I have no doubt you are aware that the gundog community is heavily dominated by white men, whereas the general dog sports community is mainly dominated by white women, at least when talking about those who actually compete. I am a mixed-race woman. My father is Black African (more specifically, Nigerian) and my mother is White British. I am pretty sure there is some Irish in there too, but in any case, my mother is white. As I am based in the U.K., I will be using the term BAME which is an acronym for Black, Asian and minority ethnic. This is a more appropriate term for the U.K. than the use of Black, Indigenous, people of colour (BIPOC) which is more applicable to the U.S.
I have been working with dogs and their owners for five years now, and recently started my own business, where I mainly coach owners and their dogs through various problem behaviours. I have two dogs: Saber, our leash-reactive rescue, and Honey, my 10-month-old working Golden Retriever. Honey is the first dog I have raised from a puppy, and it was — and is — one of my goals to do a dog sport with her. Originally, I wanted to dabble in obedience, but after speaking to a few people, including Honey’s breeders, I decided to give gundog training a go. Then I caught the bug. Thus, this article will be about my fears, my experiences, and my thoughts as a person of colour in the dog industry, but with a specific focus on the gundog training community.
The gundog community is often perceived to be one of the few dog sports that still relies on “traditional” training methods. It is relatively easy to find an agility or obedience class that uses positive training methods, but it’s a lot harder to find one in the gundog community. They do exist, though.
Typically, positive gundog trainers apply the same principles of “what makes a good gundog,” i.e., steadiness, drive, and focus. But they train these behaviours using various games without the use of aversives. For example: A traditional trainer may use an ear pinch to teach a dog to hold a dummy, whereas a positive gundog trainer may teach the clicker retrieve. You can google both techniques if you want to learn more. Because of this, positive gundog trainers can face criticism and judgement by those who use more “traditional” methods. Now, I am not casting judgement down on anyone who does not use positive reinforcement; this is not an article to debate any of that. Nevertheless, I was afraid that these rumoured “traditional” mentalities may be aggravated even further by the fact that I am not white.
I am a very competitive person. I play video games, so believe me when I say I know that competition can bring out the ugliness in people. I do have plans to compete once Honey is ready, but this is where my main worries come in. I was worried that I would instantly be judged, that I may be overlooked or talked about because of my skin and I was worried that I might even receive hateful comments, but to be completely honest with you, I have only ever had positive experiences with the gundog community.
I am yet to compete, and my stance may change after the fact, but I have met a lot of people in the gundog training community already, both online and in person, and I have only ever felt welcomed. Even when I opened up and shared my worries with a gundog judge who I am friendly with, he made sure to make it very clear to me that I should not feel that way. In fact, my bringing up those worries spurred him to introduce me to some important people in the community. This was a vastly different experience than what I was expecting from a community that is known for their traditions. As for the general dog sports community, my experiences have been the same there too: wholly positive.
I do believe the animal industry is becoming more diverse. Before I went self-employed, I spent my time teaching at a college that offered animal-based courses, and I was very pleasantly surprised at the number of BAME people in the animal courses. That does not mean that I do not think that BAME are not underrepresented in the dog sports community. They are. Nevertheless, I do not personally feel that this is intentional. There are plenty of other industries and communities that demonstrate a clear discrimination against BAME, but, in my experience, the dog industry is not one of them. Regardless, I do believe that if there was more awareness about BAME in the industry, this would help the industry to diversify. We all have role models, people who we would like to be like, and it is a lot easier to look up to people who are more like you. It can be really intimidating being in a community where you are so different from the norm. Some embrace it; although I feel that the majority would find it scary enough to not pursue any sort of dog sport, either for fun or competition.
It would be awesome if established trainers could set up outreach programs or dog demonstrations at events and/or institutions where they could be experienced by BAME people. Possibilities include schools and colleges that have a high percentage of BAME students or giving talks at events arranged by organisations for BAME people. I was very fortunate to live near Surrey Docks Farm — a city farm in South East London — when I was younger, which meant I got the exposure to animals that I wouldn’t normally have had, especially living in a large city like London. Therefore, the creation of more city farms like Surrey Docks Farm and the subsequent chances to hold demonstrations for the local community will no doubt increase the amount of exposure the BAME community has with animals, and dogs in particular. I believe it would be even more effective if these people giving talks and demonstrations were of an ethnic minority too.
Additionally, the majority of events where I have had access to these experiences were events such as country shows or dog shows. At these events, you don’t typically see any BAME people, whether it be attending the event or participating in the event itself. From my own count, I have only ever experienced seeing a BAME person twice at any of these shows, and both were horse riders. Apart from myself, I cannot ever recall seeing a BAME person attending these shows. Because of this, it’s not uncommon that my first thought when attending these events would be “I am the only non-white person here” which can trigger a sense of anxiety because it’s very obvious to me that I stand out. I could not even begin to tell you how happy it would have made me, and still would make me, to see a BAME person demonstrating with a dog at one of these shows. To achieve that, we need to be making sure that we are offering these experiences to BAME people, so they can at least have the choice and opportunity to consider joining the dog sports community. I feel an increase in the awareness of established BAME dog trainers/handlers would greatly help with this also. I have included some details below to guide you towards some BAME dog-related businesses.
In conclusion, dog ownership, and by extension, dog training with positive reinforcement has changed my life and continues to alter my perception of the world (in a good way) every day. I have no doubt that diversifying the industry, and making efforts to diversify the industry, would be a great step in the right direction. My personal experiences of the dog community, including gundog and general dog sports, is extremely positive, and I am thankful for all those who have shown support to me along the way.
The shift is happening.
Keep learning, keep listening, keep supporting, keep fighting.
Here are a few links to some BAME peole in the dog industry who I personally follow, from training to dog accessories to food making.
BAME DOG TRAINERS
@c3dbatofficial – Full disclosure: This is my account.
@emelicarpe – One half of Carpe Momentum. Based in Sweden. Her website: https://www.carpemomentum.nu/english/
@all_american_team – Dog sport trainer. Based in the U.S.
BAME DOG FOOD MANUFACTURERS
@avaspetpalance – Ava makes organic dog and cat treats. Based in the U.S. Her website: www.avaspetpalace.com
@petplate – Human grade dog food cooked fresh. Based in the U.S. Website: https://www.petplate.com/
BAME DOG ACCESSORY MANUFACTURERS
@sirdariusbrown – Darius makes colourful bow ties and donates them to animal shelters to help dogs get adopted. Go to his GoFundMe page to learn more: https://www.gofundme.com/f/sirdarius
@housedogge – Modern, eco dog accessories. Based in U.S. Website: https://www.housedogge.com/
Cecilia runs her own business (C3 Dog Behaviour and Training) based in the U.K. She has an MSc in animal behaviour management and has been coaching owners and their dogs to overcome various problem behaviour for five years. She is also a provisional member of the APBC and hopes to compete in working tests with her working Golden Retriever, Honey.