Choose Words Wisely When Talking About Dogs

6 ways the language we use to discuss our dogs matters
By Karen B. London PhD, June 2021
choose language used for dogs
Listen in at the dog park and you’re likely to hear all kinds of words used when people talk about their dogs. By tuning into what they’re saying, you can get a pretty good idea about the way they view their dogs, and what kind of relationship they have with them. Here are some terms to listen for, and what they may be saying about the speaker’s unconscious perspective toward dogs.

What we say matters, full stop, and the language we use when talking about our dogs informs and reveals our connections with them. It also reflects our views on the structure of that connection. Our words show how we view the world, what has value for us and what doesn’t. Because words are powerful, we must take care when wielding them—including when it comes to discussing dogs.

1. “Cue,” not “command.” In old-style dog training, people issued commands and expected their dogs to obey. The modern approach is to give the dog a cue to let him know what we want him to do. When a dog didn’t comply with a command, he was considered disobedient and was perhaps punished. In contrast, when a dog doesn’t respond appropriately to a cue, it’s easier to acknowledge that he might have misunderstood it, or been distracted.

What’s the difference? Cues offer dogs opportunities to perform behaviors for the possibility of reinforcement, while a command offered the possibility of being punished if their response was not what was desired. The change from saying “command” to saying “cue” doesn’t produce this change in perspective—it simply reflects it.

2. “Confused,” not “bad.” When dogs don’t do what we want or have asked them to do, it isn’t unheard of to hear them described as bad, disagreeable or even stupid. Using derogatory terms to describe a dog who is unsure about what we want puts all the blame on the dog and none on us.

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It’s far better to consider them “confused” or “uncertain”—to consider that the dog wasn’t able to be successful in that moment out of confusion, uncertainly or insufficient training rather than to slap on a negative label after an undesirable response.

What’s the difference? Suggesting that there was a barrier to success for our dog (such as a distracting smell or a lack of training in a particular context) as opposed to calling the dog bad, stubborn or resistant shifts our viewpoint from the dog giving us a hard time to the dog having a hard time. It’s also a good way to reframe our interactions with our dogs and to increase our empathy with them.

3. “She” or “he,” not “it.” Many times, animals are referred to by the pronoun “it,” the same word we use for inanimate objects like chairs and washing machines, which is pretty impersonal. Using a gendered pronoun (“he” or “she”) makes it more personal, acknowledging that the dog is an individual, living being.

What’s the difference? Using a gendered pronoun better reflects the close relationship and the emotional connection we have with dogs. When I was in graduate school, I was taught that if an animal has a name, it was appropriate in scientific papers to refer to that animal as he or she, but if not, “it” was the proper term. That meant that animals in lab colonies were generally referred to in more personal terms than those in the wild. I’m happy that today, almost everyone uses a gendered pronoun rather than the impersonal “it.” As “they” becomes a more common pronoun for both individuals and for groups, it also carries the more personal connotation even though “they” is used for both living beings and inanimate objects.

4. “Mix,” not “mongrel.” There are a lot of terms for dogs who do not belong to a specific breed. Some people consider the term “cross” appropriate for the dog who has two purebred parents of different breeds, and use “mix” or “mixed breed” for dogs whose ancestry includes more than two breeds. Both of these terms are descriptive and many consider them neither positive nor negative, but simply factual. However, “mongrel” and “cur,” which reference dogs of unknown or highly diverse ancestry, are considered to be derogatory.

What’s the difference? Using terms for dogs of complex or unknown ancestry that imply anything bad about such dogs is problematic since it suggests some dogs are inherently inferior or less valuable than other dogs. Interestingly, “mutt” used to be considered a rude way to refer to a dog who was not a purebred, but the term has been elevated to one of affection and respect. In fact, many use the term with the most positive of connotations. Again, language matters!

5. “Well-trained,” not “compliant/obedient.” When people talk about a dog who is compliant or obedient, there’s an implication that the dog is responding to force or power, neither of which is helpful in a loving relationship. On the other hand, if a dog’s behavior is admirable and the explanation is that the dog is well-trained, that conveys a much more positive feeling.

What’s the difference? Saying that a dog is well-trained suggests that the dog has learned a lot, and that someone has taken the time and effort to teach the dog how to behave. It is so much more pleasing to think (and say) that the dog knows what to do and does it rather than to assert that the dog is being coerced to act a certain way.

6. “Partners,” not “masters.” People who still refer to themselves as their dog’s master are viewing the relationship quite differently than people who call themselves their dog’s guardian, pet parent or best friend.

What’s the difference? The idea that dogs work for us is not the same as the notion that they work with us. There is a big difference between being teammates or partners with your dog and being your dog’s master. How we describe the relationship between ourselves and our dogs is an indication of how we think of that relationship.

Language matters when we’re talking about our dogs. Let’s choose our words thoughtfully and enjoy the benefits of more loving, more caring relationships with our canine companions.

Photo: Teodora Popa Photographer / Unsplash

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life