Lessons from my Dogs: Reflections on Animal Rights and Dog Training
Discussions of animal rights are generally confined to activist communities, academic books, and journals, and we rarely see these conversations taken up by behaviourists and trainers, but these conversations are important. Although thinking about animal rights and related questions of welfare can be complicated, uncomfortable, messy, and at times upsetting, critically reflecting on where we stand on questions of animal rights—and why—can help us be more intentional in living the kinds of relationships we want to create with the animals in our lives. In this article, I use a case study approach to examine my own beliefs about animal rights in the context of my relationship with my dogs. While my beliefs, values, and actions are the focus of this article, my aim is not to convince others to believe what I believe; instead, my hope is to demonstrate that thinking reflectively about where we stand in relation to animal rights is important for becoming who we want to be in our lives and work with animals.
The case for critical self-reflection
The work of behaviour consultants is complicated and multifaceted. It is a “helping” field, and those who we seek to help include both non-humans and humans.1 In many other helping fields, such as education, mental health counselling, family therapy, health care, and social work, there is a great deal of attention paid to developing skills in critical and reflective thinking. Professionals in the human and health services are taught to reflect on their emotional experiences and how they are personally impacted by their work. They are also encouraged to recognize and consider the assumptions, biases, beliefs, and values that underlie their interactions with clients, coworkers, and communities.
All of us have “sticky points” and discomforts in our interactions with others. Often, we are not aware of the reasons we might feel especially comfortable or uncomfortable, confident or insecure when we interact with others. Self-awareness is critical for understanding our thoughts and feelings so that we have insight into the ways in which our own culturally rooted upbringings, backgrounds, and experiences can help us be more effective in our work, and when they might get in the way.2
Many professional training programs in the human and health services also emphasize critical self-reflection. Critical approaches focus on power relationships, typically emphasizing gender, race, sexual identity, ability, and class. They emphasize the responsibility of professionals to be aware of the power they hold as professionals and to use it ethically.3 When it comes to work at the intersections of animal-human relationships, critical self-reflection cannot, of course, only focus on humans; we need to consider power dynamics as they relate to the position of animals in our society, and in our relationships with them. While we may not think of ourselves as people in positions of power, as animal behaviour professionals we do in fact hold tremendous power for shaping people’s perceptions of what kinds of behaviours are normal and desirable, what ethical pet-keeping looks like, and how humans and animals should exist in relationship with each other.
The case study approach I take in this article may seem unusual to those accustomed to traditional approaches to science, as the case I explore is myself in relationship with my dogs. In keeping with the emphasis on critical self-reflection, the research I describe in this article is based in autoethnography, a research method that uses personal experience as a way to understand and think critically about cultural beliefs, values and practices.4 Autoethnography is not about being an authority who has the answers; rather it is about grappling with and processing experiences and relationships. As you will see, I am very much in the process of figuring things out, and my purpose here is to invite you to join me in the process.
Defining animal rights
While the animal rights movement fights for recognition of animals’ interests, there are many different views of what the end goals of the movement should be, and how we should get there.5 For example, there are abolitionist arguments calling for strict vegetarianism and the end of domestication and pet-keeping,6 and there are also those who argue that abolition is not necessary and that there are ethical ways to include animals in our communities.7 The diverse approaches to animal rights are unified in their rejection of speciesism, which Sunaura Taylor describes as:
a belief that human beings are superior to all other animals, condoning human use and domination over animals because we humans rank above them—either spiritually or biologically. Speciesism is manifested when a drug or household product is tested on an animal, when a bull hook is used to make an elephant do a trick, when we visit a zoo and watch animals in cages, when we destroy an animal’s habitat to benefit ourselves, and when we send an animal to slaughter or we commodify her body for our own benefit. In the Western tradition speciesism has informed our histories, religions, cultural values, and the stories we tell each other about being human.8
Ideas about the inferiority of animals in relation to humans are so deeply embedded in what we tend to think of as “western” traditions that they are mostly invisible to us. But hierarchy and domination are not the only ways to understand humans in relationship with other life forms. Other world views, including the philosophies of many Indigenous peoples, do not claim human superiority. As Opaskwayak Cree scholar Shawn Wilson put it in a chapter we recently co-authored with Métis educator and social worker, Lindsay DuPré, Indigenous world views “recognize that other entities have their own roles and relationships too – not better or worse than ours, just different.9” For me, knowing that there are very different cultural approaches to understanding human-animal relationships has created an opening for consideration of other possibilities for being in relationship with my dogs.
