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Six Labels That Hurt Your Relationship With Your Dog

"My dog is crazy, my dog is stupid, my dog is willful, my dog is dominant, my dog is vicious, my dog is vengeful." How many times have you labeled your dog using such terminology to describe him? If you are guilty of labeling your dog as such, you may likely fail to fully understand his behaviors and needs and you may end up doing things that may hurt your relationship with your dog. The use of these labels therefore goes beyond a matter of semantics. Sometime though, re-labeling certain traits of your dog with words that more accurately provide a description of what it truly going on can change the ways you relate with your companion.


"My Dog is Crazy!"

The word crazy in this case may have a benevolent tone at times such as when used to depict those funny moments of "doggy craziness" such as when dogs get a bout of zoomies after a bath, but at times it may have a not-so-benevolent tone.

If you label your dog as crazy when he is acting hyper, bouncing off the walls, jumping on you, this label will do no good as it may lead to a sense of helplessness.

Dog trainers hear this many times "My dog is crazy, and I don't know what to do" or "I am at my wit's end with my dog's craziness, I think he has ADHD."

Sometimes dog owners are desperate and on the verge of re-homing their dog. The term crazy in this case denotes mental illness, perhaps something that the owners feels that's beyond fixing.

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Putting things into perspective: no worries, "crazy dogs" don't need to be locked up in a mental institution and wrapped up in a straitjacket! In reality, most dogs are not crazy or close to being it. Dogs depicted as "crazy" are often simply youngsters, dogs stuck in the doggy adolescent stage, who are in need of help for learning constructive ways to release their pent-up energy. Exercise, mental stimulation, a structured training and strategic management plan can work wonders in the long run in calming these dogs down. If you own a "crazy dog"consult with a positive dog trainer to help you out; and for those rare true cases of clinical hyperactivity or ADHD, a qualified behavior professional can provide help.

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"Boy, do I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say their dog was “hyperactive” or “ADHD” – I’d be a wealthy woman. In fact, those are clinical terms referring to very specific behavioral disorders (canine and human) that are relatively uncommon in dogs. In reality, most “hyper” dogs are just under-exercised." ~Pat Miller

"My Dog is Stupid!"


This label is often used for dogs who are not excelling much in the obedience department, dogs who flunk obedience classes and who don't seem to be as "bright" as the neighbor's dog who can give paw, roll over and play dead.

Even labeling dogs as stupid often denotes a sense of helplessness, as if these dogs cannot be trained because they are lacking something substantial in the IQ department.

If you are labeling your dog as stupid, most likely you have give up training because you're deeply discouraged and upset by your dog's lack of progress.

Putting things in perspective: not all dogs have the same type of intelligence. Different dog breeds were selectively bred for accomplishing different tasks, so it's totally normal for Bingo the beagle to be more attracted to going on a sniffing adventure than fetching your slippers as Rover the retriever does.

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There is no such a thing as a stupid dog. Often behind a dog labeled as stupid is a dog who needs a little more guidance of what is expected from him. Perhaps, breaking up an exercise in smaller steps and trying to train in a quieter area where there are not many distractions going on can prove helpful. High-value treats come also handy for dogs who need a stronger incentive. And good timing is a must, so that the dog knows exactly which behavior you want. All these factors together can help better communicate what is wanted from your dog. If you are still struggling, don't give up: consult with a dog trainer using reward-based methods, your training problem could be an easy fix.

"Dogs in many ways are just like people. Some dogs will pick things up very quickly and others will take more time and guidance. Often times when we as trainers see a dog having difficulty learning a task, it's because the dog is not being communicated to in a way that the dog can understand." ~Association of Professional Dog Trainers


"My Dog is Willful!"

This term is often perpetuated by websites depicting certain dog breeds. "Another popular term is "stubborn" or "obstinate." Generally, these terms are used to depict a dog who is not eager to "please owners" and just wants to do his own thing.

Usage of this term has negative implications as it gives the idea that such dogs are determined and nothing can stop them. It gives the impression that some trait is encoded deep into the dog's genetic makeup and therefore there's pretty much nothing that can be done to get the dog to become more collaborative.

