What to do when you see animal abuse?
by Allison Spontarelli
I was sitting on one of the bench swings in City Park when I saw a man abusing his dog. The man yanked the Golden retriever’s leash hard enough to spin him in the air. Then, he got in the dog’s face and said in a stern and angry tone that he needed to stay and listen and not follow other dogs. I watched as his pet began to cower next to his owner. As the man retrieved the phone he’d been glued to, and they began walking again, I could see the fear in the animal’s eyes, tentatively pressing one foot in front of the other, uncertain of what would trigger another reprimand. I wanted to say something, but I didn’t know if this classified as abuse and I was also uncertain of what a stranger – who behaved this way with animals – would do to someone like me butting into his business. So I was a silent witness.
But was it actually abuse? Technically no. Larimer County ordinances state that the legally recognized forms of animal cruelty are abandonment of a pet; physical abuse; failure to provide food, water, shelter or veterinary care; improper tethering; overworking an animal; fighting of animals; putting animals in a situation that causes distress (i.e., a hot car); or keeping an animal in unsanitary conditions (Sec. 6-80. Improper care or treatment prohibited). What I witnessed was punishment-based training – which is not illegal.
Does this make it okay? According to Culture Clash by Jean Donaldson, pets don’t comprehend punishment the same way that people do. People tend to assume that dogs “know better” or “are trying to get back at us” when they pee on the floor or chew our shoes. However, in reality dogs are amoral and do not understand right from wrong. Instead, they learn what is safe and what is not safe, which means that they do not always understand the connection between their actions and the punishment that it invokes. While it can be frustrating to try to train a pet who is not behaving the way you want them to, yelling at them is often more helpful for the owner than the animal.
Larimer Humane Society believes that animals learn best through positive reinforcement and opposes the routine use of punishment-based training, corrective devices, or methods that cause an animal to obey out of pain, fear or intimidation. The organization believes that trainers should always use the least intrusive, minimally aversive techniques possible.
Even though there was nothing that I could have done to help that dog in the park, it is important for pet owners to know that there are other options. Owners can research animal behavior consultants near them or explore online behavior and training tips here. Larimer Humane Society’s behavior department may also be a resource on training tips that avoid the use of punishment, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-226-3647 ext. 513.