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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 h


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