Labels Hurt People as Much as They Do Pets

In many of our webinar courses, we’ve discussed the problems with categorizing behavior and behavior problems and dogs.  Too often labels are applied to behaviors, to motivations, and to specific animals without a clear or well accepted understanding of what these labels mean.  Our most recent favorite label to pick on is “reactive”.  It appears to have become a substitute for threatening or aggressive behavior.  In fact, we’ve even seen “reactive/aggressive” used to describe dogs.

Of course the term isn’t at all descriptive.  It is a label that really serves no purpose to help us visualize what the dog is doing, doesn’t contribute to our understanding of why he’s doing it, and certainly doesn’t help us know how best to change his behavior – whatever behavior “reactive” might be referring to.  It’s much more helpful to describe a dog by saying he is lunging on the leash toward other dogs, barking, growling, showing his teeth, and displaying piloerection.  Of course a “reactive” dog could also be hiding behind his owner, cowering and shaking when another dog approaches. That is a “reaction” after all.

This tendency to assign labels to things seems to be something we humans inherently like to do.  Unfortunately, it has become too common a practice to assign labels to people in the dog training field.  Trainers have been labeled as “all positive”, “balanced”  or  “positive reinforcement trainers” to name just a few.  Search any of these terms in google and you’ll discover trainers’ websites who use the terms to mean different things.

These labels came into existence as a result of the debate that has waged in the dog training field for over 10 years about the use of “punishment” or “corrections” in dog training.  In the beginning, this discussion needed to happen.  While there were pockets of exceptions, the history of dog training contains far too much focus on techniques that harmed dogs. 

Extreme examples include filling a hole the dog has dug with water and holding his head under water, and “helicoptering” or swinging the dog around on the live ring of a choke chain. There is no doubt these barbaric techniques had, and have, no place in dog training.

Now, in some circles, the pendulum seems to have swung completely in the other direction, sometimes to the point of irrationality.  “Punishment” – we are assuming positive punishment – is being “banned” in some circles.  As we know, by definition, punishment is an unpleasant consequence following a behavior that suppresses the frequency of the behavior.  That could be something as harmless as a loud “NO”. 
“Force” is also a no-no, although this could be interpreted as putting tension on a leash attached to a head collar during a walk, or swaddling a puppy that is overly-aroused and out of control.

And superb, excellent, experienced, educated trainers who have helped thousands of dogs and their owners are being condemned because they are honest enough to say in public that they engage in those sorts of appropriate practices. 

For over 25 years, we’ve wholeheartedly acted– with both our words and deeds – to ensure that dogs aren’t harmed, they are treated with respect, their behavioral and physical needs are met, training is enjoyable for both dogs and people, the use of positive punishment is minimized, and dogs are integral parts of our families.

Both within our site and at recent conferences we’ve tried to take an objective look at what has become an extremely contentious topic in the dog training world.  Last August we did a Behavior Education Network Pro Member Only Session entitled "What’s Up With ‘Aversives’ in Dog Training?" and at the Best Friends Forever Conference in Exton PA “The Use and Misuse of Punishment”.  Both have been extremely well received. 

While there are “outlier”-type methods and philosophies in dog training that the vast majority of reasonable trainers want to distance themselves from – such as a confrontational “dominance” approach to training or the use of the extreme techniques mentioned above – there should be room for discussion about the limited and appropriate use of positive punishment, broadly defined.

Dogs and people are subjected to positive punishment all the time.  An adult dog growls at a rambunctious puppy that yips and runs off.  A man gives his spouse a “dirty look” to stop her from talking about personal issues in public.  When we think about it, even if we claim to never use positive punishment in dog training, when we step back and analyze all the interactions we have with our dogs, it’s likely we do. 

Get better educated about learning theory using “EXCEL-ERATED LEARNING – EXPLAINING HOW DOGS LEARN AND HOW BEST TO TEACH THEM  by Pamela Reid or our CD set on “Fundamentals of Animal Learning”, or join for access to all our monthly sessions, scientific article analyses and much more.



  • Pia Silvani

    Reply Reply

    As always, thank you for all that you do!

    • Suzanne & Dan

      Reply Reply

      Back atcha!
      suzanne and dan

  • Julie Tabor

    Reply Reply

    To me the term "reactive" means a pet that is easily aroused in response to stimulus that may not elicit a reaction from other less "reactive" animals.  In that context, I think the term does have some use.

    • Suzanne & Dan

      Reply Reply

      Thanks for your comment Julie. We understand your point, but then you are really talking about a continuum – a dog that wags his tail in response to another dog approaching is still reacting. So maybe “overly aroused” followed by a more concrete description would be more useful.
      suzanne and dan

  • React- "To act in opposition, as against some force; to respond to a stimuli in a particular manner.  
    I believe that the term "reactive" is more than a useless label.  It rather provides a short-hand way to describe a range of problematic behaviors in circumstances when it is neither necessary nor practical to describe every possible particular behavior in detail. For example, it is much more effective to write: "Reactive dogs can benefit from training methods that utilize behavior modification techniques" as opposed to trying to describe every possible problematic behavior that may occur in response to a countless list of stimuli. 
    However, thank you for calling attention to the problem of the thoughtless and harmful use of labels, esp. as they are used to denigrate others. BH

    • Suzanne & Dan

      Reply Reply

      Thanks for your comment Beverly. We’ll agree to disagree on the use of the word “reactive” – we don’t think it is descriptive at all. To us, descriptive would be “the dog barks and lunges at other dogs”.

      Suzanne and Dan

Leave A Response

* Denotes Required Field