During their first appointment, my clients told me that their dog had “severe territorial aggression,” and that they had been advised to euthanize him. I looked at the wide-eyed and quaking Hound mix hiding under a chair and had a strong suspicion that the label given to this dog was far from accurate.
As it turned out, the dog was actually terrified of strangers. Not only was his problematic behavior based in fear and totally unrelated to any concept of territory, he had never hurt anyone. He whined, barked and showed his teeth to anyone he didn’t know who got too close to him, giving them an awful scare, but even when people tried to pet him (unwise, but it happened!), he didn’t bite.
Over the years, situations like this have made me increasingly disillusioned about the labels that are so often applied to dogs’ behavior problems. I find that labeling often does more harm than good, especially when the label is wrong.
It’s not surprising that we want to label dogs’ behavior issues: it matches the system we use for people. In the realm of human health care, labels are necessary because billing codes are required for insurance coverage of both treatment and medications.
Having a label for a dog’s behavior problem may also make it easier for us to access information and resources. Learning that it is a known syndrome or problem often makes us feel better even before there’s any discussion about what to do to improve the behavior. It’s a natural human tendency—just naming a problem can give us a sense of control over it. But sadly, mislabeling interferes with arriving at an appropriate response to the problem, whatever the problem turns out to be.
Perhaps the biggest advantage to labeling behavior problems is that it provides a verbal shorthand that speeds up communication. There’s an appealing simplicity to using a short phrase or two to identify a dog’s issue rather than going into great detail about each incident, especially when many people are involved. (It’s not unusual for an evaluation team to include a behaviorist, a veterinarian and a trainer, as well as other experts.)
On the other hand, describing the behavior in detail lends an accuracy to the situation that labels sometime obscure.
For example, every year, multiple clients seek my help with separation anxiety because they have been told (erroneously) that their dog suffers from it. The dog may be showing behaviors often associated with separation anxiety —including excessive barking, eliminating indoors or destructive chewing—but the real problem can often be revealed with a thorough description of the dog’s behavior before, during and after the guardian’s departure.
When the real issue is boredom, incomplete house training or a simple (which is not to say easy!) case of adolescence, changing the undesirable behavior by approaching it as a case of separation anxiety is unlikely to be successful. Rather than medication and complex protocols to desensitize the dog to departures and the cues that precede them, the real solution could be to add activities and enrichment opportunities, return to Housetraining 101 or provide a long exercise session before putting the dog in a crate with appropriate, long lasting chewables.
It is also common for people to consult with me because their dog is “protective” of them. Lila brought in Banjo because every time anyone got near Lila, Banjo barked, growled and lunged. Lila was concerned that he would hurt someone, but delighted by his bold confidence. Trouble was, after taking a case history and observing Banjo in a variety of contexts, I could tell that he was not protecting her so much as he was possessing her. He guarded toys, food, sleeping spaces and anything he considered of value, including Lila. He was not her brave protector, but an insecure dog who considered her to be the best bone in the world, and he was not going to let someone else have her. Mislabeling Banjo’s behavior as “protectiveness” rather than of “possessiveness” hindered attempts to change this behavior, and interfered with Lila’s understanding of who Banjo was.