Better mindset, better results with your reactive dog?

Today, I want to talk about a very important tool in your dog’s reactivity recovery:  your mindset. 

Now before you roll your eyes and check out, keep reading.  

I’m not talking about “always being positive” and avoiding negative thoughts at all cost.  Toxic positivity really gets under my skin.  

I’m not asking you to eschew emotions and your past experiences and positively think your way to a better life with your dog.   If you have a reactive dog, you know that no amount of positive thinking is going to get your dog to stop barking and reacting to their triggers.

So how can your mindset help your dog? First, let’s define what we mean by mindset and the different types.

What is mindset?

Mindset is a set of assumptions that impact how you interpret the world around you.  It can affect your goals and whether or not you achieve them.  

We can have a fixed or a growth mindset, these terms were coined by Stanford researcher and professor Carol Dweck, Ph.D.  

If you believe certain qualities are unchangeable, this is a fixed mindset.  People in this mindset may say things like “That’s just the way it is.  There’s nothing I can do to change it.”

In the growth mindset, you see yourself as capable of changing over time.  You become more open to learning from mistakes.  You are able to reflect and adapt.

As Dweck writes in “Mindset:”

“…as you begin to understand the fixed and growth mindsets, you will see exactly how one thing leads to another — how a belief that your qualities are carved in stone leads to a host of thoughts and actions, and how a belief that your qualities can be cultivated leads to a host of different thoughts and actions, taking you down an entirely different road.” 

That’s a big, powerful statement.

What does mindset have to do with training and behavior modification?

Ok, that’s nice, Andrea. But I’m here for dog training and behavior modification.  What’s mindset got to do with it?

When you have a fixed mindset, you may have thought things like:

Fixed Mindset Approach
My dog was just born this way, nothing can be done. 
I want my dog to stop lunging, barking, or growling at other dogs or people, but it has gone on so long.  This is just our life now.  
All my other dogs were “easy.”  I don’t have the skills to address these challenges with this dog.
My dog did really well in that situation, she must have just been having a good day.

Our mindset can have a direct impact on our success and progress when it comes to dog training and behavior modification.  If you think your dog’s reactions are because he is being “disobedient” or “stubborn,” this will impact your relationship with your dog.  

This way of thinking is also likely to hold you back from seeing progress with your dog because you are expecting to see the worst out of your dog.  If we see our dogs as incapable of change, that is the path we will follow.  

It is really important to shift our mindset when working with your dog. 

But when you have a dog struggling with reactivity, fear, and/or aggression, this is easier said than done.

Why we get stuck in a fixed mindset

Does this sound familiar?

You have been working with your dog to reduce her barking at passersby outside the living room window.  

You have management in place to increase the likelihood of your dog’s success (not barking out the window) and have been following a training plan.  It’s been several days in a row that your dog has not barked at the dog’s that walk by.  

But one time, you forget to put your management strategies in place and a new dog walked by and took your dog by surprise causing her to bark out the window. And feel all hope is lost.  

Why does this happen?   Blame our DNA. 

The negativity bias (also known as positive-negative asymmetry) is our tendency not only to register negative stimuli more readily but also to dwell on these events. Not only do negative events and experiences imprint more quickly, but they also linger longer than positive ones.  

❌ You are more likely to remember that one occurrence than all the other times your dog did well.  

❌ You are more likely to blame yourself for your dog having a reaction than you are to acknowledge your success when your dog does well.  

❌ If you avoid a reaction, you are more likely to downplay your role in it.  You may say “Yeah, my dog didn’t bark at the window, but I had use the ‘find-it’ cue to do so.”  

The negativity bias goes back to the caveman days when it was very much a life-or-death scenario.  If you perceived something to be a threat, and you were correct, you lived to see another day.  

But if you perceived something as NOT a danger and you were wrong, that was probably the last decision you made. 

Evolutionarily speaking, the negativity bias kept us alive as a species.  Subconsciously, we scan for threats and we want to avoid harm.  

But fear not!  Now that you are aware of this, you can change your mindset.

How to change your mindset to benefit you and your dog

Knowing that our brains are hardwired to remember the negative, we have to put forth an effort to remember the good. 

Here are some tips on where to start:

#1 – Learn the power of “yet” and don’t get too caught up in “now.” 

When you say things like “I cannot get my dog to stay calm when people come over” try “My dog isn’t able to relax on a mat when guests come over yet.”  The “yet” implies it is a work in progress, a goal you are working towards.

#2 – About that work in progress, give yourself credit for your hard work. 

Guardians usually have pretty clear goals for their dogs and it is easy to get wrapped up in reaching that goal and achieving success.  But reward yourself for the effort you are putting in.  

#3 – Be kind to yourself. 

As soon as you catch yourself going down the rabbit hole of negative thoughts about your dog’s behavior, have a cue to stop yourself.  Get up and go to another room.  Take a walk.  Play with your dog. 

#4 – Practice reframing negative experiences.

It is upsetting when your dog has a reaction.  But rather than mentally beat yourself up, make note of your  internal dialogue and substitute positive, action-based thoughts.  “I’m such a failure with my dog,”  can become “I wish I made a different choice but I will remember how I wish I had acted differently and will apply this to future situations.”

#5 – Be patient with yourself and your dog.

Behavior modification and treating reactivity is a long game.  There will be ups and downs – it is all a normal part of the training process.  Learn to celebrate small victories while understanding that you may have days of back-sliding. It’s all part of the learning process.

Now, consider those previous thoughts about your dog, but with a growth mindset twist:

Fixed Mindset ApproachGrowth Mindset Approach
My dog was just born this way, nothing can be done. My dog was born an anxious dog, but it does not mean she has to stay that way.
I want my dog to stop lunging, barking, or growling at other dogs or people, but it has gone on so long.  This is just our life now. I want my dog to relax around people, and I understand that is a big ask for my dog and she’s not there yet.  I need to work with my dog to help her be successful.
All my other dogs were so easygoing.  I don’t have the skills to address these challenges with this dog.I’ve never had a dog with reactivity issues.  I need to do some research and dedicate time to working with my dog.  
My dog did really well in that situation, she must have just been having a good day.My dog did so well when we walked by the barky dog, that is a reflection of the work we have been putting in.

Adopting a growth mindset doesn’t happen overnight. It takes practice like anything in life. Enjoy the process and acknowledge your effort along the way.

How has your mindset affected your interactions and training with your dog? Tell me in the comments!


  1. TEDx Talk: Harnessing the power of yet – Dr. Carol Dweck.
  2. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Dr. Carol Dweck
  3. What is a mindset

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