Friday, October 8

The Label Behavior (Part 1)


That is a label, and is therefore, virtually useless.

Do you know the difference between a label and a behavior?
Most people think they do. I mean, they really think they're on to something. They even answer the "questions" correctly when asked, "Is _____ a label or is _____ a behavior?" 
(Fun Fact: That I could not write "Is _____a label or a behavior?" is an OCD behavior.)

So, if everyone is giving the correct answers, what's my problem? If they answer correctly, surely they know the difference, right?

In practice, most people assume. Yeah, I do mean as in "make an ass out of you and out of me" (there I go with the OCD again. 5 points if you caught what the compulsion was.)

A person can say that he knows scratching his nose is a behavior and "being mean" is a label, but in practice you'll oftentimes find that same person applying labels to everything in a behavioral context. 

Okay, right. And how, exactly, does this relate to dog training?

These are labels:
  • fearful
  • aggressive
  • stubborn
  • upset 
  • submissive
I don't know of a dog trainer who doesn't use them, even though most of us are well aware that labels do much more harm than help.

I once had a client whose yorkie was accused of being aggressive. 

So, I got to use my favorite phrase: "Why don't you walk me through exactly what happened?"
The yorkie was barking savagely at the mailman.
What did she mean by "savagely?"
Well, it was a loud bark - different from her normal yap. She got onto the couch everyday at the same time, paced back and forth on the window ledge, and BAAAAAAAAAAAAAARKED when she saw the mailman.

Turned out.
...........She was over-enthusiastically happy to see the mailman. Her tail wagged, her body was loose and wiggly, and she vocalized.
Apparently, he'd given her goodies once. 
She wanted some more.
Every time she saw him! 

Never mind the fact that her family thought she was a vicious monster and was considering putting her down.
You'd be surprised how many of those "cases" we come across.
(Note: These people are not idiots. We knows dogs and we know their body language. If the people who came to us knew everything, we wouldn't have a job. So, don't judge - that couple has gone miles, and now understands a heck of a lot more about their yorkie, and boy are they glad she's still with them!)

It's not just that.
What gets me is that people use labels as a "diagnosis." End-all, cure-all.
Your dog is "fearful." 
She's just "excited."

I don't tell people their dogs are fearful or excited. I might say something like, "It appears to me that Moxie keeps putting her tail between her legs and lowering herself when your husband walks by. Thoughts?"
That sounds like submissive or fearful behavior doesn't it?
Did you catch the trick? (10 points for that one!)

.....Time's UP!
Fearful and submissive are not behaviors.
Tail tucking and body lowering are.

Think about it.

And I'll continue this later.


  1. We surely love to label. Any doggy conversation seems to end in a label mixup somewhere down the line :)

    Lesson learned, never use a label as a diagnosis. Thx! Looking forward to the continuation!

  2. WOW!!!! This was an awesome post. You are really coming into your own in terms of writing, presentation (pictures tell a wonderful story in this post), use of diff sized fonts etc. Plus the whole article is very light hearted in making a very deep point. Nicely done :-)

  3. @Kenzo labels are ... a short cut, I think. Maybe a dog is fearful, but saying that might bite you in the ass. =] I've seen too many people miss important factors because they'd already made up their minds .... and were wrong. Ty. Glad you liked the article.

    @Dino. Don't give me a big head! ...I was kind of proud of this one, thought. ^-^;; TY for the compliment(s)

  4. I just found your blog. Somewhere, I don't remember how, actually. But I think it's fascinating. I can't get enough of dog training information and you put it all out there so well.

    These things, labels and behaviours they should be simple to differentiate, shouldn't they? Our poor human brains tend to make them a lot more complicated. I'll try to keep all this in mind in the future.

  5. @Kristine Labels and behaviors should be easy to differentiate, but the problem is that most people have to unlearn what they thought the word "behavior" meant.

    The problem with labels comes when you're trying to work out a behavior.

    Saying a dog is aggressive seems to say, "He's just a dick." And people won't even bother to look at what triggered the behavior ...and more importantly WHY!

    Oftentimes, someone was doing something silly, like staring at the dog, and the dog was very politely trying to tell them that he was uncomfortable by raising his lips, licking them, etc. When signs like that are missed, the dog escalates to showing teeth, growling, snapping, etc, and gets labeled a jerk because he growled. ...But, as in most things with canines, it was really the fault [or ignorance] of the humans involved.

    ...And I'm not sure why I wrote you a book explaining stuff you already know! @_@ Oops.

    Anyway, TY very much for the comment & compliment. They are much appreciated!!!

  6. What a great article! Short, to the point, sentences of manageable lengths, but above all, making a very very very important point about the the dangers of labelling.

    I love your upbeat wit, and am still LMAO about "... is an OCD behaviour"!

  7. @Laure-Anne TY! I think you are my new favorite person. Most people don't call me witty - they tilt their heads and look at me like I'm some sort of fascinating and strange creature.

    I try pretty hard to keep my paragraphs and sentences short - with pictures of what I'm trying to illustrate with my words in between. I've read studies and talked with people who say that those things keep a reader's attention and help retain the info a little better.

    Don't be fooled.
    I am extremely long winded!

    Thanks for the comment!