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How Toxic Masculinity Affects Our Pets

Updated: Sep 8, 2021

I would like to make one thing clear straight away: I’m not talking about masculinity. I’m not saying all men are bad. I’m not saying masculinity is bad. I’m saying there exists a very dangerous perception of “what it means to be a man.” And for that matter, “what it means to be powerful.” As an educator and advocate for force-free animal training, I’m taking this opportunity to address this controversial topic in an effort to inspire change in the animal training community.

The most concise definition I could find for toxic masculinity, as it relates to animal training, is from Sara Stremming’s podcast, Cog Dog Radio. In an episode about toxic masculinity she equates the toxic culture with the need to dominate. I’d like to add that this phenomenon is not restricted to men. I’ve seen many women display characteristics of toxic masculinity in an effort to achieve a sense of power. In other words, it’s not about who’s applying the principle, it’s that the principle still exists.

Traditional forms of animal training revolved around dominating the animal. It was a “do it or else” mentality. Humans were not companions, they were masters. I write these words in the past tense but unfortunately the archaic ideas of domination and force are still used by many dog trainers, groomers and veterinarians, and they’re unchecked in 4-H clubs throughout the United States. It breaks my heart that in 2019 we are still teaching children to dominate animals, but I digress. That’s a topic for another time.

What does toxic masculinity look like in the dog training world? It looks like "commands" and “corrections.” It looks like using a prong collar, shock collar or a choke chain to force a dog to do what you want. It looks like ear pinches, toe hitches, paw squeezes and lip pinches. It looks like “slight pressure,” "just a vibration" and “mild discomfort.” It looks like pushing, pulling, hitting and yelling. It looks like Cesar Milan. It looks like a person who is trying to look tough with a dog on a prong or choke collar, yelling commands and giving corrections.

I am not here to shame or judge people who have used these training methods in the past. I'm not big on judgement but I am big on education. The problem lies in that most of the dog-owning population doesn't even know a nicer way to teach animals exists! There are still far too many dog professionals preaching primitive training methods and there are far too few promoting least intrusive, minimally aversive (LIMA) training methods. While the science and application of kinder training methods existed back in the 1940’s, it wasn’t until Bob Bailey and Karen Pryor entered the scene in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s that the general public started to become aware of these more positive and scientific teaching methods.

It’s now 2019 and when I Google “how to train my hunting dog to open his mouth” the first thing that pops up is an antiquated method of dog training that involves forcing your dog’s mouth open, placing an object in the dog’s mouth and then forcefully (with “gentle pressure”) holding the dog’s mouth closed so it cannot spit out the object. It’s unacceptable to me that force-free training methods have been around for more than 30 years yet there are still dog training professionals who not only refuse to use force-free methods but continue to spread the message of domination and force. Why?! Force is certainly not more effective and in fact comes with the added risk of serious fallout like aggression. Is it because using force makes humans feel powerful? Or perhaps, some old-school trainers prefer to stay in their comfort zone instead of learn a new way?

I think humans think force works better because when they correct or punish their dog, the dog's behavior stops (this is obviously reinforcing to the human). What humans don't always recognize, though, is why the behavior stops when you correct or punish your dog. It stops because your dog is either scared or in pain. If they weren't scared and/or in pain, the behavior would continue wouldn't it?

If you are going to choose to use physical punishment or harsh verbal corrections at least know why those techniques work. They work because they're scary and they hurt. I don't know many people who want to scare and hurt their dogs and I'm of the belief that most people think of their dogs as family members or best friends. I don't know about you, but I try very hard to avoid hurting or scaring my best friend and family members. Why have we been okay with scaring and hurting our dogs for so long?

It’s no secret that the majority of force-free dog trainers are female and that the majority of my clients are also female. This is likely because force-free training is seen as a soft and gentle way to train and our cultural perception of “what it means to be a man” doesn’t include the terms soft and gentle.

I began my training career in 2004 using positive-reinforcement methods and at the time people had a hard time understanding my choice to avoid using corrections. I really thought that by 2019 force-free methods would be more commonplace and people would stop thinking I was a complete weirdo. I know that the world of dog care and training is getting there, and I know it will happen, but perhaps it’s time I encourage change by getting a little loud about it. (And to be fair, me being a weirdo will be the case forever and I’m completely okay with that.)

Bottom line: The idea that animals need to be dominated has to die. This idea is not based on science or research. It is a manifestation of toxic masculinity and it has to stop. I watch it hurt dogs on a daily basis. What’s more is that the dog’s human is completely unaware of the damage being done to the human-dog relationship that I assume they are trying to improve. You’re not powerful because you’re being hard on your dog (or child, or spouse, or colleague). You're unpredictable, scary and dangerous. Others don't respect you. They fear you. Fear and respect are far from the same thing.

When you know better, you should do better.

It always goes back to the Golden Rule, folks. Just treat others (animals included) the way you want to be treated. After all, you get what you give, right?

Peace, love and paws.


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