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.



Kathy, there are many ways that you can learn a lot about clicker training without having to worry about incurring anyone’s wrath. Gail Fisher wrote “The Thinking Dog” specifically for crossover trainers. It’s a really good book if you are thinking of making the switch or just want to know more.

Kathy Kail

I’m not good at learning just from books, but I was mostly just trying to get a feel for it back when it first became popular. I gave it a try with one of my dogs, couldn’t get it and ask online a few questions. OMG, WWIII!

Kathy Kail

One thing that I’ve noticed is happening more and more (and not just on dog subjects) are people who are either very sensitive, or they choose to react as if they are. You speak of avoiding personal comments or insults, but in far too many cases I find that people who are invested in, say, a training method will simply view anything even slightly negative towards that method as a personal attack. I’ve tried with those sorts, but it always seems to end up with them saying that I’m being mean, or close minded, or whatever simply because I won’t agree with whatever agenda they are pushing. In some cases, one cannot even ask questions without incurring wrath, so because of this I know less than I could about certain training methods such as clicker training and different agility methods. Perhaps it’s because the more sensitive people tend to gravitate towards the “softer” training methods?


I have found that when other living things are involved (dogs, children, etc.) then rational behavior is harder to maintain. I have other hobbies that do not involve other living things, and I have not found the hyper sensitivity in these fields.
I also don’t think that debate is a skill being taught in American society. Not sure about the rest of the world. It’s a serious shortcoming, in my mind.

Fran Lindstrom

Enjoyed reading your well said blog today! I agree wholeheartedly!

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