Does it matter what we call things? People? Animals? It seems to be human nature to label; to reduce complex situations down to a single word. She’s insecure, autistic, gregarious, selfish, intelligent or a doormat. We do it with our dogs all the time… he’s stubborn, reactive, clingy, friendly, anxious, full of himself. Labelling seems to be our clumsy way of describing the occurance of specific behaviours or traits in a simplistic way that communicates (something) to the person we are talking to. But does labelling also help to form and bolster our expectations as to how an animal will behave in a specific situation – and might it help to narrow our vision when it comes to the “why?” and the exceptions to the ‘rule’.
If we see our dog as reactive towards other dogs, we may simply accept the label and try to avoid any encounters with other dogs especially when out walking. We may label our dog as agressive with other dogs, or simply say that he doesn’t like them. But very few dogs are reluctant to socialise with *all* dogs, and it may help to consider what our dog gets out of reacting (the why). If my memory serves me correctly 99% of the dogs I have known who were reactive to some other dogs in some situations (even most other dogs in most situations) were not aggressive in the offensive sense. They showed signs of anxiety and this seemed to fuel their reaction. I note (with a variety of dogs over time) that the greater the anxiety created by a situation (perhaps the less in control they feel) the more likely they are to react, and the more forceful their reaction. Surprise appearances of dogs in close proximity, yappy dogs making a bee-line for them, or free dogs simply running into their space are all triggers that I see repeatedly in different dogs, and who can blame them? If I was anxious about encountering dogs and was held on the end of a short tether with one pelting towards me, I am fairly sure that I would react too! Interestingly the most consistently reactive dog I have yet to meet (he would bark furiously and lunge at other dogs – on lead – at distances of over 50 metres) usually played happily with them in an open space off the lead. It’s rarely about just not liking other dogs – more about feeling unsafe.
It’s almost impossible to relate socially and never label, but sometimes perhaps we need to stop and unravel the details and complexities behind the over simplified labels we apply in many situations. It’s all too easy to let the labels define the outcome.