A few weeks ago I was working with Regis (my recovering reactive beagle mix) when we were bum-rushed by an off leash doodle. I know this doodle, she's a lovely dog, but is pretty dense about dog social signals if it's anything other then "let's play", and comes on a bit strong. Regis reacted as I would expect him to: loudly, and in a pretty scary looking way, clearly telling the doodle to "back off". As a result of that reaction the owner of the doodle said "Oh, is he a mean dog?" as she attempted to wrangle her dog back to her.
Is Regis a mean dog? This woman did not mean to offend me. She didn't intentionally hurt my feelings, and despite her lack of control over her dog she really is a very well meaning, good hearted dog owner. But that question has stuck with me for about two weeks now, turning over in my head, that single question: "Is he a mean dog?"
^The mean dog in question^
The thing about that question, "is he a mean dog", is that our dogs are so much more than just one label, just like us. If I swear at someone while driving on the highway, am I a "mean person"? If someone bumps into me and doesn't apologize, and I say "excuse you!", am I a mean person? Or maybe I'm just having a rough day? Like us, our companion animals aren't simple enough to just slap a label on them: "friendly", "mean", "aggressive", "bad". And when we reduce them to a single label we do SUCH a disservice to them.
My "mean dog" has taught me more about dogs, behavior, training, patience, love, and hard work than I ever thought possible.
My "mean dog" went from a dog who would foam at the mouth and spin when he saw dogs at any distance on walks, to a dog that I can work off leash in group class and who goes for hikes with me at state parks.
My "mean dog" used to try to throw himself off the grooming table while getting his nails done; now he lays on his side while I dremel them for a treat.
My "mean dog" used to try to bite me when I got close to him when he had a valued item; now he lets me trade and add value to that item, and we have an agreement that I will not unfairly take his "stuff".
My "mean dog" has learned to live peacefully with a cat, which I NEVER thought would happen, and has accepted his dopey sister into his life happily.
Is my "mean dog" perfect? No. Regis will always have to be managed, particularly around other dogs and children, because of his history of conflict. He will never be an easy dog that I can take to dog parks, and any dog-dog interactions will have to be carefully orchestrated the rest of his life. But when I look back at what he was like as a year old adolescent, and see how far we've come now, I think perfection is over rated, and I'm proud of my "mean" dog. There is NOTHING like seeing your insecure, anxious dog blossom into a best friend that you are proud of.
So, there you have it. Next time you want to call an animal "mean", ask yourself if you're being fair to them. Perhaps you are just seeing once tiny part of who that animal is, and it would behoove you to give them a chance instead of just slapping a label on them.