Labeling Dog Behavior: Helpful or Harmful?
Have you ever been labeled “rude” when you were actually shy? Or labeled“mean” when you just had a really bad day? Most of us have been labeled at one point in our lives and they are usually hurtful and untrue. Unfortunately, dogs are also often labeled and the labels can cause more harm than good.
Every day I work with dogs that bark, lunge or growl at people, dogs or novel objects. Commonly these dogs are labeled as “aggressive” when in fact they are usually fearful, anxious or shy. When dogs (and people) are put into situation that make them uncomfortable they will sometimes react with a survival response of “fight.” When people “fight” they will yell, hit or become violent in other ways.
When dogs “fight”, they bark, growl or lunge. Because this response is often labeled as “aggression” the dogs are treated as if they are “bad dogs” rather than considering they are afraid. Many of these dogs can overcome their fear if they are treated with compassion and empathy. Sadly, some people will hurt these dogs to stop the “aggression” instead of dealing with the fear or anxiety. When we describe the behavior for what it is, “fearful of dogs/people” instead of labeling them “aggressive,” it is easy to have compassion for them.
Many time people will label a dog as “stubborn” because they won’t do what the person wants. Typically, these dogs are not actually “stubborn” but they may be distracted, worried or confused. I will commonly work with people who tell me that their dog is “stubborn” but in reality, the dog actually does not know what the person wants because they have not been taught properly or thoroughly. If someone was talking to me in a language I did not understand, I may appear “stubborn” when in reality I just did not understand what the person was saying to me.
Although people believe that a label in a proper description of a person, dog or behavior, it is actually a judgment. Unless we take time to understand why a behavior is happening, we don’t really know why it is happening. If a person sleeps a lot, they may be labeled “lazy” when in fact that person may have just undergone a treatment of chemotherapy.
Instead of jumping to conclusion and labeling our dogs, we should take time to understand them.
Learning how to read dog body language is the first step to understanding why a behavior is happening. Since dogs don’t use language to communicate, they use their body. Next time you are tempted to label your dog, take a minute to watch his body language, look around at the environment and be compassionate about what he might be feeling. Once you take time to really understand, you may find it hard to label so quickly.
Shannon has been a pet lover all her life and a dog trainer for over 20 years. She has spent her life observing, caring for and training animals of all kinds. She has worked in the Bird Department at Marine World Africa USA, and worked as a handler and trainer for an African Serval Cat at Safari West, a private zoo in Santa Rosa, California. She has participated in behavior studies including observations of bald eagles and addax antelope through the San Francisco Zoo and Safari West. Her education includes a Biology Degree, specializing in Zoology from Sonoma State.
She is a "Registered Veterinary Technician," a "Certified Professional Dog Trainer" (Knowledge Assessed), a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner, a member of the "Association of Pet Dog Trainers" and a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. Shannon is currently serving as President for the Society of Veterinary Behavior Technicians. Shannon's dog training philosophy revolves around force-free, positive reinforcement, however, her ultimate goal is for healthy happy relationship between pets and their people. Diet, exercise, environment and training all play a significant role in achieving this goal. Shannon is currently the owner of Ventura Pet Wellness and Dog Training Center in Ventura, CA where she works with anxious and fearful dogs privately as well as teaching agility classes (Venturapetwellness.com). Shannon has also started a training website called Truly Force Free Animal Training.