Ethics and dog journalism

Article about ethics when covering canine subjects.
By Laure-Anne Viselé, July 2010

The other day, I found myself, not for the first time, in an ethical conundrum while conducting an interview.

Another traditional training school

I was talking to a representative of a training club which produces guard and police dogs. He was the sweetest man: he took the time to show me around, make me feel welcome, and explain the intricate details of his sport. As he was talking, though, I was occasionally concerned by the club’s firm attachment to traditional methods. What concerned me specifically was the use of shouting, leash jerks, and slaps on the flank for non-compliance. Before you judge the club, note these three points:

  1. They were using rewards too,
  2. They were only occasionally using punishment. It’s not like it was a leash-jerking fest, and
  3. They were firmly against heavy brutality (owners who were physically violent to their dogs, using kicks and such likes, are banned from the club).

How can a ‘modernist’ interview ‘traditionalists’?

My problem is that I am totally against the use of intimidation on dogs, in any form. I not only feel that my position is sounder morally, but I also know it to be backed up by very respectable scientific sources. But out of respect for him, gratitude for his time, and journalistic professionalism, I did my best to hide my concern and continue the  interview without judgement.

I won’t argue

Why did I do that? Why did I silence my concerns and kept on interviewing him?

Firstly, most trainers in the region are still using traditional methods, so if I am going to walk out at the use of leash jerks for every interview, I might as well pack in right now.

Secondly, from a journalistic perspective, approaching the subject with proselytizing zeal would have been completely inappropriate (not to mention fruitless and arrogant). It would have opened that huge can of worms that is the use of punishment in training. It would have, at best, failed to change his position, and at worst, brought the interview to an abrupt stop.

So why was I bothered?

What bugged me, was that I felt I was being hypocritical (to a perfectly nice guy) by not showing how strong my allegiance to the positive school was. The alternative would have been to enter a fruitless and dividing discussion, but still, it didn’t feel nice. It felt as if I was ‘undercover’.

My respectful and open approach will also be considered to be lack of zeal by the more dogmatic among the positive-only advocates. I know a lot of the more partisan members of the modern credo,  some of them personally, and I know that this article, and the many that will follow, will be seen it as “flirting with the enemy”. The more extreme advocates of modern methods would no doubt prefer a more incendiary piece denouncing every non-modern element of the interviewee’s methods. But that’s just not me, and that’s just not what this piece of writing was about.

More interviews of traditional trainers

After the interview, I set up my photographic equipment and started covering the event itself (a police dog exam). While taking photos, a man in the crowd told me his story: he gave up his 15-year old training school out of frustration for those ‘whingeing housewives’ (whom he later clarified to be customers who were against the use of punishment in dog training). He invited me to come and watch his training classes so he could show me “how training is done”. I must say I hesitated, but I think I will take him up on his offer and go to one of this classes (without my dog).

Dog fights?

This whole episode made me wonder, once again, how far I would go in my efforts to present the facts in a neutral, objective light. My husband put this extreme question past me: Would you go to a dog fight on assignment? And my answer, to mine and my husband’s surprise, was ‘Yes, I think I would. I might be horrified, upset and disgusted, not to mention scared for my own safety as it will be next to impossible to disguise my utter disapproval, but I want to see first hand, and I want to report what I see in an objective way. I trust the readers to make up their minds by giving them reliable information.

Facts speak for themselves

The less emotional bias I put in my writing, the more it will gain influence, thus increase my power to do something about the causes close to my heart. As much as I like to receive agreement from fellow advocates of positive methods, I do not just want to publish self-reinforcing material for the converted, and I will continue to talk to advocates of different methods. Facts will speak for themselves, and my readers can make up their own minds based on legitimate information. I’d interview Konrad Most if I could, just to hear it from the horse’s mouth, and publish less hearsay and more facts about the more controversial aspects of man’s relationship with dogs.

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