The Curse Of Knowledge

Apr 27 / Holly Leake
“All knowledge hurts.”
Cassandra Clare
Working with dogs has so many advantages and if you study canine welfare or behaviour, I'm sure you cherish having the ability to read canine body language or how to teach a dog a new skill. Understanding canine behaviour, is like having a secret window into a dog's soul, that very few are lucky enough to peer through. We can appreciate the beauty in the subtle things that go unseen to the untrained eye, such as a dog performing calming signals or demonstrating amazing resilience in the face of a perceived threat. That being said there are times, when our knowledge can be a burden.

Have you ever been walking down a street and seen a distressed dog barking at another dog walker and the handler has no concept of the dog’s current emotional state? Maybe you've been unfortunate enough to see the dog verbally or even physically abused in response to his behaviour. You can see clear signals that the dog is feeling intense fear, he is fighting for his survival and yet, the guardian seems completely oblivious to what is painfully apparent to us. In fact, to most onlookers the dog seems aggressive and out of control. We know we have the knowledge to help that dog because we know what he's truly communicating and yet, we feel powerless to do anything.

We may continue with our day and yet our mind keeps dwelling on that dog and what his future looks like. We may worry that he will be abandoned or that an aversive trainer will be hired and then we repeatedly berate ourselves for not intervening. Deep down, we know that it's impossible to help every dog, but that doesn't make it any easier.

I'm sure when you've been dog walking, you occasionally see a dog that is aggressively yanked backwards by his throat. The guardian allows her dog to pull for many steps and then she intermittently shouts and pulls hard on the lead, causing the dog to choke and then fly backwards. We find this scene so distressing, that we may inadvertently picture giving the guardian a taste of her own medicine. It's even worse if we notice a prong collar. We dwell on all the potential injuries that are inevitable and we feel so frustrated because we know how to address the dogs pulling. We want to say something and perhaps pass over a business card, and then we see how aggressive the guardian is and think better of it.
"Knowledge never comes cheap. The more you know, the heavier the burden."
- Divyam
One of the heaviest burdens, is working amongst other professionals that don't share the same knowledge or have any intention of ever acquiring it. For example, many doggy daycare centres or puppy parties will encourage guardians to leave their nervous dog in their care for some "socialisation" and claim it will build the dog's confidence. Maybe you've even had clients that have sought your expertise to address dog reactivity, despite their dog seemingly being perfectly calm at doggy day care. Often in these cases, we learn the dog is being flooded and that their so called 'calm' behaviour, is actually learned helplessness. Clients are then distressed to learn that their dog has been regularly subjected to bullying, all the while believing they were doing the best thing for their dog.

One of my pet hates, is shopping in pet stores and noticing customers buy the worst food or harnesses possible. It's hard not to say anything when you see a trolley full of rawhide or notice a shopping assistant promising that a slip lead will teach their dog not to pull. It's disheartening to see trusted companies and even vets, promote the very worst products for our dogs, without the public being aware of the potential repercussions.

Let's be honest there's no greater burden than seeing trainers and dog guardians using aversive training tools dressed up as magic training equipment, in order to address behaviour that apparently, won't respond to positive reinforcement. We feel deeply saddened for the guardians that believe force, pain and intimidation will eradicate anxiety or aggression because we know the behaviour will be suppressed and that it will manifest in much more unpredictable ways.
"The burden of knowledge is lighter than the joy of ignorance. "
- Ogwo David Emenike
We have to remember that a lack of knowledge can be just as burdensome for guardians, as having the knowledge is for us. Although it can be difficult not to judge others for the way they respond and manage their dog’s behaviour, we should recognise that with the right coaching and support, many can successfully help their dogs. Unfortunately, the world and even the entertainment industry, is full of unqualified dog trainers giving supposedly 'expert' advice to dog guardians desperate to improve their lives and the lives of their dogs. Is it any wonder that dog guardians are led astray by self-professed professionals in an unregulated industry?

While knowledge can certainly be a burden, there are also many advantages that we need to remember. For one, we know we are using the most kind and ethical methods possible. Think back to the days before you knew what you know now. Maybe you were a dog whisperer fan and perhaps you even used punitive training methods. Ignorance is not always bliss, especially when it jeopardises canine welfare. We all have regrets but only when we know better, can we actually do better.
"Knowledge becomes power only when we put it to use."
- Unknown
Granted, having knowledge can be a weight on your shoulders. It may have seemed so much easier when you didn't understand what you do now, but having knowledge means you are in the position to share it, no matter what capacity you work with dogs in. Even if you are nervous to approach dog walkers or aren't currently working as a dog professional, you can still contribute to educating others. You can share your knowledge with your friends and family and share articles and graphics on social media to build awareness on particular topics. If you know local qualified trainers, you can send clients their way to help the dogs you feel you can't help personally. Just pointing dog guardians to the appropriate information and resources, can go a long way to helping dogs.

Yes knowledge can be a burden but in all honesty, the greater burden is having the power to help and choosing not to.

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