If you use this term often, you may have felt many times like tossing the towel and giving up trying to coax your dog to do something other than what he wants.

Putting things in perspective: it's a common myth that dogs are born eager to please their owners. In reality, dogs engage in behaviors that have a history of reinforcement. Willful dogs are often simply dogs who are untrained and determined to achieve something else other than what the owner wants because of genetics.

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Terrier dogs dig not because they are willful, but because they are genetically wired to do so, sight hounds will chase after fleeing squirrels because that's what they were bred for, collies will want to herd anything that moves because herding is what they have been doing for centuries. As with dogs labeled as stupid, dogs labeled as willful benefit from clear instructions and consistency. Setting these dogs for success requires finding what motivates them so to help these dogs make good choices.

"When a dog doesn’t listen to or follow commands, it’s not typically because he is hardheaded or untrainable. The problem is often that normal dog behaviors simply don’t conform to human standards of good manners, and changing behavior that comes naturally to a dog can take time and effort." ~Mikkelle Becker

"My Dog is Dominant!"


Help, my puppy thinks he's alpha! He very dominant, what can I do?"

A popular television show has created a surge in the usage of this term and now we are still stuck with its negative repercussions. The term is often used to describe dogs who are willful, but in a more negative way as if dogs were eager to take over the planet and become the big chest-thumping "alphas."

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Help, My Puppy Pees Before Going Outside

If your puppy pees before going outside, most likely you are very frustrated by the whole situation. Perhaps you have put your puppy on a schedule, but she has a mishap right before getting her out. What to do?

Dog owners therefore feel compelled to take over the "alpha role" and gain back the reins of dog ownership by putting dogs "in their place." This often entails using aversion-based techniques that tend to negatively impact the bond between dog and owner and that may turn out also being risky.

Putting things in perspective: often behind so called "dominant' dogs are simply dogs who are performing behaviors that have a history of being rewarded.

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Dogs jump on their owners as a way to greet or as a way to get attention, it's not like they're trying to get taller and rule the roost. Dogs enjoy the couch because it's comfy and they feel safe and secure not because they perceive it as their "throne." Dogs who pull on the leash do so because they want to explore their surroundings, a natural behavior all dogs are born with and not because they want to rule what path to take. Dogs lean against people because they trust them and have a desire to seek contact and the behavior has a history of reinforcement.

Despite what many people think, dogs are not there strategically plotting on how to rule the roost, they are simply opportunists who just need some guidance and consistency. Instead of fretting over the thought that your dog is being "dominant, " focus on training your dog exactly what you want him to do to replace the undesirable behavior, and don't forget to reward him for doing it right! And of course, for those more elaborate cases, refer to a dog trainer or behavior consultant.

"Frankly, there is just too much labeling and not enough thinking and understanding out there, and it has done a lot of harm. Anyone who thinks they have to ‘dominate’ another species…has just defined a pathology.”~ Dr. Karen Overall

"My Dog is Vicious!"

dog aggression

This term is often used to depict a dog who growls, snarls and lunges towards other people or dogs, but what happens when dogs are labeled as vicious? This "umbrella term" gives the impression that dogs are dangerous, unpredictable and untrustworthy all of the time.

Instead, most dogs are only acting "viciously" in only specific contexts and situations. This term as well gives a sense of helplessness as if the affected dogs are constantly on the lookout for an opportunity to try to attack and bite.

The term "vicious" therefore gives the idea of a dog being purposely mean, with an intent to harm because the dog perceives the behavior as pleasurable.

Putting things in perspective: Dogs do not have a direct intent to harm as many people believe. Often dog who are labeled as vicious are simply dogs who are defensive because they're feeling threatened. If you get angry at a person who cuts in front of you when you are in line or tries to steal your wallet, does that mean you are "vicious?" Certainly not! In the same way, dogs shouldn't be labeled vicious if they occasionally engage in what we consider "aggressive behaviors."

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When we label a dog or a specific dog breed as vicious, we are perpetuating a belief that the behavior is reflecting the dog's essence. This can be harmful to both dog and owner because it often implies the belief that that specific dog cannot change. Labeling a dog as "vicious" gives little information about what is really happening and it doesn't help much with arranging a plan to tackle the issue.

