The pros and cons of labelling animal behaviour.

Many animal behaviour consultants abhor labels.

They consider them not just pointless, but disastrous, and many of them wouldn’t be caught dead using labels.  

You might think I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect, and yes, I do have a penchant for hyperbole so it is entirely possible… but sometimes I do wonder. 

As an ethologist, I had merrily been using labels for decades without even realizing that they could be problematic. It was not until I started hanging out with behaviour analysts that it was pointed out to me.

I had two main reactions to that insight:

  • Wow, it’s really useful to realize that labels can be very detrimental!
  • Wow, some people really don’t seem to realize how useful labels can be!

When are labels useful? Well, as is the case with literally everything related to animals and their behaviour, it depends on the context.

Labels are sometimes useful, sometimes irrelevant, and sometimes harmful.

I can think of three useful types of label, and one label type that is harmful. And yet, the harmful labels are getting all the attention!

Hence, this blog post.

And I realize that I might have lost some readers already, wondering what “using labels” is all about and why it could potentially be problematic to use them. Or not.

So let’s start with some useful labels.

How do ethologists use labels?

As ethologists, we observe animals to figure out what they’re doing. We might be trying to get a handle on the activity budget of capuchin monkeys, for instance – what a typical day looks like, behaviour-wise.

Ethologists might be crouching in the rain forest, binocularing up at a group of wild capuchins semi-hidden by vegetation, all the while getting eaten by mosquitoes and developing a spectacular neck pain.

So, say you’re the one looking at the monkeys, and you need to somehow take notes on what they’re doing, perhaps by whispering a continuous narrative onto a recorder, or perhaps by jotting down what they happen to be doing exactly every five minutes, or whether a specific behaviour was seen within the last 10-minute interval. There are different ways of collecting behavioural data – but we typically end up using some type of shorthand to describe a behaviour, or a cluster of behaviours. All the while trying to ignore the neck pain and the buzzing of the mosquitoes, distracted by thoughts on whether that malaria prophylaxis regime is still up to date…

In ethology, we call these clusters of behaviours behavioural systems.

And essentially, behavioural systems are labels.

Some behavioural systems (= labels) that might be useful when doing ethological studies. For those of my readers not familiar with the terms: ”affiliative” is a label involving all kinds of pro-social, friendly behaviour. ”Agonistic” is a label covering aggression and dominance-related behaviours on the whole scale from subtle submissive behaviours via low-level status displays to full-on physical attack. “Foraging” involves all manner of food-getting behaviour. And self-maintenance, well… that might be self-preening, scratching, and bum-wiping, for instance. 

Note that these clusters of behaviours, these behavioural systems (labels!) won’t be haphazard and made up in the moment, but rather chosen from some sort of ethogram, from more or less extensive lists of well-defined and species-specific responses.

Affiliative (pro-social) behaviour, for example, might involve the sub-categories “play”, “mutual grooming”, “parenting behaviour” and “sexual behaviour”.

And within each of these sub-categories we might find a number of specific responses. “Play” for instance, might include a number of play vocalizations, meta signals (species-specific play invitations), chasing, changing directions, frolicking, lunging, pouncing, wrestling and biting different body parts. Also, we might note who is doing the chasing, pouncing, biting, and whether biting occurred to a neck or a limb – and who is getting chased, pounced, bitten, as well as the location of the bite – and how and when these roles are reversed.

But when we’re standing there in an awkward position, staring at the monkeys and itching our fresh mosquito bites, we might not care whether the animal was lunging or pouncing or biting the left arm, and instead we’ll simply note the sub-category, or even the behavioural system that we’re interested in. We might note that they’re playing, or affiliating, for instance.

Once we summarize our findings, we might be able to say things like: among tufted capuchin monkeys, juvenile males spend 14,6% of their time playing, whereas juvenile females only play 7,1% of the time (and in case you’re wondering, yes – these are real data).

In other words, in ethology it is part of the job description to use labels – but these labels will typically be a shorthand description of a cluster of well-defined responses shown in certain contexts and with similar function.

