RUFF TRANSLATING RUFF RANTS
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First off, don’t get your leash twisted up- I’m not saying that there isn't any metric to assess how your dog is progressing in training. But folks, the type of system that the AKC runs with the Canine Good Citizen and related tests is gimmicky, hierarchical, capitalistic, ableist and not actually useful.
While all assessment is highly subjective this test is set up for failure with its lack of standards in dog behavior and human interaction. And I really, really want to talk about why. We can start with “skill” number 1- "accepting a friendly stranger". Now, I don’t disagree that your dog should maintain neutrality when you are appropriately approached. But, as a service dog handler- I literally have never once been “appropriately” approached by a stranger when with my dog.
I’m running on a track record of zero strangers being able to hold back acknowledging the dog after over 5 years of taking my dog everywhere feels like pretty solid data this is a problematic testing device. Most people approach with wild abandon when they see a dog at all, as though it is a mythical beast from the moon whose fur is spun of gold. Occasionally, if you are in a public park you may get a garbled “canipetyourdog” as hands covered in something sticky reach towards your animal before a response can be given. So it seems both a strange standard for the dog and also an even stranger standard for people to assume folks will stop, politely let you settle your dog, and then be allowed to pet, or not. That’s the general testing device for a friendly stranger- and it’s too contrived to be useful.
The Canine Good Citizen Test “CGC” also assumes that the handler is able to accept a friendly stranger. I can’t speak for anyone else, but as an autistic adult who also has pet dogs aside from my service dog- I am not available for a friendly stranger. I’m just not. So I certainly don’t need to place myself in a situation where I am supposed to feign acceptance of a friendly stranger when with my dogs- it would be the first time they see me greet a stranger outside of a work context with any sort of enthusiasm. I wear a leash wrap with guidance for strangers that I need space. We don’t need to test the sociability of a dog using this scenario. We don’t need to create standards for dog engagement that are entirely neurotypical, and not inclusive of many disabled people’s experience. Other friends of mine with conditions that affect their sociability differently- would highly enthusiastically greet a new person in again, a way that may not be received in kind by the formerly known as “friendly” stranger. In fact, I’ve seen many “friendly” strangers turn positively toxic jerks once they realize they have approached any kind of disabled person. There are so many cues that could indicate this- from a stutter, to the volume of a voice, to the way that person moderates (or doesn’t) excitement. There is no accounting for the ways in which any kind of intersectional identity (race, gender identity, weight, age..) would impact the environmental state of the handler, the oncomer, and the dog. It’s pretend. So I can’t fathom why do this test at all if it doesn’t actually indicate how a dog would respond in the exact scenario we are supposed to be testing for. Furthermore, dog behavior is often wildly misinterpreted. The AKC guidelines use “shyness” as a negative in a dog- when I think they probably mean “fearful”. Even when Rio (my service dog) is off-duty, she is both neutral and entirely disinterested in new people. She generally prefers to place herself in the “center” position, standing between my legs, or behind me entirely. That is a trained response, but it is also highly preferred. Does that mean she is shy? It depends on who is observing her behavior, and reading the avoidance not as the “no thank you” it is but as a “I’m shy”. Instead, I recommend observing the handler and dog in dog-friendly public environments and watch the natural engagements that occur. Then we can get an actual fuller picture of how a dog exists in its community, and how that works or doesn't work with their individual handler. Is the handler comfortable? Confident? How about the dog? Are both members of the team in a good state to continue being in this environment? Those are the questions we have to care about. It is inherently exclusive if you are not being intentionally inclusive.
The first portion then takes these concepts to the next level with the”Sitting Politely for Petting” assessment. It’s obviously evident that everything that I wrote above applies to this “test” as well, but even more so. I am vehemently opposed to the idea of dogs as public property. A great deal of this stems from life as a service dog handler and trainer, who should have their experience CENTRALIZED and not ignored when it comes to training pet dogs. What do I mean by that? It is intentionally contrary to service dog training to force your dog to sit for a stranger touching them except in very specific scenarios, for example pats downs for TSA, grooming, and veterinary care. A service dog is the extension of the handler’s body when working- and the same as you shouldn’t grab someone’s cane- you shouldn’t assume you can ever touch a service dog. That dog needs to remain focused on every scent and movement of their handler as part of the human’s medical management. It is literally that serious, no need to be hyperbolic. So what if a service dog in training moves away from a pet from a new person? Are they showing aversion, or are they actually doing their job? And why on earth would we not want the standard for testing to be more in line with the service dogs that work in public every day? It is so counterintuitive. Service dogs obviously need to be trained that if they are touched by anyone- they remain polite, but that doesn’t mean that it should be a cultural expectation that all dogs accept stranger touching.
