We Need to Talk About the F Word
Alright folks. It's intervention time. We need to talk about your use of the "F" word. You've been using it all over the place, and I just can't take it anymore! It's not okay, and it needs to stop. For the love of Dog, stop the madness!
What F word, you ask?
Oh, oh NO. Not that F word. Whoops. Sorry, my bad!
The word I'm talking about is "fine".
Before you ask, yes, I realize that I sound like I've lost it a little and I'm coming from out of left field to most people. Why not use fine? It's not profane, it's not a slur, so what's the deal, crazy Mary!?
You see, when I walk into someone's house, sit down, and start taking a history on their dog, time and time again there's that "f" word. How does your dog do at daycare? "Fine!" How did your dog do at the vet? "Oh, she was fine!" What does your dog do when being groomed? "I mean, he looks fine".
"Fiiiine you say?!"
Here's the scoop: "Fine" is a largely unhelpful word in the world of animal behavior. You see, "fine" is a label. And the problem with labels is that it can mean something different to everyone. Fine to one person might be "relaxed, loose body language with an open mouth and parallel wagging tail" (we could also label that "happy"), and fine to another person might be "sitting stiffly in the corner not approaching strangers, but not behaving aggressively" (we could also label that "avoidant" or "apprehensive"). So, do you see how labeling both of those "fine" might lead to some miscommunication? In animal behavior and dog training it behooves us to "operationalize" a dog's behavior, which basically means describing EXACTLY what we're seeing, instead of using labels and constructs (stories we tell ourselves about the animal) to describe behavior.
The place that this has the biggest impact is when working with dogs who have a history of behaving in a fearful or aggressive manner. Just because a dog isn't growling/snarling/snapping, or running away and hiding, does NOT mean a dog is relaxed and happy. And when we use the word "fine", usually we're trying to suggest relaxed and happy, no?
The majority of dogs that I work with who have a history of aggressive or fearful behavior would have been considered "fine" up to a certain point, but upon further sleuthing and asking "what did fine LOOK like?" It's clear that the dog was never actually fine, he was terrified and worried but not enough to growl/snarl/snap; but since his early warning signs such as avoidance were ignored he felt the need to escalate to louder, more obvious signals.
The dog on the right in the following graphic (image is from the always fabulous Doggie Drawings by Lili Chin) is a very common example of a dog that might look "fine" to the uninformed eye; the dog isn't doing any dramatic behaviors like growling, snapping, or running away that would tell you he's unhappy, but the stiff, tense postures, aversion of eye contact, and pinned ears are all early signs that happen BEFORE aggression that we should be paying close attention to.
So, if the label 'fine' isn't allowed, what should we use when describing behavior? Here's an example: instead of saying "he was fine at the vet", we would say "well, he didn't growl but he was stiff and his ears were back; he let the vet do the exam, but afterwards he did try to hide from the vet even when the vet offered a cookie". Do you see where breaking the behavior down and describing exactly what we saw helps to paint a clearer picture, and that this dog is in fact not "fine"? He may not have been aggressive, but he certainly wasn't happy about this experience.
Another example: instead of saying "he does fine at daycare", you might say "he pulls me all the way into the building, wagging his tail when the attendant takes his leash, and then when I watch him on the camera he spends his time either "bowing" in play at the other dogs and running away in a bouncy fashion, or laying with his dog friends and chewing on each their faces". Sounds like normal, appropriate dog play, right? I would say this dog is having a great time at daycare and is indeed "fine", but operationalizing the behaviors makes that REALLY clear, whereas simply labeling the behavior with "fine" doesn't!
Really the takeaway here is that what looks "fine" may very well not be "fine", and having these images fleshed out a bit for us can help us see a more complete picture of a dog's behavior. Watch your dog's body language today, and practice operationalizing and describing exactly what you're seeing instead of using labels!