Mindset is a belief system; it’s how you think about the impacts of learning and ultimately how you set your life up to succeed. Beliefs are strong influences on human life choices. Carol Dweck developed the theory around Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset. I recommend looking it up – there’s a lot to be learned about ourselves in this area. Alexandra Kurland brought it to my attention, and we’ve had some long conversations about it.
First, your mindset dictates how you perceive your ability to learn, your need for learning, and the impacts of learning on your success. A person with a Growth Mindset believes intelligence can be developed, that they can learn new things throughout their lives. These people embrace challenges. Risk is OK to take on because failure is simply a temporary setback through which those with growth mindsets persist. The successes of others inspire them and they actively use any feedback they receive. They believe they have the choice and control to learn whatever they want to and that challenges help them grow and become smarter. They believe their abilities are determined by their own effort and attitude. These folks tend to purposefully stress their brains because they believe it makes them smarter, which leads to a desire to learn. This is all true, according to science – but people are free to believe whatever they choose, and beliefs powerfully influence the choices people make.
People with Fixed Mindsets believe that who they are now and what they are capable of are unchangeable, that learning is of little to no value because their intelligence is innate, predetermined, that they can either do something or they can’t. People with fixed mindsets avoid challenge and risk because they find failure to be a dead end and an indication that they’ve reached the limit of their abilities. They see the successes of others as threats and are jealous. Feedback is perceived as a personal attack, either ignored or just not applied. Giving up is their go-to behavior when they are frustrated with progress on a task. These folks focus on what they know and on constantly proving themselves to others. They stick to doing the things they are good at, not getting out of their comfort zones to take on new things. They believe their intelligence and capabilities were predetermined, which leads to a desire to “look smart,” always presenting themselves based on what they’ve produced in the past.
People Can Change Their Mindsets
Amazingly, both mindsets are adaptive. Both are used to increase life success and to survive what life throws at the people who choose them. Everyone strives for success, but research has demonstrated that growth mindsets contribute to long-term happiness, self-esteem, and as we’ll see in a moment, the success of others.
Children learn their mindsets at very early ages, starting in infancy with the language they hear from their parents and continuing throughout life supported by the language used by others which becomes the language they use in their own self-talk. But people can change their mindsets by becoming aware of how they’re perceiving their actions and those of others, monitoring their self-talk, and learning new ways to behave. Of course, coaching can help.
How Your Mindset Affects Your Dog
Second, your mindset dictates how you perceive the abilities and needs for learning in others, including humans and non-humans – like your dog. It’s interesting that people with fixed mindsets carry more vengefulness toward others than people with growth mindsets, and that can certainly affect our approaches to training animals as well as our relationships with other humans. Simply seeing the possibility for development in another being is a strong start to changing behavior.
A Horse Analogy
Alexandra Kurland showed photos of two horses in one of her talks, both brown. One horse was swaybacked with his head held low, standing on four legs that looked more like they were propping up his body than supporting it from underneath. The other horse looked proud and confident, standing with his body weight distributed evenly on all four legs, head relaxed but up and curious, and a balanced body with a strong spine. In the end, she pointed out that these pictures were of the same horse! How? Alex specializes in using clicker training to help horses learn how to carry themselves in a healthy way, to rebalance their own bodies, heal from the compensation caused by old injuries that may have not healed properly, and use their muscles in ways that don’t cause damage down the road. This horse had been conditioned in very small slices to use his body differently than he had been doing, to the point where he literally looked like a different horse. Her point was that a growth mindset allowed her and this horse’s owner to see this horse as the horse he could be, inspiring every step of the process of helping him improve his posture. He was not a horse fixed in time who could never change.
We see the same with dogs, not just with the essential balance of their bodies, but in how they respond to stimuli in the world – in the behaviors they offer. We humans can use training to open up possibilities for dogs to try new behaviors, reinforcing the ones we like to permanently add them to the dogs’ repertoires.
“You Got Lucky”
One comment that just drives me nuts is, “What a great dog! You got lucky!” When I hear this directed toward one of my students, who has been working diligently with her dog, committed to developing a partnership within which the two of them can enjoy the world together, I just cringe. The person making the comment has no idea where this team began or how much their behaviors have changed through effort and attitudes. The statement indicates a fixed mindset:
- The dog is the way he is, innately, and the owner’s training didn’t do a thing.
- The owner is also limited to the capabilities she had at birth and can’t have done anything to change herself or the dog’s behavior.
- The whole package is tied up with a bow and the dog and owner will not change in the future, no matter whether the owner continues training or not.
These ideas are simply false, but the person pointing out the good fortune of the dog owner in choosing a great dog won’t see that, even if the dog starts misbehaving in the future. What sense would it make that the perfect dog this owner picked out would misbehave? That change may be perceived as somewhat magical, as though it “just happened” with no warning and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Behavior is fluid, and dogs behave like dogs. The matching law applies and owner behavior has an impact on the behavior of their dogs. A fixed mindset does not provide space for awareness of these scientific behavior principles.
“That Dog Needs Training!”
When people see an out-of-control dog, one who does not yet have the skills or self-control to make good choices that work in a human world, they often say, “That dog needs training!” This statement, too, can come from a fixed mindset if it refers to training as a one-and-done proposition, which is often how it is used. People with fixed mindsets can see when there are problems and they can apply solutions, but they don’t see the ongoing nature of the occurrence of challenges that are taken on, responded to with solutions that may create other challenges, with the whole process as a continuing learning experience that in the case of a dog and owner, results in stronger, more resilient individuals on both ends of the leash. Think about it the next time you listen for someone’s response to a well-behaved dog: do they acknowledge the owner’s input to the partnership? Or assume the dog just “came that way”?
