Word matter: Choose carefully

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The words you use to describe your dog’s behavior can be very important to the feelings you have toward your dog. 

Words matter, even the words you use when describing your pet.

Here are some examples of words we commonly use with our dogs. When you hear these phrases what do they conjure in your mind?

  • I have an “aggressive” dog.
  • I gave my dog a “command” and he “refused” to do it.
  • My dog is “dominating” me.

What about these sentences?

  • I have a “fearful” dog.
  • I gave my dog a “cue” but he did not “understand” it.
  • My dog is trying to “communicate” with me, but I don’t know what he is saying.

Using the first set of words could be setting you up for failure before you even start trying to help your dog as those words come with a lot of baggage.

Let’s look at some dictionary definitions:

Aggressive vs. Fearful

Aggressive: a forceful action or procedure (such as an unprovoked attack) especially when intended to dominate or master

Fearful: feeling afraid; showing fear or anxiety.

I get emails every week from potential clients who describe their dog as “aggressive.” From 3-month old “aggressive” puppies to old dogs whose arthritis is acting up. We love to use this word. But, this word comes with a lot of negativity. Many of my clients have been told their dog is “aggressive” by neighbors or family. It makes people feel as if they own Cujo, a dog foaming at the mouth trying to get through car window to murder innocent people. It is easy to give up on an “aggressive” dog. We worry about liability. What if he bites the kids?

But, how do we feel about a fearful dog? You know that dog in the ASPCA commercials chained to a doghouse and shivering? Who doesn’t want to step in and help that dog?

Many of the acts we lump under aggression come from a place of fear. Where would dogs be if they could not warn away something that scares them in the wild or defend against something that is trying to take an important resource?

So many of my clients have breathed a sigh of relief when I help them understand they do not own Cujo. (Thank you Stephen King for giving us a dog to personify evil, even if the dog did just have Rabies). It is easier for many people to justify spending time and resources to help a fearful dog rather than an aggressive dog.

One last thing. This is how Mayo Clinic defines aggression: “Aggression can be normal, and is only an indicator of underlying disease when feelings become excessive, all-consuming, and interfere with daily living.” It is easier to consider helping a dog with a “disease” vs. one that is evil.

Command vs. Cue

Command: To give an authoritative order.

Cue: a signal for someone to do something

So many of my clients give their dogs “commands” and are then frustrated if the dog doesn’t immediately do the behavior. Your dog is not a Marine going through boot camp. When we Command we expect immediate action and we get frustrated if our dog does not hop to it and sit.

There are many reasons dogs don’t immediately do something we ask. Often the dog either doesn’t actually understand or he has not generalized the behavior to more distracting environments. If your dog truly understands the word “sit” lie on the floor with your face in your hands and ask your dog to sit. Chances are good your dog will stare at you as if you have lost your mind or jump on you because you are finally figuring out the floor is a fun place to be. Most likely he will not understand the word “sit” in this context.

I like the word “cue” better. It sounds less threatening to begin with. I am asking my dog to do something. It is something he should already know how to do. He does not come pre-programmed with “sit” or “down.” I have to teach him those things and it is MY job to ensure he knows them. If your dog doesn’t do what you asked, chances are he just doesn’t understand the signal. The word “stubborn” often rears its ugly head in this conversation as well. We assume the dog is “stubborn” for not complying with a “command.”

Instead I “cue” my dog to sit. If he does he gets a treat or a “good” dog. If he does not, then that’s my bad. I messed something up somewhere. He either doesn’t understand the cue I gave or there is something going on in the environment that has his attention and is delaying his ability to process the cue. Maybe I did not make it worthwhile for him to work with me. I won’t work for free and neither should your dog.

Let’s say I teach you the cue to “sit” in a chair in my house. I ask you to sit and you sit in the chair every time I ask you. Now, let’s take that chair outside and place it near a basket of hissing cobras, plus there are fire trucks with sirens blaring going down the street. The cobras can’t get you, but they are really close and they are raising their hoods and slithering everywhere. What if your brain is so busy processing the sight of scary cobras and the sound of the sirens that you can’t process I said the word “sit?”

If I command you to sit; you had better darn well sit no matter what right?

If I cue you to sit and you don’t, I can take a breath and see what I can do to improve the situation. If I absolutely need you to be able to sit in a chair near hissing cobras and blaring fire trucks, then I can teach you to do that gradually rather than becoming frustrated that you do not do a command immediately.

Dominate vs. Communicate

Dominate: exercise control over.

Communicate: share or exchange information, news, or ideas.

So many people tell me their dog is trying to dominate them. Domination is scary. It makes me think of the Borg from Star Trek who are saying, “Resistance is futile.”

In reality, most of the behaviors many people describe as dominate are either normal (dog walks ahead of you on leash because he walks faster than you do); rewarding (dog jumps up on you because you give him attention) or they are forms of communication (dog is humping someone because he is stressed or fearful or he is peeing on something important to the human due to anxiety).

Because we think dogs might dominate us; we spend a lot of time trying to dominate them back, which leads to a lot of miscommunication on our part. The dog won’t understand what we are trying to say, which may bring us back to growling and then that “aggressive” label.

Give you and your dog a break. If things are not going well, don’t apply a lot of negative language to it. Instead, reach out to a dog trainer who understands dog behavior (and who doesn’t immediately label your dog with any of the negative words in this essay). Talk to a veterinarian who has an interest or, even better, a degree in behavior.

The world can be scary enough without us adding in negatively charged words.

2 thoughts on “Word matter: Choose carefully

  1. Gina K

    Excellent post! I’d like to comment on the “sit” cue – it’s often the first one we teach them, and we assume the easiest for them to learn/do/remember. In my experience that’s not always the case. Never occurred to me until we adopted an off track Greyhound. They told us that those dogs are taught NOT to sit; they’re taught to stand for pre- and post- race examinations, etc. I tried and tried to introduce that concept to this dog – he never, EVER got it. I don’t think I saw him sit down in the whole time we owned him. I am not sure he was structurally able? Or his body forgot how?

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