Labels Create Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Nicole S. Silvers, "that dog whisperer lady"

Recently, my dog Lila and I encountered a group of three Australian Shepherds, out for a walk in the park with a man and woman.  As we approached, I thought I noted signs of discomfort in the humans, and, I admit, I have my own expectations about the stability of Aussies.  The group appeared to move off when we entered their visual distance, but, apart from some leash-pulling, not the total chaos I expected.  I decided to ascribe my feeling to my own stereotypes about the breed.

As we continued our walks in opposite directions, and the trail is a circuit, we re-encountered each other again a short time later.  Unlike the intial moment, where the angle of approach put our dogs facing 180 degrees away  from each other, this approach put us nose to nose. 

I trust Lila to not hurt any dogs, no matter how nuts, and I will stop any dogs from hurting her, if need be.  So, as we approached, the group didn't move off the trail.  "Oh, good,"  I thought, "I'm just wrong.  They're just wild and out of control.  That's about right for "normal" Aussies."

Their dogs began a chorus of barking.  Lila, on a retractable, able to escape, fight, or do almost anything else she pleases, dropped to her elbows, sprang, and dropped again and again.  Play is frequently offered by well-adjusted dogs to diffuse tension. 

"They can sniff," I said to the woman.  "Oh, no", she said, wrangling her single dog by the collar.  "He's aggressive."  I brought Lila to my side, and placed her in a sit to calm the woman. 

"Aww.... Do you have a dog trainer?" I asked, knowing she had no clue who I or Lila are.  

"Yeah, we did."

"Oh, who did you use?"  Remember, the woman still thinks there is a dogfight about to happen here.  I know there isn't, because I'm not afraid to stop her "aggressive" dog.  But didn't get off the trail?  I'll never claim to completely understand humans. 

"Some guy the Humane League (a local rescue organization) gave us.  He's a rescue.  He's deaf, and he was attacked by a puppy," she says, starting to walk away from us.

"Deaf?  Awww.... is he a double merle?"

"Yeah," over her shoulder, as she walks away.

"Well, nice meeting you.  Enjoy your walk," I say. 

So, a few questions:

  • If the dog is that "aggressive", why is it not muzzled or moved off the trail on our approach?
  • Why is the professional help not continuing? 
  • Does she believe that what she sees is maximum improvement? 
  • Has labeling the behavior put her at ease enough to not continue work?
  • Has "training" the dog left her without the requisite skills to actually work through greetings?

I shouldn't be surprised.  But I always am.  The effects of a labeling or "diagnostic" focus are evident in so many of the cases I work with.  Since I do only in-home cases, I see dogs who are perceived as the "worst of the worst", by their owners, and even some trainers (not all trainers specialize in "problem" behaviors, nor should they be expected to). 

I frequently work with other trainer's or training schools "drop-outs".  Blame is often misdirected at often excellent trainers and schools.  Owners often don't realize that "trainer" is as generic a term as "teacher".  Would you expect the English teacher to instruct in calculus?  They also don't know that standard group obedience classes shouldn't be intended to provide specialized remedial work.  Practice, controlled exposure, yes, instruction?  No.  While I encourage all my clients to shoot for group class participation as a goal, the reality is that the situations I see need some basic skills before even stepping foot in a formal training situation.  No instructor of a group class should be expected to attempt to teach that material AND conduct a group class at the same time!

Because I get dogs who have been seen before, the vast majority of my cases have some label.  In one extreme, the labels become excuses or explanations of behavior.  In the other extreme, they become self-fulfilling prophecies.  (In the encounter I described, the woman actually chose a nice balanced approach of both extremes!)

The labels are tempting to all of us, trainers and owners alike, because they give us something to cling to.  They simplify what is, in actuality, a very complicated situation.  It's a reassuring thought that if there is a diagnosis, there must be a prescribed cure.  NILIF, more walks, 20 minute down-stays.  If you do enough of the "prescription",  voila!  Cure. 

If you put enough of the "right stuff" into the box (the dog), the "right stuff" (good behavior) will come out.  It's so close to true, it's agonizing to realize it isn't quite true!  Yes, if you meet the dog's needs, generally, the right stuff will come out.  However, there is no guarantee.  It's only probable.  There's no way of successfully predicting a single outcome for a given situation.  Good, humane, effective training is being dismissed because it "fails".  It fails because the owner misunderstands "training" as a prescription, when it is more like nutrition.  Training is part of a complete balanced healthy lifestyle that also includes meals, games, socializing, outings, walks, romps, hanging out.

Oh, and if you see me and Lila?  Bring your little monster over for a sniff.  I won't let anything bad happen to either one.