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How We Can Do Better: Try Compassion, Not Verbal Abuse When Educating People About Pets

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Last week, the online pet parent community was aghast when a photo that Sarah Palin posted on her Facebook account went viral. It was a picture of her 6-year-old son, Trig, standing on Jill, their family dog, in order to reach the sink. Palin had used the photo as a feel-good moment of her son that spoke of his ability to overcome obstacles in order to reach his goals. Dog lovers, on the other hand, saw this as animal abuse. You can imagine the back and forth comments on social media platforms about why it was wrong versus why it was no big deal.

What struck me were the black and white lines drawn in the sand. To Palin’s supporters, it was fine because the dog didn’t seem to care. On the other side, animal advocates were letting her know what a horrible person she was for teaching her children it was fine to treat a dog like a piece of furniture. In my experience, neither of these far right/far left arguments will change anyone’s mind, at least in the long haul (not just the obligatory PR statement). Need proof? Just look at Palin’s response via Twitter to PETA, who also took offense to the dog standing stool picture: “Chill, at least Trig didn’t eat the dog.” (This is in reference to Obama’s admission that he ate dog meat in Indonesia during his childhood.)

Throwing insults at someone on social media is easy – way too easy – as is the urge to prove that we know better than most people. What if we assumed that Palin didn’t know any better; that she truly believes that her dog is so easy-going that she didn’t mind the extra weight of a youngster on her spine? This may be true – the dog didn’t look aggressive or agitated in the picture. But what if, instead of hurling “common-sense, passive-aggressive” judgments, we (as pet parents) tried another tactic; to patiently and kindly pass along the physical and behavioral implications this kind of repeated treatment could cause?

A Facebook friend and fellow pet blogger shared a similar image from Ellen DeGeneres’ page (shown above). The conversation went back and forth, bringing up Palin’s photo, with a similar pro/con debate. But what was different from the other conversations taking place was the stance she took and the information she shared. At one point in time, she thought this kind of photo was cute and would share them (I know I have), but now, she realizes the kind of long-term pain, such as joint pain and arthritis, can occur when small kids think it’s fine to stand on dogs.

But the most interesting piece of information that opened my eyes to my knee-jerk reaction to people who didn’t agree with my anti-dog furniture stance was a link to the Liam J. Perk Foundation website.

Liam J. Perk FoundationI’d never heard of the foundation before, and the story behind it broke my heart. You can read the full narrative of what happened on the foundation’s site, but here’s a short summary: A few days before Christmas in 2009, Carrie and Joey Perk were horrified when their 8-year-old Weimaraner, Lloyd, bit 2-year-old Liam in the neck. As Liam was leaving his bedroom and before anyone could react, the dog bit the little boy. One bite was all it took to cut through Liam’s artery and cut his life short.

Lloyd was high energy dog, but not vicious. But then again, a dog doesn’t need to be vicious or a designated “dangerous breed” to bite. All dogs have the capability of biting. They will if they want to and there is absolutely nothing you can do to stop it when it happens – all it takes is .025 seconds for your life to get turned upside down. There’s no chilling out after that happens.

What if the grieving parents had to hear hurtful comments about what happened that day? If they did, I can imagine they went something like: “How could you not know that your dog could bite your son – you must have known?” “It’s your fault for not training the dog properly.” “This must have happened before, because dogs just don’t bite for no reason at all.” “Your son must have done something to provoke the dog.” Can you imagine hearing these kind accusations from animal rights organizations, the media, and strangers on social media? If you heard similar comments after the death of your child because of the family pet, what would your reaction be? I’m pretty sure you’d be pissed and respond back in kind.

But the Perk family took the opposite route. They started a foundation that educates others on how to create safe and healthy environments for their children living with canines.

Here’s the Liam J. Perk Foundation’s mission goal: “Through awareness and education, helping parents and dog owners create safe and healthy home and public environments for children. Ultimately, enhancing and promoting the safety and health of children in all aspects of life.” This family decided to share their tragedy to help educate others, so parents could ensure that kids and dogs would respect each other and better understand how to read a dog’s physical and behavioral cues.

Bringing it all back to Sarah Palin’s photo – when you ignore the signs or pass off disrespectful behavior as a cute photo op, things can go tragically wrong. Because it’s when you use a “chill out” attitude to teaching kids and dogs boundaries that unexpected things happen. This is true with what seems like the calmest of dogs (the Weimaraner isn’t on any list of banned dog breeds – at least, none that I could find). Even Labrador Retrievers (Jill is a black Lab) can bite or snap when provoked or irritated by a child. It’s up to us, as informed dog lovers, to share information to prevent this kind of accident from happening again.

The next time you see a photo of a child unintentionally mistreating a dog, don’t jump down the parent’s throat (virtually or otherwise). After all, it’s easy to sit back and judge from a distance – I know I’m guilty of it. Instead, remember the Perk’s story and mission. Think before you look down at them. Instead, let them know that while it may look cute, it’s in everyone’s best interest to teach kids to be kind and respectful of their furry siblings. And you can help spread the word and mission of this noble cause by donating to the Liam J. Perk Foundation and liking their Facebook page.

maya angelou quoteI love this quote from Maya Angelou: “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” And there’s no shame in learning something that others take for granted. I know that I’m always on the lookout for ways to live a happier and more harmonious life with family members, furry and human alike – especially when it comes from a kind and non-judgmental source who was once where I stood.

 


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