Have you ever been asked a question that stuck with you for weeks, maybe even months, after? A question that seeped deep into your brain, and seemed to marinate there, imbuing all of your thoughts going forward with its profundity?

Last year, while Lori and I were visiting with two of my all-time favorite trainers and pit bull dog advocates, Vyolet and Drayton Michaels, Drayton asked me one such potent question: “Can effective animal advocacy be divorced from knowledge of animal behavior?” It’s a question that, surprisingly, I hadn’t given much thought. As an advocate for pit bull dogs and a dog trainer, I recognized how my two passions informed one another in my own work. But I hadn’t considered how that interplay might inform the work of others. And then I got to thinking.

Effective animal advocacy involves empathy. It’s about stepping outside of our relatively self-indulgent, techno-speed world-of-plenty and looking through the lens of another species. One that operates at bio-speed, with far more basic fundamental needs driving their behavior. It’s also about ascribing meaning to their behavior to give us a clear understanding of their interests, needs and emotions. How can we, as advocates, improve their quality of life without this understanding?

The most effective advocates for the homeless, for example, go beyond simply getting people off the streets and into warm beds. They work to address the systemic issues surrounding homelessness by understanding the underlying causation, and leveraging this knowledge. What factors put individuals at risk for homelessness? How does the supply of affordable housing factor into the equation? What incentives are available for individuals seeking permanent, supportive housing?

They empathize. They step outside of themselves. They are cognizant of the fact that the worldviews of those for whom they advocate differ from theirs. They seek first to understand, as only then can they affect social change. Sympathy is great. Compassion is great. But to positively impact the welfare of dogs, empathy is needed. It behooves advocates (and the dogs who inspire their work) to have a basic understanding of how animals learn, and what drives their behavior.

The Humane Society of the United States estimates that 2.7 million adoptable cats and dogs were euthanized in US shelters last year.[1] Behavioral issues are ranked among the top reasons for the relinquishment of pets to shelters.[2] This might lead one to believe that it is incumbent upon us, as dog advocates, to educate ourselves and others about the principles of animal learning theory and dog behavior. It might also make sense for us to derive such information from reputable sources, such as the decades of scientific research that support humane, evidence-based training and behavior modification. Just as successful advocates for other causes work to address the root of the problem, so should we, as animal advocates.

So, to answer that poignant question: No. Effective animal advocacy cannot be divorced from knowledge of animal behavior. Compassion and sympathy are imperative, however; they call us to action. This reflection is not intended to discredit the work of those advocates who tirelessly pull dogs from shelters, coordinate adoptions, fight breed-specific legislation and support disadvantaged pet owners. Those efforts are laudable, as they positively influence an animal’s quality of life in the here and now. But as animal advocates, collectively, we are obliged to empathize. If the goal is to improve the welfare of animals, systemically, then we must be willing to perceive, comprehend and consider their interests, needs and emotions.

Getting them off the streets and into warm beds isn’t enough.

For a more in-depth look at this topic, check out Drayton Michael’s fantastic piece at Dog Star Daily: The Connection Between Dog Training and Dog Advocacy