Let’s Talk Language


what it is not
Today I spoke to vet students studying veterinary welfare, ethics and animal behaviour. It was their first lecture dealing with Animal Behaviour and I wanted to speak about language. I can imagine they might think it is unimportant. But it is the crux of the matter. You will hear it in vet clinics all the time – eroding the bond of compassion and caring that vets have with patients who, through the poor choice of language, become the enemy.

When we describe dogs as wimps, sooks, babies or as nasty, mean, vicious we use loaded terminology. We use descriptors that are full of emotional baggage. When we describe a dog’s attempt at keeping himself safe as an act of jealousy, spitefulness or protectiveness we do him no end of disservice and do not help his owner understand their dog’s choices.

Dogs who display aggressive behaviours do so because they have found a tool that works for them. It is one that people notice (finally) and gets them the outcome they are after – the scary thing stays away.

It is one of the most difficult concepts for clients to understand – that the aggressive dog is most often a very frightened dog, that through practice and rehearsal, and no one listening to his lesser signals (or having had them punished for previous displays), has learnt that going on the offensive early is his safest bet. These dogs are no less frightened than the whimpering, hiding dog that displays his belly, but they have just hit on a more successful strategy. And you can bet they will use it again.

The last thing this dog needs is to have his fears confirmed and continue to not be listened to – then he may resort to his final choice – biting. When we call these dogs protective, jealous, angry or mean we are missing the very point.  The dog is communicating fear in the loudest and best way he can, when all the previous and polite signals have been ignored.

I tell the students to ask clients to describe behaviour. Don’t ask for interpretations and steer clients away from that too. What does the dog do? What did you do? What happened first? What does it look like? What would you like the dog to do? Let’s teach that…

Let’s give the dog cues NOT commands. Let’s make the dog feel safe, so he doesn’t have to protect himself by using aggressive responses. Give him choice, a way to escape safely. Let’s not put him in situations he cannot handle and he has previously shown us he does not cope with.

Let’s use the least intrusive and minimally aversive techniques to implement the change.

A prison officer working with youth offenders once told me that the kids in the centre weren’t bad, but sad, and I remember what a difference that change in label meant. Working with sad children engenders empathy and caring. Helping people out of a sad place is worthwhile, whereas dealing with bad suggests that changes aren’t even possible. One bad apple...It even suggests a contagion that is best isolated and thrown away. Use language that helps owners feel compassion and caring towards their pet instead of puts them in a position against their pet, pits them against one another, and tells them their pet is out to garner control over them.

Dogs, like all animals, including us, do what works for them. It is as simple and as difficult as that.

11 Replies to “Let’s Talk Language”

  1. Sad not bad; how to shift a point of view. I thought you were going to reflect on the teaching experience? The receptivity of the modern veterinary student to lectures that we may have sketched doodles through. Did the students have any questions? The details of observed animal behaviour are so delicious. Did the younger eyes see?


    1. yes lectures have changed since our day – no more writing on plastic under the light of an overhead projector. These days students are behind their open laptops and who knows whether they are listening or not…and only a handful of males in class of 80-90 females…


  2. So true. I do struggle with people who whisk their dogs into their arms or drag them away on leads, so they do not socialize or learn their own strengths & weaknesses (both person & animal). DB-Chihuahua adores all sizes of dogs because I have not ‘protected’ him (plus, of course, he came from a home-Puppy factory). KT-Parson’s Russell has gained confidence from DB’s interaction. I have taught them that snapping is not the answer as first resource but have encouraged “gently” or loudly proclaimed “hello” to other dogs that even I may be unsure of: this has often encouraged tail-wagging where there was previously stiff-legged, no wagging and, I feel, dispelled any unease because I, as pack-leader, established first contact. Maybe it is just dumb luck. You are doing such a great job..go woman ..&, of course, Murphy.


  3. Dear Nicole, when i read the title of your article “Let’s Talk Language” and saw the attached picture, i immediately felt interested as i try to find my way to describe behavior without using labels. I thrive for knowledge and improving my skills (being a volunteer in a dog shelter but without being a trainer or behaviorist). Also the words “do what works for them” are with me constantly, especially when i try to convince my fellow volunteers that the minutes before getting out of the kennel are the most important ones. That’s the time we can establish a new way because we swop going outside with new behavior.
    But most of all i wanted to let you know that when i found your page i had the feeling “of coming home” – thank you for sharing.
    and, so this is what happens when you enter thechookhouse.


  4. You explained that so well Nicole. Also want to share this with staff as old concepts are slow to change.
    Thanks. you are an educator that reaches the heart of he matter and the students


  5. Just yesterday morning walking my chilled out mutt at the foreshore I met an amazing woman. She formerly worked for the Shenton Park Dogs Home but still volunteers for “Desperate for love”. This lady has adopted a most beautiful but blind Labrador. I watched her handling of him for a while then we chatted. At all times she was his eyes, giving him verbal words to ensure he did not run into tables or dogs. In our 1-2 hour conversation he barked once. She was surprised as in the 9 weeks she had adopted him, he had only barked one other time. The only thing he could have barked at was a man. This man was jogging across the grass approx 12 metres away. But his breath was laboured. It was as he was leaving the area that the dog barked, not entering. I said to Jill that I thought he had barked at the man – probably his smell, that he was labouring and sweating and maybe putting his heart under too much strain. Dogs are so intelligent and can detect cancer, I wonder if because this lab cannot see he has a heightened sense of not only smell but wellness/aura in humans. I hope the jogger got home safely ….. I am looking forward to bumping into Jill and her Labrador again.
    Great article Nicole and yes we to impose human traits to animals. If we could change our government and show how sad and how victimised and traumatised those in endless immigration detention are. That they too are sad not bad, I would sleep more easily.


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