Thursday, October 27, 2011

Labels vs. Descriptions: How You Should Talk About Your Dog's Behavior

My dog is reactive. Yours might be, too. But when we say this, are we describing their behavior, or are we labeling it? And does it make a difference?

As I have said before, labels are great because they allow us to easily discuss complicated concepts. When I tell another dog person that my dog is reactive, they immediately understand what I mean. Unfortunately, what labels aren’t so good at is describing exactly what we mean. Yes, that person might have a general picture in their mind of what my dog does, but what if their definition of “reactive” is different than mine? Are we really talking about the same behavior?

After discussing it with others, I have discovered that there are a wide variety of things that dogs can do and still be called reactive. I hold the classic view: lunging, barking, growling. Others include more assertive behaviors, such as snapping or biting. Still others include overt displays of fear, such as cowering or running away. Are all these things reactivity?

This is one of the major problems with labels. While they make for great shorthand, they aren’t terribly clear. Everyone has a slightly different idea of what that label means. As a result, there are times when I think we would be better off describing the behavior, not labeling it.

So what does it mean to describe a behavior? It’s the process of using words to explain what a dog did in such a way that another person can form an accurate mental picture. It’s like writing stage directions in a script: the words tell you exactly what the movie will show you. Consider these two examples:
I took Maisy for a walk today and she had a reactive outburst.
…as opposed to…
I took Maisy for a walk today. When she saw a bicyclist go past, she quickly rushed towards him while growling. Once she got to the end of her leash, she strained against it and barked repeatedly. She didn’t respond to her name or any verbal commands until the bike was out of sight, at which point she returned to my side. She didn’t really pay attention to me, though, and instead continued to stare towards where she last saw the bike.
The first statement is a label. It is quick and easy to say, and most people will have a pretty good idea of what I mean, especially if we’ve talked about it before. The second statement is a description of her behavior. It gives a very clear picture of what happened, including the circumstances around it. There are even clues about her general arousal level.

But does this distinction matter? In many contexts, probably not. Casual conversation doesn’t require the precision and details inherent in a description- thank goodness, because boy is it a mouthful! However, there are times when we want clarity about what happened.

Perhaps the most important time to describe instead of label is when we’re seeking help. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen someone ask for help on the internet using a label, only for them to receive tons of questions instead of a response. While this usually just slows down the answers, I have seen well-meaning people give inappropriate advice because they were envisioning something different than what actually happened.

Another difficulty is that if we think in terms of labels, we won’t notice or remember the details. When designing a behavior modification plan, those details are important. Without them, it is very difficult to determine the severity of the behavior, the dog’s underlying emotional state, even the triggers! Sometimes several different behaviors get lumped together under the same label. All of this makes it much more difficult to create a plan that will be successful.

Using labels instead of descriptions makes it difficult to measure progress as well. I have called Maisy reactive for several years now. However, her actual behavior has changed over time. Take the example above, about Maisy’s reaction to a child on rollerblades. That description was accurate two years ago, however today, the same situation would probably be described like this:
I took Maisy for a walk today. When she saw a bicyclist go past, she wuffed softly, but stood in place. She watched the bike go past, and then looked back at me. I called her, and her body visibly relaxed as she came to me.
Although I label both of those examples as “reactive,” they are very, very different behaviors. The second one shows a great deal of improvement, but if I simply used the label, no one would ever realize how much better she is these days.

So… is my dog reactive? I think so, but now that you know more about what she does, you might disagree. That’s okay. While labeling the behavior is more convenient, the true goal of communication is for both of us to understand what the other one means. If that understanding can happen with labels, great. But sometimes, describing behavior will have better results.


sheila said...

I believe all dogs are reactive in one way or another to every stimuli. You are right that how they react is very different. Imagine Maisy reacting to the bike by just looking at you and waiting to see what you think. In this case she is reacting to the stimuli but in a "positive" way by looking at you. I really do believe in explaining what is happening when a stimuli is presented. It will give us a better idea of what the dog needs -- whether an enthusiastic "good dog" because she looked or more of a modification if the reaction is a bark and chase.
I love your blog. I can relate to it -- I am not the perfect trainer but I love my dog and we have a lot of fun together.

Crystal Thompson said...

Oh, totally, Sheila! The term "reactive" is kind of a misnomer- EVERY dog reacts to his environment. If he doesn't, well... he's probably dead. ;) Sometimes I wonder where it even came from. I'd bet that it is a shortened version of "over-reactive."

Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

Maisy is now a recovering reactive dog :) May always need hard work to stay on the right path but not really reactive anymore!

Crystal Thompson said...

I really like your definition of "recovering reactive," Laura. It's very accurate of how Maisy is these days. :)

Lili said...

Hi Crystal,
I am loving your blog! I was just reading Kay Laurence's book and I like that she says all dogs are reactive. If they didn't react they would be dead. She uses "over-reactive". I still struggle finding the right words to talk about Boogie's behavior or what exactly his "issues" are.