Growth Mindset | Reset Your Dog & Tap into Your Show Dogs’ True Potential

Remember this: If you’re the kind of person who races back to your set-up after a loss to create a new “battle plan,” you have a growth mindset.

If we apply a growth mindset to ourselves as handlers, we must pursue what we can do to make our puppies better dogs and better show dogs. We can then build on this foundation as we look at mental conditioning within the context of exposing our dogs to multiple stimuli and situations. A lot can happen to a dog that can make or break his potential as a show dog. You can, however, teach your show dog a growth mindset through expanding their horizons to include any and all challenges that arise, whether they’ve seen them before or not.

You want a dog that can think, that can learn, that can puzzle things out, and that is capable of learning and growing.

Let’s explore how developing a growth mindset in your dog will make him eager to meet these new challenges. You want a dog that can think, that can learn, that can puzzle things out, and that is capable of learning and growing. To do so, you must be clear about what you want them to do. If you aren’t clear yourself, you can’t possibly communicate that to them. In translation, this means that you cannot expect your dog to know how to perform, if you yourself are not sure.

An Application of the Growth Mindset Theory to Dogs

Any breeder knows that puppies are on a continuum with their temperaments. Traditionally, we have tools to evaluate puppies and we use that information to help owners (sometimes ourselves) to determine if a puppy is best suited to rest comfortably in front of the fireplace, or if he has the temperament to be an agility dog, a service dog, or one of our own show dogs.

Let’s combine that body of knowledge to Carol Dweck’s Mindset Theory, which states, “There are two main mindsets we can navigate life with: growth and fixed. Having a growth mindset is essential for success.” What a powerful approach when we use it to support our young dogs as they become their best selves—simply by identifying and addressing their mindset!

First, identify whether your dog has a growth mindset or a fixed mindset. This is not a lesson on this topic, but here are points that I look for in my puppies.

In my interpretation, exhibitors who have a growth mindset are those who are spurred on by a challenge and bounce back from a loss, ready to take on the next challenge. In contrast, the exhibitor with a fixed mindset will often finish many dogs to their championship, but not beyond that. They have created a formula that works for them, one where they feel comfortable and safe in their own zone of expertise. However, the limitation is that they are not moving beyond that level, as they are unwilling to take on new challenges. Perhaps they feel that the next level might not be achievable. They may be uncomfortable with the unknown. It takes growth, and a stretch, to move into new territory, doesn’t it?

Let the Training Begin

The key to successful exposure training is to teach the dog through games. Tap into that growth mindset as an umbrella filter for your developing young dogs. This is about influencing their minds through “dog fun!”

We all know that training begins in the puppy stage, long before they enter a show ring. Depending on your dog’s age, you can start with super simple things. We have so many puppy training devices now. One of my personal favorites is the kiddie pool with balls; another one is the puppy slide! It’s not only fun for them, but its great entertainment for us to watch.

The use of agility equipment is a way to teach dogs of all ages how to overcome physical and mental challenges. Be creative
with obstacles that can be used both in your house and out on your walks. Have fun! Your dog will learn, overcome challenges, and thereby, develop confidence. Now we’re getting to what’s important about your dog’s mindset.

Observing how your dog thinks and approaches life is essential when setting him up for success as a show dog. What is his natural mindset? There are so many challenges for new show dogs to address. What about teaching him to understand the boundaries of show venue behavior? For example, barking in the crate is not acceptable. Remember that dogs are pack animals by nature, and many are challenged by being left alone. So, use that knowledge as you help him get used to the grooming area. Your fellow exhibitors will set up far away from you whenever possible once you and your dog get a reputation as “the noisy ones.”

Teach him to tolerate, if not play well with, others; to respect the other dogs and their space. As complicated as show etiquette is for new exhibitors, it is probably even more so for dogs.

A Tool to Tap into Their True Potential

The challenge is to get the word out to exhibitors to help them elevate their dog’s performance as a quality show dog. They can effectively shape their dog’s show experience, and ultimately their show career, through the use and application of Mindset Theory.

When we look to the successful breeders and handlers, they know this. As they work with their dogs, they use their experience and intuition to adapt to each dog’s needs. They recognize that each dog is different, with their own unique quirks, tendencies, and needs.

If you appreciate the Mindset Theory and apply it, not only to a single dog but to a litter, it is evident that each puppy has a particular mindset, and that it may change within different aspects of their lives, just as ours does. It is not only possible, but probable for a dog to have a growth mindset in conformation and a fixed mindset in performance—or vice versa. Thus, the importance of identifying each area you wish to build upon. For example, my young bitch is a “tomboy.” Through channeling her “tomboy energy,” we can create a strong ring presence for a bitch. (We plan on giving the boys a run for their money.) By tapping into her attitude that consists of a growth mindset, we create a show dog. However, her headstrong attitude may be less useful in performance events.

Upon evaluation of your dog’s tendencies, how will you develop your dog to his full potential? How will you develop your dog to his best advantage if he has a fixed mindset—or a growth mindset? How do you handle your dog if he is uncertain around new or unusual circumstances? Do you use growth principles to help him shift his tendencies or use a fixed approach to give more rigid structure to his experiences? How about a dog that is easily distracted? How do you create a stellar presentation for the judge?

