I caught myself doing something the other day that I try to keep my clients from doing: putting a “label” on a problem behavior.

In my eleven-plus years of training, I have come to reject neat categorical labels for dog behavior. I got to that point by consulting with clients who come to me calling their dog’s problem behavior “fear aggressive” or “dominant.” As a trainer, those labels don’t give me any information about what the real behavior is. Those who have worked with me before will tell you I ask at least 20 questions in the course of a telephone call and/or an initial assessment – usually more. I’m looking for motivations, context, triggers and relationships. Trainers, such as myself, who use science-based, force-free training and behavior modification methods have many different options for changing a dog’s behavior, so understanding as much as possible about the details of a dog and her behavior is critical to selecting the right approach for any given dog.

And yet, I discovered last week that I have been labeling the behavior of my own dog, Maddie, for a long time. Oops! Shortly after we adopted Maddie, we discovered she was pretty reactive to other dogs, staring, lunging and barking with confident body language. In my mind, I defined her behavior as “dog aggressive,” and there it stayed. For the next five years.

See, that’s a problem with using labels in describing a dog’s behavior: we tend to leave that original label on the behavior, without taking a more objective view of how the behavior may be changing over time. This was made clear to me last week during a tense few minutes at home, when a neighbor’s 100-plus pound Doberman got out of his yard and came prancing over to play in our yard and around the creek. Through a window, I saw the dog darting around and knew that Maddie was also in the yard. Yikes! I went running outside to see the Doberman having a blast running around our yard. And then I see this dog heading over to Maddie to say “hi!” I was too slow and too far away to intervene, so I held my breath. The Doberman got close and Maddie lunged and barked fiercely; and the Doberman backed off.

What came next is the basis of my epiphany about my labeling Maddie as “dog aggressive.” She didn’t pursue the Doberman.

Surely if she were truly “dog aggressive,” she would have gone after him and continued to aggress on him. But she didn’t. Her behavior was to establish her personal space with that dog and tell him to back off. After another couple minutes of Maddie running around the backyard – at a distance! – to keep an eye on the Doberman, I was able to get her in the house, about the time the Doberman’s family was coming to get him. Surprising me even more, Maddie sat looking out the sunroom sliding door as we got the Doberman under control and heading home with his family. She didn’t make a sound! We expected frenetic barking at the glass, but no. She just watched quietly.

Maddie_9_May 2012

I had labeled Maddie as “dog aggressive” and frozen her behavior in my mind at that point in time when I applied the label. That short-changed both of us. I hadn’t appreciated how her behavior has modified through our teamwork. I wonder if I might have expanded her life experiences more before now, had I not locked on to that label. I have seen many other indications of the hard shell of Maddie softening and becoming more social, but because I labeled her, I didn’t think of how that might influence her behavior around other dogs. Shame on me.

It is far more useful to describe the behavior, than apply a neat label to it. If you call a professional trainer to help you with a problem behavior, we will want to know details. Dog behavior typically changes and adapts in different situations. Often, the behavior will only happen in certain contexts, but not others. Or with certain people or animals. When you are experiencing a behavior problem with your dog, try to avoid a label. Take notes about the details so you can start to see those similarities and differences. Should you decide to call a professional trainer to assist you with that behavior modification, the trainer will be better prepared to help with great background and details on the behavior.

Finally, try to be objective. Be prepared to change your assessment of the behavior as you work with your dog to remediate a problem. Give her opportunities to show you how she has improved, as well as where her challenges still lie. After all, we’re all Works in Progress, right?