Kristi Noem Says Her Dog Was “Untrainable”—Here’s Why That’s Not True · The Wildest

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Kristi Noem Says Her Dog Was “Untrainable”—Here’s Why That’s Not True

As a behaviorist, the South Dakota governor's actions horrify me for several reasons.

South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem.

South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem has been criticized — by politicians from the right and from the left, comedians, dog trainers, animal welfare activists, and concerned citizens — for her extreme treatment of her dog. As revealed in an excerpt from her upcoming book published in The Guardian, Noem shot her 14-month-old Wirehaired Pointer, Cricket, for behavior that positive reinforcement proponent dog trainer Zak George described to CNN as “very typical adolescent behavior out of a dog that’s been bred to have endless stamina and endurance.” 

Noem writes in her new book, No Going Back: The Truth on What’s Wrong with Politics and How We Move America Forward that she took her young dog on a pheasant hunt where she was “out of her mind with excitement, chasing all those birds and having the time of her life.”

Later, after Noem failed to control her dog with basic measures like putting her on a leash, the dog attacked and killed a neighbor’s chickens. Following that incident, Noem said, “I hated that dog,” called her “untrainable” and “less than worthless,” and said she knew she had to put the dog down. She then shot the dog.

My take: Cricket was not untrainable.

I want to do my part to make sure other dogs don’t suffer in a similar manner, and treating dogs well and fairly begins with knowledge. Just because Noem didn’t have the skills or education to train Cricket doesn’t mean she was untrainable. Nothing about her description of this dog’s behavior suggests that Cricket was unusual. Being overwhelmed with excitement, killing chickens, not listening to cues, biting someone who reaches for her, and generally being full of exuberance is all pretty typical behavior for a young dog put in the situations Noem describes.

My intent is not to pile on, but I can’t in good conscience keep to myself the thoughts I have about what happened. As a canine behaviorist and dog trainer specializing in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, an important part of my work is educating people about dogs. Noem may think her behavior makes her look tough or paints her in a good light. After all, she chose to include it in the book meant to enhance her political resume, so she must consider this story about killing her dog something to campaign on. 

Despite considerable backlash, she has vigorously defended her actions and has shared stories of killing other animals. In the book, she describes a goat as nasty, mean, and smelling bad. She also shot the goat after she killed Cricket. And in her response to widespread criticism, she put out a statement asserting that killing animals on a farm is standard operating procedure and that she recently had to put down three horses her family has had for over 25 years.

People were right to be incredibly upset. 

That did nothing to allay people’s horror. Colleen O’Brien, senior vice president at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) really let loose on Noem, saying in part, “Noem obviously fails to understand the vital political concepts of education, cooperation, compromise, and compassion.” 

Following the outcry about her behavior, Noem wrote on X, “Whether running the ranch or in politics, I have never passed on my responsibilities to anyone else to handle. Even if it’s hard and painful. I followed the law and was being a responsible parent, dog owner, and neighbor. As I explained in the book, it wasn’t easy. But often the easy way isn’t the right way.”

I disagree that it shows Noem’s leadership style in a good light. It’s not a display of her willingness to do tough things, but rather a display of her ignorance and cruelty. Shooting Cricket reveals her to be uninformed and prone to cruelty in a fit of anger. She is someone who has much to learn. I prefer people in charge to delegate, to seek advice from experts, and always to err on the side of kindness.

From her own description of the situation, she reveals that she has no understanding of dogs, and she went right from 1) “I don’t like how this dog is acting” to 2) “I hate this dog,” to 3) “She’s bad and deserves to die,” to then 4) “I am going to kill her in an inhumane manner.” Cruelty and brutality aren’t traits worth bragging about ever, let alone when seeking public office. 

Reputable trainers and experienced dog people don’t assume an untrained dog will know how to behave in the high-arousal situation of a hunt, or that a bird dog will know that hunting pheasants is a desirable behavior but hunting chickens is not. Those with knowledge of training know that successfully training a dog requires skills and information, not putting a shock collar on a young dog and throwing them into situations they haven’t been trained to handle. 

Gov. Noem clearly didn’t have patience or compassion for her young dog.

As Joan Payton of the German Wirehaired Pointer Club of America noted, “That was a puppy that had no experience, obviously no training. If you know a minuscule amount about a bird dog, you don’t take a 14-month-old-out with trained adult dogs and expect them to perform. That's not how it works.” She went on to say that Cricket was still a “baby” — a dog who wouldn’t be physically mature until reaching the age of two years and not expected to be fully trained until somewhere in the range of three to five years old.

Some fundamental principles of successful, humane dog training include teaching dogs what you want them to do and reinforcing the behavior you want them to perform in the future. It also involves setting dogs up for success by managing the environment to encourage the behavior you do want them to do and preventing them from being able to do what you don’t want them to do. Throughout a dog’s training, a skilled trainer avoids putting a dog in any situation they can’t handle as they expand the range of situations the dog is capable of handling.

Managing expectations is critical for progress when training a dog. We don’t expect a puppy to stay for 10 minutes without training, and we don’t expect a hunting dog to contain their excitement when put in a hunting or hunting-like situation. Ryan Busse, a Democrat running for governor in Montana, criticized Noem, noting that “anyone who has ever owned a bird dog knows how disgusting, lazy and evil this is.”

Noem displays a lack of understanding of dogs, dog behavior, bird dogs, hunting dogs, and behavioral development, as well as what training looks like. Her first response (her reflex action) was cruelty. Commenting on her tale is a chance to educate more people. There’s a better way to train. Behavioral euthanasia — which only occurs in incredibly rare behavior circumstances where all other possibilities have been exhausted — must always be humane. Expressing hateful feelings without sympathy, empathy, or compassion are not admirable traits.

Political columnist and television personality Meghan McCain understands how harshly Noem’s behavior will be judged because of how much people love dogs, posting: “You can recover from a lot of things in politics, change the narrative etc., — but not from killing a dog.” 

Karen London holding up a small dog

Karen B. London, PhD, CAAB, CPDT-KA

Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression, and has also trained other animals including cats, birds, snakes, and insects. She writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about training and behavior, including her most recent,  Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life.

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