RUFF TRANSLATING RUFF RANTS
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Everyday we are faced with a new horror in the US. There are mass shootings and judges making life more unbearable for huge swatches of the public. There are incidents of queer pride events being attacked and white supremacist marches are a reality in Boston and other cities. Failure to protect against COVID has killed over a million people and counting. When Trump was elected, many of us who have experienced oppression knew that this was where this would lead, which is why we struggled with those who dismissed our concerns. One might think that my industry (dog training/dog service providers) wouldn’t be necessarily impacted by the attempted facist takeover of the United States. But the thing about oppression is- it’s a mist or a dense fog that obscures truth and justice across all things within the environment and not just direct personal relationships.
It’s easy for some to see how white supremacy reproduces in environments of big banking, police forces, sports teams… but dog training? I have heard Black and Indigenous people discuss their cultural relationship to dogs, and the myriad of ways they experience supremacy within the dog culture. However, when I start those conversations with fellow white dog professionals- their eyes often go dead and so does the conversation. That isn’t a reason to stop, of course, but it is interesting how very protective white dog service providers are of the “de-political illusion of dog training”. Everything is political and impacted by systemic white supremacy, whether we acknowledge it or deny it. Dog training is a reproduction of larger societal oppression.
Historically speaking, the colonizing Europeans were not as integrated with dogs.They didn't use them in the same ways until they stole the concepts from Indigenous and African cultures. Across the globe, dogs have co-evolved with people in unique and powerful ways. They have developed features that we find non-threatening. They have developed traits of friendliness as part of their survival technique. Humans have long used their powerful noses to track game and tell us environmental information. Many, many cultures have lived harmoniously with dogs as protectors, providers, comfort, for hunting assistance and pack animals. When I say “pack animals'' I am referring to using dogs to haul essentials over distances. Examples of how cultures have capitalized on our relationship with dogs includes sled dogs, or Indigenous cultures who hooked dogs to land (instead of snow) sleds or in other regions packed their dog’s backs during seasonal moves. With the onset of the capture and hostage of Africans forced into slavery- another thing that was stolen were breeds of dogs- trained in various skills including as an aid when hunting intimidating tresspassor animals, or larger prey. The slavers then used those same dogs to enforce their will on people, starting intentional collective trauma around dogs for members of Black communities throughout the U.S.
It doesn’t just “stop there”, when colonizers invaded the now-United States- many Indigenous cultures lived with dogs as part of their spiritual and cultural practice. Institutionalized violence and erasure has left many of the crucial Indigenous understandings of dogs only preserved through oral tradition- and we should be elevating those voices now so that we can honor those cultures and promote the messages from teachings through the next generations. One of the most advantageous aspects of Tik Tok for me as a dog professional is access to Indigenous leaders who are generous with their oral histories. But as a white dog professional, it is not my job to take those cultures and package them for whiteness- but rather work to abolish the dog culture that does not allow Indigenous dog understanding to flourish and be documented for the next generation of Indigenous youth. My job as a white dog professional is to disrupt the whiteness of dog culture and use my race privilege to create space for something inclusive, where BIPOC leaders can emerge.
Moving forward in history- slave-catchers came onto the scene of early emancipation and the creation of and facilitation of the Underground Railroad. Dogs were once again used to track, abuse, and torture those humans escaping slavery. Whiteness as a concept has always been appropriative- and slavers used powerful dogs against the people to control them and force submission. We still see this tactic used today with police k-9s. The continuation of violence has very little disruption, and our society uplifts police dogs, military dogs, etc. as the pinnacle of obedience training. There is ample cultural ridicule for those who use dogs for other purpose bred activities (for example outdoor housed livestock guardian dogs), or those who use balanced tools (like e collars and prongs). As slave-catchers have grown into foot patrolmen and ultimately into police departments they have held true and perfected using dogs as weapons against communities of color. This abuse of power further ruined (and continues to ruin through to today) the bond between BIPOC and dogs through violence and barely controlled aggression.
