In 2017, I was fresh into the professional dog training scene, and eager to get as much hands-on time with dogs as possible. At the time I was in my early twenties and had more time on my hands than I do these days, as I was building clientele up from effectively nothing.
From the time I was young I’d always had rescue dogs, fosters, and was passionate about prioritizing homeless animals, so decided that I would donate my extra time to a local animal shelter. It seemed like a perfect way to spend time between work, as I would get the hands-on work with hundreds of dogs while also helping homeless animals in the process.
It became clear fairly quickly that the shelter staff favored thepure positive methodologywhen new volunteers were shown a frankly underwhelming how-to video from a certain TV not-dog-trainer. At that time I already preferred balanced training after successfully rehabilitating my severely aggressive rescue dog, but I happily humbled myself in the name of learning all I could.
Back then, and even to this day, I stand by the idea that lessons can be learned from most training styles, and despite having my preference I was ready to learn what I could from the methods taught at the shelter so I might absorb what I liked into my own training.
I volunteered three days out of the week for a few months, doing kennel tech work and dog walks throughout the day.
I would bite my tongue through the occasional snarky comment from staff and other volunteers about training philosophy (you would be surprised how “negative” the “positive” space can be), but otherwise worked fairly independently and was able to make do with basic leash pressure and food.
In general, I disagreed with some of what I was seeing at the shelter, but was just happy back then to be getting so much time working with animals and helping them in the process.
At the time, I thought that the shared passion for saving dogs was more powerful than the pride and ego of philosophy surrounding training and husbandry.
I swiftly found out that was not the case when I volunteered to take on a more serious volunteer position at the shelter.
The job description was a segway into becoming an in-house trainer for the shelter. It was unpaid, but I would be working with staff and was promised plenty of time with the small roster of trainers working at the shelter at the time. As I began with new (more demanding) responsibilities and earlier hours, I was eager to ask questions and learn more about various training techniques while doing more advanced dog handling on a regular basis.
The actual job, however, was little more than unpaid staff work.
I showed up at 8am to sanitize kennels, did vaccinations and administered medications, made phone calls I’d not been trained to address, and shadowed meet-and-greets for potential adopters. During the 8-week dog behavior training period, I got a total of two sessions being trained in dog behavior: once sitting in front of a computer watching videos while my supervisor was busy, and once with an in-house dog trainer loading a clicker.
That said, I asked questions whenever I could and tried to make the most of my time in the position. I was in a learning mindset and pushed through the grunt work to do so.
One morning near the end of my training period, I checked in with my supervisor and was delighted to find that I’d be assisting with some new dog intake evaluations. It was a wonderful chance to observe dog behavior and help set them up for success.
The dog we were evaluating was a female 50-ish lb juvenile pitbull terrier mix. After a quick meet with the dog in question, my supervisor gave me the task of scanning the kennels for compatible dogs to help with the temperament test.
I was thrilled.
Finally I was able to show my understanding of dog behavior, and do something really, truly useful with my knowledge.
I suggested the idea to my supervisor that it might behoove us to walk the dogs together prior to full introductions to help them focus and naturalize to one another in a less-direct fashion.
I’ll never forget her response: “Nah, we’ll just throw ’em in there.”
After being dismissed, I went into the kennels and wrote down a few names of large but mellow adult dogs. One dog in particular stood out to me: an incredibly sweet and mild adult female American Bully who had the approximate disposition of a stuffed teddy bear.
She was calm but affectionate, seemed well-socialized, made clear body language when uncomfortable, and was built like an absolute tank. With the evaluating dog being a large, high-energy breed and young enough to not have perfect manners, it was important to pick adult dogs that could withstand being bumped or jumped on once, be calm enough to not escalate, and be socially developed enough to give small corrections and clear signs of discomfort so that we as handlers could deescalate a scenario where excitement got out of hand.
My supervisor did not agree with my reasoning.
