Kindness: A Plea to My Fellow Trainers

Michael Baugh CDBC CPDT-KSA

When I was in high school we were assigned a book that has stuck with me all these years after. It was titled Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am? (John Powell 1975). One of the things I liked most was the universality of the title. It wasn’t, Are you afraid or I am afraid. It assumed a truth. We are afraid, all of us, sometimes terrified.

I haven’t re-read the book in years but I remember the answer to the title question. If I tell you who I am, if I’m really open and genuine, if I put myself out there, then I’m vulnerable. You see me, all of me. If you reject me, that’s all I’ve got. It’s dangerous. I could get hurt.

We learn early on, long before high school, how treacherous vulnerability can be. Rejection, scorn, ridicule, mockery. Those are all strong punishers. We are taught from the moment of our earliest memory:

  • Don’t be different (fit in).
  • Don’t be wrong
  • Don’t be weird or awkward

That’s the short list.

If you’ve ever lived or worked in a consistently punishing environment (and most of us have at some time), then you know where this leads. And for those of us who are animal trainers we know from our own education and training experience where it leads. Animals with a punishment history shut off. They do the safest thing they can think of to avoid being hurt. In many cases that is simply to hunker down and do nothing.

When we consistenly punish our fellow humans for being different, or wrong, or awkward, we get similar results. We get humans who step back – sit down – and shut up. Worse, when we witness each other getting beaten down there can be a chilling effect. That could happen to me. I’m not putting myself out there. No way. No how. So more and more of us hunker down, too. We keep our truth to ourselves. We hide who we are. Because if we stand up, step up, and speak out we’re fucked (loosely paraphrasing John Powell).

There is an old (tired) joke among dog trainers. It goes like this. The only thing two trainers can agree on is that the third one is wrong (see also different and awkward). We are plagued by clannishness. There are camps: this methodology against that. And then there are camps within the camps, fine lines of thinking and acting that if crossed violate the arbitrary rules of those opposed. We are, for the most part, deeply dedicated to teaching animals with compassion and minimally aversive techniques. And at the next turn we are apt to savage each other.

The dramatic irony plays out most often and with the greatest vitriol on social media platforms. I’ll spare you the details because I’m so very confident you’ve seen them  yourself. At best we adhere to our own righteousness. At worst we are sarcastic and cynical. We excuse our own behavior because of what he or she said first. Or, when we feel the sting of our actions we try to quell it with the idea it was all in good fun. Humor. Jokes for which others paid.

I have been that asshole. I have fired off barbs wrapped in velvet. I have posted crap that looked sane and even poetic with the raw intention of causing pain. At my worst I’ve participated in whisper campaigns and back stabbing. I regret it every day. I drag a wake of human wreckage and I remember the names. We suffer and we cause more suffering and in the end we hurt ourselves the most.

Here’s my simple plea. Be kind. I put this idea out for consideration in my talk at the IAABC Conference earlier this year. Sometimes it’s better to be kind than to be right. This is hard for us. We trainers are in the business of being right. Our information has to be right. Our skills need to be right. We need to demonstrate and teach rightly. We are also in the business of reducing suffering, the suffering of animals and of our fellow human beings. If kindness is missing from our work we are impeding our best efforts. Information wrapped in anger or sharp edged snark is wasted. It is lost on the learner. The recipient of even our most valued truths will likely only feel the blows and the cuts. We trainers know better than to do this with dogs. It breaks trust and builds nothing. And yet, we do it to each other.

I want my fellow trainers to know that I see them and hear them. I want this most especially if we sometimes disagree. Why? Because we aren’t done yet. At our best (and I firmly believe we are all striving for our best) we trainers are voracious learners. When I value my fellow trainer, my fellow learner, I maintain access. When I speak kindly even in discourse, I get to stay in the game, stay on the path with him or her. Choose your own metaphor. When we are connected we can teach. We can explore ideas together. And, wait for it, we can learn. Play the long game. Is one tweet or one facebook post worth losing the chance to work in concert to build our profession – to lead – to heal?

So, this is a plea for kindness. It’s a plea drawn from my own experience. It’s a feeble try, perhaps, to draw compassion from suffering. Because we are all afraid, terrified sometimes, of each other. And, because when all is said and done, no matter our differences, we want the same thing. We want to tell each other who we really are (fear be damned). We are hardwired for connection with each other, collaboration, friendship and love. It’s who we are at the core. We want to be seen and to be heard and to feel safe. It’s a yearning we all have and it’s also the greatest gift we can give to each other.

Michael Baugh teaches dog training in Houston, TX. He teaches client coaching through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. Michael is a human being with many of the strengths and foibles associated with that species.

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