What are we fighting for?

I’ve been challenged a lot this past year about preconceived notions, worldviews, and dog training.  And I wanted to share my failure in hopes it may help others and also be transparent about my own journey and where it has taken me so far.  

When I came to Birmingham almost 15 years ago it was a very lonely experience.  I didn’t know anyone, I was young, I was determined in my career, and I was still learning who I was and who I wanted to be.  

I made some big mistakes in my career.  I was deeply committed to the science of animal behavior and humane training informed by science.  15 years ago that was a very novel concept here.  It was particularly novel for a young cis-female.  We were in the cultural throws of celebrity dog trainers who were selling snake oil and defying science.  I was arrogant.  I was determined.  I was green.  I was full of dogma.  I believed that not only was my way the best way, I believed it was the only way.  I was like the worst kind of American Evangelical proselytizing my faith in force-free, fear-free, and positive reinforcement training.  I was really good at it.  

Instead of being humbled by my connections with famous, experienced, and selfless mentors around the world, I used that relationship and education as a weapon.  I broke relationships with people that disagreed with me.  I built a strong and positive reputation with clients because I was good at what I did, but I didn’t spend any time building relationships with other trainers because I refused to believe that someone who didn’t have my same ethics in dog training could be valuable to me.  

It was a mistake.  I was wrong.

Not only was it a mistake, it created damage and fallout far beyond what I had intended. While I built strong and long-lasting relationships with colleagues all over the world, I was exacerbating division within my geographically close colleague community.

I got the reputation of being driven by success more than anything else.  Some of that was a fair reputation, some was created by gossip and folklore that had grains and nuggets of truth.  I’ve spent the last 7 years of my career trying to change that reputation with my local colleagues.  Overall, the attempt has been an abysmal failure.  

That’s the thing about reputation, it takes on a life of its own.  I’m a very different person now than I was a decade ago.  I’m a very different person now than I was 5 years ago.  It’s hard to change a reputation fueled by gossip and people who you haven’t met or haven’t had meaningful discussions with in years and years.  

So, I guess, with their permission, I wanted to tell you a story that happened a year ago.  

I have a colleague in town who opened their facility a year after me – 8 years ago.  Our facilities were very similar in concept and ethics and not in the same service area.  This should have built an amazing colleague relationship and friendship – but it didn’t.  My reputation preceded me.  I want to take responsibility for my actions and contribution to this but I also want to be clear that I admired this person from afar.  I wanted to be friends with them.  But I had heard they had been told some extremely hurtful lies about me and some warping of the truth and I didn’t know what to do with that.  So I did nothing.  I reached out a couple of times over the years.  I had a mutual friend/colleague reach out a couple of times.  No response.  

Then, last year, something happened.  The details are honestly not important.  An assumption was made about me that was not true – a outright set of lies built on the foundation of the reputation I created 15 years ago.  I made the fertile ground for lies to be told, I take full responsibility for that, but the lies had taken on a life of their own.  My local colleague had shared these with someone they did not realize was a close friend of mine.  That friend behaved so beautifully and defended me but in a way that built a relationship and created an opening for me and my local colleague to sit down together to talk things out.  

So, for the first time in 8 years of being colleagues, we sat down and talked it out.  We were both trauma informed, had decades of therapy, and had the skills to set clear boundaries and have honest conversation.  So we did.  

Merritt has become one of my most trusted friends and closet colleagues.  I value their experience and insight.  They are kind and compassionate and think the best in people.  I love that.  We built our relationship slowly and on the solid ground of absolute honesty and ownership of mistakes.  

I am so grateful for my friendship with Merritt but it’s always a little bittersweet.  I think about the time we lost believing half-truths, gossip, and lies about one another.  I think about the lost time because of our willingness to believe what we were told about the other rather than simply sit down and ask directly.  I think a lot about how lonely I was here for so long when Merritt was just across town.  Those things make it bittersweet.  

My experience with Merritt dovetailed into some other experiences I was having during that time and some conversations I was having with colleagues all over the world.  Kind of a “deconstruction” of how we were relating to other professionals around us.  

I’m grateful for the conversations I’ve had about this with colleagues who have become friends. Particularly with Anthony De Marinis and Alynn Lezner. I’m grateful for conversations Michael Shikashio, Kim Brophy, and Jo-Rosie Haffenden had been having on the national stage about some of these things. It has helped me so much.

I’m still feeling very much mid-process here.  I know I’ve made mistakes, I know who I want to be and how I want to behave moving forward, but I’m still not totally sure what that looks like.  

I will tell you this: I don’t think I’m alone. I think the culture of the canine behavior and training world is ripe and rife with stories like mine. I’m tired. I’m tired of fighting. I’m tired of not having community with my local colleagues. I’m ESPECIALLY tired of the dogs I see suffering because we cannot get along and are so busy with our own agendas we don’t refer to the best person for our clients dogs and their needs. The dogs are paying the price.

How much further along would we be?  How many more dogs could we have helped?  How many lonely moments could we have avoided?  

I’m tired of fighting.  

I’m here to sit down with anyone who wants to tell the truth and talk.  I can promise you honesty in my disclosure of my actions and my mistakes and my regrets.  If you can do the same, I think that’s a really good place to begin.  

Abigail and her Service Dog “Macallan”

Published by abigailwitthauer

Lover of animal behavior, impassioned for social justice, demander of service dog reform. Please bring wine and cheese.

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