What I learned from an Animal Abuser
By Luzelle Cockburn
This is a period of my life that I would probably much rather forget. In fact for a very long time I was angry about what had happened. But, the lessons I learned are too valuable not to share. It’s one of the reasons I believe that if you’re an aspiring dog trainer you should learn from everyone. Not that I wish this on my worst enemy, but It was a time of my life that I learned the most of my skills and insights.
Now, I have tried to get Pras held accountable for his actions but most of it is hearsay and would not hold up in court. Those who know him might be in denial. Some might even feel a sense of duty towards him. I’m not sure why abusers end up being so protected. But I say enough is enough.
Now Pras and his mates fancy themselves as the only ones who can handle very aggressive dogs in New Zealand. Yes I learned a lot of what to do and what not to do based on listening, observing and hands on experience during this time.
“one day Pras told this story of one of his previous dogs that had a fear of thunder. I just couldn’t help but ask, why did his dog have a fear of thunder? Was Pras not a good enough leader? I mean, I was genuinely interested. Someone with such a strong opinion (back then I thought it was skills. Ha ha. How naïve was I?) on others’ poor leadership surely would have had an insightful answer. When the reply came “oh some dogs are just scared of thunder”. “
Activate Your Listening Skills
Now Pras loved to say that anyone with a dog that had issues, even fear of thunder storms wasn’t a good enough leader to their dog. However, one day Pras told this story of one of his previous dogs that had a fear of thunder. I just couldn’t help but ask, why did his dog have a fear of thunder? Was Pras not a good enough leader? I mean, I was genuinely interested. Someone with such a strong opinion (back then I thought it was skills. Ha ha. How naïve was I?) on others’ poor leadership surely would have had an insightful answer. When the reply came “oh some dogs are just scared of thunder”. That moment activated my manure meter. Pras never afforded that excuse to anyone else except himself.
While in most instances good leadership can make a significantly positive difference, leadership in itself can’t cure everything and Leadership in itself does not train a dog. Yes it can often help a fearful dog feel more safe, it isn’t the only thing you should rely on to help your dog. Leadership is just one aspect of training. But, you see, Pras was very good at running down everyone else. But had plenty of excuses when his own dogs misbehaved. Even nipped people. You see, listening is one thing, but it goes hand in hand with observation. And I observed that Pras’ actions were not that of a leader, but more of a bully.
Learning to observe is another valuable skill I learned. You see, Pras wasn’t very good at explaining what he was doing. In fact, other than the abuse, I doubt he understood what he was doing or why (or maybe he just didn’t want anyone else to know how he got dogs to worship him despite abusing them – but don’t worry I figured it out). I mean maybe he did? Instead of helping me with difficult dogs he just mocked me and told me that I wasn’t good enough. And all I got was lectures on logical fallacies. Very little information actually pertaining to dog training. Though there was the odd gem that I do believe helped me become better. I would often ask questions and get very vague answers. So observational skills became very important if I wanted to learn. And learn, I did.
I observed and learned about the value of what I now call natural engagement, which is how he built loyalty in our dogs despite abusing them. Yes, all our dogs preferred to hang out with Pras. Despite my skills at focus training and training my dogs to look fabulous in the competition ring. And this baffled me. I did everything the other trainers recommend to build a strong relationship with your dog, yet my dogs preferred Pras! It was insane! Because Pras painted himself as this amazing leader, we thought it had to do with that. That his “firm hand” somehow made the dogs more loyal to him. But that wasn’t it.
I also observed that some dogs just didn’t want to remember Pras. When Chocco was returned for killing the neighbours’ sheep at his new home. He did not want to leave his owner’s side and Pras raised him till he was about 6 months old (well he was old enough to have killed his first sheep with Jazz). There was no way this dog did not remember Pras. Dogs don’t lie. I took the dog on and really enjoyed working with him. With me, he would even walk off leash through the sheep paddock and not disturb the sheep. A year or so later I had a dog returned to me who I raised to 12 weeks old, she remembered us all, and fit back in like a glove.
