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Attitude Really IS Everything! (Part 1)

An excerpt from Dog Sports Skills Book 1: Building Engagement and Relationship by Denise Fenzi and Deb Jones, PhD.

When we talk about attitude, we're talking about an internal state that is inferred from external clues. We cannot know for sure what a dog is thinking or feeling, but we can make some educated guesses by carefully observing his body language and behavior. As a dog trainer, it is vitally important for you to be able to read your dog's body language appropriately. If you misread or misinterpret the signs that your dog is displaying, you can do damage both to your training and to your relationship with your dog. It is your responsibility as a trainer to educate yourself. There are a number of excellent resources readily available that can be helpful in furthering your education on this important topic.

A dog's expression, posture, and overall behavior are the clearest indicators of attitude. Dogs with a positive attitude show a bright and open expression in their faces. Eyes are wide open and focused on their trainers. Ears are forward and listening for cues. The mouth may be open or closed, but the overall expression should be relaxed and attentive, or ready to "spring forward" if the dog knows that the next exercise will be very active, such as a retrieve or an agility sequence. Dogs who enjoy their work also tend to move quickly and with enthusiasm. Keep in mind that speed is relative and should be judged against the individual dog in question, not against a world class competitor.

In the case of positive attitude, defining what it is can also be a matter of discussing what it is not. A dog that avoids eye contact and seems to deliberately turn away from the handler is showing a poor attitude. Tails should never be tucked between the legs or held tightly against the body. Squinty eyes, a "hard" mouth (with puckered lines around the edges), obvious handler avoidance, a crouched posture, or painfully slow responses to cues are all indicators of a poor attitude. Somehow the handler has failed to get or keep the dog engaged in this game we call "work."

On the other hand, some dogs engage in frantic behaviors when asked to train or work. They act goofy or silly, or simply run amuck. They may leap and jump on the trainer uninvited. They react quickly, but often with an incorrect response. Many people have a difficult time discriminating between frantic and enthusiastic. We will discuss this important distinction in more detail shortly.


Dogs that demonstrate a stable and responsive positive attitude are a joy to train. Because they focus well on the task at hand and are actively working to understand your expectations, training behaviors is extremely easy. Rather than using passive repetition to gain understanding from your dog, you can take advantage of active participation where the dog is working as hard as you are to learn and meet your mutual goals.

Our goal is to compete in performance events with a highly engaged and willing partner. It is extremely important to us to foster an attitude in our dogs that working with us is the best, most exciting thing that they can ever do!

Dogs who feel safe with you and with training will be relaxed, and as a result will learn much more quickly than dogs who are tense or who are checking their environment to be certain of their safety. In performance training, we ask our dogs to concentrate 100% on the task at hand. In order to get that level of commitment, our dogs must turn over their safety concerns to us. To accomplish this feeling of security, our dogs must be convinced that we have taken on the job of protecting them. Be sure that you are nurturing your dog's belief that training always takes place in a safety zone. It is close to impossible to get complete focus from a dog who feels unsafe.

Here's an example to illustrate how safety problems might develop in a working situation. Let's say that you are at an obedience run-through and you are setting your dog up to start the heeling pattern. Just before you begin, another dog gets loose from his crate and runs up to your dog. Regardless of whether the approaching dog is friendly or not, your dog has just learned that focusing 100% on you can cause him to be startled by an unexpected outside source. Nothing bad has to happen to cause your dog to feel startled or unsafe. While most dogs can handle very occasional disruptions in stride, repeated episodes of this type will cause your dog to start scanning the environment when you train rather than paying attention to you. And if you have a highly sensitive dog, even one bad experience can be difficult to recover from.

Once training begins, it is your job to always monitor your dog's safety. If you see another dog coming at your dog while you are engaged in training, release your dog with a "you're free" cue so he can see the dog coming at him rather than being blindsided. While you would not want this to happen frequently, at least your dog recognizes that you were paying attention and were working to keep him safe. If you apply this protective approach, over time your dog will learn to trust that you are taking care of the entire team, leaving his mind free for learning and working. Do not underestimate the importance of making your dog feel safe - this is a vital part of your job as a trainer and a leader!

Confidence, Eagerness, and Biddability

There are a handful of canine personality characteristics that go into forming a great positive attitude towards training and showing. If we develop and nurture these characteristics, we will go a long way towards building the type of dog who is a joy to work with. These three core characteristics - confidence, eagerness, and biddability - are a huge advantage for long-term success in any dog sport. Luckily for us, they are not fixed personality traits. They can be encouraged and enhanced through relationship building and positive training experiences.

In addition to feeling safe in training, enhancing your dog's confidence both in himself and in the work he is asked to perform will build a positive attitude. Your dog's confidence increases every time he has a successful training session with you. He learns that he is a capable learner and that you are supportive of his efforts. Setting up training challenges that require effort yet allow him to succeed make him a little bit stronger and more confident with each training session. As these individual days roll into months, trainers begin to see that confidence spill over into their dogs' entire attitude about training. Your dog knows he is a star, and his demeanor will begin to show it. Once you have a confident learner, you will almost certainly have a dog with a great attitude about learning. Go to great lengths to make your dog feel like he is a superstar!

Eagerness is also built one success at a time. The desire to play the overall training game with you is directly correlated to success at whatever individual training games you choose to play with your dog. Dogs who train successfully and who are well appreciated by their trainers look forward to training. Indeed, training should be the highlight of your dog's day.