I gave her my list, and waited with the intake dog on a slip lead while she went in to retrieve one of my choices. She came back out with a dog that was not on the list. She explained that she would get to my list, but she wanted to see how this dog did first.
Fair enough, I thought at the time.
He was a large juvenile male APBT mix. Not surprisingly, the two jumped at each other energetically, held back by wispy plastic slip leads. The male dog began to growl, and we separated them in time to prevent what I knew would be coming had they continued.
My supervisor prepared to take the dog back to the kennels, so I reiterated that I had high hopes for an introduction with the adult American Bully. She went back into the kennels, and came back out with another dog that was not on my list.
Another juvenile male APBT mix. He was already pulling her through a standard leash all over the place as she approached the play yard. He looked to be 60+ lbs of muscle, and I could see already that he was over-aroused and barely aware of a handler at all.
Naively I tried to trust my supervisor, but in hindsight, I should have taken the intake dog back to a kennel and refused to play a part in any of this. I should have quit before it happened.
He pulled her straight up to the intake dog, already giving height-seeking body language. The intake dog began jumping and throwing her paws on him, trying to play the way socially undeveloped juvenile dogs do.
It happened in an instant. They just burst into a fit of barking and gnashing and yelping. They twisted and pulled and snapped, and there was just blood everywhere. Their leashes started to tangle together, literally wrapping them up in the blur of blood and teeth.
“Drop the leash, drop the leash!” was all my supervisor could get out in the chaos.
I did as she instructed.
But she had brought the male dog out on a standard leash, and the intake dog’s slip lead got caught in the clip. So, for what felt like forever they were just fighting and crying and bleeding, with little else I could do but wait for an opening to grab the slip lead again and try to eventually separate them.
At the time I didn’t even realize how much danger my supervisor had put me in, but today it sickens me.
I don’t recall how it finally ended, but I must have found that window to grab the slip lead up again and untangle them. Shaking and saying very little, I took the male dog back to his kennel. My supervisor took the intake dog to the on-site medical room.
I joined her there later to find that the dog had puncture wounds in her paws and chest, and she was shaking terribly. After being bandaged, the dog went back to one of the kennels and was left alone.
The day dragged on after that.
When the adrenaline wore off, my supervisor mentioned that a dog failing a behavioral intake exam would have to mean euthanasia. It was then that all the red flags and the anger I had been pushing aside finally started to come through.
I masked my reaction to the best of my ability, but I was absolutely seeing red.
I had bitten my tongue and yielded to the philosophy favored at the shelter over and over again in the name of open-mindedness, cooperation, and saving dogs. And this person ignored every piece of input I had, and risked this poor young dog’s life – and my personal safety as well – out of sheer negligence and ego.
I was disgusted.
The next day I was on the schedule, I found out that my supervisor had complained about me to the coordinator, for asking questions during my training. It seemed that, in this position that was sold to me as a learning opportunity, asking for information was an act of defiance.
I asked the coordinator if the complaint had anything to do with the dog fight — and my mentioning it was the first the coordinator heard about it. My supervisor, rather than communicate with me, complained to the coordinator, and never reported the incident in which a dog was injured by her negligence.
I didn’t say any more about the dog fight. I was done.
I didn’t want to be a part of that nonchalant negligence anymore. I finished the last couple days of my training, and quit.
I tell this story not to shame the shelter or shelters in general (I still work with shelters and rescues whenever possible to this day), nor is it to shame the pure positive methodology (which I have no problem with as a matter of personal choice), nor even really to shame my supervisor — though there was certainly blood on her hands, both figuratively and literally.
The moral of the story lies in placing our egos over the wellbeing of the dog within the dog training community. I never found out what became of the intake dog, but I like to believe she was adopted after all rather than killed by the hands of one person’s ego.
And I’ll never really know what would have happened that day, had my input had been at all respected or even considered.
But I do know what I learned from that day, and it’s a message I hope that I hope more canine professionals adopt:
It’s in our false sense of superiority that dogs truly suffer.