All this is not to encourage haphazard judgment of other people, but to recognize our own mindsets and be able to listen for how best to counsel others when they request it. As a dog trainer, I actually coach people to train, live with, and enjoy their dogs in the ways that work best for them and the dogs. When people come to me with their training and behavior challenges, I lay some ground rules to introduce the methods we’ll use for training and to transform their lives. Those ground rules are pretty easy for people with growth mindsets to embrace, and quite difficult for those with fixed mindsets. That’s why I have an “ideal client”. The ground rules:
- We don’t blame dogs for their behavior or call them names other than in the most loving and caring ways. Many clients come to me frustrated after trying the DIY route to training their dogs or hiring a dog trainer with limited skills and failing to achieve their goals. I fully understand and welcome them to their final stop, the beginning of their path to a functional partnership between human and dog. If owners understand that dogs perform behaviors that work for the dogs and that have been reinforced by the owners, although owners may not know just how it happened, they have the humility to take on the awe-inspiring task of teaching a dog new behaviors using positive reinforcement in an effective way. If they continue to blame the dog for doing what works for him in the absence of being taught an alternative, if they refuse to believe they have something to learn themselves, we are probably not going to achieve their training goals.
- My students acknowledge their achievements! Otherwise, how would they be fully aware of what they did and able to repeat the behavior again when it can help them? Just as we don’t blame the dog for behaviors we don’t like, we don’t give the dog all the credit for behaviors we do like. After all, the previous behavior was working for the dog, so he probably wouldn’t have changed it on his own.
- My ideal client dreams big. She or he is not afraid to envision exactly how life could be. Of course, we will never ask dogs to do things that are not safe or good for them, but it’s a great start to create a possibility of peace, love, harmony, enjoyment, connection, partnership, adventure, or whatever you can dream of for yourself and your dog. Together, we’ll decide what behaviors fit into those dreams and start with the foundation skills that enable them all.
- My students are not afraid to make mistakes – to fail – because they know that our space together is safe for themselves and their dogs to fail in the process of learning. They pursue excellence and that requires a bit of risk-taking, because when you don’t yet know how to do something, you probably won’t yet do it perfectly.
Carol Dweck has something to say about the power of “yet”. She and other psychology experts point to the value of working just outside your comfort zone when you’re learning new things. This is a major component of deliberate practice, known for its contribution to achieving new skills. It has to do with the task at hand being difficult enough for the learner that the brain is being appropriately stimulated to cause change at the neural level, but not so challenging that the learner can’t achieve the goal. Achieving the goal is necessary for new neural pathways to develop, but if the task is too easy, you’ll just use the neural pathways you already have, and so will your dog. Being out of your comfort zone is why tasks are difficult, but your comfort zone soon expands to include these new tasks, requiring you to step outside your comfort zone again to learn more. As you continue this process, your growth mindset becomes even more “growthy” – but I digress. When you’re outside your comfort zone, learning something new, by definition you “can’t” do the thing – YET. The power of “yet” is that it negates the dead end created by references to inability. It allows possibility and motivates you to persist with your growth mindset to take further steps toward achievement.
Vengeance and the Final Ground Rule
One more important thing: in this talk, Carol Dweck refers to a study demonstrating that people with growth mindsets harbor much less vengeance than those with fixed mindsets. Take a listen – it speaks to how people respond to others, in terms of either supporting their success or being jealous and vengeful. This is highly important to animal training. If you think learning is unimportant because everyone is born with all the capabilities they’ll ever have, you’re likely to be kind of angry about how people and animals are because of your lack of control over the situation. You don’t like how they are, they can’t change, and neither can you, so the next phase is jealousy, blame, anger, and maybe feelings of vengefulness. When those feelings are about your dog, they are not leading to long-term happiness for either of you, not to mention the unpleasant techniques vengefulness can lead to. That’s very sad, because it doesn’t have to be that way; and it leads me to Ground Rule #5:
- Perfection is not required! Only a desire and willingness to pursue excellence, to improve status. My students don’t have to have completely formed growth mindsets (heaven knows I’m far from perfect!) but they must have some awareness that something is missing and maybe know that the possibility is out there for them, even if they are unable to fully form it – YET. I’m a life coach in the realm of dog ownership, because dog training is as much about your learning as that of your dog. We develop many human behaviors like advocating for your dog in new or challenging situations, continuing to train throughout your dog’s life (because the benefits are too many to ignore), and becoming your dog’s partner, in addition to the mechanical skills necessary for easy and effective dog training.
“Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better?”
– Carol Dweck
Ideal Clients, Friends, and Pet Owners
Closing thoughts: The people I describe here are my ideal clients because my teaching and coaching behaviors are reinforced by the successes they are able to achieve through their efforts. Watching them learn and grow and their lives with their dogs transform is one of the most rewarding experiences in my life. These folks also make very good friends, great pet owners, and great adopters if you’re in the world of animal rescue and sheltering. All it really takes is to continually open your mind to the possibilities of being whomever you want to be. As children, we are told we can do that, and it’s true. There’s no guarantee that we’ll become the next president or a famous movie star, but developing ourselves, always getting better, allows the possibility of just about anything.