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  • Writer's pictureRachel Meadows

Language Matters

Canine science has come such a long way, especially when it comes to behaviour. One thing dog trainers and behaviourists will agree on is that rarely do we agree on anything. Social media is full of a spectrum of theories and training techniques that people argue about and scrutinise each other over, in particular terminology. Make no mistake, the correct use of terminology is important when we are learning the science of behaviour. There comes a point, however, when we need to see beyond it. With a deep, strong foundation of science, we need to be abstract and holistic when approaching the individual that stands before us. Terminology or methodology will only serve us to a point. When we look past subscriptions to methods and theories and start to see the dog rather than the method of which we want to impose on them, the attachment to the outcome becomes obsolete. When we see the world through the dog’s experience and have compassion for how the dog processes his surroundings, we start to reassess the language that’s commonly used to categorize and judge the behaviour we observe.

Seeing the dog or behaviour, as ‘good or bad’ achieves little in the way of understanding the internal physical environment of the dog or the emotional platform that drives said behaviour. It stops us from asking more questions and seeking the dog’s truth without subjective discernment. It’s a humbling experience to see past our own judgements of a dog and the attachments we have to change their behaviour, which can, blind us to the present moment. The language used in the education of dogs and their caregivers is slowly beginning to change among providers and academics.

Let me tell you a story about an encounter I recently had where language mattered in a way I could never have predicted. I was working with a rescue dog recently called Sheba and her foster guardian, Emma, over the course of 4 months. A little background on Sheba: She was rescued from an incredibly sad and devastating life, whereby, she spent all of her 2 years on this earth restricted on a 10 ft chain, in horrific conditions and starved of human companionship. She had notable stereotypical behaviours along with poor health and environmental deprivation. Sheba was also deaf and carried a flattened metal water bowl in her mouth at all times and circled continuously on the chain like a captive wild animal in an environmentally bankrupt enclosure. Sheba was soon rescued and placed into a long-term foster care situation whereby she could seek medical care and a behaviour assessment to get to the bottom of the peculiar repetitive behaviour she had.

Emma, Sheba’s foster carer was ready for the challenge. Now, here’s where it gets both interesting and complicated. Her foster guardian, Emma, was also hard of hearing. On the one hand, this was incredibly bonding for Emma to be working with another sentient being that shared some of life’s difficulties with her but also challenging at the same time because a lot of the conventional methods of communication would not work with a dog that could not hear.

Emma, herself, had been well prepared in life by her mother who always insisted that she learn to lip read and speak so that she would not feel disadvantaged in a world where people hear and make little allowance for those that don’t. Emma also had a cochlear implant which is a small electronic device that stimulates the cochlear nerve to enable some hearing. This for me, was a great advantage as it enabled us to communicate well enough that we could start the behaviour assessment process and liaise with the vets and put in place some management strategies for some of the predictable problems a large breed dog would have, never having lived with humans before in a home environment and also start the lengthy process of veterinary investigations into her health.

Emma and I would have many conversations over the course of 4 months, some by video chat and some by voice clips over WhatsApp. We had some work to do to educate both Sheba and Emma as methods of days gone by, had certainly changed greatly in recent times. We spent many conversations talking about a compassionate animal-centred approach to canine education. Things were progressing nicely with a few hiccups here and there, which was to be expected. The last conversation we had exchanged before the Christmas break, was that Emma was struggling with Sheba’s ‘mouthing’ when being touched and that Sheba was being treated for an ear infection. My suggestion was to cease unsolicited physical contact with Sheba to give her nervous system an opportunity to relax and reset after her painful ear infection but to continue the sensory integration approach to her education. It was a further 5 weeks later that I received a video message from Emma giving me an update on Sheba’s health and her behaviour. I listened with great delight as Emma informed me that she can now lie with Sheba on the floor and Sheba seeks contact without becoming overstimulated and she can now pet her for the first time without Sheba mouthing her hand. She went on to say that she followed my advice stating, “I only had to knock her on the head 4 or 5 times and she eventually stopped mouthing me”. What she said stopped me in my tracks.

I must have heard that wrong! I rewound the video message and replayed it, SEVERAL times. Again, I hear the same thing. I might add at this point, English is not Emma’s first language and she is hard of hearing, so I was initially convinced I was mistaken in what I had heard. After several more attempts to convince myself I was mishearing, It was clear I had heard correctly. My first thought was, ‘Imagine Sheba’s little face after receiving a bop on the head’. What on earth was the advice she thought I had given her?

‘How could she possibly think, after everything we spoke about, I would tell her to ‘knock the dog on the head’?’

