We generally don’t think about every single word that we use but sometimes we should. This is particularly important when it comes to emotive subjects which most certainly includes our dogs! Names we call things might seem like a silly thing to worry about as we all know what we mean; but words matter because it really does affect how we think about things. There are many scientific studies showing that if we change that words we use it changes the way we think.
Think about it – if someone described you as “frugal” verses someone calling you a “cheapskate” they probably feel differently about you and your money spending habits.
How this is used in dog training
Now this technique is used a lot by aversive trainers. (Trainers who use pain and fear to prevent unwanted behaviour and to make dogs do what they want. Usually by causing inhibition and always breaking down the bond between dogs and their guardians.) One example is trainers who hurt dogs call themselves “balanced trainers” this sounds fairly nice. Much nicer than explaining that they might give your dogs some treats but they might also physically abuse them. Tools they use, such as choke chains and prong collars, are rarely called their descriptive names when trying to convince unsuspecting guardians to use them on their furry family members. Instead words such as “check chain” and “pinch collar” sound much better. Imagine how many people would stay in a class where the trainer is repeatedly asking you to “choke your dog, yes choke them again!”. Not many I’d hope
How we can use it for good
The good news is we can also utilise this technique to improve animal welfare! When we train we use some words slightly differently too, this can help get people’s mind into force-free mentality. One of the first changes people notice is we don’t use the word “owner”. We feel that animals are part of a family. The relationship is one of guardianship rather than ownership. We all know we’re talking about the same thing. The human who looks after, pays for and is legally responsible for the animal. But by calling yourself your animals guardian it puts more of an onus on you to protect them. From not only physical harm but also mental harm too. This can be by avoiding things that you know cause them stress as well as seeking professional, science based help to change the way that they feel about things.
Another word we use is “cue” to ask an animal to do something compared to the dominance driven “command”. This is exactly same action. If I say “cue your dog to sit” or “command your dog to sit” both are asking you to ask your dog to sit. But the big difference is your expectations going into this interaction. A cue is a question, you’re asking them to do something for you. Not something they want to do. Something for you, and if they do it then you’ll reward them for this (it might be treats, play, petting or verbal praise). With a command you are telling them to do something. This usually means you expect compliance… or else. Both ways we’d like the dog to do what we’ve asked but the mind set behind each is actually quite different!
There are also the correct emotions to describe dog’s behaviour which it can be easy to fall into the trap of using wrong words which can make it harder for us to understand our dogs. We all too often hear “he’s so aggressive” but this doesn’t describe what the dog is feeling. Whereas if we say “he’s really scared” or “he gets really frustrated” it’s much easier to see where they are coming from. This means their behaviour can become more predictable to us. Treating the cause is possible and rather than getting wound up by their behaviour we can feel compassion.
If you go to describe something your dog does with negative connotations (being annoying, trying to get back at you, jealous, angry, stupid) think instead how can I move forward from this, and putting the blame on your dog is never a good start. It is up to you as the guardian to help your dog make the right decision. Sometimes it is hard to see the root of a behaviour and so by seeking diagnosis from a professional, qualified behaviourist can be your first step to helping your dog.
So try using different words when talking about your animals and see how you feel!