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The Problems With Labelling Dogs!

Holly Leake
"Labels are a necessity in the organisation of knowledge, but they also constrain our understanding."
- Theory of Knowledge
Labels are a normal and necessary part of life. We use them as shorthand and they enable us to compartmentalise characteristics, behaviours and situations. Nevertheless, labelling can constrain our understanding, especially in regards to canine behaviour.


Labels often result in foregone conclusions, leaving little room to view behaviour with an open mind. Such conclusions, can influence the way we address behaviour because the assumptions created by the label, can cloud our judgment. For example, labelling a particular behaviour as an attention seeking behaviour, can move guardians to feel it warrants some form of punishment.

Attention seeking implies the dog is acting out and behaving negatively on purpose. While it's true dogs love attention from us, there are better ways to view the behaviour, without concluding the dog has selfish motives. The dog may actually be feeling insecure or struggling with chronic stress, however, believing it’s just attention seeking can cause us to overlook the function of the behaviour, as well as the dog’s needs.

Labelling a dog’s behaviour can also lead us to misinterpret a dogs communication and this can negatively impact the relationship and even stop us from seeking connection or interaction. Have you ever had people make unfair assumptions about you? Maybe they labelled you as shy or even concluded you were arrogant because of the way you dress. Maybe you have labelled other people, based on first impressions or assumptions about their character.

Granted, we all make snap judgements about people, but the truth is, those labels are rarely accurate, nevertheless, they do have the power to influence how we treats others. Creating labels about people's personalities or behaviour can actually influence the way we view or speak to such ones. We may believe the labels we created to such an extent, that it even prevents us from reaching out and trying to get to know them. The same can be said of our dogs. If we label their behaviour, we may develop a negative perception of them and this can put a strain on the relationship and prevent us even trying to communicate or connect with them.

We know that negatively labelling ourselves can also prevent personal growth. When we believe those labels are true, we may assume that we will never achieve our goals. Thus, labels can stop us from reaching our full potential and this is true for dogs. If we believe they are "ignorant", "Stubborn", "disobedient" or "stupid", we will assume the worst of them and may not even try to train them.
For example, believing a dog is stubborn, usually causes guardians to become frustrated and impatient before training even begins, because they believe their dog will never change. The guardian starts the training with low expectations and a pessimistic mindset. The label itself has the power to create the perception, that all blame rests with the dog and not with the guardian. When the dog senses this tension, they feel intimidated and may begin showing displacement behaviour, cementing the guardian’s belief that their dog is just being stubborn or disobedient.
By avoiding labelling such behaviour as stubbornness, we can help the guardian to determine the true reasons their dog is struggling to engage, such as the environment, the dogs emotional state, the guardian’s communication or the rewards being offered. When we avoid making assumptions about a dog’s behaviour, we automatically have a positive mindset and an unbiased approach. Therefore, we need to remember not to jump to conclusions and label the behaviour, and we need to teach our clients to adopt the same approach.
Of course labels do have their place and as trainers, we use many to identify particular behaviours for ease, such as reactivity, separation anxiety and aggression. That being said we need to ensure any labels we do use, are applied correctly, in order to determine the appropriate training and avoid misleading the client.
To illustrate, some trainers can make the mistake of calling a barking and lunging dog, aggressive. This label can mask the dog’s discomfort and need for safety. As you can imagine, guardians feel very dismayed when their dog is ascribed this label. However, aggression isn't the same as appearing aggressive. Aggression in its truest form, is the desire to decrease distance and intentionally inflict harm and its actually quite rare. In comparison, a dog that is barking and lunging, may actually be showing aggressive like behaviour due to a desire to increase distance, in order to feel safe. If we were to mistakenly identify the behaviour as aggression, it would likely influence how both we and the guardian, address the behaviour, which could put the dog’s welfare in jeopardy.
You will likely find that clients have long lists of negative labels they ascribe to their dogs, so its beneficial to ask them to write down some positive ones. Not all labels are negative but we often find that all focus is on the negative behaviour, rather than the dog’s strengths. Although a client’s concerns and insights are important, we also have to be careful that our assessment of the dog’s behaviour, is not influenced by the labels they use.

More importantly, we can and should, try to change the negative labels dog guardians cling onto, in order to influence their perception for the better. For example instead of attention seeking behaviour, we can call it connection seeking behaviour. Instead of stubbornness, we can call it a lack of motivation or understanding. Instead of disobedience, we can call it engaging in behaviour that is self-rewarding. By reframing these labels with terms that are more accurate and informative, we create optimism that training goals are achievable.

So, remember the labels we impose on dogs, limits their ability to move beyond them. Therefore, try to give labels less power, in order to afford dogs the opportunity to demonstrate their true potential!

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