Reflections on my life with Ash and Esme
I am a White Canadian and I live in a country that has been grappling with the ongoing legacies of colonization.10,11 For the last few years, much of my work has focused on Indigenous ways of knowing, decolonization, and allyship.12,13 This work led me to question the hierarchies that I have been raised with, hierarchies that run deep in my culture: They can be traced all the way back to Aristotle’s claims of man’s superiority over all other life.14 As I read work in critical animal studies15,16, critical disability studies17, and decolonial studies,18 I became increasingly aware of the connections between social injustice against humans and animal suffering. Alongside my writing, teaching, and activism that is focused on human social justice, life with my dogs offered a space to recognize and deconstruct the hierarchies that I was raised in. I became curious about how power worked in our cross-species relationship, and where it could be shifted or undone. I became aware of impulses I had to silence my dogs when they barked, to be (and appear to others) “in control,” for Ash and Esme to fit into my own human-centred agenda and image for what life with dogs was supposed to be. I started to wonder, What would our life with dogs look like if we strived for their rights to be as important as human rights?
Both of my dogs are my very best teachers. I focus here on some of the lessons I have learned in relationship with Ash, though my relationship with Esme has been just as important to my learning. We adopted Ash when he was approximately 7 months old. He had been left at a shelter in Mexico at about 4 months of age, with no history. Ash is an incredibly handsome guy—white, with lovely brown spots and a charming patch over his left eye. I fell in love instantly. He was a little timid when we adopted him but loved to play with other dogs and our children. As he got older, Ash started to be more fearful and less predictable with other dogs. After months of learning from excellent trainers and pursuing an education in dog training and behaviour, I began to suspect that pain was an underlying issue. I had no idea of the severity of his problems; to look at him, he seemed fine—Ash ran flat out and wrestled with Esme every day, and his way of carrying himself in the world with a loose, wiggly body and joyful dog smile has made more than a few people comment that he is one of the happiest dogs they have ever met. It was both shocking and heartbreaking when X-rays revealed old fractures and floating bone fragments in his wrists, a fracture in his left pelvis, arthritis in his wrists and left elbow, inflammation in his left knee, and dysplasia in his right hip. We have no idea what happened to him, but it seems that he experienced terrible physical trauma as a young puppy.
When I learned about Ash’s physical issues, my attention quickly shifted to putting together a team to support his physical health. Our wonderful veterinarian, canine rehabilitation specialists, a massage therapist, and the excellent online resources at Canine Arthritis Management are all part of the mission to give Ash as many good years as possible. My relationship with my dogs also started to shift; I became increasingly aware of my dogs’ right to bodily autonomy and the limitations of this in the context of our human-dog relationship. It became apparent that many of the training exercises we had worked on had little to do with making life safer, more comfortable, or more joyful for my dogs, and were really rooted in reinforcing my position in hierarchies I had been taught were “natural.”
At a practical level, because of Ash’s physical limitations and pain, he needs to be able to say “no” to the everyday requests I make of him. I need to take care to ensure that my requests are reasonable for him, to recognize when he is resisting, and respect his right to make decisions for himself. I no longer ask my dogs to do things that serve no real purpose for them or that they do not enjoy, such as asking Ash to sit (a stand-wait is a much better alternative in our case). We do spend time teaching and learning together every day to ensure that my dogs have the skills necessary to thrive in our particular family and community contexts, and to enhance our communication, but I see it as a much more bidirectional, back-and-forth relationship than traditional hierarchical approaches to training, which involve a leader/teacher and a follower/student. I have found that Ash’s diagnoses have also been helpful in removing my need to be “in charge,” or caring what others think about how dogs are supposed to behave. Now, when Ash sees a squirrel and reacts with joyful exuberance, I delight in his joy and, whenever possible, we chase the squirrel together.
There are, of course, serious limits to my dogs’ ability to make decisions freely and act independently. Ash was not able to consent to so many decisions that have been made for him, by me and others—he did not choose to be left at a shelter, whether or when to be neutered, to be put on a plane to Canada; he did not choose to be adopted by our particular family. I strive to make as much space for my dogs’ agency as I can, to ground our relationship in respect for them as thinking, feeling, and even spiritual beings who have the right to make decisions for themselves, a right to freedom beyond the tightly controlled limits we impose on the dogs in our care and captivity.
Every day, I bump up against conflicts between my desire to protect Ash and recognition of his right to make choices for himself. When he runs flat out chasing other dogs across rocky surfaces or wrestles especially hard with Esme (who loves slamming him onto the ground), I struggle to know when, whether, or how much I should be protecting him and how to create space for him live each moment as fully as he can on his own terms. And, of course, I dread so many of the decisions I will have to make for him—decisions about ethical care and intervention that will only become more complex as his health inevitably deteriorates. Every day of my life with my dogs is a practice in love, trust, empathy, and striving very hard to get it right, all the while fully recognizing that I will never know for certain that the choices I make on their behalf in this human-centred world are the ones they would want me to make.