This partial canine ethogram is a rough draft prepared by yours truly (and for full disclosure, I have never studied canines); not sure how relevant all these responses would be for a real ethological observation, nor if some responses or response classes are missing. Doesn’t matter – it’s the principle of nested categorization, sub-categories and sub-sub-categories, labels within labels, that I’m trying to illustrate. Note that the subcategories groom, parenting and sex also include sub-sub-categories, not shown here. Note also that all that categorization is built from verbs in the bottom rows.

People on the Behaviour Analytical side sometimes disparagingly refer to the ethological perspective as etho-babble, suggesting that the labels ethologists use are unfalsifiable, and therefore of no value.

Not only do I disagree with that conclusion, I would go as far as to say that if we were to discuss activity budgets without using labels, we would get a list of thousands of well-defined responses of varying frequency, and seeing any patterns among those behaviours might be really difficult, except perhaps that we might note that chasing is often, but not always, followed by pouncing. In other words, we would likely notice that behaviours occur in clusters, but since we’re not labelling those clusters, I would argue that it would be difficult to make sense of the data.

It would be hard to see the forest for all the trees, as it were.

So, in the field of ethology, we use labels to make sense of behaviour. We use labels to simplify, find important patterns and summarize. A few examples:

  • Abnormal behaviour is typically diminished when we scatterfeed food to captive monkeys rather than offering food in bowls.
  • Kittens who receive positive human interaction more than 60 minutes per day between the ages of 2-8 weeks become more affiliative as adults than if they receive less than 15 minutes of human interaction.

In these examples, “abnormal behaviour”, “positive human interaction” and “affiliative” are labels – and those labels are useful. We can use the labels to quickly identify areas within animals’ behavioural profiles where we can do interventions that will improve their quality of life.

Without those labels, we would have a haystack of behavioural observations but no obvious way of making sense of them.

So, if labels can be this useful, where does the stark aversion amongst behaviour consultants to use them come from?

Seems to me that the problem is multi-faceted, and there are at least four potential pitfalls when labelling behaviour.

For starters, the labels that non-ethologists use (and the ones that I think behaviour analysts primarily are exposed to) are typically not based on a previously agreed-upon ethogram made up by verbs, but rather, they’re often adjectives with negative connotations, like for instance “stubborn”, “lazy”, or “stupid”.

Problem one: Lack of Clear Definitions

One of the most obvious problems with labels is that different people interpret them differently.

When asked to describe what types of behaviours “stubborn”, “lazy” or “stupid” individuals would show, we might get as many answers as the number of people we asked.

In other words, people don’t agree on what those labels mean.

The connection has been lost between the label and the actual observable behaviours – not to mention the function and context of those behaviours.

If someone says ”he’s dominant” – for them that might mean that their dog walks through the door first.

And here I’ll just have to make a short digression, because this has been bothering me for some time.

Digression on the topic of dominance

In ethology, the label “dominant” refers to an individual who has priority of access to resources relative to another, well-known individual. This is an observable and measurable phenomenon, it’s not a personality trait and has absolutely nothing to do with whoever walks through the door first.

However, many lay people don’t use this ethological definition when it comes to animals, but rather the sociological definition of the label “dominant” – which refers to an individual (human) controlling the behaviour of another individual (also human). And they use this as an excuse to control the behaviour of their animals, often using force.

Let me spell it out: dominance in a group of animals is primarily about priority of access to resources, not controlling the behaviours of others. In fact, it’s often the subordinate individuals in a group that maintains the hierarchy by unobtrusively moving aside when the dominant individual approaches, in order to avoid escalation or conflict. In ethology, we call this unprovoked submission or displacement behaviour (since it’s about being displaced from one location to another – and yes, it’s a confusing label because displacement behaviour can also refer to certain stress-related behaviour such as self-preening).

Displacement interactions among a wild population of long-tailed macaques on Tinjil Island, Indonesia. Without any obvious provocation from the dominant individual, the subdominant individual moves away from their line of approach, reducing the risk of confrontation.

Note that the designation “dominant” and “subdominant” relates to the two individuals having the interaction – we know nothing about the relative ranks of the other monkeys seen in the video clips. For instance, some of the individuals marked “subdominant” may be dominant to some of the other monkeys – but we don’t know from this short video.

