Would you slap a little girl if she pinched you?

There is an ethical test used by many dog trainers and behaviorists. It can be roughly stated that it you wouldn’t do it to a child it’s not right to do it to a dog. This is said to accomplish two things – to suggest that the speaker is more ethical than those who do not follow this rule and to elevate their status as more caring and sensitive than others. So, let’s take up the challenge. If we would not slap a little girl we would therefore consider it unethical to slap a dog. What do you think? It sounds good, but to truly believe this you’d have to limit your reality to a thin slice. In essence, it suggests that there is never a time when causing pain or fear is an appropriate behavioral therapy regardless of context or outcome. Is that true? If I can suggest a context and outcome that justifies slapping a little girl does that mean it’s OK to slap a dog? We have now stepped out onto thin ice. How could anyone justify slapping a little girl? What if she was pinching you? Would that do it?

If you are like most modern Americans the answer is a knee-jerk no. Of course you wouldn’t slap a child’s face if she pinched you. That is an archaic, brutal act of ignorant people. You certainly wouldn’t do it to a dog.

Helen Keller – the child to be slapped.

Now I will add to the context. What if the little girl was deaf and blind? Would that make it more justifiable or less? Would you call Child Protective Services if you saw a grown woman slap a child? If so then you obviously think that Annie Sullivan was an evil, terrible person. She slapped Helen Keller’s face repeatedly as one of the first interactions she had with Keller. Picture that in your mind for a second. Ann Bancroft did it in the movie “The Miracle Worker” but the slap wasn’t an exaggeration – only a bit of a distortion. Patty Duke was a teenager when she played Keller. Ann Bancroft slapped a teenager. Annie Sullivan slapped a seven year old little girl.


“She pinched me and I slapped her face every time she did,” Miss Sullivan wrote. “I gave her a spoon which she threw on the floor. I forced her out of the chair and made her pick it up. Then we had another tussle over folding her napkin. It was another hour before I succeeded in getting her napkin folded. Then I let her out into the warm sunshine and went to my room and threw myself on the bed, exhausted.”

So, would you slap a poor disabled girl in the face? If not, how about this one? If slapping a self-abusive child would stop them from pounding their own eyes out, would you do it? Would you stay your hand because people would call you abusive? Would you allow the child to live forever wearing physical restraint devices (devices that do not fully stop things like dislodged retinas) or would you fight to provide treatment known to be effective? If it was your child, would you send her to a school that used contingent punishment to stop the self-abusive behavior? Food for thought.

And now we go full circle. Would you ever slap a dog? I did.The dog was under a table and just about to attack the family’s cat. The dog was mine, the cat was not. I was a guest in the house and put my dog under the table as we ate. The family’s daughter came in with her cat in her arms, bent over and shoved the cat toward my dog. The cat hissed. Tuggy – an Australian Cattle Dog had never been around cats. A low growl came out of his mouth at this startling intrusion. That the cat would be injured if Tuggy attacked was a high probability. That the child could have become muddled in the fight and be injured trying to save her cat was also likely. That the cat could have scratched Tuggy’s face and perhaps damaged his eyes was also likely. So, I said, “NO” and slapped him on the top of his head with the flat of my hand. He backed off. I put my arm in front of the cat and pushed it backwards away from Tuggy’s face. The cat started to climb the girls dress to escape – which he did. Event over. My dog did not fear me after that. He did not hate cats. No harm came to him or anyone else. So, ask yourself this question – what would you do in this case? Isn’t the issue always about whether the child or animal benefits from the experience? Isn’t it always about context, intent and result? Who lives in a world where these factors are irrelevant to their actions, pronouncements and beliefs?


One thought on “Would you slap a little girl if she pinched you?

  1. Gary,
    Great post. I agree. Acting on the idea that an appropriate amount of pain or fear is necessary in order to thwart a greater harm is a noble one. But, not just anyone is capable of the critical thinking skills needed to weigh out the decision to “strike” let alone do it in as safe a manner as possible and with precise timing.

    I like your blog.

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