When A Dispute over a Pet Makes You Upset —Mediate Is the Best Bet

By Vivian Leven

Dog ownership in an urban setting comes with its own set of challenges. When space is scarce, a myriad of opportunities for conflicts emerge between dogs and people alike.  Conflict can arise over who isn’t picking up after their dog, a dog barking in an apartment building, unwanted jumping on strangers, an unexpected dog fight, a jogger being nipped, a loose dog chasing a bicyclist. Some people are tolerant, taking things in stride, others become annoyed, and some may get upset enough to escalate the issue legally. Pet related conflicts can appear in so many different shapes and forms. Between two dog owners, between a pet owner and a non-pet owner, between a pet owner and a service provider. It can involve housing management, a dog daycare, boarding facility, grooming and veterinary services.

In my role as a dog behavior consultant, working with clients to resolve their dog’s behavioral issues on a regular basis, it is not uncommon that a client has had a conflict arise involving their pet. My educational background in conflict resolution provides insight on how to use mediation to get resolution. Mediation is less expensive than a lawsuit, it is confidential, it allows the parties to be heard and express fully their side of the story, and it empowers all parties involved to find a solution tailored to the needs of the people involved in the conflict.

What is mediation?
Mediation is a voluntary process. All parties engage at their own will and have the option to discontinue the process at any time and pursue other options, including litigation, if they wish. The parties involved in the conflict come to mediation with an open mind, willing to listen to the other person’s story, and to find a workable solution. The mediator is not there to solve the problem but to facilitate the process, so a solution becomes more likely. “Mediation is a conflict management process whereby a person or group, typically an outsider, intervenes in a conflict to help the adversaries to negotiate an agreement themselves or to take other joint de-escalating measures.” (Kriesberg and Dayton, p. 217)

The mediator is keep the conversation on track, ensures equal opportunity for discussion, assists parties to engage in active listening, helps summarize, paraphrase and reframe the conversation so the other party is able to hear the message and respond in kind. The mediator is non-judgmental. They ask questions, point out commonalities, and help separate the discussion between issues and interests. Parties then engage in brainstorming options for a solution. This shifts parties from taking a stance against or for something and encourages cooperation for a mutually satisfactory solution.

When in conflict we stake out a position, then convince ourselves we need a certain outcome for us to be satisfied. In mediation, the facilitator focuses on interests versus positions. Interests reflect hope, needs, values, beliefs and expectations. Most people can relate to these universal ideas. Once we understand the underlying issue it opens ideas for creative solutions. This process is a way of separating values, feelings and topics allowing for a more constructive conversation about conflict.

For example, if a person has a fear of dogs their position may be that dogs should not be allowed on the elevator, but their interest may really be to feel safe. This dispute can be resolved by not taking the dog on the elevator when the other person is present. Recognizing the person’s concern, showing care and having open communication can defuse a situation. This can make room for a solution, instead of assigning blame.

Proactively engaging with people before the point of escalated conflict is a good idea. Debra Vey Voda-Hamilton is a mediator specializing on animal issues who has written an excellent book on the topic, “How to Use Mediation to Resolve Conflicts over Animals (2015). Hamilton has a mantra in her book to help us deal with difficult situations. She calls it STOP, DROP and ROLL. Followed with ADDRESS, KEEP, ACKNOWLEDGE AND APPRECIATE. Basically, when you first have the urge to fire back when someone says something or complains about your pet. STOP and listen to what they have to say. DROP the need to be right, ROLL with it and don’t engage if it will not be productive. If there is a conflict ADDRESS it right away and in the process ACKNOWLEGE and APPRECIATE the other party. It does not mean you agree. It is all about how you deal with an issue for more long-term success. As Hamilton points out “The mere fact that you appreciate a differing point of view, no matter how unacceptable you might find it, can cause a shift in the other party’s position.”

Why consider mediation?
Most animal conflict goes straight to litigation. However, emotional issues can be addressed in mediation, which is focused on the concept of how we feel about a certain issue and how we choose to live our lives. The mediation process allows you to work through not only the actual problem, but also the emotional turmoil that comes with it. Without mediation, can be a ripple effect throughout the community. It can be very difficult when you see that person regularly or when you have common friends.

With mediation, you can feel good about the fact that you both did your best to come to a satisfactory agreement and ideally can be cordial when you see each other. For our own emotional well-being it is an empowering feeling to address the issue in a respectful way. It can open the possibility for communications about issues of disagreement in the future.

Nobody said it was easy
Choosing mediation can be unnerving. We are influenced by a culture that rewards winning and shuns losing. Mediation asks us to move away from this competitive stance and look for a third way – finding a reasonable compromise instead of fighting for your “right” way. Choosing mediation asks that you start with an open, curious mind about “what could be.” It is important to realize that respecting the other party’s point of view is different from agreeing with it.

The success rate for mediation is greater when addressed quickly. The more protracted a situation becomes, the more difficult it is to work through. If your dog is doing anything you suspect may be a nuisance, address it by asking if your pet is creating a problem. Acknowledge you are aware, apologize, thank people for showing patience while you work to improve the situation. Don’t wait for it to reach to the point of a formal complaint or litigation.

Hamilton points out in her book that it is not uncommon for her to be hired as a party’s coach at the mediation table. You can contact a mediator or conflict coach to help you minimize the escalation of a conflict on your end. As she points out in her book, “No one can fight with themselves – they need a partner.”

Conflict is normal. It can instigate positive change. How we approach conflict is the important part. When faced with conflict, stay curious. Ask questions instead of becoming mad, try to see the situation from the other person’s point of view. Again, you may not agree, but maybe you can see where they are coming from a bit clearer? The tendency to become reactive when feeling scared and anxious is something human and non-human animals have in common.

If you need assistance with a conflict, I highly recommend contacting one of the organizations below. Community Mediation DC offers conflict resolution services for free.

Vivian Leven is the co-owner and founder of Positive Dog Solutions and a member of the organization Community Mediation DC.

Local mediation resources
• Community Mediation DC: https://communitymediationdc.org/
• Northern Virginia Mediation Services: https://nvms.us/

• Mediation Positions vs. Interests by Cinnie Noble (December 2013) Blog: https://www.mediate.com/articles/NobleCbl20131207.cfm
• Selecting a Mediator for Pet-Related Neighborly Strife by Paula L. Fleming
• https://www.petfinder.com/dogs/living-with-your-dog/neighborly-negotiation/
• How to Use Mediation to Resolve Conflicts over Animals by Debra Very Voda-Hamilton (2015)
• Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution (5th ed.2017) by Louis Kriesberg and Bruce W. Dayton.