Downeast Dog News

Are you "Stubborn"?

The Sticky Label
By | May 13, 2021

My husband got a little silly at work. While doing a mundane labeling chore at his IT job, he decided to label the label maker itself. We were Big Bang Theory fans, so the idea wasn't exactly original. Drew decided he'd label it "Pencil Sharpener" to carry the gag a bit further. It got a laugh or two - just enough to satisfy him and encourage him to think up more gags. What happened over the next few days illustrates how labeling, for better or worse, has the tendency to stick (pun intended). Drew's coworkers started referring to the label maker as "Pencil Sharpener." "Hey, Drew, can I use the pencil sharpener when you're done with it?" It's a great example of how quickly the line of reality can get blurred, making it difficult to separate the labeled from the label.

Take, for instance, the terminology a guest used when describing her dog to me. "She's dominant. At puppy class, she stole all the treats away from the puppies near her." She went on to say that she really couldn't do much in the way of training her now 8-year-old dog because the dominant factor was a real impediment to anything having to do with learning.

"Jack Russell Terriers are hard to house train." My acquaintance complained of the resulting mess with her two adult dogs but was very resistant to any suggestions on how to resolve the problem, shaking her head and repeating, "Jack Russells are hard to house train," as if it was a curse that could and should never be broken.

"Oh, my dog won't bring the ball back to me. He's stubborn." "Stubborn” seems to be a very common word to use when describing our dogs. I used to use it, too, before I became addicted to learning about training and the science behind animal behavior. Now I know I’m the stubborn one if I can't figure out a way to understand a behavior. (For the record, returning an item to a person is a learned skill, not an innate behavior, and therefore needs to be trained).

Labels affect Potential

Negative labels have the tendency to limit potential. Once we put a label on our dogs… or our kids, or ourselves, or anything else… we set ourselves up to allow that label to stick. We become enablers and disablers at the same time. We allow labels to define who or what someone is. We departmentalize, categorize, generalize…. we are all guilty of it - we are human. We can, however, be aware of this tendency by avoiding the use of labels as convenient excuses.

Alpha, Dominant, Aggressive, Submissive

Labels are subjective and can lead us towards biases, coloring an inaccurate picture of an individual. All of the terms above are common ones used in describing dogs. They are, however, subjective and situational and are therefore very poor descriptors. A dog may be more bossy among one group of dogs but least bossy in another group. Should we still call him “bossy”? “Alpha” is a word often misused to describe dogs who are simply rude and antagonistic. This type of dog makes a very poor leader!

Some sample definitions offered by Google:

Alpha: denoting the dominant animal or human in a particular group.

Dominant: most important, powerful, or influential.

In case you were interested….

After weeks of referring to the label maker as the “pencil sharpener,” this misnomer continued to be used purely out of habit, despite the fact that the joke had long since run its course.

Happy Training!