Additionally, the belief of a dog in public as automatically open to engagement is very much US centric. It is not a given worldwide and many other places ignore each other’s companion dogs unless asked to engage. Aside from perpetuating the idea that all dogs want to be pet by random people- it also creates a pervasive idea that if your dog is more handler focused or is working through a behavioral challenge they are “less than” or “broken”. If we are going to advocate for the adoption of dogs (rescue or not), we have to be honest that many of them have behavioral challenges that mean that they can be entirely comfortable if left to be but struggle when there is pressure to engage. I mean, I get it- I have that problem as a person. While of course I want to see any dog working through behavioral challenges succeed- I don’t think we should be shaming owners that haven’t been able to get to this place by creating a false hierarchy through the CGC. It has become a badge of this style of dog training- while alienating the folks who need the MOST training support- service dogs, and dogs in behavior modification. Once again, for allyship we must centralize disabled experience as part of conceptualizing how we test pet dogs, and forced engagement is not the way to go and can have consequences for both dogs and people.
Following right in line with how this test is applied is a section on “appearance and grooming” which is a judgment of the handler even more so than the dog. It also seems out of pocket to judge “canine citizenship” on this specific factor- given the prevalence of dogs with behavioral issues. That’s more of a baseline health assessment- there are all kinds of factors that play into whether or not a dog is currently (or ever) able to receive good grooming care. Dogs deserve to be well kept and clean. But again to me, it is more important to focus on making dog grooming accessible for the handler, rather than solely a standard for the dog to tolerate from a stranger (though a great goal). Sometimes that means our clients use our grooming table during their free time to practice with their dogs. But not everyone has those resources, and I think that judging this can be really tricky. A handler may not know how to care for their dog, and creating a pass/fail environment on their dog’s tolerance doesn’t actually help the dog get the care that it needs. Let’s centralize care instead of performance, and help people learn to care for their dogs as part of their relationship, in a way that isn’t about passing an arbitrary test- but instead creating resources and support.
If you are playing along- and have realized we are taking a stroll down problematic alley with the next segment of the test “walking on on a loose leash”- pun intended. Here, we are getting to the training grit and some of the biggest red flags for the CGC. This test becomes so much more about the semantics of tools, and training styles than it is actually representative of whether a dog can walk on a leash or not. The tools we use to walk dogs vary wildly, as to the standards of what constitutes safe by trainers. I don’t really see how the AKC can monitor those standards. I’ve seen other trainers do an amazing job of assessing dogs, and I’ve also seen a fair number of trainers skirt their own requirements, or pass dogs to collect the fee. I’ve seen dogs that I know to be reactive on leash earn their CGC because they do phenomenal in controlled environments. It’s just not accurate to create a loose leash scenario as an assessment without actually going for a walk with a dog in multiple scenarios. Dogs often behave differently depending on the environment and are often prone to higher levels of overstimulation close to home, as opposed to at a training facility or testing location. Or vice versa. Again, trainers using this as a metric honestly seems so deeply incomplete- it’s useless. When we combine that with then the disallowment of walking tools for handlers who need adaptive equipment to communicate with their dogs when walking- it’s once again- just a performance. It’s not acceptable to deny a disabled handler the use of an accessibility aid like a head halter for loose leash if that allows them to be safe when walking their dogs. If performance is all we are looking for, perhaps we then shouldn’t also be using “CGC” as anything other than a very low level “trick” certification as opposed to a metric of actual dog obedience and temperament.
It no longer is about “citizenship” when we create scenarios that force disabled handlers out of participation. Using tools creates the possibility of basic dog ownership for many disabled handlers, (including things like e collars- which allow for nonverbal communication and we will circle back to a bit).
