This Dog Is…
Guest blogger Heather Mohan-Gibbons, Director of Applied Research and Behavior at the ASPCA, waxes scientific on the importance of objective observations when assessing shelter dogs.
Did you know there is a face inside every banana?
I discovered this the other day and since then, have noticed an array of expressions inside each one. If you had to describe this one that I ate on Monday, what words would you use?
Some of you might have used subjective descriptions such as unhappy, crabby or sour-lemon-face. Even saying the banana has a face is a subjective statement, as we are seeing an illusion that our mind creates. We do this all the time. We see clouds that look like animals. Some pumpkins beg to be carved with one expression or another. We also apply emotional labels to dogs' behavior that match these same illusions. Banana faces are one thing, but the stakes are higher when we are talking about dogs in a shelter environment!
We are not privy to the internal workings—thoughts, feelings or sensations—of a dog or a person. We need to be aware of this when we are making subjective assumptions, and avoid applying labels such as, “This dog is aggressive.” We have all experienced what can happen when labels are applied to animals (you can fill in these blanks):
“The shelter/breeder/trainer said that my dog is ________; therefore I need to do ______.”
By removing our distortions and interpretations from behavioral observations, we provide the best support for the animals in our care. Think of your eyes as a video camera and your mouth relaying an objective description of what your eyes are seeing. Here is a handy photo and a table to illustrate the differences.
It is crucial to stay objective and suspend interpretations when observing animal behavior. Shelters can develop a glossary of terms for internal use, which will help ensure that a label has a universal meaning to all staff and volunteers. However, you will still need to provide the environment in which the behavior occurs. Ex: “The dog was fearful when I placed the slip lead over his neck in the kennel.”
Become aware of the words you choose to describe behavior when going into the kennel, when assessing or facilitating adoptions. If you start a sentence with “This dog is...," then you are likely using a label that is wrought with interpretation. If it isn’t a defined, agreed-upon term in your shelter, then save it for the next banana face you see.
We welcome you to take one of our free webinars to learn more about identifying canine body language objectively.
As the Director of Applied Research and Behavior at the ASPCA, Heather empowers shelters across the country to implement research and programs that save the lives of horses, dogs and cats. She has over two decades of animal behavioral work and research experiences working with a wide variety of species and organizations. She loves training new species, growing heirloom seeds, and being outdoors with her rescue dogs.