Ash’s health and behaviour issues alongside my reflections on animal rights and speciesism have changed my life in ways I never would have predicted. For many years, my research and teaching have focused on storytelling, human well-being, and resilience; now I have pivoted much of my research agenda to include a focus on dog-human relationships. My colleague, Lynda Ashbourne, and I launched the Families Interacting with Dogs (FIDO) research group at the University of Guelph, I became an ISCP-certified dog trainer (and am continuing my education in canine psychology and behaviour), and I began a new initiative, ABCs4Dogs, through which I aim to raise awareness of canine welfare and intersections with human social justice issues, promote behaviour change so that humans and dogs can live better lives together, and foster deep and joyful connections between humans and dogs. It is a wonderful time to be in the fields related to human-animal interactions because of growing attention to animal rights and recognition of our collective responsibility to improve the lives of companion animals. And I am thrilled by the growing number of canine professionals and researchers who are emphasizing agency, exploration, and consent in animals’ day-to-day lives.21
My reflections may fit with your own story and the values, beliefs, and commitments that define it, but chances are they do not. You will have your own understanding of animal rights—what they should be, what they are—and how speciesism relates to your life and work. My invitation with this article is to enter into a conversation with yourself about your own values and beliefs and how these connect with your own personal and professional relationships with animals. Analyses of this kind do not provide easy answers but making it a practice to engage in reflective and critical thinking can help to ensure that we are becoming who we want to be in relation with the animals we love.
- Cairney, K., & Breen, A. V. (2017). Listening to their lives: Learning through narrative in an undergraduate practicum course. The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 8:3
- Ferguson, H. (2018). How social workers reflect in action and when and why they don’t: the possibilities and limits to reflective practice in social work. Social Work Education, 37:4, 415-427
- Fook, J., & Gardner, F. (2007). Practicing critical reflection. Open University Press.
- Adams, T. E., Holman Jones, S. L., & Ellis, C. (2015). Autoethnography. Oxford University Press.
- Leuven, J. (2017). The theory and practice of contemporary animal rights activism. Krisis: Journal for Contemporary Philosophy, 2, 2-212.
- Francione, G. (2008). Animals as persons: Essays on the abolition of animal exploitation. Columbia University Press.
- Donaldson, S. & W. Kymlicka (2011). Zoopolis: A political theory of animal rights. Oxford University Press.
- Taylor, S. (2016). Beasts of burden: Animal and disability liberation. The New Press.
- Wilson, S., Breen, A.V., & DuPré, L. (in press). Mining for culture or researching for justice? Unsettling psychology through Indigenist conversation. In K. C. McLean (Ed). Cultural methods in psychology: Describing and transforming cultures. Oxford University Press.
- National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (2019). Reclaiming power and place: The final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
- Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (2015). Final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Honouring the truth, reconciling for the future.
- Breen, A.V. (2019). You do not belong here: Storying allyship in an ugly sweater. In S. Wilson, A.V. Breen, & L. DuPré (Eds.)., Research and reconciliation: Unsettling ways of knowing through Indigenous relationships. Canadian Scholars Press
- Rice, C., Dion, S., Fowlie, H., & Breen, A.V. (2020). Identifying and working through settler ignorance. Critical studies in Education, 61.
- Wilson, S., Breen, A.V., & DuPré, L. (in press). Mining for Culture or Researching for Justice? Unsettling Psychology through Indigenist Conversation. In K. C. McLean (Ed). Cultural methods in psychology: Describing and transforming cultures. Oxford University Press.
- Guenther, K. (2020). The lives and deaths of shelter animals. Stanford University Press.
- Taylor, N. & Fraser, H. (2019). Companion animals and domestic violence: Rescuing me, rescuing you. Palgrave MacMillan.
- Taylor, S. (2016). Beasts of burden: Animal and disability liberation. The New Press. E-Book edition, Chapter 6.
- Belcourt, B. (2020). An Indigenous critique of critical animal studies. In K. Montford & C. Taylor (Eds.), Colonialism and animality: Anti-colonial perspectives in critical animal studies. Routledge.
- Hurn, S., & Badman‐King, A. (2019). Care as an alternative to euthanasia? Reconceptualizing veterinary palliative and end‐of‐life care. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 33:1, 138–155.
- Gruen, L. (2014). Entangled empathy: An alternative ethic for our relationship with animals. Lantern Books.
There are many books, podcasts, articles and courses that could be listed here. A few recent examples of books include:
I would like to thank Teresa Tyler and Mason Small for their helpful feedback on earlier drafts of this article.
Author Bio: Dr. Andrea Breen is an Associate Professor of Family Relations and Human Development at the University of Guelph, Co-Principal of the FIDO (Families Interacting with Dogs) research group, and founder of the newly launched ABCs4Dogs education initiative. She holds a Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology and Education (Toronto), an Ed.M. in Risk and Prevention (Harvard), and a B.Ed. in Education (McGill). Dr. Breen is an ISCP-certified dog trainer and is completing the ISCP Advanced Diploma in Canine Behaviour. She is also a contributor to the new DoGenius course, Human-Canine Interactions. She lives in Toronto with her husband, 2 children, and 2 Mexican street dogs.