Also, we wouldn’t be able to assign ranks after a single observation of displacement because the monkeys we’re designating as subordinates could have moved away regardless of the “dominants’“ behaviour, but I happened to know this group of individuals since I has spent some time observing and filming them, and this was a recurring pattern of behaviour in these particular constellations of animals. Hence, I can confidently call their respective roles subdominant and dominant during the time of study.

In general, the presence of an established dominance hierarchy in a stable group means that aggressive behaviour is minimized: most often there’s limited need for it since the subordinate animals tend to yield resources to the dominant – often without them even showing low-level aggressive behaviour.

That’s not to say that rank-related aggressive behaviour is never shown within existing groups of animals; it is. During group composition changes or rank challenges we’ll often see contact aggression resulting in injury. Once rank is established, ritualized threat displays or non-contact aggression is typically more common. However, those aggressive behaviours typically constitute just a fraction of all dominance interactions – but unless you know what to look for, you’ll miss the subtle avoidance behaviours shown by the subordinates.

In short, the existence of dominance hierarchies amongst animals living in stable social groups reduces the costs that would be involved if the animals had to fight over every single resource. Those costs incluce the risk of injury, reduced vigilance and therefore increased risk of predation, as well as energy- and time investments in lengthy and repeated aggressive bouts that could rather be spent on the other activities such as foraging, playing, grooming and mating.  

Again, dominance in ethology – among animals – is not primarily about controlling the behaviours of others.

So, from my perspective, trying to control the behaviour of a dog or a horse through force, and claiming that one is simply “mimicking natural animal dominance behaviour”, is faulty: such forceful approaches would be using the sociological rather than the ethological definition of the term, and a more correct label of that type of behaviour when directed towards animals would perhaps be coercion. This type of forceful control has, as far as I know, very little to do with how canids or equids exert dominance amongst themselves in established groups.

Rather, if we want to invoke the dominance concept as relevant with regards to how we care for animals, we might consider how to best distribute resources to a group of animals and ensure that we do that in a way so that those natural dominance interactions don’t escalate to outright aggression.

If space is limited, for instance, subordinate individuals can’t get displaced. And if they won’t move away from a resource, the dominant individual might start showing low-level or even escalated aggressive behaviour. Since dominance amongst animals is about resource distribution, it’s up to us as animal caregivers to distribute resources in a way that reduces the risk of escalated aggression.

Within applied ethology (using ethological principles to improve the quality of life of captive animals) we might do this along the following three lines of reasoning:

  • Ensuring that there’s enough resources to go around for everyone and then some – and in different locations. Animals typically won’t share – we need to ensure that even the lowest ranking individuals can access those resources easily and out-of-sight of the dominant individuals, so feeding multiple animals simultaneously from the same bowl is often not a good idea. Dominance interactions tend to become exacerbated in captivity if space is limited (which it often is compared to how animals would group and distribute in the wild), so this is of tremendous importance.
  • Ensuring that available space, including three-dimensional space where relevant, is big enough and accessible to the animals so that subordinate individuals can safely show displacement behaviour to avoid escalation of conflict.
  • Another approach is allowing the dominant individual/s in a captive group to get exclusive access to a coveted toy or prized food, so that they can strut around and feel important, showing off. That will leave the less-coveted toys or food to the rest of the group. This can be a particularly effective way to reduce aggression around resources (because although they often don’t control the behaviour of other individuals, dominant animals often tend to control others’ access to coveted resources). And by offering them an irresistible resource, they’ll be so busy guarding that that all the other resources become available to the lower-ranking individuals of the group.

**saving some place here in case some benevolent reader has an image or video illustrating the strutting phenomenon that they’re willing to share…**

And now, I’ll get off that soapbox – let’s return to those labels.

Problem two: the Fundamental Attribution Error.

The second potential pitfall when using labels is that they might become detached from behaviour.

We might say ”he’s lazy” as if that explains every single behaviour the animal shows.

But behaviour is contextual, and using labels tends to sometimes remove us from the context. The label may also morph from being a shortcut when describing a specific behaviour in a specific context, to being used as a general personality trait.