What happens though when we replace the term vicious with something else? This makes us see things from a whole different perspective! So instead of saying "my dog is vicious" using the word aggressive as an adjective, we would perhaps say "my dog acts aggressively" or " my dog uses aggression" or " my dog behaves aggressively when he has a bone." Even better, let's try removing the term aggressive altogether and describing the "aggressive behavior" instead, as such: "My dog growls when he has a bone" or even better "my dog growls when he has a bone and I come close to him." We now have a clearer picture of what the dog is doing and in what circumstance the behavior is taking place. This can be very helpful for when consulting with a professional as a description of the issue must be provided. It also helps in seeing the behavior from a more positive perspective.

"Actions can be changed, DNA cannot. If you believe your dog IS shy, scared, soft, aggressive, etc., you will become crippled in your training of him by his personality. However, if you believe your dog is acting in a certain way, you will treat him very differently because you will believe you can change his behavior."~ Connie Cleveland


"My Dog is Vengeful!"

Coming home and finding your home destroyed can make you think that your dog must have plotted everything against you because you didn't take him along with you. Dogs are often also labeled as vengeful when they soil in the home when left at home as a way "to get back" at their owners.

This can cause you to feel a sense of resentment towards your dog and perhaps your built-up feelings may trigger scolding and punishment upon coming home because your feel like your dog has strategically planned everything on purpose.

Perhaps you may even feel as if you have undeniable proof that your dog was intently "bad" in your absence because his body language is screaming the word "guilty."

Putting things in perspective: Dogs do not act out of spite and being vengeful is not part of a dog's behavior repertoire. Dogs do not seek revenge and their 'guilty looks" are just fear of their angered owners. Dogs are very sensitive to our bodily cues and can easily sense when we're feeling upset about something so they may respond accordingly, using their body language (what we interpret as the guilty look) in hopes of calming us down and hopefully avoid punishment.

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A dog who scratches at doors and windows or soils in the home when left alone is often an anxious dog who needs help to learn how to better cope with his anxiety. Dogs who "degut" pillows or chew shoes or the remote are often dogs who are bored and under stimulated, not vengeful. After all, what's left for a dog to do all day alone? It's not like he can play Sudoku or watch soap operas!

Unless you caught your dog in the act, you aren't punishing your dog for his misbehavior, but whatever he's doing at the moment you punish him, explains dog trainer and behavior consultant Jolanta Benal. So when you scold your dog upon opening the door saying "Hey! You managed to chew all the pillows, you bad, bad boy!" your dog will perceive he's being punished for looking at you or walking towards the door to greet you or anything else he's doing at the moment. Not good!

So what should you do when they find those pillows reduced into a zillion pieces? A good place to start is to take a deep breath and count to 10, and seriously evaluate what measures can be taken to keep these items out of reach and prevent future occurrences. Maybe Rover is teething and needs more appropriate chew toys? Perhaps he needs more exercise and mental stimulation? Can stress or anxiety be a trigger? For sure, those scoldings won't teach your dog anything other than that you're unpredictable and not trustworthy.

The Bottom Line

Dogs are not stupid, they don't act out of spite or plot revenge, they don't strategically look for ways to hurt others emotionally or physically as humans may actually do. By better understanding our companions, meeting their needs and managing their world so to set them up for success, we can build a better relationship based on trust and mutual respect.

Disclaimer: this article is not meant to be used as a substitute for professional behavioral advice. If your dog is showing signs of a behavioral problem, please consult with a professional.


  • Scientific American, The Guilty Looking Companion, retrieved from the web on Dec 2nd, 2016
  • Association of Professional Dog Trainers, What are Some of the Common Myths About Dog Training?,retrieved from the web on Dec 2nd, 2016
  • Tufts Your Dog, True or False? An Aggressive or Willful Dog Is Trying to Dominate You retrieved from the web on Dec 2nd, 2016
  • Dog Trainer's Workshop, Stop Using the Verb “To Be” to Describe Your Dog, retrieved from the web on Dec 2nd, 2016

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