Sunday, January 16, 2011

Hey, Baby, What's Your Sign: On Labels and Perceptions

Is this the face of a Libra... or a Virgo?

Have you heard the news? Because the moon’s gravitational pull has caused the earth to “wobble” on its axis, your zodiac sign might not be what you think it is. According to 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.


Crystal said...

PS- If you’re like me, you’ll be glad to hear that no, your sign hasn’t really changed. Whew! Thank goodness I’m still a Virgo… even if I don’t really believe in astrology.

Kristen said...

Have I said that your writing is really good?

I tend to be very anti-label. Typically I don't say such things with students. But with people I know well.... I think it annoys them at times. *cough* megan *cough*.

Katie, Maizey and Magnus said...

I know the truthfulness of this since I always struggle with what to call Maizey's behavior. Calling it reactive is not always understood, especially by the general public. So sometimes I call her fearful, so people will understand better.

I think that's an important part language-even if it helps explain and give me better understanding, if it doesn't help the person I'm talking to understand better it's really pointless. That's not to under estimate the value of educating people on what labels really mean, but sometimes its better to use a word that is already understood than quibble about labels that are not going to be helpful anyways.

In the end I just end up calling her my princess-maizeymaymay-face and call that good!LOL Another thoughtful post!

Joanna said...

I was also just commenting to compliment your writing! The way you tied in the news story, your own reactions and feelings, and the dog-training topic at hand was really smooth. Very much like a professional article.

Crystal said...

Good lord. You people are going to go straight to my head, you know? ;)

Thank you for your kind words, Joanna and Kristen. I do edit quite a bit after writing, and it's nice to know that effort isn't in vain.

Dawn said...

Since science has documented that some animals have labels for each other(in the form of names) I think its very likely that this is something we are not going to be able to get away from.

However we all know labels often are hurtful. I am guilty of this too. Peace's nickname is noodle brain. Does it hurt her no, but it does probably allow me to interact with her differently than I do with the other dogs who I feel are smarter. However, using her nickname of Noodle, when I am having trouble helping her understand often does help me slow down and remember that she is not as clever, does not learn as fast. So although its a negative, its use is not hurtful. And its always said with love. So I dont think I will get away from calling her my noodle girl.

Jules said...

Very thoughtful post!

Katie said...

Personally I was good with the sign change- it made me a Cancer instead of a Leo. I've never felt very much like a fire sign.

But anyway.

I certainly label my dogs- Luce "bossy", Steve "neurotic", Mushroom "wimpy". My poor boys get the short end of the stick. I agree that labels can be both useful and destructive, but I think it's a very human trait to want to label and categorize. I think the key, more than anything, is to not get hung up on those labels and to not get dismissive of our dogs because of them.

Anonymous said...

Hi. Mom of another Mayzie here. I've actually been thinking a lot about labels, too. When we first met our Mayzie, her fostermom said she was "sensitive." I actually wish she had labeled Mayzie as "fearful" because we thought...okay, we can handle a "sensitive" dog. But Mayzie's issues were so much deeper than that and we were really unprepared because of the label her fostermom had given her. The funny thing is that while she's still "fearful" in certain situations, she is now pretty much just "sensitive" in most other situations.

I personally like the label "reactive" because I think it allows people to better understand the underlying feelings of why the dog is acting out. In the past, such dogs would be labeled "aggressive" and that, to me, does a huge disservice to the dog and is detrimental to the human-dog bond.

Of course, then there's the issue of Mayzie being labeled a "pit bull" by most people, with all the baggage that that entails. That label bothers me most of all. Not because I'm ashamed to have a pit bull-type dog. But because it saddles her with all sorts of misconceptions and judgments before they even get to know her. When people say, "Oh, is that a pit bull?," I always want to say, "No...she's a Mayzie."

Sorry to ramble on but thank you for such a thought-provoking post.

Amber (MayzieMomma)

A. said...

Labels are only as good as the efforts of the people using them. They're terrible things if people use labels as a reason to not be accountable as opposed to a step towards solving a situation. Similarly, if a person slaps on a label so that they know how best to deal with a situation, it can be an awesome thing.

Ah, so basically, pretty much what you said.

Crystal said...

Hi Amber- I'm always happy to see another Maisy/Maizey/Mayzie mom.

I think an important aspect of labels is asking what that label means since people may define words differently. "Sensitive" and "fearful" can describe the same thing, like you said. It sounds like you and Mayzie's fostermom had different ideas of what "sensitive" meant, but maybe asking could have clarified so you were on the same page.

I hadn't thought much about the "pit bull" label, but it makes so much sense. That label can really hurt a dog simply because people have heard the media hype surrounding bully breeds. That's really too bad- I really like the bullies. They are some of the sweetest dogs I've ever met.

Crystal said...

Ha! Thanks, A. :)

Raegan said...

You're freaking brilliant, you know that?

I especially appreciated the nod to the fact that labels *are* useful and not always a bad thing, because they allow complicated, abstract topics to be discussed and compared.

I'm very possessive of the "reactive" label. To me, it is specifically *not* applicable to dogs that bark and lunge at other dogs on leash. That's an untrained dog. Reactivity is more than just a dog that has reactions. It's important to me to keep that distinction because if my dog is reactive, it's no shame that I need help, but if he's untrained, that's something I should be able to handle. I'm a dog trainer for chrissakes!

Crystal said...

Raegan, interestingly enough, my trainer and I had a conversation about that the other day. She has a 5 month GSD puppy who has a slight crush on Maisy (the feelings are not mutual), and because she's not fully trained yet, she's a bit... um, enthusiastic... when she's on leash and sees Maisy. It *looks* like reactivity, but it's not, and we were discussing where the line is between an untrained dog and reactivity.

Of course, the real problem is that reactivity isn't well defined in the dog training world yet, and as a result, I've been moving away from "reactivity" as a label for Maisy and towards "anxious." So far, that seems easier for people to understand, and while I'm still describing the same dog and the same behaviors, it seems to get the point across better.