Rethinking the Language of Dog Culture

Amy Campbell
Tucker has a nose for trouble.

Guest post by Amy Campbell

The longer I work with dogs, the more I come to understand how culture and language exert a tight grasp on the way we care for, understand and train our dogs. Over 78 million dogs live in American households, but it’s only relatively recently that our culture has begun to view dogs as family members with individual personalities, rather than as property.

The language we use to talk about our dogs is changing, too. Other dog people, our neighbors, our trainers, and the dog professionals on television all influence how we think and talk about our dogs, and language and opinions vary greatly, even – or especially – in Cambridge.

Rustler surveys the terrain at Danehy Dog Park.
Rustler surveys the terrain at Danehy Dog Park.

If you don’t agree, go to your local dog park and strike up a conversation with a few folks about Cesar Millan. You’ll find some who love him, taking his word as gospel, and others who strongly disagree with his alpha dog philosophy and tough love training tactics. Millan is a good example of how language shapes dog culture. His books are full of lingo that frames the human-dog relationship in terms of power and dominance, such as “be the pack leader,” “the power of the pack” and “if you don’t become your dog’s pack leader, he will assume that role and try to dominate you.” His phrases and beliefs are pervasive in contemporary dog culture, but do they really help the average person take better care of her dog? How do such power-heavy phrases affect dog culture as they are passed along from one person to another and down to our dogs? Does the language of dominance improve or undermine the quality of our relationships with our dogs?

I’ve given a lot of thought to the impact of language on culture because I grew up in an evangelical Christian family, and over time, I began to dissect and deconstruct the church’s language and culture. I listened closely for certain words and thought deeply about the beliefs behind them. I thought about how those words were supposed to guide our actions, but how the language didn’t always reflect what I believed. I saw other people struggling to reconcile words and beliefs that didn’t feel natural for them, but which they had been told were true. Hearing the church’s language echoed in my own thoughts and in my conversations with my friends and family, I wondered where the language came from and whether it was relevant anymore. As I began to decide for myself what I believed in and what I didn’t, I eventually started to use new language to communicate my own truths.

Norville really needs a drink...
Norville really needs a drink...

Now I wonder, is the impact of language on dog culture any different? In what ways are we swallowing the beliefs and language of others instead of considering what really works best for us and our dogs? Unfortunately, there is a lot of damaging and negative language in today’s dog culture. In what ways is this language harming our relationships with our dogs, rather than helping us better understand them and live together more harmoniously?

I don’t mean to single out Cesar Millan for criticism in this respect. His intensions seem pure and directed towards the betterment of dogs’ physical and emotional well-being, but I believe the forceful language he uses is highly destructive. I have seen it translate into a lot of leash pops and strong verbal discipline that only increases dogs’ fear and anxiety without solving the underlying problem. Throughout history, the language of dominance has been used to oppress minority groups, individuals and children, and yet we continue to use it with our dogs. I’m not sure why we think it will be any less destructive.

El Nino takes on the world, all 7 lbs. of him.
El Nino takes on the world, all 7 lbs. of him.

For example, instead of describing your dog as “defiant,” a word that puts him in opposition to you (and places the blame on him for being there), think about what else might be true. Perhaps you haven’t fully trained for the task or he hasn’t yet mastered the behavior you are asking of him. Perhaps he is tired, or not feeling well. Or perhaps your dog has lost trust in you as his leader because you’ve been sending him mixed messages. Maybe it’s time to rethink the language you use to talk about your dog, and to question whether something you’ve heard another dog owner say applies to your own dog’s behavior in the situation at hand.

Language permeates culture and ultimately shapes how individuals behave – in this case, how we relate to our dogs. Next time you read a great article about dog psychology, or hear someone in your training class talking about a technique that really worked, take it in and then see if it works as well for you and your dog. Who knows? You might come with a whole new vocabulary to communicate about your dog!

Amy Campbell
Amy Campbell

Amy Campbell is a dog trainer and the owner of Wags While You Work, a dog walking and dog playgroup business in Cambridge and Somerville. Amy has been taking my dog Eddie to the park with a couple of other dogs twice a week since last fall. He absolutely loves their outings together, and I’ve been impressed with Amy’s thoughtful observations about his rambunctious puppy behavior and her gentle approach to teaching him better manners. When she mentioned that she likes to write, I invited her to contribute a guest post that reflects an aspect of her experience working with a wide variety of dogs and dog people. 

2 thoughts on “Rethinking the Language of Dog Culture”

  1. Good to see someone take on male dominance. I can hear Republicans all over Weston griping about The Republic of Cambridge while they invest in Dog TV and doggie condos.

  2. Terrific article. Language is such a powerful tool. As Ghandi (and many others) said, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” Animals are certainly in this category and how we talk about something is a good indicator of how we treat it.

    Dr. Allen Schoen speaks eloquently on this issue in his book “Kindred Spirits” where he discusses the impact of using the word pets vs. companion animals.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic.

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