Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Labels are for Cans and Designer Jeans

So why do we wear labels anyway? And why do we put them on our poor dogs?! This could be a rant but I hope not -- my intention is to generate thoughtfulness...

Putting a name on our butt (or any other part of our body) is a way to communicate something -- about us. Somehow the popular ideas of the product -- the ones that companies have spent millions to create -- are transmitted to us when we buy/wear the product. But really labels are an illusion -- they spin a story that for some reason we want or need to tell ourselves -- and tell others about us.

I have long thought that some people just get very attached to their problems. It is as if the problem is no longer something external and separate but rather has become who the person is -- the problem is the identity. Since most problems are not good ones -- like winning the lottery -- an identity that is a problem is -- well, a problem!

There is a critical thinking error that describes when we selectively notice things that support our idea of something, and ignore evidence to the contrary. And so if we think that a person -- or dog -- is a certain way, things that support that notion are what we notice.

Unfortunately, behavioral theory tells us that the way to make something happen more is to notice it -- and the way to make it go away is to ignore it. Do you see a problem with all this?!

And so now we have two related topics -- labels and selection bias -- and here is how I think it all works...

We label our dogs -- for reasons that have more to do with us than them. And then because we are human and like to be right, we notice all the ways that the dog supports our label (or diagnosis). At this point you might be saying to yourself: so what?? Well Dear Reader -- this matters a lot.

The stories we tell ourselves -- and others -- define us and shape our lives. There is rarely "truth" but only stories that we author about ourselves and the world around us. The roles of tragic victim or terrible evil doer are assigned based solely on who is telling of the story -- if you have a teenager, you know exactly what I am talking about...

Unfortunately, when we label and then reinforce by noticing all that supports the label -- well, you know where that goes -- or you should!

You see, labels are identity and really -- is any person or dog suitably described with one or two words? And do you suppose that everyone has the same notion of what a label means? That by using one or two words, everyone you meet has the exact same image of your dog as you do -- based solely on some shared meaning of that word??

No -- not happening. We give our dogs labels not because they neatly and universally sum up our dog but because they speak about US -- about our selection bias, about our needs, about the stories we are weaving about ourselves.

I have observed that some people just enjoy problem-saturated storylines, and the language they use is problem-saturated as a result. When they talk about their dogs, the "problems" are what pop out of their mouths -- "she is___________" or "this is so nice for my ______________ dog".

Really?! What would happen if the problem language stopped? If the poor dog did not have to wear a neon colored label telling the world about the owner's perception of the most important feature of this dog, which happens to be a problem since the owner really embraces a problem-saturated story?

All dogs -- and people -- deserve to be recognized for what is good about them. Of course every dog and every person has issues -- but what you decide to focus on speaks more about you than it does about the dog or the person.

It is not denial to refuse to obsess about an issue or to avoid making it the center of a story -- it is a choice. And it is a choice to create a problem-saturated storyline for a dog, and one that no dog deserves.

Every quality of a dog should be considered and acknowledged honestly because this permits the best life for a dog. But I assure you -- you will never hear me referring to Asia as "my dysplastic dog". Is she dysplastic -- yes. Is that who she is? NO and even more: HELL NO.

So I could tell you that Asia is my dysplastic dog or I could tell you that Asia is my amazing tracking/obedience dog -- I get to decide. Should I focus on what isn't great (elbows) or what is wonderful (SO much)? Am I ignoring her bad elbows by not having that be her label? Of course not -- but her elbows are a very small sub-plot in the life story about a wonderful, sweet, beloved dog.

Focusing on what is good does not make the bad disappear -- it is simply is a twist of the mental kaleidoscope and presents a new -- and more positive -- picture or story.

But hey -- if you prefer to live in a tragic problem-saturated story -- well, that is your choice -- but could you please leave the dog out of it??


  1. Interesting way to look at that but don't you think that if we don't acknowledge that problems exist we have no way of really working on them? If we only look at what is positive about us can we ever really grow as a person or as a dog for that matter? I guess I'm looking at this from more of a behavioral standpoint. For example, my dog is severely shy. I don't deny that he is shy and if he could talk I doubt he would either. That is an area that he needs to grow (I'm not picking on him I need to grow in lots of areas too!!). So yes he has that label or problem but we know it exists and we are going to work on it together by using his strengths. I will completely agree with you on the point that dogs/people only being described in one or two words is unfair to them!! My question is if a dog was really ONLY shy, hyper, aggressive…etc would people really keep them/us around? It’s all the enduring characteristics that make us love them and put up with the less flattering. So I guess I don’t think focusing on problems is a bad thing. It becomes a problem when we focus on those problems but are not willing to do the work to fix them.

    On the flip side I recall being at the dog park with people that completely ignore that their dog has problems. This can also be very problematic.

  2. Excellent questions -- stay tuned but consider two things:

    1. What is the difference between a label and a description of behavior?
    2. How does a label tell us what to do about behavior?

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