I think it’s really interesting that in the first several sections of the test there are expectations of high engagement to outsiders from a dog, and then shifts to scenarios where we expect complete neutrality. In principle, the next test of standards for walking through a crowd makes sense. But again, as someone who has walked through many crowds including at very large theme parks- the reason my dog (and any service dog we train) can do this is because of how I have trained her that would be in contradiction to the initial skills required. There are excellent training methodologies to create the distinction between when it is time to greet new people and when it is not, and many dogs can learn them fully. But that doesn’t seem to be the actual goal with this testing. Instead, it seems like we are creating a performance rather than providing feedback based on actual scenarios. A dog who can walk through a crowd in a training facility is learning the baseline skills to handle a real crowd- but it doesn’t mean that skill has been fully absorbed and ready to be applied to the real world. We see a lot of this in training with tasks and service dogs. It is nice that I can get any dog to perform the task of picking up objects for me at the shop. But it means nothing unless the dog is able to do that in every environment, for their handler. And being able to pick up things for handlers at the shop does not automatically translate- the same way that a loose leash through a crowd wouldn’t remotely cross over. It takes months of proofing that behavior in all of the environments before it generalizes. So we are testing on the baseline understanding, but the implication for many many pet owners who take the test is that now it means their dog is ready for an outdoor festival or other dog friendly crowd. This is not great for the person or the dog, when the animal becomes completely overstimulated. “But they did so well in class?!”- Yes, they did and class and real life are different scenarios that have to be trained through. By claiming the CGC as a hierarchical achievement- we are only creating a false sense of security and not actually training the dog.
This also again, creates dangerous situations for service dog teams who are prepared to be in those environments. There are countless stories from every service dog handler I know about unprepared CGC pet dogs in public reacting to, attacking, and overall distracting service dogs. It endangers the life of the service dog handler to have unprepared pets with low level qualifications in public. And the AKC does not do enough to qualify the limitations of their “certification” process.
I physically can not let a moment pass without talking about tools here, it is again not a more “poorly” trained dog that would need a prong- but rather a handler with poor grip strength who needs to be able to communicate position changes with less force than an abled handler, including navigating crowded environments. But again, that would automatically disqualify this team from passing a CGC- where they could navigate an actual scenario with ease. This discrepancy matters because it is the difference between dog handling and dog tricks.
Naturally, there are going to be components of this test that are just basic obedience requirements- like sit and down. Again, I would say that it is not a skill that if you don’t practice it outside in multiple environments, it will hold outside of the test. The test also gives so much leeway with the expectations depending on the trainer running the show, much like previous examples. We need to now dive deeper into the ongoing tool allusions I have made. I am so tired of arguing for the use of tools as adaptive equipment. Consider the handler who does not use verbal communication dominantly, in a testing environment working hard to make sure their communication is clear. They have an ecollar set to give “yes” cues because they are currently unable to speak. Or a clicker even- tools don’t need to be about the ability to overpower, but they are imperative to disabled handlers to allow communication in many different ways. Maybe the handler can’t remember hand signals so uses a whistle, or uses another method I haven’t mentioned. That is neither negative nor the “fault” of the dog or person. I think it is excessively limiting, and incredibly exclusive to cut out the best method for the individual handler. They would not be allowed to use some of these, which is shameful. Adapting environments isn’t optional, and abled people do not get to choose which tools are right for disabled people.
Recall is probably the thing that becomes least reliable for the majority of dog owners when we introduce distractions and variables. It’s also pretty dangerous, in my opinion- that this exercise is on the test. The false sense of security that many dog owners get when they “pass” this exercise has definitely resulted in one or more lost dogs. When major dog experts bill their assessments as certifications of achievement, they are positioning it as “official” validation that the dog possesses this skill. There are problems with this that we have already discussed, but we haven’t yet talked about how white dog culture has created the idea that dog spaces need to be always off leash and “free”. The use of public land by many includes allowing their dog to run free regardless of the use permitted in that park. But I am not opposed to breaking the rules, we should have better and more public lands available to all members of our communities. The reason that I find this behavior problematic is that it forces everyone else to also engage with you, and your dog. As a purely colloquial example: I live within a short walk to the T station. There are times I cannot walk the public walking path to the T station because there are so many off leash dogs I am physically unable to navigate through with my working dog. Rio is fine, but there are too many variables for it to be safe for either of us. When your dog is off leash and has only practiced recall to pass the Canine Good Citizen test, it likely will fail to come in favor of any number of engagements with the outside world, including other dogs and people. With allergies, fears, phobias, etc- this can create a hostile environment in outside spaces. There is a breadth of reporting on the epidemic of off-leash dogs in cities across the country, and just recently in my local area a child was bit in a non-off leash sanctioned space by a dog in this position. When we layer in traffic, it’s playing with fire for your dog, and your community to have a recall. This is not the sole responsibility of the AKC or the CGC- but it can be a contributing factor to handlers deciding to let their dogs off leash unprepared. The number of times someone has yelled at me “She’s friendly, it’s ok!’ and then “She’s trained she has her canine good citizen” in some variation is not zero, and that is telling.
