Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Well, not exactly. Words, when used to label perceived dog behaviors, can potentially do harm. Words like stubborn, lazy, hyper, aggressive, shy or dominant can cause us to harbor negative feelings toward our dogs instead of trying to understand and guide them. When used to describe a dog’s personality, these types of labels can have at best a limiting and at worst a dangerous effect on a dog’s life.
We humans love to label things; it’s in our nature. Attaching labels to dogs can be empowering. By giving their behavior a name, it can make us feel more in control. But — and this is a big but — it doesn’t get us any closer to understanding the cause of that behavior. What does it mean to say a dog is shy or aggressive? Is she always shy or always aggressive? Are we dismissing the possibility that she behaves differently in different situations? My own behavior varies depending upon my circumstances. Why should I expect my dog to be different? Are we defining our dogs as the behavior rather than as a dog with the behavior?
Labeling also may lead to inaccurate and damaging treatment. By being more of an emotional response to viewed behavior, labeling can distort our understanding of the underlying causes for the behavior, thus diverting us from a more rational and reasonable interpretation. As a result, our plan for treatment or training will be misguided and probably ineffective.
Rather than labeling our dogs, let’s start to explore the possible reasons for their behaviors. Why is my dog fleeing from some strangers but perfectly happy around others? Why is she barking at children who run up to her? Why does she lunge at dogs on the Yampa River Core Trail? Why is she ignoring my requests to come or stay?
Perhaps you’ve been labeling your own dog, calling her stubborn or aggressive or always happy.
Take some time, starting today, to really observe and note when your dog behaves in ways that confuse or make you uncomfortable or even delight you. Identify the “what, when and where” of the situation. Learn to read and interpret her body language signals.
Labels prevent us from finding solutions. We can’t teach a dog what to be, but we can teach a dog what to do and when to do it.
Lisa Mason is an experienced dog training instructor with the Total Teamwork Training group. Her specialties include new puppy owner education and management.