What’s up with the attitude! I have plenty, how about my dog?

Finnish Lapponian herder, photo by Aino Mutka

Would you say the dog in the photo has an attitude? This is how my Thesaurus defines the word attitude:

“a settled way of thinking or feeling about someone or something, typically one that is reflected in a person’s behavior”.

I have a lot of attitudes. Driving on 401 (one of the biggest highways around Toronto) makes strong attitudes surface in me, so does getting into the subway or waiting for my appointment at my doctor’s office. Basically the word attitude tends to have a negative connotation, it is often linked to frustration. The majority of dog owners also feel that their dogs have an attitude when the dog is doing something unwanted. Lets examine this a little bit further.

My dog Forbes starts to bark at the green garbage bins after it gets dark. Also, no matter how much I have trained my recall when he smells a female dog he spits out the steak that I’ve been using as his treats outside and totally ignores me. When he hears our upstairs neighbors go outside with their two dogs, all the hair sticks up on his back,  he rushes to the window and starts barking. Quite a lot of “attitude” according to the Thesaurus definition, wouldn’t you say?

My old girl Dea, oh man, she was a bundle of “attitude”, all the dogs in the neighborhood knew that! You wouldn’t want to mess with this handsome princess if you were another dog! We worked a lot on her emotions towards other dogs throughout the years and did manage to change her “attitude”.

An adolescent intact 8-month-old male dog in my classes at the moment is having a hard time when nothing is happening and he redirects his energy to nipping people.  Another adolescent dog, a female, who has been a dream in classes, was all disconnected from her dedicated handler last night and found it hard to focus on familiar behaviors. Yet another adolescent dog, a big rescue male shepherd, all of a sudden has started to resource guard his Mum. Oh my goodness, these young dogs a full of it, the big  “attitude”!

Now that I’ve written down what’s going on with the dogs around me, I’m going to redefine the word attitude for dogs: “a settled way of feeling about someone or something, typically one that is reflected in a dog’s behavior”. So yes, I would say that dogs definitely have attitudes! But this is very different from human attitudes. Humans can contemplate and think about their actions whereas dogs purely act out of their emotions. Their emotions and feelings determine their behavior,  not what they are “thinking”. This is very important to understand when we want to modify a dog’s behavior. Lets think of dogs using teeth on human skin because this is a very emotional subject for all of us and we tend to get angry. When this unacceptable behavior occurs in a dog it is very easy and human for us to resort to physical violence to remove this behavior from the dog.  Sometimes violence can suppress the behavior, I’m not denying that, but a MUCH more common consequence is getting mauled by the dog sooner or later! We just made the dog’s attitude stronger, which is NOT what we wanted.

Resorting to physical aversion to change a dog’s attitude is psychologically the same concept as me being frustrated in traffic and a friend riding in the car with me starting to hit me when I cuss at someone in traffic. Does this change my attitude? NO! I may shut up but the attitude is just boiling inside me and I really wanna bite my friend now. The exact same principle applies to dogs. So the next time you want to change your dog’s attitude, the first thing you should consider is: how do I change my dog’s emotions? The ball is in your court, choose your actions wisely.



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