off together, homeward. The incident was over, as far as I was concerned.


How wrong was I.

I got this email, from the store owners (who weren’t present, but who advised me in adopting Redford and have been there with us every step of the way) that night:


Subject: Redford’s Welfare

On Mar 2, 2009, at 5:31 PM, wrote:


Please give us a call ASAP!!…We would appreciate a call immediately.


It  might have been late when I received the email, I don’t remember. In any case I emailed in reply:

What’s wrong? If it’s regarding his peeing in your store today, and my disciplining him, I hardly touched his nose–I would never hurt him. In fact, he left the place wagging his tail running after me as I hauled out my wet food in a big bag. – W.


The next day:

Hi Waylon,

I am hoping to talk to you in person about what took place. I care about you and Redford and want to pass on what others saw from their perspective. Let me know if we can get together to talk about this. I’m at the store today through Sunday.


To which I sent a longer reply, still naively unconcerned, but surprised and troubled at the email:

Pretty strange, and upsetting to say the least–I just did what my mom, who was infinitely kind, did…hold the nose into the pee and rap on the nose, not hurting the dog, as soon as they’ve done it…so they associate such a random act of peeing indoors with ‘don’t want to do that again.’ I would never hurt Redford, and though I deeply appreciate your concern, am a little shocked and offended that your friends didn’t talk to me straightforwardly, but talked about such serious stuff to others…I after all made a point of saying, ‘I’m sorry you had to see that, this is what I’m doing’ and they, if they were paying attention, saw Redford happily leave with me. We hang and run around alllll the time, and are close knit and happy!

I’ll be by soon.


I haven’t gone by still, mainly because I’m Redford and I are fine, and I thought the employee’s version of events to be wildly, and hurtfully off-base. This time, she replied to me directly, apparently after getting the above emails forwarded to her by the owners.


In your depiction of what happened in XXXXX with Redford you are sadly attempting to hide the facts and are apparently in denial. As one of the witnesses of your physical abuse of Redford, I, at the time,was stunned and left speechless .

Apparently now you are quantifying the severity and the amount of force you used.  You hurt him enough to cause him to react vocally, yelping, as you hit him on the head.  After hitting him on the head at least twice you drug him across the floor and forced him hard  to the floor behind the store counter, hitting him again, and yelling at him the entire time to “stay”.  You were in a fit of rage.

Maybe Redford lost control of his bladder but you lost control of your temper.  Your anger filled the store, you know it did,  you apologized to me and my nephew “for having to witness this”

Sounds like you think it’s okay to hit your dog “just a little” and you want others to believe that is what you did .   I don’t have to tell you that physical violence of any magnitude is never the answer and does not “train” your dog.

Your claim that Redford “left happy” is just a testament to Redford and all dogs, it is not a testament to your behavior at XXXX.


And…my reply:

Wow! Seems you’re comfortable looking and judging others, but perhaps need to take a look at your own judgement that’s ill founded on what actually happened, versus what you perceived or heard to happen.

Redford, for all those who know him, squeals or yelps allll the time, when he’s greeting someone, when he’s happy, when he’s scared. He’s vocal, and wonderful social. If I rapped him on the nose right now he’d yelp just as he did in the store–not out of pain, god help me, but out of him vocalizing that he doesn’t like it and is shocked, as any dog (or human, for that matter) would. It is not, contrary to your perception, a reflection of my willfully hurting him. Hurting a dog in such a situation is just confusing, doesn’t help…it would be unnecessary to training a dog (in this case, training not to pee indoors as a way of marking something). I was shocked, admittedly, since he’s never done randomly peed on something inside since he was a little puppy…and I was actually quite happy with how Redford and I handled the incident, which ended almost as soon as it began.

I was not lost in a fit of rage, as you say. Unlike many guardians, I do not discipline my dog differently in public than in private–which is why I apologized to you and your friend–not because I felt bad for what I did, or out of control, but because it was a scene. It’s always unpleasant to see a parent holler at a child. But do we know what’s going on? Rarely.

So what went on? I rapped Redford twice on the nose–not hard. My intention was not to hurt him, which is useless and cruel, but rather to associate the action: peeing indoors with a clear, instant result: not-fun. He was fine, if temporarily shocked and chastened, he left happy, as did I, and we immediately continued being the best of friends and spending infinite time together every day playing, tossing balls, walking, biking, hanging as we are right now, and cuddling at night.

On a personal note, I would request you to talk to people directly instead of gossiping about such serious, serious matters as alleged dog abuse. If you’re being honest, you’ll admit that from your vantage (behind the counter and displays) you couldn’t even really see what happened on the floor. You could only hear it, which understandly sounded awful, what with my hollering and his yelping. Your indirect accusation, though Jeff and Sandy, who know Redford and I and our relationship well, has really bummed me out, as I take my guardianship most seriously and care about Redford most dearly. It has been strange, and troubling, to be accused of hurting someone I love. I will be happy to discuss with you in person if you’re up to it.