And certainly, if we’re dealing with unwanted behaviour, we need to understand it – and to understand such behaviours, we must never lose sight of the context in which it occurs.

But what happens instead is that the label is seen as a trait, part of the animal’s personality. And so many people who work as behavioural consultants often see pet owners using that label almost as an excuse.

As if it absolves them of the responsibility of addressing the problem behaviour.

 ”Nothing I can do about that, he’s so dominant!” they may shrug and say, rather than realizing how a specific context triggers the unwanted behaviour in a particular situation – or how they might be contributing to the issue.

And here’s the thing: how we talk about the problem will influence how we solve the problem. And by labelling, we risk stopping to look for the actual cause.

In other words, those labels risk getting in the way of finding solutions.

We call this particular problem the fundamental attribution error. The tendency to under-estimate the importance of context in explaining an individual’s behavior, while over-emphasizing personality-based explanations.

The fundamental attribution error: not realizing the importance of context in determining behaviour. Image from

So by labelling, one of the problems is that we risk the fundamental attribution error.

And of course, we do this with children too, all the time. Children are labelled bad, mad or inad, as in inadequate. Rather than understanding the importance of context, many frustrated parents tend to see their unruly behaviour as an unchangeable personality trait.

This leads us to the third problem.

Problem three: the Pygmalion / Rosenthal effect.

The self-fulfilling prophesy.

If we immediately label what we think we’re observing, that label will bias the observation; a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We will see the things that confirm the label, and miss or ignore the things that don’t confirm it.

The Pygmalion effect as it commonly applies to animal behaviour labels: If we have low expectations from our animals, we will see behaviours that confirm these expectations.

This is a huge one, people.

Incidentally, it’s also one reason why in certain areas of science, scientific studies need to be blinded, and also ideally include a placebo treatment.

Why? Because the moment that the researcher or the participant of the study know that they’re getting a specific treatment, they subconsciously expect a specific outcome. And that expectation will not only impact the outcome through the intriguing powers of the placebo effect, but the interpretation of the results will also be skewed.

But if the study is blinded (as in, the researchers or participants don’t know who is getting which treatment), their observations will be more astute. And we include control groups also, to be able to tease out the effect of placebo alone as compared to the effect of placebo in combination with the actual treatment under study.

So, if we need to resolve some type of unwanted behaviour in the animals in our care, it’s useful to ditch the labels while exploring what’s going on – in order to remain unbiased during observations and reducing the risk of proverbially barking up the wrong tree and implementing the wrong solution.

For instance, some people may label their dog as dominant because he walks through the door first, and when he starts growling when they try to sit down next to him on the sofa, that confirms how dominant he is in their minds. When in fact, he has arthritis and the movement of the cushions as they plop down next to him is painful – hence the growling.

Oh, and incidentally, I have an extensive online course that goes into great detail on the topic of Preventing and Resolving Unwanted Behaviour in Animals, if you’re interested in learning more.

Problem four: Mis-Labelling

The fourth potential pitfall of labelling is inadvertently ascribing the wrong label to a behaviour that in fact belongs to different context, and should wear a different label.

Perhaps we see a snarling dog, for instance.

It might be a dominance-related behaviour; snarling could be part of an aggressive display.

Then again, the animal might be engaged in rough-and-tumble play; yes, snarling can occur during play in dogs, too.

So, we might see snarling, and label the dog as showing “aggression”, when in fact he’s playing.

In fact, I think it’s fair to say that many people mistake play for aggression. The play repertoire contains elements from the aggressive repertoire, but those responses are shown in a different order, they typically don’t escalate, and competent players often show self-handicap when faced with a smaller opponent, as well as role reversal – the players typically take turns being “victim” and “aggressor” – unlike real aggression. There’s also often meta-signals communicating the intent to play.

Mis-labelling. This animal is showing an affiliative meta-signal (a friendly play invitation), not aggressive behaviour.

And we might handle a playful animal, an animal that is showing affiliative (friendly) behaviour, quite differently from how we’d handle an animal showing agonistic (aggressive or dominance-related) behaviour.

In other words, mis-labelling is a risk, and we might sometimes be better off simply describing the behaviours and the context in which they occur, rather than risk attaching the wrong label to the behaviour.

