an article that came out last week, this shift means that the dates commonly associated with the various signs are off by almost an entire month.
This means that I’m now a Leo, not a Virgo like I always thought. Wait. A Leo? Me? That couldn’t possibly be true. I mean, I’m a classic Virgo: analytical, observant, reliable, independent, and yes, I do tend to over think things from time to time. But as surprising as this revelation was, I was even more surprised by how upset I felt, especially since I don’t really put that much stock in horoscopes. Still, being told that I’m not a Virgo after all this time felt weird. I’ve spent my entire life believing one thing about myself, and it’s hard to accept this new identity.
It makes sense, though. Humans like to categorize things because it helps us make sense of our world, and once we classify something in a particular way, we are very reluctant to change the way we think about it. That’s probably why I feel so resistant to the idea that I’m really a Leo, even if I do have some of the typical characteristics.
We do this to our dogs, too. We label them with words like “dominant,” or “submissive.” We call them “shy,” or “outgoing,” or “fearful,” or “confident.” We might even call them “reactive” and “anxious.” And each time we do this, we begin to think about our dog differently.
Is this bad? Not necessarily. Labels give us easy ways to describe complicated concepts. They can help us understand why our dogs are acting a certain way. They can help us feel empathy for them, even when they’re doing things we don't like. They allow us get them the help they need from trainers or vets.
But because labels shape the way we perceive our dogs, it can cause us to give up on them or do unpleasant things to them. How many people don’t bother training their dogs because they’re “stubborn”? How many dogs are subjected to forceful procedures because they’re “trying to be the alpha”? How many dogs are put to sleep because they’re “aggressive”? And how many dogs could live better lives if their people were able to look past the labels they’ve been given?
So, what’s the answer? To be honest, I’m not sure. Part of me wants to say that we should quit labeling our dogs, but I know that labels can be just as helpful and they can be harmful. There’s no point in throwing out the baby with the bathwater, after all.
I guess the best course of action is to assign labels cautiously. Are we labeling our dogs because it helps us understand them better, or because it allows us to make excuses? Does this label limit my dog’s potential or will it help him grow? How was the label chosen; is it based on careful, objective observation, or are we throwing around words with little meaning? Does the label apply all the time, or only in certain circumstances? Is this label accurate?
And of course, we should always question that label once it’s been given. Does this label still make sense? Has my dog changed and outgrown the label? Does using this label improve my relationship with my dog, or does it damage it?
I have labeled Maisy as many things, starting right at the beginning with the title of my blog. I’ve called her reactive, a word that has a negative connotation, even though people can’t seem to agree on what it means. Has that changed my feelings about her? No, not in the least, but whereas calling her reactive gives me a framework for helping her, it may have unintended consequences. Maybe it unfairly changes the way others view her.
Maisy’s visit with the veterinary behaviorist garnered her a whole new set of labels: generalized anxiety disorder, fear aggressive and resource guarder. I have to admit, I don’t like that middle one. It conjures up images that I do not associate with my dog at all, so it’s one that I don’t use when I think about or describe her. Still, those labels allowed us to access the medication that has improved Maisy’s quality of life so much. I just hope people can see past the labels and into her heart.
Clearly, labels have power. Because of that, we need to be certain that the labels we use are accurate. More importantly, we need to be willing to question those labels instead of blindly accepting them. If someone gives your dog a label, you need to decide if it matches up with reality. Not your own perception, but reality, because if you’ve labeled your dog in some way, you owe it to him to reexamine what led you to that conclusion. If the label is helpful- if it helps you make better decisions for your dog, if it allows you to understand him better, or if it deepens your bond with him- keep it. If not, look for another. Don’t settle for labels that damage your relationship.