When we label any individual’s behavior, person or pet, we get in the way of solving it. Why is that? Why is labeling so easy and yet so unhelpful? Well, let’s reframe. If we tell a child they are stupid and slow, the child understands us. The label becomes a part of the child’s self worth. It also becomes part of our perception of them. But somehow we expect by name calling and labeling a person we will shame them into better behavior. Even the research on people that shows it doesn’t work! But yet we do it all the time.

But our pets are different right? So what? They can’t hear us, or understand what we mean, so how is it still a problem? Here’s just a few reasons.

Labeling doesn’t really tell us what the behavior looks like. If we are trying to improve behavior we need to know what that looks like. That means using a functional definition of what you are seeing is more helpful in the long run. An “agitated” pet might be barking, pacing, panting or chewing on the fur of their foreleg. Really, “agitated” could describe any number of behaviors. Accurately describing what is happening is really important. By figuring out what happened right before that behavior started, we can get good information about what may be motivating the behavior. We will focus on connecting observable, measurable behaviors to ways to change them for the remainder of this book.

Labeling ascribes motivation that could be inaccurate. A dog is growling at a stranger. We label them as mean, when really they feel threatened and afraid. The label of “mean” causes us to feel hard hearted and angry with them instead of being empathetic. We all have felt threatened and afraid at some point in our lives. Instinctively, we know that yelling at or hitting a person who feels afraid or threatened only causes them to feel more afraid. Labels actually lead us down destructive paths with our pets. If we accurately understand the situation, we can be more helpful.

The label limits our search for the motivation behind the behavior. If we label an animal “slow”, we put the blame on the animal for why they aren’t learning. We stop trying to find a way to help that pet learn because the meaning of “slow” is that they can’t learn. It gives us an excuse to give up. The famous experiment with teachers who were told their students were slow showed us that too. If we believed that our learner of whatever species was intelligent but that they weren’t learning, we would search deeper for a way to teach them. It shifts the burden back to us to find a way to help them. Often an animal that is labeled “slow” is suffering from anxiety or other emotional stress or there is an issue with the owner’s training style and consistency. So many reasons exist on the environmental side of learning that can be discovered with help.

Labeling means we feel like the behavior is inside the animal and is unchangeable. If we label a pet “mean” then we feel like it is in their DNA. We don’t look for opportunities to change or improve because it is just who they they are. We don’t try to change their coat color or how many legs they have, so why would we try to change their personality if that who they are at their core? If instead, we view their behavior as a response to their environment, then all of a sudden they can change. We want to focus on changing their response, not changing their personality. Eventually, with that focus we can affect their personality overall.

I challenge my graduate students to describe a behavior functionally all the time, and its hard to do! A functional definition of a behavior is what we can observe without ascribing motive or intent. It is the what, not the why or the because. You can tell you are going down this road when you try to use the word because or begin telling a story. Instead, focus on what your pet is doing that you can measure. What does the behavior look like? What does it sound like? Notice when the behavior begins. Think about what is going on in your home at those times.

Yes, its true…what we really want to know is why the behavior is happening, but we will get there by thinking intentionally about the circumstances around the behavior, not by labeling. Pets are very much in the moment, so environmental triggers, while sometimes subtle, are not usually separated in time from the behavior they are exhibiting. When we figure out what our pet’s motivation is to engage in that behavior, then we can effectively solve it. Let’s lose the labels and talk in terms of functional descriptions so we can get to real solutions sooner.

If you are struggling with a troubling behavior in your pet, know that change can happen with help. I am committed to helping families in Northern Colorado tackle and solve complex behavior challenges. Together, we can get on the right path. ~Dr. Willis