Dr Ian Dunbar is often heard remarking on the way people in a class will label a dog who has displayed reactivity, even if the dog did so for 30 seconds in an 8 hour workshop. Even if that dog spent the other 7 hours, 59 minutes and 30 seconds, not reacting, they will be labelled as 'the reactive dog'. Why does that matter? Well it doesn't really matter what all the other people in the room think, people often are quick to label or judge a whole being based on one experience of them. But it does matter what you believe about your dog.
If you leave that work shop thinking you have 'a reactive dog', you may be creating a limiting belief that will hamper your ability to overcome that obstacle with them.
Beliefs form the foundations of our expectations and that's where the problems begin.
1. Your dog can only rise to the level of your expectation of him. If you don't expect he will sit and stay for a whole minute until he hears his release word, then you won't give him the chance to try. An expectation of failure will prevent you from waiting the full minute; you might release him early, you may see the dog anticipating a release and say the word just after he's already left.
If you expect her to always react to other dogs and never be able to overcome her social issues, you may never seek help for this or push to address the issue. The limiting belief may simply stop you from increasing your expectations of your dog.
2. It changes your focus. In Ian Dubar's example, it's clear the the people in the room are focusing on the negative aspects of the dog's behaviour, and we can get in the same habit by adopting limiting beliefs. If we are labelling our dog as 'naughty' or 'reactive', our brain will be looking for the information that proves those beliefs to be correct. We might miss the 45 minutes of the walk where our dog walked nicely and ignored a passing dog, if for 3 minutes he couldn't cope with a particularly triggering dog going past. That means we might be likely to celebrate the victories less and amplify the failures more. This isn't good for your own feelings about training with your dog, you won't see the progress you're making together and be more likely to quit.
If we only pay attention to the moments when they are being the worst version of themselves, the version we have labelled our dog as (reactive, naughty, aggressive, anxious), we are likely to see more of that version.
By paying attention to the moments when they ARE being the best versions of themselves (brave, chilled out, clever, responsive), we will begin to see more of that version.
3. It changes how we approach the training we do. If you have a limiting belief about your dog, you are more likely to focus on strategies for managing your dog's behaviour rather then actually addressing it.
There are a number of management strategies one might employ such as medication, barriers, muzzles, leashes, changing your routine, walking at night, avoiding triggers. None of these are bad to do as part of a training plan but used on their own, they indicate that you don't believe your dog's problem can be addressed and so it never will. If you don't believe there is hope of rehabilitation then you won't take steps to make rehabilitation the goal and instead will make your focus on avoiding the problem.
Now, that isn't to say we abandon all reality and throw all reason out the window. Some dogs will always require management strategies, or maybe they won't overcome social issues, maybe a serious bite history means you must always use a muzzle. But if you refuse to believe improvement is possible, you won't try. That's doing your dog a disservice. Try everything, push the boundaries, help them reach their potential.
Our dogs have the potential to be better then we could ever imagine if given the chance.
Remove the limiting belief and give them the chance.
Replace ' my dog is dog - reactive' with 'my dog needs help learning to ask for space and managing his emotions around dogs'
Replace 'my dog is naughty' with 'my dog needs to learn more impulse control and I need to better manage her environment'
Replace 'my dog hates strange people' with 'my dog prefers my company and may need help feeling safe when strangers are around. To ensure I can feel like everyone is safe, I will train him to comfortably wear a muzzle'
Focus on what you can do to help rather then making it a 'fact' of the dog's personality.
Thanks for reading and I hope this helps you keep your commitment to canines!