Training or Restraining?
February 22, 2017

When Sport Becomes Abuse

Corrections & notes added evening, June 3, 2013

Abuse… it’s a big word contained in just 5 letters. Middle English, from Middle French abus, from Latin abusus, from abuti “to consume”, from ab- + uti “to use.”

Very difficult to find any notions of love or friendship or healthy relationship in “consume” or “to use.” Yet abuse is present in so many forms in every dog sport. Today, I was sent a link to a video which highlights one way abuse occurs.

This video shows an agility run at the Galveston County Kennel Club on May 25, 2013, done on a slick, painted concrete floor. Correction: not painted concrete but a sport court covered in non-skid film, as per Trials By Lotus where you can read these notes:

“The surface is made up of interlocked Polypropylene tiles. It’s not concrete. It has resiliency. If you drop a bottle on it, it won’t break. It’s comparable to the old floor at Triple Crown in Hutto if you ran there. But it will have a non-skid film over it to keep dogs from slipping. The company’s description of the floor: Serious volleyball players around the world have discovered the benefits of playing on a Sport Court suspended volleyball court, including reduced shock and less wear and tear on joints and limbs. [snip] I know it’s an unknown, but if it works out, it will be nice to have an indoor site with AC for summer trials!”

What this 52 seconds of video says about the handler, the judge, the hosting group and the titling organization is telling. (Note: before I finished writing this, the video had been taken down, apparently with all others from this event. That says a lot. Easy description of the video: Border Collie on “sport surface” which is slick and hard. The dog manages to do his best, but scrambles, slides, and loses traction repeatedly throughout the course. It is scary to watch.)

Most heartbreaking is what it says about the dog, who still gives his best, not fully knowing what the risks are and what damage could be done if his best efforts failed, only knowing that he was asked and so he tries. Watching this is difficult. It’s like watching a dog on ice, and past that, knowing that each landing is a jarring concussive force makes me wince for the poor dog. He doesn’t know that there are long term ramifications for jumping on surfaces like this. (Landings on footings that lack traction are dangerous. Basic biomechanics at work. Maybe the dog should have been wearing the rubber soled sneakers the volleyball players use on this surface?)

Many years ago, I wrote a 4 part series on jumping. One article in that series, “Just Right Jumping” talks about the conditions under which dogs are jumped. Nothing tricky or mysterious about the abuse inherent in asking an animal to jump on slick, unforgiving, rock hard surfaces.

The failures on behalf of this dog start with the handler willing to walk their “friend” into such a setting and asking him to work. This would be unacceptable footing for a conformation dog asked to stand, walk and trot, never mind a dog asked to run and jump, turn and twist. Watching the dog literally scrambling as if on ice to try to accomplish the weave poles is bad enough; watching him scramble and try to make each jump – frightening as to the very real risks of injury.

Every handler has an obligation to their dog to be their dog’s best friend, advocate, protector. Ask yourself what a best friend, an advocate and a protector ought to look like. For me or for my animals, what this video shows is far from what protection, advocacy and friendship look like.

The hosting group who accepted this venue and set up the ring & equipment as appropriate for dogs to compete in — this group needs to be seen clearly as a group whose concern for dogs only runs so deep and then stops. Did no one in the club see how unacceptable this was? If they didn’t see it, I’d avoid them as a staggeringly unknowledgeable group. If they did see it and still didn’t change it, I’d avoid them as a group unwilling to speak up on behalf of the dogs, to ignore abuse on their watch. “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to say nothing.” (Note: someone on my Facebook page mentioned that the group had taken steps to change things — but only after dogs had run on this surface. While I’m glad they eventually did make a change, that they allowed any dog to run on this surface remains the real problem, and says a lot.)

The judge who is willing to allow this on her watch – unforgivable, and someone who should not be shown under or supported or hired. The titling organization should be informed as to why this judge deserves censure. Zero excuse for putting dogs at risk, though God knows I’ve watched judges in many dog sports allow that, right up to the clearly limping dog at a national specialty show or the dogs who keeled over in the ring from heat exhaustion.

But all of this is not surprising to me, sadly.

