Growth Mindsets in Dog Training

Photo Courtesy Patrick Danforth Photography

In some of my other worlds, parenting and school teaching, the idea of Growth vs Fixed Mindsets has taken off.

You can read more here, but in a nutshell, you avoid labeling children as smart or not smart. You look for and acknowledge behaviours like effort, persistence, thoughtful choices, small steps taken and achieved; and in so doing, you instill in them hope and faith that struggle is a normal part of learning, and they too can learn and progress. At the same time you are shaping yourself to be more observant, acknowledge more thoughtfully, and parent/ teach with a greater awareness of what and how the individual child is learning.

This is why I am so very cautious about labeling dogs. Labels can help us understand the symptoms of a disorder e.g. diabetes, separation anxiety, but they can also place training/ behavioural difficulties inside the dog, out of reach of any training interventions. This is the dog. This is how he/ she is. Nothing will change. Common labels include stubborn, dominant, dumb, lazy, clever etc.

Sure, there are temperament/ learning/ experience/ skill/ instinctual differences between breeds and individual dogs, but every dog can learn something. Most can learn lots of things if we spend the time learning how to teach them, practicing, accepting the feedback they give and developing our skills.

It is up to us, the trainers, to up-skill ourselves; open our minds; and work with the challenges and strengths these animals bring. The labels let us off the hook. How about we have the courage and curiosity to stay on the hook? How about we develop our own growth mindsets, let the unhelpful labels go, and see what we can learn about teaching the animals we are struggling to reach?

Instead of stubborn, describe the behaviour that makes us use that label – e.g. will not respond to cues when distracted - then develop a management/ training plan to work on that. Which cues are important? Which distractions are an issue? Know your priorities and your end point and make your plan. Adapt it along the way because things will change. That’s the nature of teaching and learning.

Some years ago one of my relatives was involved in helping a group of young differently abled adults (e.g. Down's syndrome, autism) train for and present a dance performance. The group went on tour and performed at an International festival. Whole body learning helped these young people to create and present something wonderful.

Everyone can learn. Everyone can change. Dogs can learn and change too, but it all starts with us – the human part of the team. We cannot know what potential we have, our children have or our animals have, if we never take any learning risks. If we don’t change what we say, think and do – we can’t expect change from them. It starts with us.


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Positively Expert: Diana Bird

Diana lives in NZ. She is intensely interested in behaviour, teaching, learning, and self development. She strives to generalise positive reinforcement ideas to her life and relationships with other people.


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