This is the most difficult story that I have ever written. Repeatedly I have deleted the words. They take me to a place I am not comfortable with. A dark, painful place, it remains only in the memories of my childhood.
Growing up, I had a father who believed in discipline. That discipline was coupled with strict religious values. Rules were clear. Men, women and children held traditional values and roles. Wives and children should submit. The man was head of the house. Spare the rod and you spoiled the child. That rod was literal.
Dog lovers who know my work probably have already realized that the word “submit” alludes to where I am going with this story. Submission and dominance are two concepts commonly used in dog training. Forced to submit while growing up, I feel safe saying that I can verbalize what if feels like to be a dog.
Physical discipline has at its core an honest motive. I truly believe those who use it, genuinely believe they are acting in the child or dog’s best interest. Many expressions support this idea. I heard them all, and I heard them often. The words would echo in my ears, “This hurts me more than it hurts you. But you have to learn.” As I grow older, I truly believe that people who use physical discipline really have never learned an alternative solution, or have not learned that alternative well enough.
As a child, I really do not think I was a danger to society or to myself. In other words, physical punishment was not given to stop a dangerous situation. I was, however, an independent thinker. Independent thinkers are not well regarded in homes or churches ruled by male authority figures.
Control, through submission is all about fear mongering. Parents use physical punishment because they fear that harm will befall their children. Perceived as serving a greater good, force is justified.
That is the perception of the adult and it is a naive one.
Some children and wives may submit to authority. Others do not. Anyone with a backbone learns to misbehave behind the backs of authority figures. School officials would be shocked to learn that all the forms signed by my dad had forged signatures. I wanted to go on class field trips. I wanted to take part in activities and sports. They were not allowed, so I forged signatures and went regardless.
When my dad caught on, it meant greater supervision, which I rallied against. Surprise visits and inspections became the norm. It meant that I always had to be on guard.
Living under rigid structure and rules coupled with the threat of negative consequences leads to strong emotions. I identify with three.
Anxiety grips you at the pit of your stomach, leaving you in a perpetual state of heightened awareness. The tentacles of fear take over your muscles, clenching them repeatedly until they spasm. Each step you take, you look over your shoulder, fully expecting that someone is watching and waiting for you to fail. Inevitably, the punishment comes. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, please don’t hit me,” does not work because spoiling the rod is equated with spoiling the child.
Coupled with that is a sense of relief. It comes when you realize that you have passed or met expectations. When it happens, you smile. Do not mistake that smile for pride, joy or love. Trust me – it is relief. Inside you feel like a quivering, grateful and groveling mess. “Thank you, oh thank you for being pleased with me.”
Those reading might wonder why people do not just leave or call the police. Because for the most part, it is legal, and the church took painstaking efforts in educating parents on how to hit their children legally.
Turning to authorities for help triggers the third and final emotion of rage. Begging and pleading for help (please make it stop) fails. I stood there and listened as the police officers chastised my mom and me. “You need to be more submissive. You need to be a better wife. You need to obey your dad.” When this happens, when no one listens, you take matters into your own hands. In the heat of the moment, when your spirit is broken and have no say over your own life, you take your life back through force.
Eventually I grew up, as all children do. I can say with absolute certainty that rules, boundaries and discipline did not keep me safe. I rebelled. For the first time in my life, I felt I had wings. Like Icarus, perhaps there were times I flew too close to the sun, crashing to the sea below.
I share this story because I see many parallels between force based dog training and cult based religion. They claim that lack of discipline and physical correction spoils the dog. Owners fear remote and unrealistic dire consequences. “If you don’t correct the dog, it will run into traffic and die…jump on grandma and knock her over…maul babies and children…kill other dogs.” Exaggerated worst case scenarios justify the use of force.
When dogs misbehave, owners are encouraged to supervise consistently. Some trainers recommend tethering (umbilical cording) the dog to their waist. With the alpha human always looming by ever so closely, every transgression is seen and disciplined with a jerk of the leash, a smack to the nose, a pinch on the ear.
As with spanking, the legal definition of dog abuse allows many of these practices to continue. Dogs can neither complain nor consent. People who advocate for the animals have their concerns dismissed. Hitting is often within the bounds of the law. I think the law is wrong and needs to change. Just as I retaliated and rebelled, research shows that physical discipline triggers aggression in dogs. It does not take a rocket scientist to see that many dogs would bite when hit.
Some people claim that physical discipline is necessary and effective. Others say it teaches the dog to respect the owner. They point to heavy-handed trainers and owners with happy dogs.
Let me very clearly clarify. Yes, forcing someone to submit can get them to comply – until they have enough and snap. That is not respect. I think dogs trained with force are relieved when owners are calm because the alternative is punishment. That is not love or even like. Once the dog figures out that the owner is associated with discipline, we really shouldn’t be surprised when they snap.
I will concede that I may never know exactly what a dog thinks or feels. However, I do know what it is like to be forced to submit. I cannot understand how any woman or minority who has fought for equal rights could not see the parallels and the offensiveness of the concept.
If I have one hope, it is that people reading this stop for one second and think what it is like to be the dog. In the future, perhaps, I will pull the Band-Aid off the wounds of my past a bit further and talk about the dog that was forced to submit along with me.