Finally, I would argue that my disciplining of Redford did not involve physical violence of any magnitude. This was discipline. I am aware that there are schools of training pets (or parenting children!) that say never to say No, never to say Bad, never to touch at all. That’s not my school. My teacher has been the Dog Whisperer, who is very clear to say never to hurt a dog. I agree that hurting is always bad, and useless in any case. I do not however agree that shouting no immediately, bringing him forcibly (but without hurting) back to the pee spot, rapping on nose is hurtful. My mom trained my childhood dog this way–shoving nose in pee indoors, saying no, rapping on nose–and she wouldn’t hurt a fly, and was as close as could be to my childhood dog. 

Thanks for addressing me directly, and I’m happy to continue talking and appreciate your concern.


Her reply came only an hour later:

On Mar 5, 2009, at 1:16 PM, xxx

Ok first of all it’s not gossiping when I discuss a situation with the owners of a business the ,business is where the abuse took pace.

second- my nephew had a clear vantage point and I had a clear vantage point when you drug him behind the counter.  I could see you – I could hear you and Redford.

third- “It’s always unpleasant to see a parent holler at a child” as you compared your hitting Redford with-is not even in the same realm. You did more than holler- not that you didn’t also “holler”

fourth- dogs are loyal by nature even to abusive guardians.  Im not suggesting you abuse him all day , I just dont think that  it was the first time, especially judging from your philosophy on hitting dogs.

finally, Im not opposed to discussing this with you- in fact I looked for you at the Trident right after .  I am currently deciding what I will do next regarding this matter and hope you are not continuing your abusive behavior when you see fit.


My reply:

You and your nephew think you saw and/or heard what you saw and/or heard. All I know is what I did, how it felt, and how Redford reacted. I’m genuinely appreciative of your concern, and assure you that I would not hurt Redford. I understand there are different philosophies—that I, unlike yourself, think vocal and physical discipline (not abuse) can be helpful when called for; and that you think it’s never called for. 

The proof is in the pudding, Mary. When I raise my hand to Redford he doesn’t shrink away, or even blink. He licks it. 


At this point, seeing how serious she was, I’m obviously more than happy to discuss with the owners and the employee friend, and the sooner the better. 

The point of featuring the above goes beyond near-transparency (or, as my grandma would put it, hanging out your laundry to dry in public). It seems there’s two basic issues: one, is it ever okay to vocally and physically discipline your dog (let alone child)? Even if so, where does tough love end, and abuse begin? And, two, whatever training/parenting philosophy you ascribe to, is it permissible—vital—to impose your belief system on others?

A final note: I’m the first to admit I’ve lost my temper countless times previously with friends, staff, lovers and Redford. But that does not mean I defend the notion or practice of abuse. As they say in the Buddhist tradition, if you lose your mind, come back!

Redford has been a wonderful teacher in that regard—you can never excuse yourself if you find yourself angry at a dog—they just don’t get it. You’re forced to look inside, and inspired to learn how to train yourself and your dog more skillfully. That’s why I’ve been such a huge fan of the Dog Whisperer—his combining calm and assertive is a path worth walking, and learning, again and again.

So am I a perfect dog owner? Hardly. Am I a great daddy to Redford? You betcha. Is he a great companion, and obedient good boy? Yes, though he yelps an awful lot (when happy!). Do I practice firm, immediate vocal and non-hurtful physical discipline—just as dog pack leaders do with one another? Yes, I do. Do I admire those who never say ‘no!’ and never rap on the nose? Sure. Do I think that’s the only way to parent/train? No, I’m sorry, I do not.


Update: I called the cell phone (busy) of the owners who had emailed me, home phone (left message), pet store in question (busy), pet store in question (left message) and got a call back, had two or three convos with the pet store owners, who weren’t present and know and love both the employee in question, Redford, and myself. After another call or two, the owners said they’d talked with the employee again and that she’s agreed to let the matter drop, but that she hoped I’d take her message of compassion to heart. I still haven’t wanted to walk back in the pet store, which was like a second home to Redford. I’m sure I will go, at some point. I have run into the owner a few times and he seemed half apologetic and half friendly and…well, it was a confusing chapter with lots ofcause for introspection and dialogue. 

Redford, at this moment, is curled up in a rainy ball (it’s Spring!) on my (organic) dog bed, wrapped in a blanket and adjacent to a heat vent. 

