The Truth About Labels

By Chelsea Murray ATDI, CPDT-KA, KPA-CTP

“Alaskan Malamutes and Siberian Huskies are stubborn”, “My breed is not biddable”, “Sighthounds can’t have good recall”, “My dog chases cars because he is a Border Collie”, “My dog is not food motivated”

You may have heard some of these labeling statements, or even said them yourself. Unfortunately, saying sweeping, judging, false statements like these can not only be damaging to your relationship with your dog, but can also hinder the amount of progress you and your dog are able to make. In the heat of the moment it can be hard to be objective! Frustrations and embarrassment surrounding our dog’s behavior (or lack thereof) can cause us to rely on using labels as a crutch to explain or justify the behavior.

While attaching labels may be common practice, I am challenging you all to rethink this and to consider how you can change your own behavior.

Why is it a problem? Labels are often biased judgements that we let define our dogs. They usually are used to imply that a certain characteristic of the dog is innate or unchangeable. Using labels causes us to ignore the fact that all behavior can be changed and puts us in a harmful mindset that can negatively impact how we treat our dogs, how we develop training plans, and how we manage expectations.  If we deem that our dog cannot do something or change because it is just a part of their nature, then we will too easily give up on working to modify their behavior and we won’t be able to help our dogs reach their full potential.

So, what should you do instead? When you catch yourself wanting to label, I encourage you to look at the behavior involved. Watch out for statements that may be dead ends like:

My dog is/isn’t…

My dog doesn’t like…

My dog can’t/won’t…

Instead, work on rephrasing labels to address the behavior. What behavior is your dog doing? And, what would you like them to do instead? We can then develop a training plan to modify the behavior we are seeing.  We can also incorporate management where appropriate to prevent the undesirable behavior from getting stronger through rehearsal and unintended reinforcement. And through consistent use of positive reinforcement techniques like luring, capturing, and shaping we can turn that unwanted behavior into something we deem more appropriate and desirable. We have then turned a false and unchangeable label into something that we can resolve through good training plans.

Still not convinced? Let’s break down our initial list of labels above:

“Alaskan Malamutes and Siberian Huskies are stubborn” – Dogs of any breed can be labeled as “stubborn” when they do not perform a behavior when the human asks. This can happen for a variety of reasons including if the dog is concerned about the resulting consequences (if punishment has been used historically), if the dog does not know the behavior as well as the human thinks they do (the behavior isn’t fluent), or if the dog is not motivated by what the human wants to use as a reinforcer (would you go to work for pennies on the dollar?).

Let’s use a common example of a dog not sitting when asked. Maybe you know that the dog has been taught the behavior to place their rump on the ground, but in a certain circumstance it may seem like the dog knows what you want, but they are “stubborn” and won’t perform the behavior.

In this example, the behavior the dog is doing is continuing to stand, laying down instead of sitting, or walking away. The behavior you want the dog to do is to put their bum on the ground. The appropriate way to address the “stubbornness” is to evaluate the behavior and identify what is preventing the dog from getting it right (for example fluency, stressful or exciting environment, reinforcement, or some combination of these) and to work to develop the behavior of sit until the behavior is as reliable as you need it to be.

“My breed is not biddable” – Biddable is synonymous with obedient, cooperative, and submissive. I think this word is generally misused and outdated and should be replaced with trainable (BUT, I digress). The intention is to say that the dog is not easily trained. Therefore, this phrase tells me that the human handler/trainer/owner needs help understanding and applying learning theory. They may need to learn how to motivate their dogs or help with alternative ways of training behaviors. With a quick dive into clicker training and some insight to luring, capturing, and shaping, they will soon learn how to train the dog in front of them with success.

“Sighthounds can’t have good recall” – While we do know that sighthounds often have high prey drive, the trait of having prey drive is not mutually exclusive with having a good recall.

In this example, the behavior the dog is doing is chasing a bunny, while the behavior we want the dog to do is turning around and coming back to us. To address this, we would need to develop a training plan that develops both attention and coming when called with a focus on distractions! By starting with the behavior indoors and in familiar locations with minimal distractions, we can ensure that we build the basics of recall before we ask for the behavior in more challenging environments.   We can then strategically increase the level of distractions in training sessions slowly enough that the dog remains successful, in order to teach the dog what we DO want in that circumstance.

“My dog chases cars because he is a Border Collie” – Yes, your dog is a border collie and this breed does have some natural instinct to herd in their genetics. However, this behavior of chasing cars is dangerous and can be modified in any dog breed!

In this example, the behavior the dog is doing is chasing cars, while the behavior we want the dog to do is to sit and look at us instead. So, my behavior modification training plan would include managing thresholds (or the dog’s tolerance of the cars) to make sure the dog is kept in a suitable learning environment (under threshold), while I work on teaching attention and sit. If I can teach the dog to respond positively and consistently to a “watch me” or a “leave it” cue, then we can turn the unwanted and unsafe chasing into focus on the handler.

“My dog is not food motivated” – All dogs need to eat to survive. A dog who is not eating may be sick, may not be interested in what the trainer has, or they may be experiencing too much stress to be interested in food. While we all have taste preferences, eating IS a behavior!  So, I would work on a training plan where I could find a place (low stress and quiet) and a type of food where the dog would eat and I would reinforce the behavior. We can also build interest in food itself by using the Premack Principle where we are rewarding the behavior of taking food with a higher-value reward (higher-value treats, playing with toys, calm petting, etc.). With consistency and careful planning, you can create a chowhound who will eat anything enthusiastically and then you will no longer have challenges with using food as a reinforcer in training. Then you are free to use a variety of values of food in your training plan!

In summary… When someone says one of those phrases about their dog, it vividly tells me about the lens in which they see their dog through.  While they may feel this lens is accurate, we need to remember that labels can be inaccurate and restrictive.  When we label our dogs, we jump to interpretations and are more likely to misunderstand why the dog is behaving as he is and what is reinforcing the behavior.

When you are tempted to label, instead, describe the behavior and not the dog. By controlling your mindset, you will find that those things you thought were natural characteristics were just labels that were preventing you and your dog from achieving the success that you want.

We’d love to hear from you – What is a label that you were putting on your dog?

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