March 9, 2009

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

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):

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