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.


Shella Barclay

Well said. And timely too. As always

Sandy Stealey

As always, these are very important and valuable things to remember. This blog is full of tips to help us “fight fair” and, better yet, avoid a “fight” at all. I can never change another person. All I can do is educate them to things I know, or believe to be true. I also always keep an open mind, knowing that I am not omniscient and can always learn something from every other human being (even if it’s just that they are NOT someone I trust to be able to be rational and thinking in the face of disagreement). As a psychiatric nurse and counselor and mostly as a dog rescuer I have to learn to “choose my battles carefully” and to avoid making a battle out of a situation where simply listening (not agreeing but just giving time and attention) or simply providing information from my knowledge and experience then backing out will suffice.


Useful for so very many different contexts — and so clearly stated. Thanks!


well said. I completely agree about the times when it is best to stay out of a debate (or get off the list). This could well be a good metaphor for what/whom to engage with in life in general.


This is a wonderful blog Denise (but then again, all of your posts are :)! I recently left what could have beeen a great Poodle list for just those reasons! It was regarding structure and one person got very nasty towards me. I chose to leave the group rather than take his abuse. It is such a shame that one nasty person can change what the other 647 members get to read.

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