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The Truth About Labeling Dog Behavior

When a dog is acting out, it's tempting to slap a simple label on the problem. But labeling often does more hard than good — especially when the label is wrong.

by Karen B. London, PhD
April 5, 2017
Dog is biting his dog harness to take the dog for a walk
FranTc / Adobe Stock

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During their first appointment, my clients told me that their dog had “severe territorial aggression,” and that they had been advised to euthanize him. I looked at the wide-eyed and quaking Hound mix hiding under a chair and had a strong suspicion that the label given to this dog was far from accurate.

As it turned out, the dog was actually terrified of strangers. Not only was his problematic behavior based in fear and totally unrelated to any concept of territory, he had never hurt anyone. He whined, barked, and showed his teeth to anyone he didn’t know who got too close to him, giving them an awful scare. But even when people tried to pet him (unwise, but it happened!), he didn’t bite.

Over the years, situations like this have made me increasingly disillusioned about the labels that are so often applied to dogs’ behavior problems. I find that labeling often does more harm than good, especially when the label is wrong.

The Upside of Labeling Dog Behavior

It’s not surprising that we want to label dogs’ behavior issues: It matches the system we use for people. In the realm of human health care, labels are necessary because billing codes are required for insurance coverage of both treatment and medications.

Having a label for a dog’s behavior problem may also make it easier for us to access information and resources. Learning that it is a known syndrome or problem often makes us feel better even before there’s any discussion about what to do to improve the behavior. It’s a natural human tendency — just naming a problem can give us a sense of control over it.

Perhaps the biggest advantage to labeling behavior problems is that it provides a verbal shorthand that speeds up communication. There’s an appealing simplicity to using a short phrase or two to identify a dog’s issue rather than going into great detail about each incident, especially when many people are involved. (It’s not unusual for an evaluation team to include a behaviorist, a veterinarian, and a trainer, as well as other experts.)

The Downside of Labeling Dog Behavior

On the other hand, describing the behavior in detail lends an accuracy to the situation that labels sometime obscure. Indeed, labeling dog behavior can often lead to mislabeling, which interferes with arriving at an appropriate response to the problem, whatever the problem turns out to be.

For example, every year, multiple clients seek my help with separation anxiety because they have been told (erroneously) that their dog suffers from it. The dog may be showing behaviors often associated with separation anxiety — including excessive barking, eliminating indoors, or destructive chewing — but the real problem can often be revealed with a thorough description of the dog’s behavior before, during, and after the guardian’s departure.

When the real issue is boredom, incomplete house training, or a simple (which is not to say easy!) case of adolescence, changing the undesirable behavior by approaching it as a case of separation anxiety is unlikely to be successful. Rather than medication and complex protocols to desensitize the dog to departures and the cues that precede them, the real solution could be adding activities and enrichment opportunities, returning to Housetraining 101, or providing a long exercise session before putting the dog in a crate with appropriate, long lasting chewables.

It is also common for people to consult with me because their dog is “protective” of them. Lila brought in Banjo because every time anyone got near Lila, Banjo barked, growled, and lunged. Lila was concerned that he would hurt someone, but delighted by his bold confidence. Trouble was, after taking a case history and observing Banjo in a variety of contexts, I could tell that he was not protecting her so much as he was possessing her.

He guarded toys, food, sleeping spaces, and anything he considered of value, including Lila. He was not her brave protector, but an insecure dog who considered her to be the best bone in the world, and he was not going to let someone else have her. Mislabeling Banjo’s behavior as “protectiveness” rather than of “possessiveness” hindered attempts to change this behavior, and interfered with Lila’s understanding of who Banjo was.

Another negative of labeling behavior problems is that it oversimplifies the situation. If a dog is called a “fear biter” or even labeled with the more professional sounding “fear-based aggression,” it implies a simplicity that is just not there. Even among the many dogs whose fear drives aggressive behavior, differences are enormous.

For example, dealing with a dog who is afraid of red-headed children (and therefore reacts badly when in the presence of one) because they were once traumatized by an attack from such a child requires a very targeted approach to overcoming that fear. Modifying such a specific behavior is different than working with dogs who are afraid of everything; dogs who missed out on socialization early on but are great with familiar people; or even dogs who panic and bite as a reaction to loud noises such as gun shots, fireworks, or the crash of a pot hitting a tile floor.

