When Labels Limit Action

We are all guilty of it. Assigning a blanket adjective, a label, to things around us such as people, pets, even inanimate objects like cars. Surely it's a part of human nature as a means of categorizing information in our environment based on collective experience. So is it harmful to label?


Growing up, my older sister was “the smart one” and I was “the athletic one.”  Our parents didn't realize it at the time, but these labels were factors of limitation for us. We behaved accordingly to our labels, and our parents accepted our behavior without question. We did not realize our true talents and interests of all things intellectual and physical until we became adults, away from such implied personality descriptions.  Those labels became an excuse for our parents to accept our behavior simply because they didn’t know how to address it otherwise.


Although some labeling isn't harmful, using labels as an interpretation of behavior can be very misleading. As dog trainers and behavior consultants, we hear examples of this everyday- “my dog is stubborn” or “my dog is dominant.”  Statements like these don't accurately describe what the dog is actually doing.  It becomes a cyclical conversation with no clear means for action.

Client: My dog is dominant.

Trainer: Why do you feel that way?

Client: Because she growls when I try to take away her toy.

Trainer: Why do you think she growls?

Client: Because she’s dominant.  


The brilliant Dr. Susan Friedman, faculty member in the Department of Psychology at Utah State University and proponent of changing behavior through facilitation rather than force says, “Behavior is not who you are - it's what you do.” When we use quick interpretations instead of an objective means of describing behavior, we are more likely to misunderstand the reason behind the dog's behavior.  With only the information provided by the client above, a trainer may suggest a training plan for one of the following diagnoses:


Dominance: A science-based, formally educated professional trainer would inform the pet guardian that dominance/status seeking does not generally exist within the domestic dog-human relationship and therefore “dominance” can’t be addressed via accepted behavior change protocols.


Resource Guarding: A professional trainer would follow the Humane Hierarchy to address resource guarding.


Fear: A great trainer and educator, like Pat Miller, would also never punish a growl nor influence a dog to stop communicating its discomfort.


Play: There are many reasons for a growl, play could be one of them. Imagine the damage to the relationship if the training plan was to “defeat dominance” when the dog was actually growling as a component of play.    


The recently released website www.ispeakdog.org, supported by the well-respected Pet Professional Guild and the Academy for Dog Trainers, provides a great formula for translating behaviors that accurately describes what’s happening.


  1. Describe what the dog is doing

  2. Describe the dog’s body language

  3. Describe what is happening in the dog’s environment


Using these guidelines, the example conversation between client and trainer then becomes this:


Client: When my dog has a toy in her mouth, she will lower her front elbows to the floor with her hind end raised, her tail high with quick swoops and she will not release the toy from her mouth when I reach for it. She will growl when I try to pull it out of her grip. This only happens when I am trying to leave for work each morning.


This description paints a completely different picture than what we assume when we hear “my dog is dominant.”  This dog doesn’t seem to be displaying any aggression, resource guarding or fear.  This description sounds like the dog is engaging in play and thinks this is a fun game where Mom plays tug before she leaves in the morning.


Dogs who are categorized as “stubborn” or “stupid” are commonly ones that aren't aware of what's expected of them. Most have learned that cues which are repeated time and again are irrelevant because they are missing consequence (good or bad) or that the risk of failure, and therefore punishment, is too high to offer behavior. Unfortunately, in our society, dog’s aren’t often allowed to have choices.  We force them into situations, such as grooming, when they express discomfort, we say they are “uncooperative” or even “aggressive.”  If we look at the possible reasons behind a dog’s behavior, we can better identify how to change that behavior.


The way most progressive trainers change behavior is through positive reinforcement. As teachers, guardians or trainers, we have to be keen on what's motivating to our learners. Reinforcement by definition is something that will increase the likelihood that a behavior will occur again. Reinforcement is in the eye of the learner, despite how much you paid for those “high-value” treats. In some cases, the environment, the opportunity to play a favorite game, or social interaction is more of a reinforcer than food.  For those dogs that lack the ability to perform a task they have previously learned, the dog likely doesn't have Attention Deficit Disorder (although that is becoming a real diagnosis in dogs), he's probably not been incrementally taught to perform the task in the environment you've set (generalization) or your reinforcer isn't high enough to trump environmental reinforcers.


Behaviors are treatable, labels and constructs are not.  Your dog trainer won't know how to treat “jealously” between dogs because we don’t know what behavior that describes. Interpretation varies from person to person. A label stands in our way of seeking valuable information to understand what is happening with the animal and the environment that's affecting the behavior.


How do we better explain behavior without using limiting constructs? Think about how to describe the behavior in terms that are observable.  When does the behavior occur? What is the consequence of the behavior for that animal? With this information, we can clearly define behavior change targets, environmental predictors, and consequences that will either strengthen, reduce or maintain the behavior.


It is our job as caretakers, teachers and guardians to create a relationship of support, compassion and understanding, even when we feel like we've run out of information and want to default to using a label. Because we are the ones with expectations, the only way a learner can meet those expectations is through scenarios where they are set up to succeed. Use the ispeakdog.org formula to identify the possible reasons for behavior and use reinforcers to influence behavior (this also works on children and partners!)  Avoid using labels to describe reasons for behavior and you’ll find that solving problem behaviors becomes much easier.


- Kimberly McRae, CPDT-KA


Have more questions about dog behavior? Does your dog have a behavior problem? Contact one of our certified professional dog trainers today. Not in Colorado? We offer phone consultations and virtual lessons via webcam.