The Behaviour Analytic Approach

For the above reasons, a behaviour analytic approach (looking closely at the immediate and preceding context surrounding the unwanted behaviour; describing the responses that the animal is showing without labelling them; and identifying the reinforcers that maintain the unwanted behaviour – or the punishers preventing the desired behaviour) has great value when it comes to understanding how problem behaviour is maintained.

This approach reduces the risk of all these four pitfalls.

And indeed, every single behaviour analyst I’ve met has had a stark aversion to labels.

Since they typically work as behavioural consultants and help people resolve unwanted behaviours, they’ve seen these how their clients fall prey to these pitfalls, and how these four labelling problems get in the way of finding the solution – or might have even contributed to, or exacerbated, the problem.

Another argument against labelling is often brought forth by behaviour analysts.

The “Circular reasoning” argument

Here, we’re entering a territory where I believe that labels have been taking undeserved criticism.

Some people add another problem category to the four listed above, saying that “using labels is circular reasoning that is not scientifically verifiable.”

I disagree.

Here’s how the argument typically goes, through the example of an imaginary conversation:

”My dog is dominant.”

“How do you know?”

“Because he bites.”

“Why does he bite?”

“Because he’s dominant”.

And in one fell swoop, some people dismiss all labelsas if they were all circular. And while I don’t doubt that they have encountered this type of circular reasoning, they’re committing something akin to the fundamental attribution error by assuming that all labels are circular – rather than just some.

So, that particular argument is a gross misrepresentation of the ethological use of labels.

To reiterate, within ethology we use labels as a shorthand for a group of observable behaviours in a set of contexts with a certain category of outcomes. So, the same conversation between two ethologists might be:

”My dog is dominant over your dog.”

”How do you know?”

“Because he has priority of access to resource a, b, and c when they interact”.

What’s not ”scientifically verifiable” about that?

And how is that even circular?

If a client says “my dog is dominant”, we might choose to avoid labels altogether, or we might discuss what dominance really means and whether the observed behaviours would categorize under that label or not – and mention the potential pitfalls of using labels. Or – we might find a more useful label (keep reading for suggestions).

In my mind, labels have an undeservedly bad reputation amongst behaviour consultants, and I’m thinking that it’s most likely because their most vocal detractors don’t know how useful they might be in certain situations – or they’ve only seen them used badly (“my dog is so stubborn”).

And I don’t think we should judge the usefulness of a term or approach on the bad examples, neither should we unquestioningly accept the criticism of the label concept from people who don’t know how to use it.

That would be like taking someone who says ”I’ve tried that positive reinforcement thing, it doesn’t work” at his word..!

Another concern is that the potential benefits of labels get completely lost; I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people completely dismiss them, saying things akin to “labels are for cupboards” and bending over backwards to avoid inadvertently using any type of label.

I’d much rather we had a discussion about useful versus harmful labels, instead of the “all labels must be avoided at all costs” stance that I feel permeates much of the behaviour analytical and animal training community.

Some behaviour consultants may use the labels “distance-increasing” or “distance-decreasing” to describe behaviours, in order to help their client better understand the nature of the problem.

And while I can see how that’s a useful way to reframe reinforcers and punishers, as well as using labels that won’t offend most hard-core behaviour analysts, I still find it lacking in information though. Take “distance-increasing” for instance, that label might typically involve either fear-related or aggression-related emotional states. And I would expect the physiological state, perception, decision-making and behaviours to be different for those two emotional / mood states – and perhaps the interventions would be different too, at least if the aggression is based in frustration rather than fear, perhaps. So I would explore using emotion labels instead.

Mind shift: Intentionally using positive labels and emotion labels

To wrap up, let’s dive into other arguments to explore the intentional use of labels – besides the ethological perspective.

For instance, labels may be negative (“my dog is stupid”), positive (“my dog is clever”), or toxic, based on unfulfilled expectations (“my dog really should be better behaved by now”).

Most of the arguments that I’ve seen against using labels involve examples where the label has a negative connotation (lazy, stupid, mean, stubborn). These negative labels carry emotional load; we think about the animal with negative connotations, falling prey to the Pygmalion effect and the Fundamental Attribution Error.