Since leaving Pras’ place, all the dogs have become more co-operative and settled, happier dogs. They have all improved and become better dogs and less prone to aggression. The dog’s at Pras’ suffered from severe kennel stress and abuse. But they are all away from Pras now. And they are in very good homes, so they can live out the rest of their lives. One in particular I’ve been trying to save for years. He was limping when I last saw him at Pras’ and I know Pras never took any of the dogs to the vet. But he’s OK now. He’s safe. I can finally relax.
The Difference Between Abuse and Training
The first thing to remember is that an animal abuser does not need training tools like pinch/prong collars, electronic training collars and so forth to abuse animals. Nope. In fact, Pras rarely used these, and when he did, he used the tools correctly. So, in my experience animal abusers prefer to use sticks, their bare hands and hanging dogs on their collars to the point of fainting. You see an animal abuser likes to assert power over animals. They want to feel strong, and using tools does not help them feel strong, so when they need to use tools, the tool is doing the work, not them.
That is why I often laugh when I see people commenting that training tools such as pinch collars, electronic collars, or whatever, is abusive. No, it couldn’t be further from the truth. If these tools are used incorrectly, it’s a lack of education. You see, the tool in itself cannot do anything it is just an object. A lifeless, thoughtless, object that has no power of its own. The same as a stick. It requires a human to use it correctly and thoughtfully, or a human to use it to abuse an animal. And, in my experience, the majority of people who use these tools, use them very wisely and carefully. Especially in NZ where they are difficult to come by. Something that you should understand: correct training doesn’t cause problems, abuse and incorrect training causes problems (or fallout).
I do worry though that the big uproar on banning tools might actually increase the instance of animal abuse, as owners have less and less humane ways to teach their dogs to follow their cues. Positive reinforcement training requires a lot of skill, timing and effort to learn how to use correctly. And even then will not work for every dog. And when you’re dealing with aggressive and difficult dogs who are on the verge of becoming dangerous, sometimes you just need to be able to have something on hand that will help them make a faster connection between appropriate and inappropriate behaviour to keep them and everyone else safe. And no, the majority does not need to be put to sleep!
During this time I had the opportunity to work with many aggressive and difficult dogs. I volunteered to look after people’s dogs while they were away and on the property there were 5 Malinois and none of them were easy dogs. They all had “reputations”. Some had bitten people, others had killed sheep and one was extremely territorial and also displayed self harming behaviours. There were also sheep and cows loose on the property and of course two of the dogs had already killed sheep, so I had lots of opportunity to work with and befriend dogs with serious reputations and challenges.
I even got to make friends with other people’s dogs (who also had reputations as being aggressive dogs), without using abuse. All the dogs were different and each dog needed to see a different side of me to decide that I was actually OK. I got to build dogs up, and train them to compete in Obedience Competitions. I got better results than Pras without abusing the dogs. Dogs worked for me, who wouldn’t work for Pras! Even dogs that Pras had to abuse to get control of who wouldn’t let anyone else near them became my besties (like seriously, one particular dog who no one dared to go near turned into the biggest cuddle monster with me! His owner didn’t think he’d ever make human friends).
Now, I haven’t discussed the abuse in detail. I don’t see the point. When dealing with a cunning animal abuser, you really need to know that evidence is light on the ground. It has taken me a long time to be able to write this post without anger and frustration boiling up inside me. But, I digress. Nothing will be gained by discussing the specifics, it will just make me angry and stir the gossip mill.
In all, while I never, ever, ever, ever want to repeat the lessons I learned and I don’t wish the experience on my worst enemy. I feel that the lessons learned were the most valuable lessons I have ever learned. It has taken me a long time to get my confidence back up after Pras broke it down, but it has made me a better, more thoughtful and more responsive dog trainer. Without the experience I wouldn’t be able to help all the dogs I’ve managed to help. I wouldn’t be the trainer I am today or have the confidence I have working with extremely difficult dogs.
Has this blog post helped you in any way? Tell me below if you’ve had an experience with an animal abuser too! Or just your thoughts in general, I’d love to read them!
Hey, I’m Luzelle!
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