I thought it best to clarify what it was that she had said. I sent Emma a voice message asking her to repeat what she had said. Sure enough, she reiterated what I thought she had said. I tried to assure her that under no circumstances would I have ever instructed her to do this to any dog. She was insistent that in the last voice message, I had sent her, we spoke about the mouthing and biting and that’s where, I ‘apparently’, mentioned it.

I scrambled through the long message I had sent her weeks back and there it was…. Sure enough, I listened to my voice saying the words, ”WE’LL HAVE TO KNOCK THAT ON THE HEAD’, meaning, we need to stop that biting from happening. The confusion came to an abrupt end when we finally understood what had happened. A colloquialism, Irish Slang! After explaining it to Emma we were both so terribly embarrassed and somewhat relieved that the tension that was building between us, had dispersed.

My point to all this is that Language Matters. It’s the tool we use to communicate. But perhaps it also shapes the way we see things and society as a whole. We know in gang culture, for example, there is a language synonymous with street crime and violence. Perhaps growing up surrounded by a use of language that denigrates, separates, isolates and incites violence, desensitising society to the true horrors of the implications of that language, can inform and shape part of the fabric that perpetuates the culture of societal disrepair. I wonder how influential the use of language is on the actions we are prepared to take. Do commonly used phrases, words or colloquialisms influence or desensitise us to behaviours that perhaps are unacceptable in other micro-cultures throughout different aspects of society?

This brings me to speaking about the way we use language and thus, communication, in the world of parenting. Be it a dog or a child, we are, without a doubt, a caregiver of both. What has always baffled me in the world of ‘parenting’ and indeed in the world of dog ‘training’ and behaviour, is this emphasis on control. The use of language can form a very comfortable foundation, that supports the way in which the ordinary child or dog ‘parent’ and canine professionals, use it to exercise and justify that control. We see it with human parenting programmes on TV where parents are shamed, blamed and humiliated for their child’s behaviour. Their child is then ‘trained’ to be ‘reward’ focused and with the threat of unpleasant consequences, short-term compliance is achieved to satisfy the TV producer's ratings quota. Isolation, control, dominance, fear, shame, rejection, and love withdrawal are all tactics used to manipulate a behavioural output labelled as ‘wrong’, ‘bad’ or naughty. These productions exploit children and their families in the name of entertainment. The resolution is always sold to its audience as ‘Problem Solved’. Temporary relief is felt by the parents and the child learns to suppress the communication of their needs potentially leading to a lifelong repression of their emotions. When adults fail to understand the child’s expression of emotions, as a form of communication and seek to suppress it, the child feels shame. They learn that their feelings are shameful and distasteful. They learn that the expression of their emotions threatens their attachment to their primary carer. When that relationship is no longer crucial for survival the fruits of that repressed shame will start to seed. You may not see it within the time frame of a tv show as it’s a slow-burning destruction that can take years to expose.

Nowhere, in these shows, do we ever hear of neurodiversity, trauma, mental health, agency, or identity protection for these children. Their most vulnerable moments are broadcast for all the world to see. The focus is on compliance. The parents are often dealing with their own childhood traumas and are void of self-compassion and stuck in the scripts of yesteryear believing if they were more strict, had more boundaries and imposed more discipline, their child would be better behaved.

If we commit to self-evaluation and treat ourselves with compassion, we are far more likely to treat others with compassion. When we use threats and suppressive language and words such as, ‘Because I said so’, ‘AH AH’ or ‘NO’ to our children, it's often met with resistance, mimicry or shut-down and perhaps, a price to pay, at a later stage. The ‘quick fixes’ of suppressive language decrease the behaviour in ‘the moment’ but negates the emotional experience of the recipient. In this exchange, we trade our relationship, for compliance. How many of us have experienced a meltdown in the supermarket with our child? For most of us, our initial reaction is panic. We feel the dread rising and employ, damage limitation. Suppress, bribe, or threaten. We would give anything, in that moment for the ground to open up and swallow us whole! But why? What are we afraid of? Judgement? Feelings of shame? Feelings of overwhelm? Exhaustion? Most of us have been there. ‘What will people say?’ ‘I can’t even control my own child’!

Now look at the same situation with our dogs, or perhaps think of a time when you’ve witnessed a dog ‘having a meltdown’ in the park or on the street, at another dog. You may, yourself have been on the receiving end of a statement such as, ‘Control that dog’. ‘You need to Train that dog’. ‘You should show that dog who’s Boss’. ‘Don’t let that dog walk all over you’. What has your internal reaction been and how might that have transferred down the lead to your dog? I have witnessed more times than I care to remember, dog guardians ‘disciplining’ their dog for perceived ‘bad behaviour’. People often feel ashamed and embarrassed, following these situations. The treatment of the dog becomes about our own feelings of shame, anger, fear or embarrassment and has little or nothing to do with how the dog is coping in that situation or what the dog is feeling.

