Avoid Labels – Part 1

Describe the dog's behavior, rather than label it.

Labels influence our behavior. We purchase “green” products and clothes with a logo or slogan. Labels not only influence consumers’ behavior, they influence our perceptions and attitudes. Consider how you view the driver of a shiny new BMW versus a clunker plastered with bumper stickers of crude jokes.

Labels also influence how dog owners perceive their dogs, and how trainers approach their training. A label can change an owner’s attitude and can tie a trainer into a predetermined course of action. Often unhelpful, even counterproductive or harmful, consider the impact of a label that leads inexorably to euthanasia. Here’s a true story of a dog that was going to be put to sleep for a label:

I was on a lecture tour of England, staying with my friend the late John Fisher, a well-known trainer, and his wife.   John invited me to sit in on a behavioral assessment for owners who were seeking a second opinion. Previously seen by a colleague, the dog had been diagnosed as having “territorial and predatory aggression.” The colleague had recommended that the dog be euthanized—a nice way of saying “put him to death for this awful and dangerous behavior.” 

Prior to meeting the dog, John and I wondered what this label meant, what might “territorial and predatory aggression look like—especially being so serious as to recommend putting the dog to sleep?  When the client arrived, we were surprised to be greeted by Cruiser, a friendly, outgoing, 70 pound, mixed breed resembling an Otterhound. We were even more surprised to hear what behavior led to this diagnosis and recommendation.

Cruiser’s owners operate a marina. Every morning Cruiser made the rounds of the retail shops greeting people, after which he’d climb the stairs to his owners’ second floor office and lie down on the landing at the top. If someone walked up the stairs, Cruiser stood up and growled, blocking access to the landing. His owners paused in their tale.

We wondered if they were simply reluctant to describe the horror of Cruiser’s “predatory aggression,” but needing information, John asked what Cruiser did next. They replied that when they heard him growl, one of them went to the office door and said, “Cruiser, leave it . . . go lie down.” They paused again.  John asked, “And then?” clearly waiting to hear the rest of the bloody story.

 “Then he’d go lie down.” Pause . . . “And then?”  . . . “Then . . . nothing. He’s fine once we greet the visitor.”  Hunh??? That’s it?!?

Aside from being a staggering misrepresentation of Cruiser’s behavior, this label exemplifies the very problem with using labels. It would be reasonable to consider a dog engaging in “predatory aggression” as dangerous. Predatory aggression implies that Cruiser (the predator) was viewing the visitor as “prey” and attacked them.  Yet Cruiser was far from dangerous. Simply describing his behavior—what Cruiser actually did—leads to a far different solution from euthanasia: the simple recommendation that Cruiser rests somewhere other than at the top of the stairs. Problem solved.  Cruiser lived on.

Virtually every day at All Dogs Gym, we get calls from owners who label their dogs: “My retriever is ‘dominant-aggressive’.” “Our puppy is ‘fear-aggressive’.” And my all-time useless favorite, “My vet says my dog is ‘double-dominant’.” Such labels are unhelpful jargon that don’t describe what the dog is actually doing.  They label the dog. Describe the behavior; don’t label the dog.

An accurate description of the dog’s actions, and the owner’s reactions, often leads the trainer in a diametrically different direction from what the label implies, often a proscribed course of action inappropriate for what the dog is, in fact, doing.

Just as importantly, glomming onto a label often leads to overlooking relevant factors that don’t support the label—critical elements for finding the right solution. Important in all training, it is especially critical when the label leads to recommending death as it did with Cruiser.

Years ago I adopted a Springer Spaniel named Willie who was going to be euthanized for “idiopathic aggression.”  I’ll write more about him and other labels in Part 2.


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