A related drawback of labeling behavior problems is that the label implies a simple solution (again, similar to the human medical model), in which a diagnosis points to a specific treatment. Boxed-in thinking about how to change undesirable behavior can short circuit continued investigation. For example, using the label “arousal-based aggression” gives the impression that the situation is thoroughly understood and that all that is needed is an appropriate behavior modification program, one that emphasizes predictability and includes exercises to help the dog learn to practice self-control. However, that label may mask the dog’s anxiety and the need for intervention to address it.

(Mis)labeling Dog Behavior May Lead to Unnecessary Shame

Then, there’s the issue of shame; giving a dog’s problem a label makes it seem more serious and alarming to pet parents and may make them feel unnecessarily ashamed of their dog’s behavior. That’s especially true of any label that includes the word “aggressive,” which carries such a stigma.

It’s too bad that a stigma exists, but since it does, it makes sense to be mindful of it when discussing dogs’ behavior with their humans. People are often devastated to be told that their dog is aggressive, especially if the dog is sweet and loving within the family. It can be even harder for a family whose dog is behaving out of character due to an injury or other physical ailment. If the dog is in such pain that the problem behavior is just the dog’s attempt to keep people from touching them because they have learned it will hurt, I would rather say that — even if it is long and a little unwieldy — than call the dog aggressive. Even if it is modified by the term “pain-induced,” the word makes people feel bad, and that’s not helpful.

It’s common for people who are told that their dog is “fear aggressive” to be more daunted and overwhelmed than if they are told that their dog is fearful and acting out because they can’t say, “Please, oh please, don’t come any closer — you’re scaring me! And for heaven’s sake, don’t pet me because I can’t handle that except from my closest friends.”

If people understand that dogs are barking, growling, or biting because they are desperate to increase the distance between themselves and whatever scares them (i.e., other dogs, people, trash cans, bicycles) and will only stop if we can help them overcome their fears, there’s less judgment and more hope. Focusing on the behavior itself — what the dog does— and discussing the motivation behind it avoids problems that can arise with simply labeling the behavior.

(Mis)Labeling Dog Behavior: A Case Study

I recently consulted with a family whose dog was a victim of a labeling error that had hindered their ability to help him. This family’s sweet, three-year-old Newfoundland was urinating inside the home and because their veterinarian could find no medical reason for it, she had referred them to me to handle the “housetraining” problem. One complication with this particular label is that there is no agreement across disciplines about what it means. To many people, house soiling without a medical cause is always related to housetraining, but behaviorists recognize that many issues involving urination indoors can be signs of appeasement behavior or a need to mark territory, among other possibilities.

It was a challenge to get contextual information from the family about the problem because they just kept saying, “He pees everywhere, and it’s such a mess!” and then detailing the clean-up, which was no doubt considerable given that the dog weighed 125 pounds. With persistent inquiry, however, I was finally able to get a fuller picture; it turned out not to be a housetraining problem after all. The dog’s housetraining was solid, but he peed during greetings. As a puppy, he urinated whenever he greeted anyone, but now he only did it when greeting the husband or the occasional male visitor, especially if the visitor reached for the dog.

Recognizing that the inappropriate urination was a specific type of social issue (often called “submissive urination” and somewhat unusual in dogs older than 12 to 18 months of age) rather than one of bladder control — or not knowing or caring where it was appropriate to eliminate — made it easier to address the real issue: the husband’s approach to his sensitive dog. Though he thought he was doing right by his dog by being firm and applying stern, consistent discipline, he was open to a new approach.

I was able to help the family by teaching the husband kinder, gentler, and more effective ways to interact with his dog and influence the dog’s behavior. As a result, the dog stopped urinating in the house. No program designed to solve a housetraining problem would have achieved this result, which had the added benefit of improving the overall family dynamic, as well.

The Bottom Line

The temptation to put a name on a problem is strong, and many of us are quick to embrace it. However, while labeling seems like an intuitively obvious approach, the downsides are too important and too numerous for me to be on board with it. Labels can get in the way of seeing the dog, focusing our attention on a pathology, and turning the dog into an example of a specific behavior problem rather than what they actually are: a complex individual and a unique case.

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karen london

Karen B. London, PhD

Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression, and has also trained other animals including cats, birds, snakes, and insects. She writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life.