Labels. That’s a sticky topic in the best of times. A landmine in current times. Because I’m not adept at navigating minefields, I’ll look at it in dog terms. We label all the time. We label a dog according to breed. Certain breeds have certain traits. Certain strengths and certain weaknesses. Beagles howl, Golden Retrievers are friendly, Labrador Retrievers are happy go lucky, Shepherds are protective. Except that really doesn’t even begin to touch on reality. All of these breeds can have all of the above traits—interchangeably. When we see “our” breed, we tend to apply labels that feel favorable to us. That’s my breed, isn’t it the best? Shouldn’t everyone see that my breed is better than all the other breeds? Well yes, of course. It’s the best breed for you. Just like mine is the best breed for me, which doesn’t mean I think less of your breed. It doesn’t mean I think my breed is smarter, sweeter, faster, cuddlier, prettier, etc. It’s just the best breed for me.
We label dog’s behavior. We often label it based on preconceived ideas. If a German Shepherd barks at me as I approach, I’m going to be cautious. They can bite you know. If a Labrador barks at me as I approach, I assume he’s just happy to see me. After all, Labradors are friendly. What’s wrong with that you may ask? More often than not, these automatic labels are incorrect. They blind us. Instead of seeing what is really there in front of us, we label, have expectations and interpret the behavior through a filtered lens. Perhaps, if I changed the label to “dog” and read the animal’s body language I would realize that the German Shepherd was happy to see me…the Labrador not so much. What we think we see and believe affects our behavior. If I label my dog as “stubborn” I’m going to subconsciously look for evidence to support my belief. I may call my dog, she doesn’t come and I say “see, she is so stubborn” and throw my hands in the air. Just maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the dog is not stubborn at all. Or maybe she is, but not in this case. Maybe she is confused. Maybe I haven’t been consistent as a trainer. Maybe she has learned that I am impatient and not always pleasant to be around, so sniffing the grass is more rewarding. Taking it one step further, any time my dog is confused, or feeling pressure and not exhibiting the behavior I’m asking for I label it stubbornness. In my mind I am creating a “stubborn dog”… and, thanks to my thought process, my dog is proving me right. OR…. I could get rid of the label completely. Throw it out the window. Resist the urge to argue that, after all, MY dog really and truly is stubborn… or a wimp, or blows me off, or is not so bright, or is stressed or _______ fill in the blank. Hmmmm.. now what? Now I can actually read my dog. I mean really read the dog. Watch their face, their body, their behavior objectively. I can question myself.
- Have I been consistent?
- Have I been a good communicator?
- Do I understand my dog?
- What is the dog is telling me?
- What can I do to improve my understanding?
- To bridge the gap?
- What can I do to improve our relationship?
- What can I learn from this dog?
- Can I get rid of the labels and just let the dog be the best expression of themselves?
Taking it a step further…ok, maybe a giant leap… What if I completely change the label and create a “new” dog? After all, my mind created a “stubborn” dog. Maybe, just maybe my mind can create a tractable dog. Hmmmm…… I’m a mental management junkie. I know the power of the mind. I’ve read about it, heard about it, practiced it. I know it works. What we say and what we believe is what we create. Be mindful of what you think and say because it creates your reality.
I am a realist. I have a dog that I know, for a fact, is inherently a bit nervous and insecure. For a long time, that’s how I labeled him. One day I was taking a seminar, my dog exhibited a behavior and I immediately said to the presenter “See, he’s doing that because he’s nervous.” The presenter disagreed. In that moment, he didn’t think the dog was nervous at all. Well, that got me thinking…and thinking. Suddenly I realized what I had done. As long as I was labeling the dog as nervous, I would treat him that way, interpret all of his behavior that way and that’s what he would be. The next day I bought him a new collar, marched into work and told everyone that he was now a brave and confident dog. And I challenged myself to create that. Was it easy? Absolutely not. It took an enormous amount of work. Admittedly, I still fall back onto the old label periodically. I’m far from perfect, but then I catch myself. Have I completely changed the character of this dog? No—BUT he has far exceeded his natural abilities. He is as confident as he is capable of being, and as brave as he can possibly be. In the process, I have learned to read him. Objectively. I have learned an enormous amount as a trainer. He has brought wonderful people into my life. We have a beautiful relationship not just when training but in life. All because I changed the label. I let him be who he is, then I nurtured, encouraged and supported him. I built up his confidence and ego.
Labels cloud our judgment. Labels prevent us from us from finding solutions. Labels create barriers. Labels prevent us from seeing the true potential of every dog.
If you catch yourself using a label, stop for a second. Is it preventing you from reading what your dog is really trying to tell you? Is it preventing you from bringing the best out of your dog? Is it benefitting your relationship? If you feel yourself wanting to cling to and defend the label, ask yourself why? Is it because you may have to change? Likely the answer is yes, and likely the change will greatly enrich your life.
And what if labels have the same effect on humans?