Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Trouble with Labels & A Challenge

This is a follow-up from yesterday, and in response to a thoughtful comment that was posted.

Consider this: My stubborn dog. What does that mean to you? "Stubborn" is a label, and it will mean different things to different people.

To the owner, it might be a way to convey this message: "The reason I cannot get my dog to do what I want is because she is stubborn."

I have a different perception when I hear that a dog is stubborn -- I think the owner is an ineffective trainer for that dog.

And so the first problem with a label is that it lacks precision -- it tells each of us something different. The second problem (related to the first) is that a label provides no guidance about what to do next.

It seems to me that what matters is not what a dog supposedly "is" -- it is what a dog "does" and this is a critical distinction. We cannot know the mind of the dog -- you can guess what a dog is experiencing but it remain a guess, no matter how much you believe you know.

In contrast, we can observe behavior -- we know what a dog does. And so think of a label as our best guess about what a dog "is", knowing that you could have picked any number of labels because no dog is one thing, but you picked that -- why?

And now that you decided to focus on that, what next? What do you do with a "stubborn dog" besides wring your hands and feel sorry for yourself and join some club of people with "stubborn dogs"? None of that sounds remotely beneficial for the dog...

But when we shift our thinking and focus on observable behaviors, we can make changes. I will give you an example -- a real one. Recently Zoey met a Newfie -- her reaction was to pee. In other words, the presence of the Newfie caused her to do submissive urination and then she tucked her tail and wanted to avoid him. This is consistent with her reactions in the group ring -- bigger dogs seem to cause her to show signs of stress or anxiety or something -- who knows how she feels?? But I can describe her behavior.

You can label it whatever you want, but that is not useful to me. Further, I am not attaching emotion to it -- you will not see me crying and carrying on about it -- "oh woe is me!! My perfect show dog cannot go to the group ring EVER because she is afraid of bigger dogs... woe is me...yada yada yada..."

Dogs are experts at nonverbal behavior, and pick up on our emotional states better than we do. Owners who get anxious and upset escalate undesirable behavior -- sure, we would rather blame the dog but where does that get you?? Oh, a membership in the Bad Dog Club -- I am not interested in that.

So my cute dog has observable reactions to larger dogs -- now what? I do not care how/why we got here -- here we are. I am not labeling her or freaking out about it or ignoring it -- I am simply planning interventions that will transform her view of larger dogs.

Labeling is not useful -- it lacks precision, is completely subjective, and offers judgment, none of which is helpful. If what we want is to create change, we have to clearly describe behavior and create a plan for change -- and implement it.

Some traits are what they are, and we can manage them but not erase them. Again, labeling a dog based on a single trait tells others what you think is most important to know about your dog, and really -- is the best thing about your dog that she is "shy" or "stubborn"? How sad :(

But like I said yesterday -- some people like a problem-saturated story and so they use problem-saturated language. Since I believe our thoughts guide our feelings, I prefer to not use problem saturated language in my thinking.

This is not to say that I do not acknowledge areas that need improvement in my dogs (and myself) -- I absolutely see issues as well as strengths -- but my focus as a trainer is not labels or problem-saturated stories about my dogs, but behavior and training strategies.

As a breeder, I am keenly aware of areas in my puppies that I want to improve and/or keep the same. Anyone that knows me well -- ask Jennifer G. for example -- will tell you that I am obsessive about the tiniest details, always trying to balance the strengths with the inevitable compromises. And really -- I HATE COMPROMISES.

I am not blind to realities -- I am acutely and painfully aware that perfection is elusive -- including in puppy owners/buyers. I know my standards are high -- this is one of my strengths and one of my limitations. But I think my high standards are balanced with compassionate understanding, always considering that my dogs - and my puppy owners -- are imperfect but doing their best.

As we wait for Cadi to come in season and create new little lives, my hope for them is that they will go to homes that will love and accept them -- and never label them with any word except "perfect" (even when they chew the remote control). Please consider that a perfect dog might well want a perfect owner -- until we are that, I suggest we embrace and love and work with the imperfect dog we were blessed with...

In fact, one of my friends just sent me this in an email -- it fits today's Blog perfectly: "None of us are nearly as perfect as the most imperfect dog..."

