When Brèagha was a puppy, my non-dog-savvy family basically told me throughout the whole process that I was doing a sh@% job raising her because I allowed her to act like a puppy and mature at her own pace instead of crushing her spirit and forcing her to be “well-behaved.” My parents, who only know the very basics of dog ownership and some old fashioned training techniques from the few books they read before getting their own dog, Molly, are not exactly the authorities on dog training. They kept telling me that if I didn’t get her 100% perfectly trained right now while she was still a puppy, she would turn into a bad dog and I could never fix it because you can’t train a dog once they’re grown up. One time my mother and I went out to dinner with my brother, who is a foxhunter and controls his large pack of hounds with shock collars, as is the standard practice, and whose knowledge of dog behavior doesn’t go much beyond “how to make the dog do what you want it to do,” and his (at the time) girlfriend, who was also a foxhunter. My mother made sure to bring up the subject of how I refused to use a shock collar on my puppy. My brother and his girlfriend agreed that I was “just being a fuss” and that there was no reason why I shouldn’t strap a shock collar on my dog and shock her into shape right fast and show her who was boss. I refused to argue about the subject and made it clear that my mind would not be changed. I felt outnumbered, ganged up on, and frustrated that my mother had brought up a subject that I had no intention of ever talking about with my brother. Now he probably thought I was judging him for using shock collars, when really I didn’t care what he did with his own dogs. Eventually, once I made it sufficiently clear that I had zero interest in discussing the subject, they left me alone. I didn’t understand why everyone had to make a big deal about it… couldn’t we just agree to disagree? On top of that was my family’s constant complaining about every single puppy thing Brèagha did, and the fact that they persisted in ignoring me when I asked them to leave my dog alone when she was misbehaving and let me deal with it myself. Every time she started to chew on something or mess with the cats, somebody would be jumping up from their chair to stomp and scold before I even a chance to redirect her. “Let me handle it,” I would say, to which the excuse “but you weren’t handling it” was always given. How could I; I didn’t even have a chance to do so before somebody else was there attempting to handle it for me! “She’s my dog,” I would say. “What part of my dog don’t you understand?” But it always fell on deaf ears. I started staying downstairs or outside by myself with my dog, leaving her in my room whenever I was with my family to minimize conflict. I remember one the worst moments when I was asked, in front of my several other people in my family, why I was not letting my 5 month old puppy off leash to run around my brother’s property (which is close to a road.) When I replied that I did not trust her impulse control or reliability at this age, my mother responded, “she’s 5 months old and she doesn’t come when you call… what the hell have you been teaching her all this time?” I could have responded that we had been working on things of actual importance like socialization and building confidence, but I didn’t say anything. They were determined not to understand. What would be the point?
Now, I know a good bit about dogs. I’m not an expert by any means, but I am always reading blogs and books from people more knowledgeable from myself and I try my best to stay up to date with the current information available about dog training and behavior. That is to say, I know a great deal more about dogs than my family, (who only know what they’ve read in a couple old and outdated books and seen on TV.) Despite this, the constant criticism made me question myself. Maybe I was doing a bad job of raising my dog. Maybe I should just give in. But I loved her so dearly that I couldn’t bring myself to hurt her in any way, and deep down I knew I was on the right track and that if I persisted she would grow into a well-adjusted young dog. So I kept her away from my family as much as I could and kept on doing what I was doing. A year and a half later and I can’t imagine a friendlier and happier dog than Brèagha. She’s not perfect of course; she’s only one year old and still maturing. But she’s far better behaved than most dogs you will meet around here, and I didn’t have to hurt her to get that.
When you’re raising a puppy or training a dog for the fist time, it can be daunting. Receiving a lot of harsh criticism can be really stressful and that can spill over into your relationship with your dog. Constructive criticism is good if it comes from someone who is qualified to give it. It’s always a good idea to seek out feedback from qualified dog trainers and behaviorists. But harsh criticism from friends and family is not constructive, especially when they don’t have any real knowledge of the subject.
So here’s my advice to anyone dealing with unnecessary criticism from uneducated people.
If you are a young person, know that people older than you tend to really hate it when a young person knows more about something than they do. Or they will assume that you can’t possibly know more about anything than they do. Remember that your age does not invalidate the knowledge you have gained through careful study.
When you are feeling bullied, reach out. I reached out to some very knowledgeable dog people via the internet and told them about my struggles. It really helped to be reassured that I was doing fine and helped keep me on the right track.
Don’t hate the people who are criticizing you. They likely really believe that you are doing it all wrong and aren’t just saying that to hurt you. Their comments likely come from ignorance, not a desire to hurt. Even though I felt bullied, I really don’t think any of the things my family said or did were meant to hurt me. They just thought I was getting it wrong and didn’t realize that I actually knew what I was doing.
Don’t let the pressure effect your relationship with your dog; keep your eyes on the prize. One dog trainer I conversed with told me to not let the pressure that was being put on me effect my relationship with my dog, and to keep my eyes on the prize. Keeping your eyes on the prize means that you pick a path towards raising your dog to be the dog they are meant to be and you stick with it. Don’t be swayed from your path. Just keep moving towards your goals.
In the end, my family gave up on trying to get me to change my ways. My dog grew into an adolescent and stopped doing most of the puppy things that got on my family’s nerves. It’s been a long time since anyone challenged on my position on shock/choke/prong collars and “dominance” based training, or accused me of just being a fuss. I’m really proud of my dog, and so excited for our future together.