Oh Irony, You Saucy Minx

Last October, I wrote a piece for CCPDT (Council for Certified Professional Dog Trainers). The piece started out as a rebuke of media reports calling Cesar Milan a "behaviorist," which is murky territory. With each share of the sensational story, the headline, "Dog Behaviorist Investigated in Pig Attack," and variations on that theme were shared to millions of readers.

Click bait, for realz.

My issue went beyond the dog attacking a pig in a terribly set up "rehabilitation" exercise that resulted in injury to the pig - though make no mistake. I had a huge problem with this aspect, too). 

My issue was with the term behaviorist being used to describe a television personality who, as far as I can tell by checking his website and other social platforms, has never taken a class in animal behavior. This seemed ethically wrong on so many levels.

Not one reporter, media outlet or blog share seemed to dive down on who an animal behaviorist actually is or what they do. 

With that backdrop, I wrote a piece targeted to dog trainers commenting from a dog trainer's perspective on how it's unethical for us to use the term "behaviorist," unless we actually are, and since the lingo is really murky even within related fields of animal behavior, we should just stop. I then went on to define terminology we come across in our field as a guideline for dog trainers and called it a day.

The post, targeted to dog trainers, was shared among dog trainers with much more support and enthusiasm than I expected. I really was prepared for a lot of blowback from dog trainers. That never came. 

What did come was something I didn't expect.

The animal behavior community was pissed.

At first, I didn't see it.
I was on their side!
I'm helping!

Dr. Suzanne Hetts, a highly respected actual applied animal behaviorist and co-owner of Animal Behavior Associates, wrote a response piece and sent it out to the behavior community. She then alerted me in a very short email telling me about it. I immediately felt a crushing wave of anxiety. I read it. I was so mad. "I'm helping! I'm on your side!" kept going through my head as I read the piece that at the time I read as a personal attack. As time went on, I just felt crappy.

It turns out there is a big lesson to learn here. "Helping" isn't helpful when there is a failure to first seek out how (or if!) a party wants or needs help. I was doing my best to define something that I understood in my world, but not on a bigger scale. While animal behaviorists were not my target audience - the piece was written for a dog training newsletter, this population saw it.

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And they were justifiably displeased.

I immediately emailed Suzanne after she sent out her very public response.

I was embarrassed, hurt, but still quite defensive of my original piece. She was hurt, and stood by what she wrote, too. We sent emails back and forth for a few days but it was clear as the water was settling we could find common ground. I knew I settled down and my hackles went down. I'm not going to speak for her, that's her story to tell if she wants to, but we were able to start an actual dialogue and it was incredible.

This was a great lesson in how good intentions do not trump actual communication. Had I just taken an extra few minutes, or days, to reach out to animal behaviorists, I would have written something different. 

But I didn't. 

Suzanne then volunteered to do something that caught me off guard, almost as much as her response piece, particularly given the political climate of the last 7 months. Something she didn't have to do. She went above and beyond.

"Let's do this together." 

And we did.

It took us, no joke, 5 months to write the piece we ended up co-penning. We were invited to publish it in the same newsletter my original post was printed. I learned a ton, and I think she did, too. Plus, I feel that by doing this together, we were able to do something that hasn't really been done yet. We found common ground without being "resource guardy."

I learned that veterinarians can not call themselves specialists unless they are board certified in the specialty - and that includes behavior. Yet, dog trainers and any ol' Tom, Dick or Harry can say "I'm a behavior specialist" without any credentials to back it up.

Seems a bit unfair.

Additionally, the broad brush of "all animal behaviorists work with pet animals" is wildly inaccurate. Many observe wild behavior, some work in zoos, and some work with pet animals. The field is huge. While some animal behaviorists do work with pets, including veterinary behaviorists (veterinarians who are board certified in animal behavior), it's a fallacy that all do.

I now see why applied animal behaviorists are so upset! 

Perhaps an indication this is not the animal behaviorist you are looking for:
He gives you this photo and says: "Here's my resume. I'm here to teach your dog to stop humping your slippers."

Suzanne gave me an opportunity to explain what we dog trainers are up against, too, and I felt like she heard every word. First., there is a media and entertainment industry that promotes "behaviorists" who have no background, so in order to compete in that market, we have a population who have adopted the word in a way to be heard above the noise. We have people who email, call and text us, pleading for help - they need a behaviorist to help them with a jumping dog. A trainer for a biting dog. A behavioralist (not a word in dog training) for an 8-week-old puppy. The public is confused on these terms. We are also dealing with individuals hanging out their shingles without an ounce of dog training experience and have to compete with them, too. We are trying to meet clients and students where they are, but we have no Merriam-Webster definitions to give them. (Which is why some of us, myself included, tried to clarify these terms, but are met with blow-back. Justifiably.)

What Suzanne and I discovered, through communication and really taking a moment to see things from a different perspective, is that we really need animal behaviorists to take the lead on defining those terms so we can all lead with more clarity.

It's not on people like me to define terms at an industry, even if there is a vacuum and a great need. It's just not my place. And I get that now. I can't turn this boat around.

It would have been so easy to just write a response to her response on this blog, put it out there for the Internet to see, dig my heels, "defend myself" (whatever that means!) and defend what I wrote. I actually started something to that effect in a moment of anger 9 months ago. In writing this piece, I discovered it, and deleted it a few minutes ago. I was mad. I was angry. I didn't even open the draft because I just knew it would be bad.

Been there.

So instead of yelling via the Internet, I read what she wrote in her piece, in her emails back and forth, and I realized the irony of my original piece. "Guys, language matters and we aren't doing anyone any favors by not fully understanding the language we are using." I was using wrong language left and right and that was perfectly clear once Suzanne and I started to talk.

Oh, Irony, you saucy minx.

It was important to listen. Critical.
Not listen to counter-attack.

It's not easy to say "I'm sorry." Especially when intentions are good.

I had no intention of defining Dr. Hett's profession AT her, but that's exactly what I did. It doesn't matter what my intention was - it's how it was received.

In the same way someone "intending" to say hi to a shy dog is not permission to come into that dog's space.

How cat calling might seem like it's intended as a compliment, but it's not.

I get that now.

We have both been working incredibly hard in our industries to combat inaccurate language and terminology while trying to help the animals we love. As our industries continue to evolve and overlap in some ways, it's important to remember that these industries will continue evolving and there will be conflict.

It's how we deal with it as individuals.

Thanks to the power of the Internet we were able to take a breather, listen to each other and really write something that could be a game changer.

We found common ground and ran with it.

This is that piece.

While Suzanne took the lead on a lot of it, given that she is an applied animal behaviorist and our writing styles are totally different, we created something meaningful. There is a lot of give and take in here. I even got in a Car Talk joke which honestly, was more important to me than I realized at the time. This really is our piece. Together. Collaboration in the face of something that could have devolved into something messy, angry, and regrettable on my end.

It might not be an earth-shattering read for those not in this industry, but the journey was more meaningful. In all honestly, there is no single piece of work that I'm more proud of to have my name attached to in any way.

So, if you read this, Dr. Hetts. Thank you.

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