The Art of Backing Off

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Recently I met up with someone whom I had not seen in years. I soon realized why it had been so long. Within half an hour I was getting all sorts of unsolicited advice on how to improve my life and what might be the source of any issues I might be experiencing – not that I had actually discussed any of these “issues.”

We all know that person – someone who means well but who ends up creating greater distance between us and them by not knowing when to put the brakes on.

We’ve all probably been that person at some point as well.

Unsolicited advice permeates all levels of life. It has been documented within the realm of parenting, and “Mommy wars” cause unneeded stress for people just trying to do the right thing.

God knows it also happens in the dog world.

We have a dog, maybe two and suddenly we are the greatest experts on all things pup-related.

One story I can relate is when I took Rufus to obedience school – the one where we eventually got the boot. I have realized with some surprise that the reason I don’t have warm and fuzzy feelings towards that place is not for the obvious reason. In fact, they were well within their rights as a business to say, “Your dog has issues we cannot deal with.” Sure, it frustrated me at the time, and I wish I had checked to see if they were certified behaviorists before handing over $200 (they were not). But I soon found another trainer, and Rufus and I were good to go.

No – the reason this school causes eye-rolling from me was a certain know-it-all who worked inside. A little over a year ago, Rufus and I showed up for a class, the day after he’d spent Labor Day weekend puking up bile after eating sour cherries. It had been an awful weekend and until I gave him carefully measured out Pepcid AC, nobody was sleeping, and poor Rufus’ throat was sore and raw. On the day of the class he had a dry cough.

The receptionist asked, “Is he OK? It sounds like kennel cough.”

I explained to her about the weekend and the puking, and that he’d had his vaccinations – in fact, they had the paperwork stating that.  So while it sounded bad, he was not infected. That should have been enough.

Her: “He could still have kennel cough.”

Me: “He doesn’t have kennel cough.”

Her: “Just like I could still get the flu after a flu vaccination, he could get kennel cough after his vaccination.”

Me: “True enough, but I just explained what happened. His throat is raw.”

Her: “When was the last time he was in day care?”

Me: “Two weeks ago.”

Her: “You need to be careful about kennel cough.”

Me: “Yes, My family once had a dog who had it. I know it’s bad. This isn’t it.”

Her: “Hmm.”

Diagnosing problems from where she sat must have been really easy.  I understood her initial worry, so I explained what was going on. That ought to have been enough. Unfortunately, her inner vet could not stop talking. She may not realize that she made a fool of herself. In fact, she probably thought she performed an excellent public service.

This may have been less about advice and more about her needing to be right. I’m not sure that it matters. Whatever the cause, it was unnecessary and, frankly, obnoxious.

And here’s the thing: unless we have a strong inner censor, we are all prone to doing this. I have done it, I know. Others have done it. I have witnessed friends doing it, and I see it on line all the time. When asking for advice, it’s going to show up. That’s awesome. But even then, people need to know boundaries. Nobody is asking you to explain how smart you are. They are asking for something succinct and helpful.

I have taken on walking dogs for some extra cash (and to get me out of the house), and every day I walk a Portuguese Water Dog who is the most stubbornly chill dog I’ve ever known. All she wants to do is hang out in her house. She doesn’t growl, whimper, shake,  pant, or do anything indicating ill-health. She just doesn’t dig walks. Sometimes I get a bit of anxiety walking her because I’m nervous some self-appointed expert will assume that she’s sick or that I’m hurting her, and then proceed to tell me everything I ought to do. I won’t go into the details of how many professional dog people per week put their hands on this dog (it’s a lot), but rest assured that she is fine.

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We see dogs behave in a certain way and we make assumptions about them or their owners. And there is a very strong chance that we are completely wrong. Even if we are partially right, we are still wallowing in a big pool of wrong. We do it to loved ones and strangers alike. Some people love us in spite of it. Others avoid us because of it.

I’m going to do my part to back off, unless specifically called upon to give advice. I’m also going to cut others off with a curt “thank you” when being offered evidence of their brilliance.

Sophie has been the easy dog. She loves meeting others, doesn’t get territorial, and plays well.  Clearly that means I am just an awesome dog person, obviously. I thought this was the case until Rufus showed up.  Rufus has been the challenge. He has a lot going on. He barks at others and doesn’t always play well. Does that mean I’m a bad dog owner? Not really. I’ve gone out of my way to help this dog because I love him and because I want a safe dog.  Rufus still has issues. Lots of dogs have issues. And trust me when I say that as dog owners, we are well aware of them. We all take good care of our dogs and still get different results in the end. And I don’t know everything. When I need help I seek it out. (Just ask my friend Morriah who used to get texts from me every other day.)  So let’s all cool it with the quick diagnoses and even quicker advice giving. Nobody needs the never-ending PSA, no matter how well-intentioned.

