On labels...

He's reactive.

She's aggressive.

He's so dominant!

Humans love to put things in boxes with labels. I'm certainly one of them! Real-life organization boxes with labels give me a deep sense of satisfaction. Boxes in my head with labels on them that I understand and can categorize provide stability.

Since Facebook has become more widely used (I started in the days when you needed a college email to join and walked uphill both ways, thank you) it's been a favorite past time of the online dog communities to try to dissect behavior from still shots. Partially it was Facebook's and our own technological limitations at the time to provide video to analyze. Many of us were hungry to learn but didn't have local access to mentors to work with or the money to pay them.

I noticed a theme as I joined various communities, participated, and learned more. We put a lot of emphasis on tiny details - that's a whale eye, lip lift, and tail tuck! the dog is [label]! - but were failing to consider this important truth:

Behavior doesn't happen in a vacuum.

That still shot teaches us things we can look for but it doesn't follow to the conclusion of what it means in context. I've had more than a few clients who desperately want to take these small behaviors and turn them into labels that describe their dog's personality.

What do you think is going on here?

Many families and dogs get along fine without learning about dog body language. As a species that has co-evolved, it makes sense. If you are struggling with your dog you might step back and think about how you can improve your skills. Both seeing how/what your dog is trying to communicate and how/what you are communicating to them. Learning from still photos can be a helpful tool in that journey but they aren't the whole story.

I encourage you to not label a dog with a word when you're trying to describe behavior.

Our dogs are emotional beings with complex, multifaceted lives. They are much more than aggressive, reactive, rude, pushy, dominant*, alpha*, or bad. When we take on these labels as personality traits we do our dogs and ourselves a disservice. It gets stuck in our head and creates a vicious cycle. I know because I've been there with my own dog and seen too many clients stuck on their dog's label.

He's reactive, we can't do that. He's reactive, I need to control him so he doesn't lose it. I will hyper manage and control everything and then maybe he won't need to be reactive?

I have some good news to tell you: we would love to help you stop micromanaging your dog and feel like you can trust him to make the right choice himself. First, we work out what our dogs are responding to. In technical jargon, this is the antecedent. The thing that happens that causes the reaction. For some dogs it's the presence of any dog. For some, it's the presence of large dogs. Each dog's specific triggers are something we can discover and work on.

Then we set about to fix how dogs feel about that thing. There's more to that story but that's why professionals are here to help you.

The next time you see a dog doing behavior that falls outside our socially accepted norms? Try to categorize the behavior and not label the dog. Shift your language from "he's being aggressive" to describing the behavior itself. Look beyond the behavior and find the triggers. If you decide to talk to the person, ask them to tell you how wonderful their dog is and don't put the label we all so desperately want to push on everything in their head.

I promise they're already thinking it.

The photo at the top?

That cube is my dog's favorite toy when he goes to visit his corgi friends. One of the people present was holding the cube between their feet and Benihime (corgi) sometimes likes to resource guard toys. Helo (aussie) knows this so he's reaching from behind the friend's legs and trying to grab the toy without causing a reaction. The face he's making is him opening his mouth enough to grab the cube and his nose getting pushed up because of the angle.

That's it! Is Beni thinking about guarding? Potentially. I know from experience with her if she wanted to she would have already snapped it away from him. You know what I don't do? Label Beni a resource guarder and lock her away forever. I don't prevent her from learning cooperative game skills. Mom works on it too with the other girls. She does a behavior (sometimes), she is not only that behavior.

*Dominant and alpha are pieces of language many dog trainers are fading out of our language. In large part because people tend to use them to describe personality traits. Some people I've spoken to do use them to describe behavior, but it doesn't usually get to the heart of why. I care more about the why and fixing it than putting the behavior and dog in a box labeled dominant.

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