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How you label your dog determines the success of your training journey and your dog’s potential. If you’re constantly struggling maybe, you need another approach and need to get rid of labels.

Many years ago, I learned how the labels others gave to my dog were limiting our success and potential as a team. Throughout all my dogs’ lives, I’ve always wanted them to be the best THEY could be at any given time. To me, the possibilities were limitless provided I supported them with good positive training to match their needs at the specific time in their training journey. I understood their possible shortcomings, but I didn’t see those as part of the dog themselves - to be their label or to be their limit.

So, what exactly is a label and why should you pay attention to them? A label is those words you say about your dog “she’s stubborn, she’s fearful, she’s got no drive, she has no confidence”. Kind of what I call “She/he’s Not Land”.

Labeling happens even more in the pet dog community with “rescue dogs”. It’s often that I hear “well he’s a rescue dog and . . .” By hanging onto that label, you’re always looking back, never ahead to the dog’s potential, you’re creating limits. You can’t change the past, but you can provide a different future.

It’s so easy to focus on the negative, to call the dog a dud, a dog that will never be a good obedience dog, etc. But it takes empathy, patience, and understanding to take the dog as they are, meet them where they are, and see beyond to their potential. It takes courage to ignore others and the labels they want to place on your dog. You know them, the often well meaning little negative comments about performance as you train or come out of the ring after a maybe not-so-stellar run. It takes skill on your part to not fall into the trap of labels and limits.

I hear labels being thrown around in dog sports as well, heck I was guilty early on in my career of training dogs as well. But I very quickly let the label go and when I did well dang it didn’t things soar. Maybe not in the perfect way I had envisioned but they soared for me and my dog non the less.

So, who was this dog that taught me about labels? Well, that would be my MATCH GSD “Mica”, two-time Top 10 Obedience Dog in Canada, 5 straight years of Top Obedience GSD. MANY, many people early on in her training told me they had serious doubts I would ever be able to get her in the obedience ring let alone even consider campaigning her for CKC standings. They saw what they wanted and didn’t look beyond her nervousness and fears. They were labeling both of us based on the limitations they saw. Boy were they wrong! Had I listened to those labels and not considered her just a “normal” dog needing the best I could bring to the table for her we probably wouldn’t have achieved the success in obedience we did. I looked for what was great in my dog and let her baggage get left at the depot.

The big challenge when you or others play the label game is you may not try to make things better but instead accept it as fact, which is one of the biggest mistakes you can make. Why? Because if you do accept it as fact you end up missing out on your dog’s potential. You miss the opportunity of trying to help your dog through their current limitations in a compassionate way and may end up trying to MAKE the dog something they may not be capable of achieving in the way you want or envision. You may end up tarnishing your relationship in the process as you search for ways to make the dog do it or understand.

To bring out the best in your dog you should never settle for “that’s just who she is, she won’t ever be any more than this”. Instead, focus on bringing out the absolute best in your dogs and never focusing on or settling on “that’s who the dog is, that’s all they’ll ever be.” So what if your dog doesn’t do everything with full speed like Rover over there. Sure, not all dogs will be brilliant but so what if your dog doesn’t give you that high-stepping prancing trot. Don’t compare your dog to other dogs.

As I learned from Susan Garrett over 27yrs ago – “Stop trying to find a reason why this dog isn’t “normal” but rather look beyond what may seem to be a limitation now, to the great potential within the dog. She notes that our dogs are a reflection of our ability as a dog trainers and, that regardless of where our dogs started out, what they become is a reflection of our ability to train and help them succeed. It may mean we need to find an alternative, kinder and more appropriate way to communicate with our dogs, even considering that what we’re currently doing isn’t the right path for that dog.

And as the great trainer/teacher Bob Bailey says “look at what you have, evaluate what you want – the difference is just training”. It’s your training journey, your plan.

In short, if I had listened to those who told me what I envisioned doing with Mica was not going to be possible, I would have allowed others’ very limited visions to determine the outcome of my journey with Mica and all my subsequent dogs. I would have been missing the ride with my dogs as they taught me what they’re capable of when labels are lifted. Have your own vision, not someone else’s. Don’t label your dog and instead SEE THE POTENTIAL, DO EVERYTHING WITH A KIND HEART and enjoy your journey together. Take a moment to actually see and take note of the lessons your dog is trying to teach you about them.

Heather Lawson,



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