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14 Replies to “The Art of Backing Off”

  1. Ah yes the know it all. I understand this well. Not with dogs or cats per se however everyday life. I used to work with a coworker that loved to tell everyone how she raises her kids (as if it’s the only way to do it successfully). What she lacked to understand (as an outsider looking in) is that each parent is dealing with different issues. People may or may not express all they are dealing with. You never know someone’s backstory. There seemed to be a lack of listening and understanding from her part. Just as you described, pet parents do the best they can and sometimes the results don’t end up the way you hoped. Hopefully people can learn to be more empathetic and less critical and no be so quick to offer advice unless asked.

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  2. I’ve been guilty of oversharing my opinion more times than I care to recall, but I’m honestly trying to censor myself when talking about pets, only giving an opinion when asked and being careful not to argue with anyone who disagrees. Sometimes the other person just wants to vent or wants to feel like someone is really listening (not talking!), which is the best help of all.

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  3. There is definitely a balance of when to speak up and when to stay silent. I try not to offer advice when it isn’t sought out. Sometimes it is in the pet’s best interest to say something, but more often than not most pet owners are seeking out advice and support from someone in their lives already. And.there is nothing more frustrating than to be actively working on a problem and to start receiving unsolicited advice from someone who doesn’t know the full story. (Also, I have a reactive dog also. And I hate when people make assumptions about her training, etc. Like you I have successfully raised non-issue dogs as well. Some dogs are more of challenge than others. Keep advocating for Rufus and helping him overcome his anxieties!)

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  4. I think we all have the tendency to give unsolicited advice — but it is hared to know who is doing it out of real concern and caring — or just because well, they think they know it all. I sometimes offer my advice too often — but it is because I am passionate about what I do — like when you tell me your dog is not spayed/neutered — yep you are getting an earful. But every once in a while something I say actually helps…..so I do TRY to listen to people…..while I am not a fan of know it alls – I am a fan of learning!

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  5. I’ve met my fair share with opinions on kids, dogs, horses, etc. This is something I really try not to do myself unless asked- which I often am because of my work with animals. But still, I try not to overdo. My father-in-law is extremely judgemental when it comes to my care of dogs and has even been known to give me an eye roll. Funny how I never commented on his overweight dogs that weren’t allowed to be near us because they “jumped”.

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  6. This is an excellent topic. I always bite my tongue when I am in an obedience class with my dog and know that the instructor is not reading the dog’s behavior properly and setting it up to fail. If I feel my observations will be accepted, I talk to the instructor in private to understand their perspective and they can understand mine.

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  7. I have learned to bite my tongue as a former dog trainer myself whenever I see an obedience instructor setting a dog up to fail or not making her instructions clear. If I feel I can make a difference for the future, I privately voice my concerns in a respectful manner.

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  8. I know how you feel, I am so tired of people in the dog park giving you advice and when you tell them your dog is very healthy for her age and does not need anything, they carry on telling you. I had the same with a raw food dog company who vowed that their food would be the best for Layla and when I told them I had tried them and she was vomiting from it for 2 days she carried on arguing with me that it was not possible and only shut up when I told her that if she gave Layla a sample and Layla got sick again I would send her the vet bill. I feel people should respect others and if we say no or give an explanation they should then just shut up.

    Good Luck with the Dog Walking Job.

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  9. I feel you. I think dog parents and human parents should assume the best and never judge other parents — everyone is doing their best, and bad behavior or challenging behavior isn’t always a parent’s ‘fault’.

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  10. It can be frustrating if I get advice on Kilo the Pug who is extremely complicated but to be honest, most people are so sympathetic and nice to both of us – he is so cute but such a frightening terror sometimes- I get a few judgy looks when he loses it but we manage it mostly and nearly everyone asks permission to pat him or forgives him and tries to win him over which is pretty quick (thank god) then asks his story. I am pleasantly surprised, Then I occasionally give advice which I am sure is sometimes welcome and sometimes not.

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  11. My mom was a big know it all with pets and everything else. It makes you feel very small. Part of it is how they present themselves. I may offer others advice but you need to be careful on how you say it and determine if they are receptive.

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