Removing the negative label and just describing the behaviour removes some of those negative connotations – and makes us more neutral observers. This is what many behaviour consultants suggest doing when dealing with unwanted behaviour in the animals in our care.

But what about adding a positive label – wouldn’t it do the opposite: add positive connotations, making us actively feel good about, and more invested in, the animal?

While we might possibly expect too much of an individual that we label as “smart”, these positive labels might contribute to our attachment to the individual and carry us through some difficult training. If we believe that our animal is smart, we will persist even if those first attempts fail – whereas if we thought the animal were stupid, we might just give up.

In other words, we could intentionally use positive labels to trigger the Pygmalion effect: if we expect the animal to change his behaviour for the better, we will tend to actually notice those instances when the animal is making good choices – and be less likely to notice the poor choices.

Intentionally harnessing the Pygmalion effect: If we have high expectations from our animals, we will be more likely to see the behaviours that confirm these expectations.

We might start by helping to reframe the animal’s personality in the clients’ minds by asking “what do you most love about the animal?” – this would be a way to find those positive labels and trigger the Pygmalion effect in more beneficial ways.

Another type of label that I think is useful are emotion labels. Labelling the animal as “fearful” or “anxious” may help us identify which emotional needs are not being met, and will give us ideas of how to help bring about a change in the underlying mood state – very often helping the pessimistic animal become more optimistic (more labels!) is all that is needed in order for the animal to stop showing unwanted behaviour.

Negative labels are best avoided when trying to make sense of animal behaviour. However, positive labels, ethological labels and emotion labels may all be useful in certain contexts.

To summarize, rather than the sweeping blanket statement often used by behaviour analysts along the lines of “labels won’t help us resolve the unwanted behaviour”, I would suggest to amend that to “negative labels won’t help us resolve the unwanted behaviour – but ethological labels, emotion labels or positive labels might, in some cases” – while keeping in mind the four risks involved when using said labels.

So, these are my current thoughts on this topic. And now, over to you: do you agree? Have you seen the four problems – or some other problem not mentioned here? Have you used ethological, emotional or positive labels, and if so, when and how – and to what effect?


I write the occasional blog post and give online masterclasses, courses and webinars, all on the topic of animal behaviour, learning and wellbeing. If you’re interested in hearing about what I’m up to, sign up below and I’ll keep you in the loop!

Selected references:

Banerjee, Arunita, and Anindita Bhadra. “Time-activity budget of urban-adapted free-ranging dogs.” Acta Ethologica 25, no. 1 (2022): 33-42.

Benedetti, Fabrizio. “Placebo effects: understanding the mechanisms in health and disease.” Oxford University Press, USA, 2021.

Jensen, Per. “The ethology of domestic animals 2nd edition: an introductory text.” Oxfordshire, CAB International (2009).

Odendaal, J. S. J. (1997). ”An ethological approach to the problem of dogs digging holes.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 52(3-4), 299-305.

Paukner, Annika, and Stephen J. Suomi. “Sex differences in play behavior in juvenile tufted capuchin monkeys (Cebus apella).” Primates 49 (2008): 288-291.

Raudenbush, Stephen W. (1984). “Magnitude of teacher expectancy effects on pupil IQ as a function of the credibility of expectancy induction: A synthesis of findings from 18 experiments”. Journal of Educational Psychology. 76: 85–97.

Stafford, Richard, Anne E. Goodenough, Kathy Slater, William S. Carpenter, Laura Collins, Heather Cruickshank, Sarah Downing et al. “Inferential and visual analysis of ethogram data using multivariate techniques.” Animal Behaviour 83, no. 2 (2011): 563-569.

Young, Robert J. “The importance of food presentation for animal welfare and conservation.” Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 56, no. 3 (1997): 1095-1104. D

32 Replies to “The pros and cons of labelling animal behaviour.”

  1. When someone tells me their animal ‘loves’ or ‘hates’ something I ask them “What about their response gives you that information” – I don’t know the animal as well as they do. However, sometimes their label is actually because they love or don’t like something.

