Op-eds, Opinions

Bohman ’18: Heavy petting should consider dogs’ needs too

By
Op-Ed Contributor
Wednesday, April 4, 2018

I have hesitated a long time to write this column. I know this issue could make me a pariah on campus, but, as a senior, I guess it’s time to go out with a bang. I have a confession to make: I hate Heavy Petting. I think it’s dangerous. Here’s why.

I am a dog trainer and dog sport competitor, and Heavy Petting runs counter to everything I know about dogs. My dog is a certified therapy dog, and as the handler, I was always taught to put his needs first. If he’s not having fun or enjoying the experience, we leave. I left Heavy Petting and never went back because it was too overwhelming for him because there were dogs running off leash and large dogs and small dogs all crammed together. This is not an environment many dogs feel comfortable or able to concentrate in. It’s true that some dogs enjoy going to the dog park, but they generally don’t go there to be patted by college students. Even when my dog and I compete in dog sport competitions, where there are 35 dogs in a small space, competitors are required to keep our dogs crated and bring them out only for their run.

Heavy Petting also presents a safety issue. A dog surrounded by a million canines and people is probably a stressed-out dog. Based on my previous experiences attending Heavy Petting and talking to University administrators, I was led to believe that BWell Health Promotion, which runs Heavy Petting, has not, in the past, tested dogs for temperament or suitability before the event. Until recently, BWell didn’t even require that the dogs be on a leash or provide supervision for the event. I am frankly unsure of how Heavy Petting has continued under the aegis of the University’s lawyers, who may have reason to be skeptical of dog events. Given the way Heavy Petting is run, I believe it is just a matter of time before there is a dog fight or someone gets hurt.

I want to acknowledge that I do run the other dog therapy club, Brown Animal Assisted Therapy, on campus, which was founded with the idea of providing a different type service from Heavy Petting through individual appointments. However, we would be happy to see a thriving Heavy Petting program on campus — trust me, there’s enough demand.

And there are ways that BWell could run Heavy Petting more safely. There are groups of registered therapy dogs in Rhode Island who only do events like this — I have been contacted by several. If they wanted to stick with faculty members’ dogs, they could have a dog trainer evaluate the dogs for suitability: Every dog could get a certificate before coming to Heavy Petting. They could have separate areas for large and small dogs. They could implement crowd control measures for participants. They could invest in moveable fences so that each dog could have its own space. But many of these measures would require a significant expenditure of effort by the University, which is why I believe they have not happened yet.

Ultimately, I would like to add that I did not make this public statement without first privately speaking to many members of both the administration and BWell. I am open to hearing that changes are being made that I perhaps have not been informed of, but from my perspective, nothing has changed in the three years I have been here. As Brown students, we should demand better — not only for dogs, but for ourselves. Heavy petting is a fun event, but it can be fun and safe at the same time.

Lena Bohman ’18 is the founder of the Animal Assisted Therapy program at Brown and can be reached at lena_bohman@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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