That said, here are some of the labels I use for each of my dogs...

Mrs. Maize is Perfect... and good-natured and kind...

Yes, she likes to bark but that helps her be the Perfect Chief of the Fun Police...

Halo deVil is Perfect -- and excessively clever and devoted and yes, sometimes she puts her cleverness to what I consider unfortunate choices (which is why the door to the garbage has a child-proof lock -- more on that in a minute)...

Cadi is Perfect -- and bombproof and friendly and well, yes, sometimes her friendliness is a bit over the top and energetic :)

Asia is Perfect -- and clever like her mom, but she is also strong and so she busts through the child-proof lock on the garbage can door on a regular basis...sigh... She is still, however, Perfect...

Zoey is Perfect -- and amazingly athletic, smart, and in tune to me -- and she asks that if you are a stranger, please do not stare in her eyes, even though she knows she is lovely to look at, because that will cause her to bark at you...however, she is still Perfect...

And what a Perfect tree pruner she is!

Syd is Perfect -- she is also bombproof and friendly like her mom, Cadi, but she has the advantage of being smaller so when she excitedly goes through your legs she is less likely to lift you off the ground and her tail does not hurt as much when she wags it against you...

Our Guest, Mac, is also Perfect -- and very smart and biddable -- and yes, he does like to bark but only because he has so many good things to say!

So go ahead and join that yahoo group for the Thorn Bushes -- I will join the one for the Rose Bushes :) I won't pretend the roses do not have thorns and I will make appropriate choices based on the reality, but life is too short to have thorns in the cross hairs of my mind. I know they are there but I refuse to give them the center stage.

A collective challenge -- let's just try -- for today -- noticing what is wonderful and good in everyone and everything we encounter.


  1. I agree with you but do you know how hard it can be to look past problems and just focus on the good? Do you think that maybe those people that put a label to their dogs are crying out for help? Perhaps someone like me?

    Aspen is shy (my label or others I'm not sure which came first).. He is nothing like Zoey (from what you've described), he is deathly afraid of strangers and some objects. He shakes, his breathing become labored, and he will bolt. The best way I can described his reactions is fight or flight response(reminds me of how I feel about public speaking). Shy maybe doesn't even describe how sever his behaviors are. His problem is of paramount concern to me. We have to work on it all the time. It's always on the agenda. It hurts me to see my dog suffering like that. I've cried myself to sleep several nights because I love him so much and what I want most in this world is for him to be happy (I know this isn't productive but I'm human).

    Perhaps you are wondering why don't I just leave him home then? Because he ADOARS being with me, he LOVES going with and I LOVE being with him. I see how scared he is and I can't help but see how actually brave he is. Nobody on the outside sees that but I do... When I open the door he can't get to my car fast enough. He's excited jumping about. He would rather be scared out of his mind then to be without me. Can you see how completely frustrating that would be? I'm not upset that he's not doing what I want... I'm upset that he is not able to live the life that I think he needs.

    I will try to take on your challenge and not label Aspen( or anyone else for that matter) ... But I want to call him something so I'll call him Brave so I can correct others who call him shy :-)

    But do you think perhaps you could try and be understanding and support those who are frustrated? I've spent countless hours working with Aspen and I know what it is like to think,"I guess he is just going to be... the s word!" So maybe instead of looking down on those that use labels let's try and help them look at things differently. I think showing compassion and understanding are the stepping stones to reaching people.

  2. It is not my intention to condemn -- it is my intention to challenge thinking and offer new ways of looking at things. Disagreement is not the same thing as looking down on someone -- it is just a different point of view :)

    I have found people are not especially happy when they define themselves -- or their dogs -- with negative labels. Since even small shifts of thinking can change how we feel, I think it is worth trying to think about things differently.

    But focusing on what is good does not mean we stop consistently and realistically working to change behaviors we would like to be different -- that is why Halo is both Perfect and we have child-proof locks on cabinets.

    Focusing on good is a way to give ourselves the attitude needed to create positive changes -- change does not happen in a person or a dog when despair and negativity are the dominant story lines...

    Again, my posts are not intended to insult -- they are intended to offer different ways to think and to train and to understand dogs (and ourselves).