Violence comes often from our inability to feel feelings and feel safe. Aggression can often give us temporary relief. The more relief we get from our displays of aggression, control or violence, the more we use it as a coping strategy for a wider variety of feelings, such as frustration, fear, shame, jealousy and so on. Our dogs are not that different. This is not to point the finger at anyone. Everyone is suffering. However, there are elements to this that don’t serve anyone and can be easily modified.

Perhaps the repertoire of language we use when we are teaching and educating dogs and their guardians is unhelpful and even harmful. Tightening the reins and shortening the leads to gain control over their behaviours, paradoxically creates more resistance. Loosening the grip and allowing dogs agency to develop and learn without expectations and restraints, fosters trust and creates a safe environment, conducive to learning. Our attachments to the expectations to the outcome of things, need examining. Expectations are resentments lying in waiting, fostering disappointment and frustration. This can lead us to, unconsciously, use demeaning language that passes judgement on the person or dog, rather than, questioning the expectation itself. If we begin to examine what’s behind the limiting words and language we use when referring to our dogs or their education, I believe this will impact the way in which we develop companionship in the future and raise welfare standards.

No dogs choose their family. They have zero control or autonomy over the food they eat, where they sleep, when they walk, where they walk, how they are treated, when they are allowed to play and when how they are touched and by whom and even their medical and reproductive autonomy. They are, effectively, our captives. We already hold all power over every aspect of their life and freedom. Imagine we viewed dogs as our friends, not as their ‘Master’, that their behaviour was communication to be ‘understood’ not ‘controlled’ and instead of using words like ‘train’ we used ‘teach’, instead of owner we used ‘Carer’ or ‘guardian’, how might that influence the way we treat dogs?

Going back to the story I recounted at the beginning, part of the reason I was so utterly flabbergasted was, that, in order for the dog to have received the aversive methods of “training” after the miscommunication ensued, dear Emma, Sheba’s foster parent, had to have subscribed to the idea that (A) It was acceptable to use a punishment that created enough fear or discomfort in the dog, to suppress the undesirable behaviour and (B) Be willing to take advice on the matter (albeit misunderstood advice) from a person that she had only ever met twice on zoom. We need to be questioning, so-called dog pros, more. We need to listen to the language people use. Our gut reaction is usually right. Emma’s gut reaction to what she thought I had said was that of confusion and resistance. Instead of asking me to clarify what she thought I meant, she implemented a method of teaching that was aversive enough to stop the behaviour. Violence, fear imposing treatment and aggression is simply not an acceptable form of communication on any level, ever. Are we not past this? Is it so deeply ingrained in us that when we hear phrases, from ‘dog pros’, such as ‘control your dog’ or ‘Show him who’s Boss’ that it doesn’t set off alarm bells? You see, I think it does. Some people I work with who have raised their voices or their fists at their dog or forced their dog into a position because the dog was unable to ‘comply’ for whatever reason, are, perhaps, simply lacking the skill to know what to do. Most do so because they feel like they needed to step up to the mark and the expectations of others. They all have one thing in common, they all say it felt wrong. They also often share with shame, what they describe as, ‘spoiling’ the dog by ‘allowing’ the dog on the bed or the sofa. It’s like there’s some code of ‘domination’ they think they ought to subscribe to, to be ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, treating the dog as some sort of subservient rather than a friend. And can we, the ‘dog pros’, blame them, when we have multi-billion-dollar companies funding celebrity dog trainers to abuse dogs on our TV screens in the name of ‘calm and assertive’ dog training? Is it working? No! You see, control, dominance and violence sells. The ever-present patriarchal system is alive and well. Quick Fixes, in a ‘time bankrupt’ society, is a brand that is sexy and appealing.

7,352 dogs were relinquished into pounds, in Ireland alone, in 2022. That does not include figures from the rescue organisations or the dogs that have been shipped out of the country to other rescues in the UK and Europe. I believe the language we use greatly influences our belief systems and our belief systems influence our language. We can make small, but important changes by becoming more aware of the words we use when talking to or about our dogs. The power of language alters the way we perceive ourselves and the world around us. Use it wisely. We don’t need to teach our dogs our language or the consequences of the misinterpretation of that language. We need to examine the language we use and the belief systems that underpin it. Instead of assuming we know what to teach dogs, let's ask ourselves what can dogs teach us. One thing we all need more of is compassion. Kindness and compassion never killed a dog, but control, aggression and so-called ‘calm assertive’ dominance has led to their horrific suffering and demise. Language Matters.

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