Updated: Apr 28, 2020
I've always been an avid reader. For as long as I can remember I've been devouring books as quickly as possible. Now you would think with this great love of words, the importance of language would be apparent to me as a dog owner. Unfortunately it wasn't, and it isn't for most dog owners out there.
So what exactly do I mean about the importance of language? The best example I have is of the "bad dog." What do we think of when we hear the phrase "bad dog?" On first glance, a lot of things come to mind: biting, house-soiling, incessant barking, stubbornness, manipulation.
No matter what particular image the phrase "bad dog" brings up for you, the underlying theme is that "they know better." I hear it all. the. time. We genuinely believe that our dogs are "taking advantage" of us. Every time we log onto social media there's some video of a "guilty" looking dog making the rounds. They know exactly what they're doing and what they're doing is being insubordinate!
I even remember in a particular moment of frustration referring to my poor dog as evil. EVIL? That's a lot of baggage to heap onto the shoulders of a dog! In retrospect, the notion of my dog's badness is laughable, but in the moment it felt correct. She had just gotten into another scuffle that left our geriatric Chow Chow frightened and weak.
I remember being so sick of her "attitude!" She was being a brat, a monster, purely malicious!
Why is it that we take the otherwise perfectly natural behavior (getting into scuffles, running after cats, etc.) of dogs so personally? The short answer is Lassie. The long answer is the cultural conditioning that takes place through language.
What are some of the phrases we use to describe dogs?
Man's best friend, loyal companion, giver of unconditional love, protector of home and hearth, babysitter, the list goes on and on. When you think about it, that's a lot to expect of one creature. We don't even expect such perfection from our fellow humans.
I think things must have been easier for dogs when all we expected from them was to herd our cattle or guard our flocks of sheep from predators. Now we expect them to be mini-humans, full of intention and morality.
Not only do these expectations leave no room for error, they also do not take into account the dogs inherent, well, dogness. It can't be said any better than in Jean Donaldson's The Culture Clash:
Dogs are not like us, not nearly as much as we thought, but that's okay. We can still bond with them [and] share our lives with them .... We don't have to build myths surrounding their nature to legitimize how we feel about them. They are valuable and fascinating as they really are. They don't need to be promoted in intelligence or morality to merit fair treatment or places in our families.
She goes on,
Plenty of perfectly good dogs are insufficiently Lassielike to their owners and subjected to still-legal sadistic training practices.
So what are these training practices she mentions? Those rooted in the concepts of positive punishment. What is positive punishment? The addition of an aversive stimulus in order to reduce what is generally considered a nuisance behavior. The aversive stimuli often used on dogs include: shock collars, hitting, shouting, startle, prong collars, choke collars and alpha rolling. This is not an exhaustive list. The punitive crowd is nothing if not creative.
All of these methods are usually justified by using language rooted in dominance theory. Some "trainers" still perpetuate the notion that studies done on captive wolf populations apply to domestic dogs. They tell us that our dogs are continually vying for a better position within our "pack." Since they are only concerned about being on top, they are therefore "out to get us" and we must take control, lest we find ourselves living with a house-destroying, child-biting tyrant.
My own dog has been described by others as being "alpha." There is, however, a much simpler explanation. I didn't know how the hell to raise a puppy and thus did not provide adequate socialization during her critical developmental periods. I can assure everyone that she is quite innocently motivated (another favorite phrase of mine from Jean Donaldson). For her, the world is mostly made up of unfamiliar (and therefore scary or unsafe) strangers - in human and dog form.
Referring to her as "alpha" instead of "fearful" shifts the blame off of me and onto her. It isn't my fault I ended up with a bad egg, it's just her character! Better luck next time!
As silly as all of this sounds, it is the justification used for the brutal training methods many dogs are subjected to. The good news is, many dog owners are beginning to catch on. The public is more educated than ever about not only the uselessness of dominance theory, but also the fact that it increases problems and decreases safety.
What we are now seeing is the use of certain language by punishment based trainers in order to fool the potential client and make a buck. A training establishment local to me does just that. Upon moving to this area, I decided to peruse their website. I was delighted to see the declaration that they "train with kindness."
Upon further inspection the truth was revealed. This establishment promotes the use of prong collars, choke collars, spray bottles and shock collars. I'm not entirely sure where the kindness fits in. The worst part is many owners do not realize their dogs are being trained with electric shock until picking them up at the end of the session and seeing their brand new battery powered collar.
It's a sad state of affair for dogs, my friends. You would imagine that since we so often refer to dogs as "man's best friend" that that should also mean that man is "dog's best friend" as well. I cannot declare that to be the case when so many of them are abused in the name of training and routine veterinary care. Both of which could just as easily (or more easily, really) be accomplished with a bag of treats.
So what is the answer to all of this?
It's a famous quote, whose author we can't be quite sure of, but here it is:
Watch your thoughts, they become words; watch your words, they become deeds; watch your deeds, they become actions; watch your actions, they become habits; watch your habits, they become character; character is everything.
So the first couple of steps are for us to examine our thoughts and the way we express them through language. These are my ideas on what words to replace and which words to replace them with:
Guilty - Frightened, Anticipatory (expecting punishment)
Stubborn - Aware (of what's about to happen), Communicative (trying to say "no")
Disobedient - Novice, lacking sufficient training, unaware
Bad - Unaware/unable to do what we want in the moment
Mean/Aggressive - Afraid/Fearful/Self-Defense/Unsocialized
Only works for treats/Taking advantage - Lacking sufficient training, innocently motivated
This idea also translates to breed standards! This is yet another area of the dog world where language is often murky and misleading:
Aloof/One person dog - Prone to stranger danger, requires extensive socialization
Energetic - Drivey, working breed, very high exercise requirement
Regal - Stand-offish/shy
Territorial - Prone to dog aggression or stranger danger
The important thing to remember is that things aren't always as they seem. We must try our best to read between the lines, whether it's a local trainer's website, the messages from our culture at large, or even the AKC book of breed standards! Dogs need us to understand exactly what we are expecting of them and whether or not those expectations are reasonable.