Many years ago, I served on the AKC Agility Advisory board. One meeting involved setting up sample courses and running them with a variety of handlers & dogs to be sure that the course times could be met. A very prominent judge/handler who shall remain nameless set up a course, and we all walked it with an eye to how it might be handled, whether it was fair for that level dog, etc, etc. To my dismay, the last jump on the course was placed about 15-20′ from a cement wall. The rubber matting under the jump only extended about 6′ from the jump itself. I made it clear that this was not acceptable, that the dogs would be flying over that last jump, and not have a prayer of stopping safely on the rubber matting, that momentum alone would carry them onto a painted concrete surface and then – if they couldn’t stop or slid – into a literal brick wall. The judge’s response? She was very annoyed with me, and noted, “Well to change that I’ll have to reset the whole course!” I kept insisting, and it did get changed. She was mightily annoyed with me on several counts, including my presumption to question her course. Unlike her, my obligation is always to the dogs. I didn’t care if they tossed me off the advisory board; in theory I was there precisely because I was known to be a knowledgeable advocate for the dog.

Her attitude was not an isolated event in the sport. I just couldn’t justify putting dogs at risk rather than annoy the judge or have to move equipment, but she could, and so could many others active in the sport. It was one of many reasons I walked away from agility. At its best, it is a wonderful sport. But… as this video shows, this is not the ignorant handler with no skill playing at their local training class led by an unskilled trainer. This is a handler who has clearly put in time and energy and money and thought into training a very good dog. This is a club hosting an event, which takes great resources and manpower to accomplish. This is a judge who worked hard to become a judge. And all that together combined still spells anything but good for the dog. If skilled handlers and dedicated organizations and experienced judges are insufficient to protect the dogs, then what does that say about the sport a whole? No easy answers, and I know there are many good handlers who would never, ever put their dogs at risk. You won’t see them at these events: they take a look and then they leave. I don’t have a problem with the good handlers who put their dogs first in ANY sport. I have a big problem with people who don’t. And I have a big problem with people who see abuse, but say nothing.

As upsetting as it is, perhaps this can spark much needed conversation, and bring the spotlight of attention to bear so that situations like this become a thing of the past. Our dogs deserve nothing less than our utmost, including our willingness to protest with our hearts and mouths and pens, and above all, our willingness to vote with our feet to move our dogs to the one place they should always be in our care: a safe place free from abuse.

In my seminars, I often apologize in advance for possibly upsetting handlers by telling them something they did not want to hear about their dogs or themselves. I say that on the off chance I’ll be admitted to heaven, I do not want any dog to approach me and reproach me with, “You saw, and you knew, but you said nothing.” So once again, at the risk of upsetting many humans but in the hopes of helping some dogs, I’m saying flat out: this is abuse. Dogs deserve better than our silence.

What is needed now is for any handler from this event who has video from dogs running at this event on that “sport surface” to make that video public. It needs to be available for viewing and reviewing, and to be sent to the AKC. It needs to be the fire that ignites voices of protest on behalf of the dogs. For those handlers, I would say this: while it was a mistake to run your dog on that surface, let this mistake become a force for the good of the dogs. Mistakes are inevitable in life. What we do with our mistakes is ultimately what determines if value can be found in that mistake and others can benefit from the experience (aka, the mistake!). For me, good training and good animal care is about recognizing my mistakes, examining them closely for value, and sharing those mistakes. I hope at least one of handlers involved will turn this into a valuable lesson that can benefit many. Responsibility to our animals includes ownership of our errors, not hiding them.

FINAL NOTE: The comments on FB and via email to me are telling. Some believe I’m singling out one handler – hardly. This was just the only link I had to video from the event, and that and all other video was removed from YouTube. I would have gladly posted every link for every run so that anyone interested could watch and decide for themselves. There are arguments about how this is not as black and white as I position the issue, that there is a story behind the story. To my eye, it IS black and white: the dogs are either safe or they are unsafe. Where is the grey area? I don’t see one.

The podcast from BadDogAgility where I join Esteban & Sarah to discuss this blog piece and the video that prompted it is available here: Thanks to Esteban & Sarah for the opportunity to participate.


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“When Sport Becomes Abuse” by Suzanne Clothier