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?
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Thank you for this post. We could all spend more time on language! My dog has made me very aware of language as a function. Adjectives, if not verbs, can still be an act. I.e., when I refer to my dog as “fearful”, it’s often with a goal: to ask a vet to proceed slowly, or to ask a person to give us space. Fear is not her whole emotional landscape. But I seldom need (and am never able) to describe her whole world to anyone, so I use the words that have a function at a given moment: fearful, reactive, shy. Words like “joyful” may be just as accurate but have less of a function, socially. That being said, I think the weight of such words — however useful — makes it all the more important for us notice and acknowledge (at least to ourselves) the deviations: the other behaviours that push away from these descriptions, such as when our dogs relax near a stranger or choose not to bark. Descriptions are situationally useful, often, but I agree that they can stultify a relationship. I would hate to get stuck in a verbal cross-section of my past. It can’t be good for our dogs, either — even the ones who remain reactive to some triggers their whole lives.
Do you write or teach about the plan you implemented for Britto?
I did a series of webinars on my approach. If you’re interested in learning more, I created a self-study course out of those webinars here: https://www.fenzidogsportsacademy.com/index.php/courses/24660
Very interesting Blog … I have a 10 months male Golden which I said/say??? … a reactive dog … when he was 4 months old he acted just like you wrote about young Brito … now either he is mature a little and/or our numerous daily training and environmental socialization … for the past month he is comfortable with children, animals, and human walking, running, making very loud noise without making a scene. We can have very relaxing daily walks!! It is still too early for people come to touch him.
I strongly believe a reactive dog can be trained as long as the trainer can see the World from the dog’s point of view, persistent, patient and reasonable.
Persistent, patient, and reasonable. That is an excellent approach to most training or behavior challenges.
I love your thoughts on labels and I’m so happy that your plan worked for you and Brito! That must feel like a major accomplishment.
However, on reactivity training plans: I think there’s a lot of room for celebrating incremental successes without completely “fixing” the problem in just a few months. I don’t know that it’s fair to those owners and dogs who struggling with reactivity to say that a plan should only take a couple of months just because that’s how your plan played out with Brito. Reactivity is such a multi-faceted issue!
Perhaps a better way to word that paragraph might be “if you’re not seeing improvements, then it might be time to examine your training plan,” rather than hinting towards a specific timeline?
I agree – as long as you are seeing progress then you’re on the right track! But…years? Maybe the owner is managing the behavior rather than changing it. Which may be fine, but certainly deserves a hard look.
I enjoyed reading this post and agree that labels should be applied with caution. My 2 year old Aussie mix was very reactive and is making progress, although it is slow going. Trainers I have worked with say her reactivity is fear based, but I am finding that mostly it seems to be fear, but sometimes it seems to be her bossy personality. I have watched the circle walking videos and this seems to help But in some situations she is still over the top.
I am curious about your comment about managing rather than changing behavior. I am not sure I would recognize the difference. I am trying to be consistent!
Management means getting out of (or through) a situation with minimal fuss, or avoiding being in the situation in the first place. When I say I am using a management strategy, that is management rather than actually changing the dogs behavior.
I use both management and training. It just depends on how much I care about the issue. For example, before I worked on my own dogs reactivity, I managed his behavior by making specific and strategic choices about where I did or did not take him. So while it did not improve his behavior, it worked to avoid placing us in situations which were uncomfortable.
Some dogs and some situations are such that behavior change will be very slow to happen, if ever. Regardless, if a person is actively working to improve the dog’s behavior, they should be evaluating their progress on a regular basis, and consider changing direction if they don’t seem to be getting where they want to go – assuming the goals are actually attainable for that specific team.
I had a fearful retriever mix. In the beginning he couldn’t function in many circumstances. Strangers were terrifying and he would fight to escape, agility equipment was all deadly. By the time he died we had developed a level of trust that still awes me. The only thing he steadfastly refused to do was the teeter and he recognized almost everyone as a friend. Yet, I would still call him fearful because that was his first response to anything new. As long as remembered who he was and presented new situations accordingly things went well, otherwise it was problematic. At his core, he was always a fearful dog. Training and management let him expand his world and be a wonderful partner what ever we did.
If I took Brito for a walk would I think he wasn’t a reactive dog?
I’m not sure I understand the question. Do you mean if you observed him? You would think he was not a reactive dog if you observed him or approached with your own dog. If you mean you are actually holding the leash? I truly have no idea.
When you say he’s not reactive anymore, does that mean if Brito went to stay with someone else for a week would he not display reactive behaviours for them if they took him for a walk.
Basically, is his behaviour being conditionally controlled because of your presence or has he altered his responses on his own whatever the circumstance.
There’s really no way for me to know. If I had to guess? If the person handled him the way I handle him; expectation of a loose leash and expectation of cooperative behavior? He would be like he is with me. If the person was allowing him to make bad decisions and not noticing or addressing early signs of deterioration like keeping the leash loose? I wouldn’t be surprised if elements of reactivity returned. Pretty much like all training, if you don’t make some kind of effort to maintain it you’re going to lose it, if the alternative has any self reinforcing properties.