Is it a behavior issue, or is it a label?

A couple of weeks ago, I was having a conversation with one of our PETPro members about the notion of people being either extroverted or introverted. This member and I, it turns out, shared a common experience. It went a little something like this:

As kids, we were both enthusiastic, bubbly, energetic, and very friendly. Both the people in our lives and the personality tests we took informed us that we were extroverted. And everybody knows that extroverted people love to be around other people, right?

Except there was one little problem with that theory: sometimes, we absolutely, most definitely, were NOT ok to be around other people. Sometimes we would suddenly feel irritable or even downright angry, sulky or even weepy, anxious or even panicky. Sometimes we’d be happy as a clam with one or two friends, but when a third showed up we’d pitch a fit. Even if we loved that third person! It had nothing to do with them! And also, as much as we liked people, we also liked to be alone. A lot. Actually, scratch that. It wasn’t a matter of like, it was a matter of need. At least for me, I needed a lot of alone time to recharge my batteries after social interactions.

And of course, understandably, the people in our lives would feel confused and frustrated by our seemingly mysterious behavior. We were called self-centered, dramatic, stubborn, pouty, hot-tempered… and those are a whole lot of character flaws for a kid to internalize.

We talked about how we both felt bad about ourselves because we didn’t understand why we acted the way we did. We didn’t understand why we were so bad at being extroverted. We talked about what hot messes we were in our 20s as we tried to live up to the expectations of being an extrovert and kept failing over and over and over again.

As this PETPro member aged, she eventually became comfortable with redefining herself as an introvert. I, similarly, had learned that there are more than two categories, and that my experience most closely aligns with the label “social introvert”.

And both of us, as we learned more about behavior and the various behavior-related fields, had come to recognize that the “behavior issues” we had been exhibiting as children and young adults were actually sensory processing sensitivities and uncompleted stress response cycles. Now that we have a better understanding of our experiences – and are no longer trying to live up to an inaccurate and unhelpful label – we simply don’t have those issues anymore.

Labels aren’t inherently problematic

The point of my story isn’t that labels are bad and we should never use them. If that were the case, I’d be quite the hypocrite, because I used a lot of labels to describe us! Enthusiastic, bubbly, energetic, and friendly are all labels, too.

If we had to clearly describe every concept we wanted to discuss, it would take us forever to get through any conversation. And no one wants that. Labels serve a very important purpose in conversations when they are well defined among the people using them: they are a short-hand way of quickly referring to complex concepts. If you want to get an idea of how useful labels are, try to describe one of the labels I referred to above – enthusiastic, bubbly, energetic, or friendly – without using any other labels. Only write out the specific body language, behaviors, and contingencies under which those body language signals and behaviors occur. I’ll wait.

You’re back, eh? So how many words did it take to describe any of those concepts? A lot, I bet! So we can agree that labels are powerful tools of description. But that’s the key right there: they are tools of description.

Where labels become harmful is when they are used for prescription. “You are an extrovert, therefore you should love being in big, loud groups of people. And because you don’t love being in big, loud groups of people, there’s something wrong with you.”

How this applies to our pets

I think most of the time, the labels we use for our pets start as a description. We see them do something and attach a label to that thing. The label only starts being a problem when we start to think of it as who that individual intrinsically is, rather than something they did in a moment in time.

Example #1: I have a scar on my lip from a time when a friend of mine put her parrot on me. He was throwing out all the threat displays and making it very clear that he did not want to be that close to me, but when I asked her about it she said, “No, he’s friendly. He loves people.” He did not, in fact, love me, and I have the scar to prove it. I have no doubt that he was friendly to other people in the past, and labeling him as friendly in those interactions would have been perfectly reasonable. But that doesn’t mean that “friendly” is who he intrinsically is, all the time, in every circumstance. Had we listened to what he was telling us – repeatedly, for a very long time – instead of listening to the label that he had been stuck with, he wouldn’t have resorted to conflict and I wouldn’t be sporting a scar on my face.

Example #2: I had a client who adopted a Malamute with no history of reactivity or aggression, but since adopting him he had started exhibiting these behaviors. In the course of our consultation, I learned that they were taking him on several hour runs every day. As we continued to dive deeper into his behaviors and the contexts in which they were happening, it became clear to me that this was a dog who was miserable precisely because he was being made to run multiple hours a day. When I broached the topic with the client, they were at first emphatic that I must be wrong. He is, after all, a sled dog, and sled dogs must run multiple hours a day! He’s a runner! It took some time and some convincing, but eventually they did a trial where they left him at home when they went on their runs. Sure enough, the behavior issues went away. In his situation, this label didn’t come from any behavior he had exhibited in the past, but was entirely based on what he looked like!

Example #3: Alright, this last one’s a little tricky, so bear with me. I had a client with a cat who kept them up at night with zoomies, meowing for attention and food, and generally being obnoxious. They had tried several punitive methods, none of which had been effective. They were eventually referred to me, but even then were adamant that punishment was the only way to stop the behavior. When I asked them why they felt this way, their answer was that cats are nocturnal, so there was no cure for his unruly behavior–they simply needed to stop the behavior. When I told them that cats are actually crepuscular, their jaws hit the floor. We worked on meeting the cat’s needs during the day time, making sure that he got opportunities to burn off a ton of energy in the mornings and evenings, and in very little time he started sleeping through the night. In this case, the label did come from observable behavior, but it fed into a confirmation bias that they had acquired through misinformation. So even though the label described behavior they were actually observing, it sent them off on a journey of trying a whole lot of ineffective strategies because they were trying to solve the wrong problem.

What all of these anecdotes have in common is that:

  • In every case, the people cared deeply for their pets and were trying to do right by them,
  • Using a label prescriptively was responsible for the behavior issues, and
  • Getting rid of the label got rid of the behavior problems

Learn to recognize labels

So how can we tell when we’re letting a label drive the car instead of putting it in the backseat where it belongs? Here are some things to keep an eye out for:

  • Labels usually follow some form of “to be”: she is fearful, I am a social introvert, they are dog-friendly.
  • When being used prescriptively instead of descriptively, they are often associated with an individual’s personality, implying that they are intrinsic to who that individual is.
  • Prescriptive labels are talked about as if they are static and unchanging.

If you catch yourself using language like that when talking about an individual, pause for a moment and ask yourself: how do I know that what I believe is true? Do I see evidence of this with my own eyes? Do I know that my perception of the behavior I’m seeing is accurate? Is it possible that something else is going on, and there may be solutions I’m unaware of?

Curiosity and critical thinking are your best defenses against getting trapped by your own labels!


Now what?

If you think a label might be getting in your way, here are some steps you can take:

  • Practice the exercise discussed above, where you describe the behavior, body language, and context in which they’re happening that are associated with the label you’re using. Remember: don’t use other labels to try to define your label!
  • Notice if the behavior you’re currently observing aligns with the definition you came up with for your label.
    • If not, what’s actually happening instead?
    • If so, do a little more research to find out if the behavior is happening for the reason you think it is (remember the cat who was rowdy at night!).
  • If you need help figuring out how to help your pet after unlabeling them, you can book a session with anyone on our consulting team!

Happy training,