Labeling Dog Behavior

Every dog lover uses labels to describe their dog’s personality – my dog is ‘aggressive’, ‘stupid’ ‘highly driven,’ ‘lazy,’ ‘stubborn,’ ‘happy,’ or ‘dominant,’ but labels can be misleading and limit a dog’s potential. Rather than rushing to label a dog’s behavior we need to look first at what function the behavior serves as well as the context in which it happens. Observing behavior without judgment might tell you, for example, that a dog is lunging at other dogs not because he is ‘dominant,’ but because he fears other dogs getting too close to him. The ‘dominant’ label masks his discomfort and need for safety.

The way a dog behaves in any situation makes perfect sense to him at the time. Behaviour is an animal’s biological response to the surrounding environment and situation and is driven by emotions. But in the human/dog relationship, it’s the human who decides whether a dog’s behavior is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and usually those judgments are supported by a cocktail of personal ideals and emotional responses to what is seen. 

So how do we get away from using labels and encourage clients to do the same? One way to avoid rushing to judgment is to first understand why a behavior occurs and then see what can be done to modify or change it if the behavior is something you don’t want your dog to do. By taking your emotional response out of the equation and looking at what function a behavior serves, you can avoid judgments and labels that influence the way you think about what you are seeing.

We teach all our students at the Victoria Stilwell Academy for Dog Training and Behavior, to note observable body actions and vocalizations within the context of the environment before coming to any kind of conclusion as to what they think the dog is trying to say. Our students understand that quick judgments are easier and satisfies our human need to put behavior we see in an understandable box, but these judgments can limit a client’s understanding, the dog’s success and affect how they and their clients behave towards the dogs.  

When my daughter was in middle school, the entire grade took a personality test. She was eleven at the time and the results told each child whether they were an introvert or an extrovert. My daughter came home from school and proclaimed that she was an introvert. The school obviously thought this test was a good idea but I was annoyed that the children were being categorized in this manner. She is indeed quiet and reserved in some situations but is extremely outgoing in others. Her personality changes depending on who she is with as well as the environment she is in.

When we say an individual has a personality, we mustn’t forget that even though an average personality label can be reliable and consistent, it also includes variation. This variation takes into account environment, experience, and age-related changes. We might be in a place that changes our behavior depending on the social environment we are in, and as we age our response to things will also change.

I am a mixture of labels. I can be an extrovert when I’m teaching a class of students or when I’m doing my live shows to a thousand people in a theatre, but I’m an introvert at a cocktail party and have to make small talk with people I don’t know. The labels I put on myself limit my ability to move beyond them.

I went to a very academic school. I was a good athlete and excelled in drama, English and history, but math and science really challenged me. My teachers were generally good but less attention was given to those of us who found these subjects hard. We were labeled the ‘B’ students and while the ‘A’ students were celebrated with praise and rewards, and the C’s were given more lesson time and attention, the B’s were often left to get on with little direction. I was truly made to feel mediocre at my school, and even though I left with 10 O-levels and 3 A-levels, I still believed I was not very bright. It wasn’t until I got out into the real world that I realized I had done pretty well.  

So labels really do have an impact. Let’s look at a popular label that I hear all the time - ‘my dog is stubborn.’  What does stubborn actually mean? The definition of stubborn is, ‘having or showing dogged determination not to change one’s attitude or position on something especially in spite of good arguments or reasons to do so.’ Synonyms of the word stubborn are ‘obstinate’, ‘headstrong’, ‘willful’ and ‘pig-headed.’ Dogs that refuse to walk on the lead or don’t do what people ask them to are often called stubborn dogs, but maybe the dog refuses to walk because he feels unwell or is in pain. He might be overwhelmed by the environment or just tired. Once we take away labels and just look at the dog’s behavior in context, we might see that he needs help rather than a reprimand.

Susan Friedman from Utah State University says that ‘behavior is not who you are, it’s what you do.’ When we put labels on our dogs, we not only label their personality we expect them to “behave” and be true to that label in every environment and situation. We forget the simple fact that just like us our dogs’ behavior changes depending on who they are with and what environment they are in. These changes are also apparent as a puppy grows. Some of these changes will be positive and others might cause concern, but before you label a puppy or adult dog you must always look at what influences the behavior. If you like it, you can give your dog more opportunities in that situation, but if you don’t, you can avoid those situations so that you keep a variable positive because your dog will always retain a baseline personality throughout life.

So how do you avoid using labels too quickly? Observe your dog first and then note down what she is doing. How is her body moving through space? What is her head, body and tail doing and what might that mean within the context of the environment she is in? Once behavior has been observed and context taken into account, a description of behavior can be noted for that moment in time, and labels avoided until more is known about how your dog behaves in other situations and environments. Then the label that you eventually attach to explain your dog’s behavior will be much more accurate.

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Positively Expert: Victoria Stilwell

Victoria Stilwell is a world-renowned dog trainer best known as the star of the internationally acclaimed TV series, It’s Me or the Dog. A bestselling author, Stilwell frequently appears in the media as a pet expert and is widely recognized and respected as a leader in the field of animal behavior.

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