In an obedience training class, a variety of people are brought together because of a common interest in their pets. The individuals in class may have widely divergent political, personal and social beliefs, and each handler has a unique concept of him or herself. While most relate to their dogs as loved pets, some handlers with a negative view of themselves will use the dog as a tool to bolster their flagging self-images. The instructor needs to recognize and understand the special functions of the “image dog.”
The image dog may be of a large breed with a reputation for aggressive behavior. Common image dogs are Dobermans or Shepherds, and the handler takes pride in controlling a potentially dangerous animal. The handler may have a non-cooperative attitude, insisting upon teaching an exercise his way regardless of instruction. These handlers are usually reluctant to curb aggression in their dogs since it is aggression that they seek in an image dog. The handler’s non-cooperative behavior is not a denial of the instructor’s competence but a symptom of a need to display their own abilities.
An unusual dog may be an image dog. Owning a special dog gives the handler status and notability. Other people are likely to make indirect contact with the owner by commenting upon her dog. The owner is able to interact with others on a non-threatening level by using the dog as a buffer.
Often a handler that does not fit within the narrow confines of social physical acceptability will find acceptability from an image dog. Minor physical impairments, disfiguring scars or marks may make it difficult for that handler to feel comfortable in a society that places physical beauty at a premium. Handlers who happen to be taller, shorter, or wider than “normal” may feel more self-confident with a well-mannered dog that competes in trials or had earned titles.
Handlers with image dogs need to be assured they are respected on their own merits, not merely because of the attributes of their dogs. By concentrating remarks on the handler’s skill, an instructor can aid in giving the handler self-confidence. For example, the instructor can direct his or her attention toward the handler and not the dog by saying, “I liked the way you sat Bozo straight”, not “Bozo sat straight.”
Physical impairments should be dealt with in matter of fact fashion, not with embarrassed avoidance or dramatic heroics. If the handler is hard of hearing, simply face or stand near her when speaking. Should standard handling techniques need to be changed to fit the physical needs of a handler, the direct statement, “Let’s see if this will work better for you and Spot”, lends support, interest and concern without embarrassment. Nicknaming a handler because of a physical variance is unfair as well as unkind. While many handlers will appear to be “good sports”, they may be hurt and humiliated by these nicknames.
Instructors must realize that the image dog is playing a critical role in the life of its handler. These dogs are non-judgmental therapists, supplying unconditional acceptance for a person who may have experienced only unreasonable non-acceptance. Denied human companionship, a handler may find in his dog a wellspring of comradeship that satisfied a craving for support. The image dog is providing a key to establishing greater understanding and self-awareness for its handler and deserves recognition as such.
©1979 S. Myles