We all label the things around us. That's how we make sense of our world. Labelling the things around us give us short cuts to describing the things in our world that allow us a common understanding.
Imagine what conversations would be like if instead of saying. “I sat in the chair”, I had to say “I sat in the wooden structure with carved arms, cushions and a brown, floral pattern.”
For sure the second way, you'd know way more about what my chair looks like but assuming we were just trying to chat, probably knowing that I sat in any kind of a chair would be enough.
These are short cuts that make all of our lives easier.
So much easier that we use them everywhere. We use them to describe personality traits for each other and our dogs. There is no problem in general with this – but without being careful it can become an issue. There are times when we use labels in ways that hold ourselves and our dogs back from things that may otherwise be good for us.
How often do each of us find ourselves saying - “I would love to do that but I'm too nervous/unskilled/ - some other blocker.”
Or to people about our dog. “He is a reactive / nervous / aggressive / abused dog.”
For people who don't know me, I got into dog training because my amazing bull mastiff, Calgacus became aggressive toward other dogs during adolescence following a bad experience. He attacked and badly injured another dog and quickly became one of those dogs who couldn't see another dog even in the distance without barking and lunging at them. I dedicated pretty much all of my spare time and more than all of my spare money to learning about dog training so that I could find ways to help him feel better about other dogs. Calgacus and I had a great deal of success with this.
He became one of those dogs who just loved being with other dogs. He was reassuring with nervous dogs. He would keep his eye on groups of dogs and make sure everybody was being nice to each other. Nothing made him happier than a young dog running at him to start a game. He was completely transformed.
In my book Canine Aggression which is about the journey he and I had, I wrote the following:
“I realised that I needed to change how I saw the world, and particularly how I saw Calgacus, in order to notice changes in him, and respond to these positively.
I had to believe that his dislike of other dogs was something that could change. To believe that a dog with a psychological problem may be capable of change sounds like a simple thing to do, but it is, I believe, one of the hardest to achieve, and I know that I am not alone in thinking this because of the many conversations I’ve had with others who report similar feelings and struggles.”
This, for me, remains key. It is so easy to get stuck in the past with dogs and to continue to apply labels to them that maybe both of you would be better served by shaking off.
What really helped me to start making the shift was to start thinking carefully about how I described my dog. Rather than describing Calgacus as a “dog aggressive dog”, I started to say “at the moment, he finds it hard to be around other dogs.” The words “at the moment” were key in making the shift – it was a less permanent description. They left the door open to me being able to see the changes that all the work we were doing were making to Calgacus.
Whenever there are challenges with our dogs – whether it is a struggle to teach them a new trick or a more serious behaviour problem - thinking carefully about the language we use to other people and inside our own heads when talking about it is key. To borrow from the much missed, Terry Pratchett's character, Granny Weatherwax, there is a lot of use for headology when training or changing the behaviour of dogs and it is a good thing to be aware of it. For the non Terry Pratchett readers, headology is what people believe to be real. It is how they create much of the reality that they live in. If you are a non Terry Pratchett reader – please do read his books. The man was an utter genius.
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Tracey is the author of Canine aggression: Rehabilitating an aggressive dog with kindess and compassion and founder of Best Dog Learning and Stuff Ltd. She has an honours degree in Canine behaviour and training, is a Tellington TTouch practitioner, and is an ACE Advanced Tutor.