Biddability is an animal trainer's term that has been around for a long, long time. Typically, a biddable dog is one that is highly cooperative in training. He wants to do whatever it is that you want him to do, and he works hard to figure it all out. Biddability comes when your dog understands that cooperation is the route that leads to desired resources: food, toys, play, and YOU! Dogs who understand this fundamental principle are eager to figure out how to "work" you. They want you to engage with them and they try very hard to find the correct route to earning desired rewards.

Understanding Stress

There is no way to discuss attitude without considering the role of stress in learning. Indeed, a good portion of the rest of this section will be a discussion of stress, including the science behind it, learning to recognize it, understanding what causes it, and offering specific solutions for dealing with it or avoiding it. If there is one thing that consistently ruins good attitude in performance dogs, it is stress.

The Science Behind Stress

A stressor can be defined as any event (internal or external) that leads to the need to adapt or change. The most successful individuals in any species are those that are able to adapt quickly and easily; we might describe them as resourceful or resilient. They find the best possible outcome or course of action for any given event or situation and move forward. While the process of adaptation or change is absolutely necessary for survival, it can still be considered stressful.

The term stress has a general negative connotation in normal usage. We tend to think of it as a bad thing to be avoided at all costs, but the truth is that stress actually comes in two forms: distress and eustress. Distress is usually caused by an unwanted and uncontrollable stressor that is accompanied by strong negative emotions. On psychological measures of stress in humans, the worst possible event (leading to the highest level of distress) is the death of a spouse. It is unwanted, uncontrolled, and will lead to massive changes in a person's daily life. On the other hand, eustress is a wanted or desirable change, but it is still a change. An example of an event of this nature would be winning the lottery. Very few of us would turn it down, but it still leads to an enormous amount of change in daily life. Any life event that requires adaptation is considered stressful.

So why do some individuals cope so well with change while others do poorly? One possibility is genetics. Some individuals are simply born with more adaptive personality characteristics. The ability to adapt is natural and easy for them. We look for puppies and dogs that seem resilient. Although they may initially react to an unusual event, they recover quickly when they realize there is no danger. Bad things may happen to these puppies, but they dont leave a lasting effect. You might think of them as "Teflon" dogs; bad stuff just slides right off. This is an important quality for a performance dog. The other factors that influence stress reactions are prior learning experiences. Being exposed to low level stressors and having the opportunity to recover serves to "inoculate" the individual and leads to faster and stronger recovery in the future.

In humans, we often say that it's not the stressful event itself that causes problems but rather the person's cognitive appraisal of the event. How you judge the importance of the event, the level of threat, the need for action, and your belief in your ability to cope effectively all affect how negatively you think the event is likely to impact your life. If you believe the event is something that you can realistically manage, then your threat level appraisal will be low and you will likely cope with it well. But if you believe that the event is catastrophic and impossible to manage, then your threat level appraisal will be high and you will not cope effectively. Two people can appraise the same event in very different ways, which will lead to very different outcomes.

While we cannot make unwarranted assumptions about our dogs' cognitive appraisal of events, we do know that we see very different responses from different dogs to the same event. An event that leads one dog to respond as if there is a high level terror alert may lead to only mild acknowledgement from a different dog. One dog reacts to a dropped pan as if it is the end of the world while another rushes over to see if there is any food involved. The same event seems to have different meanings to different dogs.

As stated earlier, this difference could be based on genetics or on previous experiences. While we cannot alter genetics after the fact, we do have the ability to have a strong impact on experiences. If we can provide positive learning experiences combined with mild stressors, then we have the ability to help our dogs cope with unexpected or unpleasant events. We can help change the dog's appraisal of the event from "end of the world" to "no big deal."

We use the term coping to talk about ways in which individuals react or respond to stressful events. To cope well, it is necessary to find ways to deal with and manage events for the best possible outcome in any given situation. Poor coping can either lead to no change or can actively make the situation worse.

There are two major coping styles: problem-based and emotion-based. Problem-based coping requires the individual to evaluate the situation and decide on the best possible course of action. This type of coping is an attempt to directly address and resolve the problem that the stressor has produced. Emotion-based coping is focused primarily on helping the individual manage the feelings produced by the event. The goal is to feel safe or at least feel better. Although it does not directly address or change the problems that have developed, it may be necessary to feel better before you can face and tackle a stressor. Drinking alcohol or taking mood-altering drugs is an example of emotion-based coping. Unfortunately, this type of coping often only compounds problems in the long term. The most effective method for coping with stressors is a mixture of the two styles: find ways to feel better and then tackle the problems with a reasonable plan.

So what does all this talk about stress have to do with dog training? Everything! Ignoring or actively punishing stress reactions in dogs will not lead to a happy and enthusiastic performance dog. It is necessary to understand and acknowledge that stress is a major factor in the lives of dogs as well as in the lives of humans. When we put dogs into unnatural situations (such as dog shows), we are obligated to help them cope with the stressors they will encounter. Some dogs are fairly "bullet-proof" and will need very little help in this area, but others are highly sensitive and reactive to environmental stressors. We need to design our training plans to include both stress-reduction techniques and the development of resilience to common stressors in training and trial situations.

Learn what stress looks like (and more) and Part 2 of this article, coming Tuesday to 

Denise Fenzi and Deb Jones, PhD, are both long-time, successful dog trainers and dog behavior instructors. Denise has been showing and training dogs for 30 years and runs Fenzi Dog Sports Academy ( Deb has been showing and training dogs for 20 years and has authored many books and created several DVDs about training for dog sports. Together, they are the authors of Dog Sports Skills Book 1: Building Engagement and Relationship, which can be purchased at


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