Bonus (you make the connection):


About Waylon Lewis

Waylon Lewis, founder of elephant magazine, now & host of Walk the Talk Show with Waylon Lewis, is a 1st generation American Buddhist “Dharma Brat." Voted #1 in U.S. on twitter for #green two years running, Changemaker & Eco Ambassador by Treehugger, Green Hero by Discovery’s Planet Green, Best (!) Shameless Self-Promoter at Westword's Web Awards, Prominent Buddhist by Shambhala Sun, & 100 Most Influential People in Health & Fitness 2011 by "Greatist", Waylon is a mediocre climber, lazy yogi, 365-day bicycle commuter & best friend to Redford (his rescue hound). His aim: to bring the good news re: "the mindful life" beyond the choir & to all those who didn't know they gave a care. | His first book, Things I would like to do with You, is now available.


27 Responses to “Is dog discipline the same as dog abuse? In Boulder, Colorado it is.”

  1. This is one of those "only in Boulder" moments.

    By your description, your actions were clearly appropriate to me, albeit disliked by the store employees. You have and act in accordance with a clear philosophy of loving pet guardianship. While perhaps you could benefit from learning some hands-off disciplinary skills, overall your approach is respectfully assertive.


  2. Kimberly says:

    I'd ask the store owner and employee to not contact you directly, and give them the contact information of your attorney. Yes, it's aggressive, but so is "I am currently deciding what I will do next regarding this matter…"

    I also believe that firm hand does wonders for many dogs. My happy, healthy lab gets the occasional rap on the nose or butt, too.

  3. I have a dog who yelps like you just tortured her when I discipline by a firm hold on the scruff. You have all my sympathies. Luckily she usually is very good but like all dogs periodically tests to see if maybe I won't be top dog this time. I gently but firmly hold the scruff and say no and she hollars. "help she's torturing me>"

  4. I think he did it to 'mark territory,' something he's just learning to do from his big cool dog buddies. That's partially why I thought it so important to correct on the spot, because he's never done that inside before, even just lifting the leg is a new thing for this puppy!

  5. via Facebook…
    Sarah Kinn at 6:06pm March 5
    with my dog felix, positive reinforcement works better anyway than hitting him. just remember to praise redford and give him a treat next time he doesn't pee in the dog store.

    Waylon Hart Lewis at 6:13pm March 5
    Thanks, schweetey! I do believe in being positive (or negative, for that matter) only when he gets it—immediately, when there's a connection. If I give him a treat next time for not peeing, he'll be psyched…but he won't know why he's getting the treat, and it won't change his future behavior for better or worse. That said, he almost always gets treats in the pet store…the owners love him there!

  6. BTW, talked again with pet store owners, they talked with the employee, and we've all agreed to let bygones be bygones. They asked me to take to heart the notion of "not using touch, not striking." I objected to the notion that what I was doing was "striking," which has violent undertones, but offered my thanks for the employee's concern, and said I'd be happy to talk over with her when next I see her.

  7. [Via a friend who's been with me and Redford many times]

    Wow! Just read your article and all of the comments on Redford little escapade!

    I'm with Cris Jones [comment above], I have never met so many opinionated people as in Boulder. I got yelled at once in line at Whole Foods by a customer who butted her nose in on mine and the cashiers conversation as she overheard me say I didn't watch the news since having kids. She proceeded to give me this holier than thou lecture. I just turned around and stared in silence until she got uncomfortable! I've argued before and this method seems to have more impact.

    Sounds so stressful. But made for a good article.

    Give Redford a big kiss and tell him I hope to be over soon to take him for a hike.

    You know you're a good person, don't let people who don't know you ruin your day.

    Big Hug, L.

  8. Sam Breed says:

    OF COURSE its ok to discipline pets and children in public, if the situation warrants it.

    Next time Redford takes a piss in a pet store, let their über-sensitive employee deal with the mess instead of creating an even bigger one.

  9. Heather says:

    I don't have much to say about the specific incident because I was not there—I know you and Red well and know how much you love each other, though of coarse you both have been known to lose yourselves to the excitement of the moment and do silly things. 🙂
    My two comments on the situation are: 1) maybe speaking in person to the employee and/or the owners of [pet store] would have been a better way to resolve the situation? Email always seems to fuel misunderstanding and argument rather than help people to see where they might be over-reacting or misunderstanding.
    and 2) why do you think that Red peed in [pet store] in the first place? I'm definitely not against discipline—as you know from the Dog Whisperer, animals and children need firm boundaries so that they can feel safe and develop in a healthy way. I just hate to see kids (and animals) get scolded for doing something "wrong" without anyone considering why they may have done it in the first place. Though sometimes dogs just pee to mark their territory, and that's obviously not ok indoors.

