Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Terminology Matters! Or Does It?

Question: Was there a grammar squad before Facebook? Probably, but it seems that social media increasingly brings forth a cerebral upper crust who diligently corrects others' grammar and spelling mistakes. Not just that, they are also quick to point out a single word one “doesn’t use anymore”, or that is downright "the wrong term”. Snap! 
In the dog world, we have a load of loaded words that, if used, could lead to the message being dismissed and professional competence questioned.

Dominance might easily be the most contested one.
Alpha folks and the general public use it a lot, and the positive reinforcement crowd almost never does, with some denying that such a thing even exists.
Let’s see: Dominance according to Webster dictionary is to bring under one’s control by force of arms; to look down on; to serve as a leader of, and Encarta defines it as: to have control, power or authority over someone; to be the most important aspect; to have prevailing influence.
Seems like it exists alright, but there are several interpretations. In our relationship with dogs, some trainers choose the “absolute authority” and “physical force” one, mine is to have prevailing influence and I also aim to be the most important aspect in my dogs’ life.
Thankfully, that is not very difficult to achieve because between people and dogs the dominant party is determined by species. We have front limb dexterity unmatched. Caring people make decisions the dog might make himself, but it is ultimately always the human who decides: When and what the dog is fed, if, when and where he’s walked, where he sleeps, if he gets a cookie or a shock, if he is allowed in the home or chained outside, dumped somewhere or surrendered. How much more naturally dominant do you want to be?
Between dogs, I believe dominance exists too. In a multi-dog household, or in a fairly stable dog park or daycare group, dominance can be context specific and dynamic, but also static: Sometimes it is very clear which dog sets the rules, and sometimes that is for life, unless a new, more dominant dog arrives on the scene.
Our Aussie Davie was the queen at age 16 weeks and that never changed, even when she was 12 years old and ridden with cancer. She had status dominance, because she had undisputed priority access to space and resources all dogs, including fosters and houseguests, accepted, and she rarely as much as growled. Dominance has nothing to do with constant physical power plays; it is not aggression. Despite popular belief, who the dominant dog is becomes clear not because she pushes her weight around, but because the others defer.
Does it even matter what dogs decide amongst themselves if it is the human who, by nature, is in charge? It doesn’t - unless one brings a dog in the mix who does not defer. That could lead to ongoing confrontation.  

Related to dominance is pack. One synonym for pack is group, and whether free roaming dogs form hierarchical packs is irrelevant. We don’t have to go there because an owned dog is forced to live in a group made up of humans, and dogs, and sometimes other animals. No choice for the dog but to be part of a fixed social unit that is hierarchical, with the human at the helm cause he has the opposable thumbs and bank account. We already discussed that. Frankly, I prefer the term group or family, but don’t dismiss or label someone just because they say pack.

Label is a no-no word. These days, we mustn’t describe a dog as reactive or aggressive because once the label is attached there is the risk that we fixate only on that instead of the whole dog. Fair enough. Sadly that is often what happens: The owners' awareness is with the problem behavior, and they are blind to all the good ones that made them fall in love with their dog. Some blame or punish, and that damages the dog and relationship even more. 
Here is the thing, though, a dog who consistently overreacts will get a description of some sort. Plus, we also label the dog who behaves in ways we want: sweet, loving, gentle, playful, driven. Labelling is normal for humans. It is difficult to avoid it. 

Owner is loaded too, but the fact is that dogs are at our mercy, and are sold like other wares with little protection from the law. Until that changes, owner makes sense. Mike and I are indeed our dogs’ owners, but also their guardians cause we provide and protect them, and their parents cause we raise and teach them as we did our young child. Like with the word pack, I prefer guardian or parent, but don’t judge someone who refers to him or herself as an owner. 

Command is outdated. Can’t say it any longer. It’s cue now. Or signal. But mostly cue. I agree that command has a harsh connotation: “Do as you’re told, or else”, and cue is kinder, a prompt inducing an action instead of ordering it.
I am still okay with command cause frankly, there are some things that are not negotiable, actions my dog must do because it keeps him and society safe. We trained such command/action combinations as pressure free as possible, and rehearsed it well, but then I insist on it.
If you have a generally cooperative and supportive relationship; when the dog’s needs are consistently met; when he feels safe all the time, insisting won’t off-rail your relationship. Training with pain does. Deliberately inflicting pain on someone derails any relationship.

Force free trainers renounce above forbidden words to distinguish themselves from the archaic Dog Whisperer types, but the thing is that that’s the terminology many laypeople are using. Owners equate dominance with aggression and are afraid of it, feel compelled to be a good pack leader and extinguish alpha ambitions in the dog when they see the first signs, or rather what they erroneously take for signs.
Here is a thought: Instead of denouncing words the general public is familiar with – and my hunch is that that won’t change anytime soon regardless how much we frown upon it, why don’t we utilize them as a springboard to educate, to explain what they mean, and what it isn’t.

I get why dominance, pack, even command and owner might be contentious, but am bamboozled that expert irks some people. Can someone enlighten me why one wouldn’t trust someone who claims expertise?
My first thought was that perhaps I don’t get it cause English isn’t my native tongue? But then I looked the word up and synonyms does not include: "Has to have formal accredited education" or "Snooty charlatan who thinks there’s nothing left to learn in the field they are operating in" but: specialist, skillful, practiced, proficient, professional, knowledgeable – what I thought expert meant.
One is an expert if s/he knows or can do something better than most, and that can be anything from launching a rocket to making haggis. Experts are often that because they are passionate about what they do, and with that comes an innate interest to learn more.

I admit I have my own word peeves. We all see the world through our own filter after all.
I hate the word hater  – these days a fashionable general description for anyone who disagrees with one’s opinion, but often used by punitive trainers when they run out of rational arguments.
My other one is girl when used for an adult female person. Lighthearted “girls and boys” references are totally cool with me, but not the: “men in the boardroom” and “girls in the office” type ones. 
So I get it when people bristle, but also think that positive reinforcement might be an easier sell with the masses if the experts, specialists, pros, could stop to dissect every sentence to point out an incorrect term - or a grammar or spelling mistake.
If we want to change how the general public treats and trains dogs we need to reach them, and one way of reaching them is to speak a language that makes sense to them. Common ground terms can open the door to communication.