Wednesday, November 15, 2023

When Labels Do More Harm Than Good

I taught a class last weekend for new pet assisted therapy animals and their humans.  After class, one of the new volunteers commented on how much she appreciated it when I said "it isn't that jumping up is bad, it's just that it isn't appropriate for pet therapy animals on visits." She said she'd been told numerous times that her dog was "badly behaved," had "poor impulse control," and "needed to be taught who's in charge."  These comments had come from friends and family, as well as a couple of dog trainers.  I was saddened by this, but I can't say that I was shocked.  I've worked with many clients who've been told similar things (or worse) by those they've approached for help, guidance, and support.  

But see, here's the thing.  What I said is true. Whether you're talking about a dog who jumps up, a dog who surfs counters, a dog who barks a the mailman, a dog who chases squirrels, or a dog who pulls on the leash, all of those behaviors are normal dog behaviors.  Dogs jump up in joy or to get a better vantage point. Dogs surf counters because there is food there.  Dogs bark at the mailman because he's invading their territory.  Same goes for those pesky squirrels.  And we know already that dogs pull on the leash to get to the next sniff because we've talked about that many times.  Now, I understand that YOU may not want your dog jumping up or counter surfing, and that's okay. I can help you with that.  But don't succumb to labeling your dog as bad or poorly behaved, lacking impulse control, for doing those things.  He's just being a dog. It's our job as their guardians to teach them boundaries and limits as defined by us and our living situation.  You've all heard the phrase "my house, my rules." Well, that applies to dogs too.  Just because I don't allow my dogs on the couch doesn't mean your dog is bad if he gets up on yours. It simply means that the rules at your house are different than mine.  And guests to your home need to understand that they will be sharing the sofa with your canine companion and that doesn't make the dog bad or poorly behaved.  He's just following your rules.

In pet therapy class, I let the new volunteers know what behaviors are unacceptable in terms of being successful pet therapists.  I don't just tell them "don't let your dog jump on people," I also tell them how they can get a handle on that behavior now so that it won't keep them from being able to participate.  All of our pets are leashed for therapy visits, so simply standing on the leash of a bouncy dog helps them to understand that jumping up doesn't work there.  Same goes for dogs who paw for attention; that may be something you are okay with at home and that you reinforce by petting your dog whenever he paws you, but we can't allow pawing for attention on therapy visits. So, I ask owners of the pawing dogs to simply place their forearm across their dog's front legs during petting to keep those legs from coming up and pawing a patient for attention. Dogs who paw for attention aren't bad dogs; they are just dogs who are allowed to do that behavior and while you may hate it, their owner clearly doesn't as the dog has been allowed to do it all the time!

So, my friends, be careful labeling dogs (or their owners) when you are out and about.  Just because that dog is jumping up on someone for an ear ruffle and love doesn't make him a bad dog. It simply means that he and that human he's jumping up on are enjoying their interaction.  And for those of us who don't like being jumped on, we can simply ask our friends with the bouncy dogs to stand on those leashes so that we may greet their dogs with four feet solidly planted on the floor.  

And all of this is really important as the holidays are rapidly approaching and you'll have family and friends visiting your home and your dogs.  Make sure your guests know the house rules with regard to your dogs.  If they don't want to share the couch with the dog, then maybe they should sit in a chair instead!  And if they don't want the dog sleeping with them in your guest room, then they can shut their door.  It's as simple as that.  

As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

Here's my granddog, Westley, at my daughter's house where he's allowed on all of the furniture.  At my house, I have a "no dogs on the couch" rule as my new couch is small and there's not enough room for the people AND all of the dogs.  Westley knows that it's "grandma's house, grandma's rules" and he doesn't even try to get up there anymore.  He's not a "bad dog" for trying to get up there the first couple of times he visited me with the new couch.  He simply needed to learn the new rule. 

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