  10. Cris Jones says:

    This is absolutely ridiculous. I'm typically pretty proud of living in a place like Boulder, but when I hear stories like this I start to question how long I'll be able to stay in this town without risking the possibility of turning into a total weenie yuppie like these self-righteous asses. I'm thinking I might go over … right now and take a piss in front of the cash register just to see the looks on their faces. I mean, REALLY? These people need to get a life and realize that Redford was over the whole thing before they even had the opportunity reach around and pull the bunches out of their panties out of their ass cracks.

  11. Wait oh wait, folks…this has got nothing to do with the pet store in question, or their ownership—they're a great indie store. I didn't mention them and would deeply appreciate them not being drawn into this serious, passionate issue. Thanks for the enthusiasm, whatever your point of view, right or wrong, left or right, discipline or abuse!

  12. Thanks, Elle. He already knows not to pee indoors, and hasn't for over a year…that's why I mentioned above how surprising, almost funny/cute it was that he's learning to mark, lift his leg. Again, I do think physical correction can be helpful if it's clear and immediate, as long as it doesn't hurt the dog (or child) and the intention is to correct, not harm.

    I do not subscribe to the hyper-PC 'never holler no, never touch' approach, I'm afraid.

  13. Dee Haiche says:

    Inclusive of trends that I'm over #1 being DIMPIES – Doting Indulgent Modern Parents, I now have to include DIMDOS – Doting Indulgent Modern Dog Owners

  14. adria says:

    Well I guess I'll never move to Boulder! Sounds like people have nothing better to do than make judgements on everyone else. It's sad really. Non of us are flawless but people are so quick to point out the flaws of others.

  15. Sam Breed says:

    That's really not indicative of most Boulder people–there are assholes everywhere, you know.

  16. Andrea says:

    I was very lucky to go to take dog training classes with an amazing teacher (and yogi), and one of the most eye-opening exercises was having one of us pretend to be a dog while the other tried to shape a certain behavior. No talking or motioning. Just clicker training and praise. It was really hard to be the dog!

    You'll get more advice than you want on dog training, so I don't want to get caught up in that. As a writer, I can understand your preference to continue the uncomfortable conversation via email; however, I think it would have been better to just talk instead. I also know for myself, the more indignant I get, the more it means I need to get quiet before reacting.

  17. Andrea says:

    Beau also has started to lift his leg in a pet store, and he was 6 at the time. I caught him before he did it. I suspect in the case of this pet store (which seemed to have a number of accidents) he smelled someone else's previous mark.

    I also have to keep an eye on him at farmer's markets. He has shown a little too much interest in the cut flower displays.

  18. Unbelievable. I think it's like the Buddha said to the musician about stringing his guitar being how to live life:

    "not too tight, not too loose."

  19. Rich says:

    I am a little surprised to see as many comments questioning the unduly PC response to the event here in the Republic of B. I think that is encouraging, and it has been addressed a lot in these comments. The thing I found most scary was the apparent willingness of the shop owner to exercise his "what he will do next" option as leverage against you to cop to behavior he did not like. That implies police or the courts or some sort of public censure meted out by him, the decider, unless you admitted his version of the event. Eventhough you might be a friend of his and have forged some kind of peace with him, I read his emails and you were in a scary position. People should not be so quick to throw around the scarlet "A" threat. Is that your dog at the top of the story?

  20. monica says:

    there are other great indie stores in boulder!

  21. Neal says:

    I know how to solve this problem between you and this lady. Let me send over our 10 month old St Bernard puppy to stay with her for 2 weeks. Let's see what her thoughts are about discipline after that. She won't make it 48hrs. Guaranteed! Do you know how to be firm yet be gentle? A pair of vice grips with velvet tips. The best discipline I ever witnessed was from a mature female St Bernard who said in dog language enough is enough to the puppy and exalted her authority quick and fast. Our puppy got the message loud and clear after that snap. However we all need to be careful of our actions.

  22. […] or Gandhi-like figure. He no longer has political ambitions, is no longer racist, and no longer abuses his dog, […]

  23. aaron says:

    by having animals as domestic pet is a big responsibility.Give them care like our own.Food and shelther is one the best care we can give.i get my dog a pet gate so he can run freely in an area just for him.:)

  24. none says:

    In response to you getting fined or losing your dog, this is untrue. The definition of animal abuse is doing bodily harm to your dog. I really doubt that this dog had bodily harm done to him. How did you come up with the idea that you would get fined or lose the dog? Did you make that up?

  25. […] it possible to discipline out of compassion, without being at all abusive? I, for one, think […]

  26. dog lover says:

    Ceasar was good, then turned to kicking dogs. physical contact.. and now.. using electronics to disapline them.. He has lost his attraction…. his roots.
    I had raised a multitude of dogs at one time.. seldom ever a problem that couldn't be worked out.
    Time to end the series.