    As far as dominance as you mentioned, context is everything. We have had up to 200 horses on our farm, in herds between 20 – 50 – for some horses eating is more important, others play and that context changes. horse A can chase horse B away from food and B can chase C and C can chase A – it is very interesting to watch.

    1. Interesting, thanks for sharing! Would you say that you see these types of complex hierarchies (A–> B–> C –> A) in all of the herds, or do you also sometimes see linear hierarchies (A –> B and C; B –> C) or despotic hierarchies (A –> everyone; and within the rest of the group no obvious hierarchy)?

      1. I think that, in general, the larger the herd the more diversity you see. Of course, it also depends on the amount of space they have. I also see that the hierarchy can depend on the activity. For some horses food is the most important – getting to hay or being let out onto grassy pastures.

        How a horses is in one group may change in a new one. I have had horses who were totally mild mannered in terms of food or attention and go to another situation and be very bossy.

        1. Thanks for sharing your experience, Robyn! Very interesting! Really shows how behaviour is contextual! 🙂

  2. Humans have a tendency to be careless with words, sometimes not realising they are repeating lazy phrases without thought, perhaps just because it’s the familiar pattern they use when training.
    Reframing words, especially labels, could change so much for the learner and their animal.

  3. Found this blog within the Emotions course which I have just started. I’ve only just touched the surface and after reading this article I’m so glad I did as this makes so much sense, as they say don’t judge the book by its cover. My experience with some owners/trainers using labels its made me think twice, especially regarding to rescue dogs. When you first meet some owners of rescues the first thing you hear is “oh he/she is a rescue” which can associate a negative label to some. I know rescue dogs come with baggage (not all) but by introducing them as a rescue is giving them the wrong label as they are all different individuals with different needs. My opinion is If you take on a rescue he/she is no longer a rescue but your companion taking a new journey together and after reading your blog you can give them some positive labels.

  4. This was some valuable information indeed! So much to consider! I’ll be honest, as a person who was working towards animal behavior certification the minute I saw the word “dominant” my brain froze. But as I kept reading I realized that between behaviorists and ethologists there are VERY different meanings and that is why using labels can also have very different meanings and outcomes. I definitely have a different perspective now than I did this morning. Because what you speak of is true! So many behaviorists see things from their own perspective and ignore a lot of the other context. I want to have a detailed understanding in all context. Not just the behavior. But this is why I am so happy that many behaviorists and trainers and veterinarians and scientists are all working together harmoniously to brainstorm about all of these things, and in a safe judgmental free environment! I was very against the idea of using labels but for only the wrong reasons! I don’t like to label a “fearful” dog as “aggressive” simply because they are afraid of strangers and may bark and lung at them. I want to point out also that I was a little confused when reading about the part of people using labels for unchangeable personality traits. I just did a course with Dr. Tim Lewis. Going back to genetics and how the brain functions and such, there are certain aspects of an animal that we can’t change. It’s predisposed genetically for some things. Is this what we are specifying when talking about behaviorists using unchangeable personality traits as an “excuse” for not being able to change behavior?

    1. Hi Tetra, thanks for sharing your thoughts on this so bravely. Love how you’re open to changing perspectives – that can be really hard sometimes!

      I would say that predispositions are traits that are more hard-wired and less easily changed by the environment, so more “nature” than “nurture” – but I would think a behaviourist would take the stance that even such behaviours *could* still be changed by the right contingencies. In my experience behaviourists don’t use that excuse at all – rather, they deal with that excuse in their clients.

      Glad you liked this post! 🙂

      1. Ah! Yes! I see now. I was just confused about exactly what was said. I believe behaviors can be changed of course! Environment does play a massive part in it all. Yes I do often hear clients using those excuses. I would hope a good behaviorist/trainer would not. It’s sad to see people using those excuses without really understanding what they are saying. But that’s why we (animal people) do what we do!

