What’s In a Name?

Just this week alone, I have read a half dozen articles which basically came to the conclusion that using terms like “reactive,” “triggered,” “conflicted,” and “under-socialized” do dogs, and their owners,  a disservice because these labels mask or sanitize what the underlying problem really is….aggression, according to these authors.

I found this fascinating. My mom was a high school teacher for over 30 years and she would routinely talk about the concept of “teacher speak.” You know what I mean. “Johnny is a spirited young man.” Translation: Johnny can’t keep his butt in the chair during class. Or, my favorite: “Susan is a real people-person.” Translation: Susan never stops talking to the other kids around her in class.

So, knowing this made me wonder if what these authors were saying was true. Have veterinarians, animal behaviorists, and dog trainers gotten to the point where we are using euphemisms to soften the blow with our clients whose pets have behavior problems? My conclusion is…no, not really. I know, myself, that I choose my words carefully when advising my clients. I know that coming right out in the first 5 minutes and telling them that their pet is a physical and psychological mess isn’t going to help their pet, nor make the pet owner want to work with me through the issues at hand. I think using terms like “reactive” or “under-socialized” are helpful. People know what those terms mean as they are relatable from a human perspective. I certainly don’t tell someone that their dog is simply reactive or under-socialized; I may tell them that as I am also telling them about how being reactive or under-socialized can lead to aggression. For me, they aren’t labels, but descriptors; they simply help to clarify what I am seeing. So, it isn’t just aggression, for example, but aggression toward unfamiliar dogs as a result of never being around other dogs after leaving the breeder’s home (i.e. under-socialized).

I like to build relationships with my clients. To build a good rapport means they need to like me, find my advice useful AND workable, and feel that I am helping their pet. It’s about listening to what my clients tell me (and what they don’t), observing their pets, and giving the best possible advice that I can with an eye to building and maintaining relationships. I always put my clients first. I love animals, but I also know that not every animal is in the right situation for them to blossom and thrive. I don’t tell my clients what they want to hear; I tell them what they NEED to hear. I sincerely hope that when I do, they always see that it comes from a place of compassion and a desire to help them.

So, call them over-used terms or labels, if you like. I, however, will continue to use them if it helps my clients to better understand the underlying motivation and basis for the behaviors their pets are exhibiting.

by Julie Bond

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