The Art of Debate

The dog world is filled with argument; no topic is immune.  We dog people are able to argue about just about anything, and sometimes, our debates get downright stupid.

I define a debate as stupid when vested participants feel disrespected, unheard, or angry.  Debates often start out well, but then some person or persons begin to ridicule, insult, or simply post louder and more viciously than anyone else.  These people are not interested in learning – they seem to enjoy the process of dominating others into silence.   They are internet bullies, and they can drive almost any fruitful discussion into a state of war – to everyone’s detriment.  Stupid debates are the adult version of children screaming about who has the better Tonka Truck – the merits of the trucks are never actively discussed but bad feelings remain long after the topic is forgotten.

While internet bullies are the minority, they effectively silence the folks who make up the majority.  These disrespectful individuals exist on all sides of all discussions, though they are more prevalent in the extreme positions, possibly because they feel unheard or ridiculed for their extremism.   Being extreme doesn’t make you wrong (Pythagorus was certainly considered extreme when he argued that the earth was round) but it can make you bitter – and therefore an ineffective spokesperson.   In my opinion, it’s best to leave a list if a person consistently poisons discussions with their angry diatribes.  Even if I agree with their position, I prefer not to be associated with people who have been reduced to bitterness and hate.

I know that a large percentage of sensible people have given up participating in debate; they no longer post on any public forums because their experiences have deterred them.

That is truly unfortunate, because the purpose of debate is not to convince your opponent, it is to present your position.  The next time you read a forum, check the number of participants – you may find that there are one hundred times more people on a list than actually participate.  These people are “lurking”; watching, listening, and learning. They are forming impressions of the positions being presented, and to a large extent those impressions are based on the ability of the participants to express themselves in a calm, thoughtful and respectful manner.  You may not have the best information, but lurkers are likely to follow the participants who are calm, clear, and who stay on point.

I value the chance to communicate with the lurkers,  so  I choose to engage in debate even though I am well aware of internet bullies.   Before I post publically about a sensitive topic, I find it helpful to consider the following points before going forward:

Have others already stated my position in an articulate and thoughtful way?  If all sides of a subject have been covered, there is no reason to participate.  Indeed, frequent posters are often ignored, so better to stay quiet if you want to be heard on topics that really matter to you.

Are the positions of my opponents so extreme that we will have no chance of finding any common ground?  If this is the case, I find it’s better to stay silent.  Indeed, it’s generally better to leave the list so I can avoid feeling sad or angry.

Are the participants showing an ability to stay on topic without excessive hostility?  Once debates become angry, there is little to no chance of recovering the topic.

Can I argue persuasively for both my position and my opponent’s position?  It’s important to recognize that all positions have flaws and to admit that the other position has strengths. The point is that, on balance, you are arguing for the position that makes the most sense to you at a given time, based on your experiences and the information you have.  No position is perfect; better to concede that right off the bat.   If I really cannot find any strengths in my opponents position, then it’s not likely that I can respect them, in which case I should not be in the discussion.

I find it best not to engage in a debate unless I can find common ground with the other person.  Common ground does not have to be about dog training.  In my mind, common ground can be as simple as someone who treats others with kindness.  Common ground can be a shared passion for the sports I love – even if we approach them differently.  Common ground can be a person who is thoughtful – even with wildly different thoughts than mine.  Common ground allows me to remain rational. The fact is, if I cannot find common ground with a person, then I really don’t like them, and I find it close to impossible to remain respectful towards a person that I actively dislike.

Once involved in a debate,  ignore irrelevant personal comments or insults – responding does nothing but show a lack of personal control and takes the post off topic – to the detriment of all who might want to learn.  Take the high road and ignore personal attacks and insults, even when you’re seething inside.  If that style of debate is the norm, then leave the discussion or the list altogether – you won’t change it.

Ignore direct challenges to “prove” your experience.  Going the “who knows more about this topic” route defeats the purpose of a debate – to present a range of opinions.

With each post, consider if everything has been said.  Having the last word does not mean you’ve won.

I try to engage in challenging topics without becoming bitter or personally attacking,  and to give ground when my opponent has valid points.  While I make my case, I respect their right to make theirs.  Sometimes I do a better job at staying calm and rational than at other times, but I do try to think of debate as an educational opportunity. At the end of the day, there could be change.  It could be a silent lurker or an infrequent poster.  It's also possible that it could be me.


cathy balmer

Is there any chance you would come to Toronto. I know a lot of people who would love to listen to your training wisdom and many who would benefit from listening to it. Cathy

Lynn Ungar

Denise, the other day I was trying to make what I thought was a modest, sensible addition to what a blogger was saying and got a response that was extremely dismissive and seemed to assume that a) I used punishment-based training and b) I didn’t know what I was doing. I dropped your name in my response to his response, and all of a sudden my point was totally logical, reasonable and well taken!


Very well said, Denise, & I wish it could be heard in the political realm as well:) I sometimes find it difficult to keep my mouth shut when I haven’t been asked for my opinion, since I would have to describe myself as a ‘born again’ clicker trainer. Two things help me keep it zipped—the most advanced titles I’ve put on dogs are a couple of CDXs & Excellent agility titles, & those before I made the shift from luring to shaping, & Sue Ailsby’s dictum, “When the student is ready the teacher appears. Nobody loves a missionary.”


Ask Dana; she’s awesome at training with a clicker and will have your dogs doing all sorts of things in no time:). I’m playing with some clicker stuff with my retired dog – just tricks, and I’m seeing the various ways that my timing isn’t so great for this and that.Useful to train just to train – with no goals.

Barb VanEseltine


I am very happy that there are people, like you, who are able to have discussions without getting stupid. This perspective is, by far, too rational, sensible and well reasoned for me. I only feel like joining the debate when I feel passionately about an issue. When I feel passionately about something, it is difficult to rationally see the other person’s point of view. Examples: – I no longer care very much about how people choose to breed as long as they take health and temperament into account. If they want to breed washed out colors or straight shoulders, I cannot care. I will go elsewhere when I get a puppy but I’m not interested in debating their breeding choices. I have an opinion about what I think is “correct” but it is not very important to me. Therefore, I no longer participate in these debates.

- I am passionate about breeding away from bad temperaments but that’s a difficult debate to have. I no longer participate.

I really enjoy reading your blog!

Warmest regards, Barb

On 9/24/2012 2:59 PM, Denise Fenzi wrote > dfenzi posted: “The dog world is filled with argument; no topic is > immune. We dog people are able to argue about just about anything, > and sometimes, our debates get downright stupid. I define a debate as > stupid when vested participants feel disrespected, unheard, or” >

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published