09/10/2013 03:19 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2013

Standing Up for Your Dog

A dog trainer has been in business over 20 years. The first day of every new group class, whether for puppies or adults, he teaches his canine students the meaning of the word "no." This is accomplished by shouting, "No!" while whacking the dog over the nose with a rubber hose. I imagine many of the owners are horrified, but a surprising number go along with the program. A woman I know related that she'd attended one class and when she saw what was being done, she'd stood up and declared to the trainer and the rest of the room, "I'm not doing that to my dog!" and walked out.

That woman is a hero. She did something that can be very difficult. While none of us want our dogs mistreated and we believe we'd advocate for them if the need arose, speaking out and taking a stand can be challenging in social situations. We are trained from a young age to be polite; double that if you're female. Now factor in the natural shyness of some, and the fear most of us have of being ostracized, and it becomes clear how uncomfortable it can be to go against the grain in front of a group of peers, and how downright intimidating to say something negative.

Even the most confident among us can find it daunting to challenge someone in an authority position. I can't count the number of times I've heard from owners how a veterinarian was much harsher than necessary when performing an exam or treatment, because the dog "needed to know who was boss." Unfortunately, there are still plenty of trainers who use that same outdated excuse for slapping, kicking, hanging, or otherwise abusing dogs. (For the record, we're not talking about "balanced" or "firm" training here, but seriously rough physical coercion.) Harsh handling frightens dogs, sometimes to the extent that they defend themselves the only way they know how; with their teeth. That, in turn, can lead to even harsher corrections. It's a vicious cycle -- and the dog's not the vicious one. As an owner, you don't need to know more than a vet, trainer, or other authority figure to know when something just isn't right.

Some situations aren't quite as dramatic. When my husband and I adopted Sierra from the shelter, we learned that she'd been there four times previously. She was an escape artist, along with having a wicked case of separation anxiety. I was especially careful about containment, and I kept her on leash except when she could run free inside a fenced area. A group of local park regulars kept urging me to let her run off-leash with their dogs in the surrounding hillsides, even though I'd only had her a few weeks. I kept refusing, saying I didn't feel she'd had enough training or bonding time, plus her preternaturally high prey drive put her one squirrel away from vanishing permanently. Eventually the clique stopped asking, and started referring to me as that woman who's overly careful with her dog. That's okay. I care more about my dog's safety than about what anyone thinks of me.

I won't lie. It can be challenging. There's peer pressure, authority figures, and people who will find you strange or overprotective. But we are the only things standing between our dogs and abuse, danger, and a host of other unpleasantness. And while that vet might know more about medicine, and the trainer more about training, no one knows more about your own dog than you.

Nicole Wilde is a canine behavior specialist and author. Visit her website

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