  5. Jätteviktigt hur vi fokuserar på olika saker och hur vi når de positiva strängarna. Jag har genom åren som instruktör tex slutat säga ” vi ska lära hunden att inte dra i kopplet” till ” vi ska lära hunden att gå med leende/slakt koppel” för då är det slakt koppel som är målbilden och fokus och jag inbillar mig att då blir det tydligare att det är det vi förstärker. En skitgrej i sammanhanget men vi gör många såna tanke vurpor hela tiden.
    För övrigt tycker jag dominansutsvävningen var intressant då flock intresserar mig massor. Jag hade aldrig läst det här med att ge de dominanta resurser av högre värde som dom kunde känna sig viktiga över och så kunde övriga flockmedlemmar få de andra resurserna. Utrymme och överflöd har jag senaste 15 åren lagt vikt vid. Tack för tankeverksamheten /Marie

    1. The smiling leash is a great term – both that it describes the desired topography and outcome, but also that it invokes a positive emotional state! 🙂

  6. I very much enjoyed reading this! We use labels but more for safety, it’s helpful to know if a patient is a “caution”or “will bite”! Most of the time we meet dogs when they are not feeling their best and the hospital environment is overwhelming. Labels and fear free helps understand the animal’s perspective a bit more.

    1. safety is paramount of course – and that information reduces the risk of the wrong approach when it matters!

  7. Super well reasoned and informative in a readable way. I think its great that you are making discussions such as this so accessible.

  8. First of all, I loved reading this post! It is SO informative, and makes so much sense to anyone with an open mind!

    Secondly, I agree 100% with you. The use of ethological and/or emotional, positive labels is much more helpful when trying to resolve “problem” behaviors than are negative ones. I learned this a few years ago from Janet Finlay while taking one of her courses. Even the nicknames we use for our companion animals can make a difference in how we approach their unwanted behaviors. Right now, personally, I am trying to find a way to help my two Golden Retrievers become less anxious/more confident when I have leave them alone in the house for more than two or three minutes at a time. With the older one (by six months, one day), I think it’s mostly boredom possibly coupled with exposure to the younger one’s actual anxiety. The younger one is “okay” with a pet sitter or other human for company, but is obviously uncomfortable without a human within her range of vision and/or scent recognition. The older one is able to relax more easily/quickly than the younger one but that could conceivably be in part due to our established mutual trust.

    Thirdly, I am going to share this post with my friend, who is a dog trainer by profession (as opposed to by life circumstance in my case). I think he will find this quite interesting.

    1. Sue – thanks so much! Oh, and Janet – her Reactivity Bingo is right up there in the Seeing-the-best-in-the-animal alley! 🙂

  9. Your post resonates deeply. It’s important for guardians, of course. In addition, I wish ALL veterinarians would take it to heart.
    Long ago, a veterinarian’s misuse of negative labels with regard to a new pup of mine—at that pup’s first exam—shifted my own emotional reaction to that pup so deeply that I would not have been able to be an effective guardian or trainer.
    This next observation is important: I was a person who KNEW BETTER—on an INTELLECTUAL level. Emotionally, though, bringing a new pup to a formerly trusted vet. for the first time, I was vulnerable. Thank goodness I came to my senses and consulted a trainer whom I knew could help me and my pup get back on track! The wrong trainer or guardian might have “helped” make this darling pup’s life miserable.
    What I think was most dangerous about my story: often guardians regard vets as general experts. (And yes, this vet was a superb SURGEON. ) And new guardians regard trainers as experts. Especially those familiar from TV or those who promise fast results. And I have to repeat: I KNEW BETTER. And yet I almost let my vet lead me down a wrong path.
    You explain clearly why context, subtleties and sub-categories of behavior are so important from an ethological standpoint. If only more experts would read this!!!!

    1. Thanks so much for sharing your story, Jane – such a profound insight!! Glad this post resonated with you! 🙂

  10. Enjoyed this blog. post. When people are struggling with a dog’s behaviour(s) I always like to ask what the dog does well, what they like about the dog and that sort of thing. It can really help in rebuilding the relationship. I try to discourage labels like dominant, stubborn etc by reframing the behaviour.

  11. Wonderful reading Karolina, as always your explanations are a valuable tool to help others truly understand the multi faceted world of animal training. I love that you give me pause for thought on how things may be done, and to try and keep my mind as open as possible.

    Thankyou ❤️

  12. I hope a lot of people Will read this! Well explained and so true but probably too long and too “academic” for the masses I loved it! ‍♀️

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