We see an extension of this thinking and control later in Europe, with the formation of the RSPCA. Rescues and animal rights organizations are often ridiculed for extreme positions in food production, but we are less likely to challenge anthropomorphic beliefs when it comes to dogs. I am a believer that one of the reasons for this is our inherent biological connection to dogs (we actually release familial bonding hormones on eye contact)- but it is also a continuation of seeing any living being as more valuable than Black, Indigenous, and POC bodies, and centering whiteness. One of the original founding principles of the RSPCA was to eliminate working dogs among the working class- under the guise of dog abuse. I am certain that there were very good reasons to improve the conditions of some dogs in working environments. I have met many well intentioned people who were actively causing harm to dogs throughout my career as a trainer. But that does not excuse the class warfare waged by the elite in removing working dogs from homes that depended on them. During this period of time (17-1800s), dogs and horses were crucial partners in agriculture and industry for many small tradespeople. The SPCA as it was first known (the R added in 1840) was founded on the principle of removing ponies from the coal mines, but not on improving working conditions for the human lives also in the “pits”.
The history of using dogs to abuse communities of color can not be contained by one white, non-historian, foray into the history of dogs within human cultures globally. That being said, what I can say is that I see these problematic tactics and views impacting dog culture today.
As an example, let’s just take the category of “service dogs”. We can see how the experience of whiteness is privileged and training is inaccessible to most. The passing of the American with Disabilities Act was revolutionary, and disabled community members fought with valor to have these very basic provisions protected by law. In our current judicial system, combined with a global pandemic- it is likely a target we all should be watching as we march down the road of rights revision. That being said, it was very limited in the ways in which it described access needs- centering on those needs of white veterans. Those needs were very real but they also did not go nearly far enough in protecting those with intersectional identities and differing access needs. The concept of service dogs, specifically for the use of psychiatric disabilities- has only more recently than the ADA signing in 1990 been more thoroughly advocated for. Even “just” trauma of lived oppression without additional diagnosis or comorbidities is very real, documented, and, in my professional and lived experience- can be assisted in management with a highly trained service dog.
One of the advantages of the regulations of the ADA, is that owners are allowed to self-train their dogs. Why is this advantageous? The vast majority of service dog organizations have a several year wait, and most are trained as “program” dogs. Some cost tens of thousands of dollars outright. The impact of this is that they are either fiscally inaccessible by many disabled people, or- and here is the most important part- the dogs are donated but not tailored and paired to their individual handler fully. The dogs are seen as a product for sale or donation- and those trainers are not focusing on creating a stable TEAM of individual and dog.
When a dog is trained to do a specific task, they are more responsive to the individual who trained them on that task, unless time and patience are dedicated to transferring that skill over the handler. At RT, the pairing portion of our service dog program often lasts 3-6 months. Compare that with a program dog, a dog that is “fully trained”, and the organization does a rudimentary 1-2 week “training” to teach the new disabled handler how to use their medical device. This creates this weird barrier between dog and person- and again, in my experience does not empower a disabled handler to actually be able to fully use the incredible skills of a service dog. When you layer this model into the existing systems of oppression- where most of the programs are geared towards white veterans- and there is a consistent shaming of disabled people for “not knowing” how to work their dogs… it’s a nightmare and of course many disabled people who live at points of intersectionality are not going to be able to access this process at all. It is a system fully built on police-style training (which comes back to slave catchers), military privilege for access, and relies heavily on donations to groups dedicated to supporting veterans. Now listen, I am fully in support of veterans having fully trained service dogs. But I am not in support of ONLY white men veterans having access to program dogs- with a few “diversity” spots thrown in for optics. When individuals opt out of this model, they resort to online training tips, youtube videos, and books. It is often not nearly enough, and frequently those individuals end up with dogs who are not fully prepared for the work they need to do. The public image of a well trained service dog becomes softer, less helpful, more companion based in most cases. I even know of multiple dog-training facilities that offer “service dog training classes”, that barely have a concept of the disabling conditions they are helping to manage with dogs- never mind adapting their classes to actually be accessible and effective training tailored to an individual disability need. I meet multiple service dog “trainers” who confuse the roles of therapy and service dogs readily. I recently even had a conversation with a former service dog trainer where they admitted they stopped training because they “don't know how to deal with disabilities''. Which they said to me, a service dog handler with multiple disabilities. Ableism within dog training is the nasty decedent of everything we have covered here and deserves its own rant entirely. I believe disabled people deserve better, and we absolutely have to stop operating with the paradigm of white supremacy within dog culture.
