I use labels. I find that labels make it easy to talk to other people. I talk about shy dogs, reactive dogs, nervous dogs, driven dogs, etc. Labels are a part of language and exist for a reason – shorthand communication.
Of course, there are problems that come along with this shorthand communication. First is misunderstanding! Your “shy” and my “shy” might not be the same, and while that might not matter in casual conversation, sometimes it matters very much. This is particularly true if the audience/person I am speaking with is not from my normal social or professional circle, since other individuals from one’s circle are likely to use language in a similar way. I don’t find that to be much of a problem because I can adjust my choice of language and/or descriptors according to my audience, and I can ask clarification questions if it is important that I understand exactly what the dog might be doing to have earned the label of shy. However, some people do struggle with this because they are either not attentive to the results of their attempted communication or they make assumptions about the common use of language which are not warranted or maybe they are simply more interested in speaking than in being understood. If you want to be understood or if it genuinely matters, make a point of checking for comprehension and shared usage, especially when speaking with a nonstandard (to you) audience. If people are staring at you without asking questions, odds are pretty good something went wrong. And if you are about to help someone with their dog’s shy behavior, you better make sure you’re on the same page.
The second potential problem with labels is how they structure our thinking. Not only do labels provide shorthand for conversation, they also frame how we think. That is neither good nor bad, but it does lead to a fairly common result – specifically, once we apply a label we are not quick to remove them, even if the evidence suggests that the label is no longer accurate.
Is your shy dog still shy? Is your reactive dog still reactive?
Here’s an example. Brito has been reactive towards dogs. What do I mean by reactive? When he sees a single dog in the distance, he barks, growls, lunges, etc. Basically, he was an irritating jerk when I took him for a walk. That’s not acceptable. It’s not acceptable for me because that’s ruining my pleasant walk. It’s not acceptable for him, because one presumes that practicing that behavior is activating the wrong part of him emotional systems. And it’s not acceptable for society, who would like to exist without the presence of a small irritant disturbing the communal space.
As a result, when I decided I wanted to make walks a regular part of his life, I structured a training plan to deal with the reactive behavior. I spent the next few months working intently on this issue, and…. it worked.
He’s not reactive anymore. It would no longer be accurate to use that label. He’s actually perfectly pleasant to take for a walk. He is pleasant in his interactions with individual dogs and with groups. Indeed, if a person watched his behavior, whether trained in dog behavior or not, they would say he has very good social skills.
How about you? Do you remember to go through that step – removing labels that are no longer accurate? When you’re working with your dog, do you look back and consider if your dog still fits the labels that you have applied?
There are two reasons for taking the time to do this. The first is simple; it’s an evaluation of your training plan. If you’ve been working on your dog’s shy, reactive, possessive etc. behavior for years, then one might argue it’s not working for you if it’s still there – change your plan, unless the plan was management rather than behavior change all along, which is perfectly fine. The second reason is accuracy and new options! If your dog no longer shows shy, reactive, possessive behavior, you might make different choices for you and your dog. Go ahead and take your formally reactive dog on walks through the neighborhood!
Take a moment to look at the dogs you have. Consider the labels you have applied to describe behavior. Are the labels still accurate? And if they are not, how might you change your vocabulary and thinking to more closely match what is actually happening front of you?
I’d love to hear from you! How do you use labels? Do they help or hurt you? Do you evaluate your dog’s behavior over time?