As we get into the final sections of the Canine “good citizen” it seems we are finally into some territory where there is good sense, and great practice. The next section is a greeting with someone who has a neutral dog, without engagement. It would be excellent if all handlers with dogs were able to shake hands several feet away with their dogs on loose leash without reactions. I still think this creates unnecessary hierarchy for reactive dog owners who may need additional accommodations to keep their dogs below stress threshold in this type of scenario. That doesn’t make their dog training “less than”. But I also think that practicing this skill is very valuable and incredibly uncommon. More often, what I see is that neighbors allow their dogs to greet first, mixing on leash with high tension and alert tails. As dog professionals, we should be teaching people to learn to read their dogs behavior when engaging with other dogs and teaching them that they need permission from us prior to engaging. We may not have time to say hello on a walk, may not enjoy the neighbor they want to say hi to, or may not trust the dog they show interest in. We need to emphasize neutrality in order to prevent over excitement and accidents and we aren’t doing that at all as a dog culture. We promote hyper-sociability, off-leash play, and over stimulation and as the gold standard for dog behavior and the dogs suffer because of it.
The last two sections are really about assessing a dog’s emotional regulation- though I would argue at this point, you can’t get a fair shake at knowing what that dog is capable of. During the course of the assessment we have sent so many mixed messages about what the expectations are- and now we are headed into “unknowns” which feels really unfair to the dog. Many times when I have seen this test administered (not all), the dogs practice with specific types of distractions (dropped food, a specific loud noise), and so they have an ideal response. This behavior isn’t proofed to completion, so it once again leaves them unprepared when an actual bagpipe band enters a nursing home (yea, this happened to us!), but it’s a start. I think about all the ways that we work with our service dogs, and all of the different stimuli that we expose them to- and how very well they regulate based on these experiences. I want that for all dogs and I don’t think that, honestly- it’s too high of a hill for many training programs to do better for pet dogs. We don’t need to have so many thunder phobias, firework nightmares, skateboard chasers etc. But it takes a lot more than one afternoon of dropping a metal bowl on the floor for a loud crash, I’ll say that. The final test is handing off your dog for a short period of time and examining for anxiety. Sigh. I just think that this is a weird attachment assessment with little value. Put them in a crate and see if they can settle. I mean it! Who honestly cares if you can hand off your leash to someone unless you are a service dog handler or take a lot of training classes?? No one. Test crate training for stability. Can the handler safely crate their dog and their dog will settle within the same time frame without showing urgent distress? This is a better test for emergency situations, including rescue workers getting your dog out of a fire- or staying in an emergency shelter. This is also a better assessment for staying at a veterinarian or groomer!
When we think about “canine citizenship”, what are we thinking of? I am thinking of the ways in which we, as humans, can live more full lives with our dog partners. I’m not thinking of more certificates I can hang in my house, adding more letters after my highly pedigreed dogs (sorry breeders, I’m just not). I care about my dog’s pedigree because I care about their health testing, behavioral markers, confirmation, bitch stress, and raising style. I don’t use AKC testing because it intentionally alienates my entire community, service dog handlers- while reducing their incredible skills down to sound bites for pet dogs. It endangers handlers, dogs, and communities under the guise of training. And until the AKC starts actively working to actually include the rest of us (including tools, wearing masks, creating disability friendly spaces, acknowledging reactive dogs) and creating appropriate standards I’m out. I’ve got so many better things to do.
I do my best to copy edit but you will absolutely find mistakes. It's a blog, friends.