Pop-culture labels are not terribly helpful

 Labels Are Not Terribly Helpful


I have to say, that the experiences I had and the work I did while earning my Bachelor’s with a concentration in Psychology and my Master’s in Education are way more relative in my training career than most people expect. The Master’s program I attended was not the typical teaching program but had its roots in progressive education (think Montessori, Child-Centered, Experiential Learning, etc). While we certainly had an emphasis on similar information/practice as typical, more traditional, educational programs, we had lots of unique learning, practice, experiences. Many of these practices have very deep connections to the work I do as a dog trainer.

One of the pieces of work that we spent an incredible amount of time on was the “Descriptive Review.” A full descriptive review is an in depth description of a child as a way to better understand him/her as a thinker and a learner (through the process of a very in depth description of one child, it helps us learn about many children). One of the hardest parts for many of the prospective teachers in learning this process was the idea of being descriptive and using lots of details to describe the child, his/her interests, how he/she interacts with others, how he/she makes meaning on his/her own terms, etc. Many of my peers’ first instincts were to judge, analyze, and/or make broad statements about the child–to give meaning to the actions, the relationships, and the learning without as much detail in the descriptions. But where do the sweeping statements and analysis leave us? Where can people go from saying that a child plays in an “aggressive” manner (and what type of unintentional baggage are we giving children when we use such loaded language)?

This idea of a descriptive review is something I have really taken with me in my dog training journey. There is just so much more value to describing behavior than simply labeling it.

I mean, what is the next step for:
-My dog is stubborn
-My dog is aggressive
-My dog is reactive
-My dog is dominant
-My dog is possessive aggressive
-My dog is dumb
-My dog doesn’t like kids
-My dog is not food motivated

I get email after email from people saying things like “I need help, I have a 10 month old boxer who is stubborn. Can you fix this? I am so tired of his disobedience.” As a trainer, if I had no other information… how would I even begin going about fixing ‘stubborn’? Where does that leave me? What is there to do for the dog who is said to be “dominant” by his guardian? Where does that pop-culture, blanket term leave us? Nowhere.

Being descriptive with behavior instead of labeling or passing judgement on the dog, gives us a starting point. We have behavior X and we want behavior Y… how do we get there. If instead of “My dogs doesn’t like kids,” an owner describes the behavior, “Every time my toddler approaches the dog he tries to run away and hide. If the toddler keeps following him the dog will growl. I am at my wits end because just the other day, the toddler climbed behind the couch just to pet him and he snapped at my kid!” then, even with that minimalist description, we have a better idea of what’s going on and can make a rudimentary plan (at the least) to change the behavior.

I must repeat myself over and over again (and probably sound condescending accidentally) but I often ask, “What makes you say he’s _______?” I’ve found that asking it in that manner actually gets the guardian to DESCRIBE the behavior instead of label it (if I ask a guardian “Tell me more about how he’s stubborn” I get more labels than description). What I find so interesting is most guardians, once they begin to describe the behavior and not just label the dog start to see the underlying issues. It’s no longer, “My dog hates kids” but it turns into “My toddler really terrifies my dog and doesn’t leave him alone. My dog is fearful of my child and tries to hide or avoid him.”

There is so much value in describing behavior, in describing relationships, in describing interests and I think so many people (even those who call themselves professional trainers) skip this part and go straight for the labels. I think having language for people to communicate about their dogs is important and having general labels/statements certainly facilitates that but those labels are not the be all and end all. It really is about being able to accurately describe behavior because if you know what you’ve got and you know what you want, it’s a heck of a lot easier to find some path to get from point A to B.

  1. I never really thought of this before, but it makes perfect sense. (Even though I recently used the phrase, “What makes you think…”) I typically label my dog reactive and feel overwhelmed with dealing with it. It’s already making a world of difference to MYSELF to go from “my dog is reactive” to “my dog stiffens and explodes at other dogs when he is on a leash”. That sounds a lot easier to start working on, even to myself, than “My dog is reactive.” =)

  2. What a good way of looking at things. It could apply to many different areas. Labels can definitely be dangerous and at best are counter-productive.

    In my opinion, there is no such thing as a useless degree. 🙂

  3. This is really good, Tena. I’ve pondered the same things myself, but without your background to explain what’s going on and offer a good alternative. I think you should consider fleshing this out into a longer article for publication. It’s good information for pet owners and for professionals so I bet you can give it a good slant to fit almost any audience – vets maybe? This is new information for a lot of people and it will help people and dogs.

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