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The Gangster’ vs. ‘The Peaceful Pup’: Labels we give our pets

The Gangster’ vs. ‘The Peaceful Pup’: Labels we give our pets

First Published in the Santa Barbara News-Press

April 11, 2018

So often we put labels on animals. Some of them sound like this: “She is aggressive.” “He is shy and was abused.” “He will run your over.” “She is neurotic and barks at everything.” “He runs off.” “She has separation anxiety.” “She’s mad when we go away and pees on the carpet.” “He hates skateboards.”

When we put these labels on our animals, they become stuck in the behavior. Now don’t get me wrong: It’s important to notice an undesirable behavior and take steps to change it. But it is also important to watch what you are saying and thinking while you are doing that. I can’t tell you how many times I have noticed people working hard on changing a behavior with training but still labeling their animals with the behavior they don’t want. I have been guilty of this myself. It takes real awareness to see it.

A few years ago, I adopted a Chihuahua mix from the Downey shelter, which is a hardcore kill shelter. Felix was scheduled to be euthanized the day he was rescued. He had been a stray for some time and wasn’t neutered. When he first came to be with me, he was food-aggressive, would snap at people when they tried to pet him, and would lunge, chase and bite fur off dogs that approached him or ran in his vicinity. I labeled him “The Gangster.” This labeled suited him to the point that the behavior would elicit chuckles from those who witnessed it. But what was I really doing?

Felix made great progress within the year after being rescued. He set appropriate boundaries around his food bowl but was not aggressive. Instead of lunging at people who tried to pet him, I taught him to go behind my legs. He does that now without needing my praise. It’s his safe spot and I won’t allow people to follow him there. Now three years later, he does allow some people to pet him. “The Gangster” still suited him with some strange dogs. The label stuck and continued to make many people laugh.

Then I realized that sometimes Felix was proud to be a gangster! No joke! He had a big grin after his naughty behavior. Oh no! By labeling him that, I was encouraging the behavior. So I stopped and allowed a different behavior to emerge. Now instead of attacking another dog or when on leash hiding behind my legs, he may come out wagging his tail and try to sniff them. Off leash, he may run away when an energetic dog runs by him instead of biting the fur off the dog’s thigh.

I asked Felix what changed. He said, “I started to realize that I could be in the moment and see things for what they are. I started to realize that you want me confident, calm and smart and I feel like I am that inside. When I acted like The Gangster, I was really a scared bully. It helps me when you visualize me being the dog you want me to be.

“I now know how to do that because I have done it with other behaviors, like learning tricks and meeting people. Life is safer and more fun than I originally thought. What helped me is when you started labeling me a “Peaceful Pup,” because that helps me feel the energy of peace. I still do “gangster” sometimes, but I try to stop myself when I feel myself moving in that direction.”

Good boy, Felix!

By being more conscious of our own behavior, we can teach our animals to be more conscious of theirs.


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4 thoughts on “The Gangster’ vs. ‘The Peaceful Pup’: Labels we give our pets”

  1. Beautiful insights, thank you. I have a dog, a Tibetan Mastiff, that I fear I’m encouraging his aggressive behavior when others (human and canine) come to my home. How do I start changing this? By calling him the “kind and gentle greeter” or by visualizing this? I’ve tried two dog trainers, who have been helpful but still want me to be the “forceful/in-control human”, but I can’t seem to get him to calm down when my friends and their dogs visit. Thank you!

    1. Yes you can definitely call him that and envision how you want him to act. Also tell him him before hand that they are coming over. I’m sure your trainers have told you to meet them outside first and go for a little walk before you bring them in the house. He needs to learn impulse control so knowing a solid down stay helps or maybe have him behind a baby gate when they first arrive. If dogs are present meet outside. But how you expect him to act is very important. So stay positive!


    What a wonderful reminder ! Our Animals cannot go beyond what we allow them to be. People too for that matter. Lol We have our Children girl, Chloe who popped up in our yard one day having been beaten , broken and left for dead. Our feral kitty tribe took her in , showed her where the food was ,shelter… After weeks of begging her to get close enough she finally did and was taken into our family. It took a year for her to heal. She is much much better now, but only after we focused on how strong and smart she is. It was so hard not to think of her as being fragile. We feel lucky that she is so wonderful and sweet and are always reminded not to turn a gift away from the door. 😊

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