The Practical Application of a Growth Mindset in the Show Ring

Seek ways to expand your dog’s horizons through gentle challenges. Through exposure and training, your dog is prepped and will develop a level of comfort over time. On the one hand, you don’t want it to go on for too long; on the other, rushing could ruin it forever. Use your good judgment or that of a good mentor.

Both small and large challenges can be overcome through a growth mindset.

I often hear, “Oh, I don’t know how to teach my dog to stand stay.” Start by teaching him to concentrate in a place with no distractions. You have to teach him how to concentrate and to learn self-control. Then add in layers of distraction. Teach your young dog to focus totally on you, even amidst distractions. Particularly in dog shows, there are the added distractions of lights, people cheering, and clapping. When your dog is in the ring and it’s showtime, he will be at ease and totally focused on you, because you’ve already taught him to stand-stay in the middle of a downtown area.

Picture this scenario: You are walking the grounds and come upon a metal grate in the path. Your dog might pause, inhale, and then exhale; a moment of, “I got this,” with a step forward or a head tilt. A powerful and exciting moment to watch. Now let’s apply this scenario to a dog show.
How about meeting a new breed for the first time, or overcoming the challenge of tape on the mats, a flapping tent, or crashing crates while rings and set-ups are being torn down? Both small and large challenges can be overcome through a growth mindset.

Read Your Dog

Mindset kicks in during times of great joy or great stress. Applying to your dog, you have to know when he’s happy and comfortable, and when he’s unhappy or intimidated. You should be able to see it in his eyes and in his body posture. Be tuned in to observe physical signs of stress. Damp footprints on the mats mean that your dog is stressed. Is his eye movement more rapid or slower? Is he leaning back or forging ahead? Support your dog when he needs it. Your number one job in the ring is to support your dog’s experience.

Look at the basics when you are reading your dog. Where’s the tail? Is it tucked or wagging? You want those whiskers to lie down, right? He might be happy one minute
in the ring, and terrified the next. Why is that? It is because his experience has changed from one moment to the next. Consider who he is standing beside. You should be able to read your dog’s body language and respond appropriately.

The handler who is able to connect with the dog, to respond, and to support the dog as it taps into its true potential—that is what it takes to elevate to the next level to become a successful handler.

Also remember, there are interactions between dogs in the ring. Dogs get intimidated by other dogs, and they get fired up by other dogs. There may be specific dogs in that ring that your dog hates, loves or fears. You should know these things before you go into the ring. Anticipate how your dog is going to respond to certain stressors, and make sure that he’s ready and able to handle them. Ask yourself, “What is the mindset of my dog toward other dogs?” There are ways to shift your dog’s mindset as you look at mental conditioning within the context of each particular challenge.

Are you able to get inside your dog’s head to make him show like a rock star? As you are exposing him to learning experiences that set him up to learn and grow, EVERYTHING is about mindset. The handler who is able to connect with the dog, to respond, and to support the dog as it taps into its true potential—that is what it takes to elevate to the next level to become a successful handler.

Our dogs’ confidence grows when we expose them to challenges and guide them through success. That experience feeds a growth mindset, and the feedback loop continues. That confidence translates to new experiences, and ultimately, to an energy of unlimited potential. Your dog will move differently, interact with both dogs and humans differently—and others will take notice, particularly your judge. Your dog will get that win in the end, because you have formed the building blocks for a stellar presentation.

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  • Ms. Lee Whittier has been involved in the sport of purebred dogs for over three decades. Her involvement began as an owner, exhibitor and, subsequently, a breeder of Rottweilers. She has owned Akitas, Bullmastiffs, and a Sussex Spaniel. She currently owns, breeds, and exhibits Tibetan Terriers. Ms. Whittier began judging in 2000, and then took a hiatus for several years to work for the American Kennel Club as an Executive Filed Representative in the Pacific Northwest. She returned to judging in 2011, and currently judges the Working, Terrier, Toy, and Non-Sporting Groups, eleven Hound Breeds, six Sporting Breeds, Bouvier des Flandres, and Best in Show. Ms. Whittier has judged dog shows around the world, from the United States to Asia, at shows large and small; all of great importance to each and every exhibitor. Some of the larger shows are Westminster Kennel Club, Kennel Club of Philadelphia, Del Valle, Great Western Terrier Association, Northern California Terrier Association, Hatboro, Malibu Kennel Club, and the Kennel Club of Palm Springs. Ms. Lee Whittier is a standing member of Dog Fanciers of Oregon, the American Rottweiler Club, and the Tibetan Terrier Club of America. She is Show Chair for Vancouver Kennel Club and the Terrier Association of Oregon’s January show with Rose City Classic. As an active member in numerous clubs, she has worked in the capacity of Show Chair, President, Vice-President, Secretary, Board Member, and Constitution & By-Laws Revision Committee Member. In addition to judging, Ms. Whittier developed the Dog Show Mentor program, exclusively for owner handlers. This is an online program where owner handlers of all stages and levels learn to develop an individual, strategic approach to showing dogs. She also travels to speak to owner handlers all over the world. She currently lives in Vancouver, Washington, with her husband, Wayne, and their three Tibetan Terriers. Her other interests include gardening and hiking with the dogs.

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