So what do we do, as white professionals who recognize that competitions, breeding, access, training, rescues all of it- have been constructed within the tenancy of slavery and genocide?
I do not have all of the answers, but I do have some ideas. We need to promote those BIPOC dog professionals who are also seeking to train with cultural competence. We must create spaces for classes, lessons and programs where it’s not just “welcoming” or friendly, but intentionally inclusive. Our shops should demonstrate that we are safe for those with intersectional identities through messaging, staff education, staff diversity, including diverse leadership and diverse mentorship. We must divest from military and police trainers entirely- including those white trainers who tangentially promote those military/police trainers.We have to stop creating meaningless certifications that don’t tell us anything about what the dog and person do outside of the training ring. We must hire new tradespeople who are BIPOC and promote them, sharing generously the knowledge of training that we do have. We must learn how to train high performing service dogs while teaching the handlers accessibility in caring for, and independently working with their own dogs. It can not just be optics- it has to be in every way we talk about dog culture. Whiteness as a construct stole dogs from many people, and if we are to be stewards of change- we absolutely have to create space for BIPOC folks to reshape current dog culture. This doesn’t mean we white people can’t own or train dogs. What it does mean is that we need to rethink what we qualify as good training- and center that perspective not on “achievement” within competitions or certifications- but on how very connected the person and dog are in front of us. That is training success. And that is also how we evolved alongside dogs. We need to relearn dog training through mutual aid, living in the present, and constantly checking in our communication, not through demonstrations of power over an animal- or incredible anthropomorphizing dogs over the needs of humans.
There is a viral tiktok that has several variations of a Black dog trainer talking about what “white women” will do for a dog in a comedic way. It’s hilarious because it is absolutely true. I have known many, many feminists, radicals, leftists, extremeists, right wing enforcers- but most of them pale in comparison with the absolute dedication of white women to the concept of dog rescue and dog welfare. The passion, I understand. I am pathologically obsessed with all things dog. I have a personal goal (and years of running success) of reading a minimum of 10 dog behavior/cognition/biology/psych books annually. I wear stupid dog themed teeshirts and even oven a pair of sneakers with dogs printed on them. But over the years I have steadily moved away from white dog rescue culture. I have seen how the requirements for adoption are classist and often racist, the over-humanization of the needs of dogs, and the money trail involved has corrupted the idea of “rescuing” dogs. “Rescue” remember- was founded by eliminating dogs as our working partners. As we have discussed removing dogs as working partners has its root in colonization- and in the abuse of Black and Indigenous communities.This doesn't mean I don’t love rescue dogs- in fact I have only met maybe a few dogs over the course of my life that I didn’t adore. What it does mean is that I can’t turn off the knowledge of how rescue culture reproduces oppression in the very nature of its operation. Divesting from white dog culture means looking at ways that we can actually teach people to better care for their dogs- rather than ship them to a more privileged area for adoption. There is an organization, ChainFree Knoxville, that aids their communities in fencing in their yards and providing necessities to get dogs off of chain-tie outs. They provide safe, weather appropriate housing, chain link, food, dishes, toys, secure doors, etc- so that the dogs who are loved have a higher standard of care than is currently accessible to their owners. THIS is the model of change I can get down with. This allows us space to teach people how to live with dogs, rather than pulling them from situations. Of course- I’m not talking about hoarding situations, or extreme abuse. I am talking about poverty and lack of access/knowledge- neither of which are shameful or a crime.
If we really want to rescue dogs, we have to start first with helping people, and seeing ourselves not just as experts in what dogs need- but more so as facilitators in helping keep dogs and people together and getting dog needs met. And as white dog professionals, we have to realize that just because we don’t know the history of dogs in other cultures doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, and more so- that there isn’t something necessary to understand even if unfamiliar. What are we waiting for? Isn’t this the whole point? To live harmoniously with dogs as stewards and partners?
I firmly believe so and I hope you do too.