Posted by: allstaragility | June 6, 2012

Attitude: Handling with Emotion Cues

Today is Dog Agility Blog Action Day and the topic is attitude.  Sure, I could sit here and lecture about how we need to be positive and kind to each other, how our attitude influences our dogs, fellow competitors and so on, but if you have read any of my previous blog posts, I have already “been there” and don’t wish to repeat myself or others who are sharing their great insight of the subject matter today.  Instead, I simply ask that you consider a different definition of the word:

Attitudeposition or posture of the body appropriate to or expressive of an action, emotion, etc.: a threatening attitude; a relaxed attitude.

At first glance, this certainly doesn’t seem as thought-provoking as how we normally apply the word to our sport, but be patient, it actually plays a large role in how well we handle our dogs!  While we put a lot of emphasis on how dogs read our motion cues (forward, deceleration, lateral, etc), something I believe comes in a very close second is our body cues and specifically, emotion cues.

Dog are experts at reading body language.  Think about how two dogs greet each other;  the attitude they are displaying in posture, facial expressions, ear and tail set, etc.  C-ya takes the stop/drop/roll approach saying “Hi, I am a baby dog and I think I would like to play, but am going to let you decide what happens next.”  Her ears are back, tail tucked, she has very soft “bedroom” eyes and  a grin on her face.   In contrast, Bode is very upright, on his toes, tail, head and ears are very up, eyes are much more direct.  His demeanor says “I am Bode and I rule the roost.  I might play with you if you first pass my inspection!”

How do we apply this to humans and agility?  We already know that dogs read the body cues we give with our feet, shoulders, eyes, hands, etc. This is really only scratching the surface.  In fact, studies have shown how dogs have the ability to read human social cues that wolves and even chimps cannot.  The attitude I have with my dogs (as defined above) and emotional cues must fit the situation to accentuate my other handling cues.

For example, lead outs:  Solei is a softy and very serious about her job.  When I lead out with her, I have to exude an upbeat, relaxed and happy attitude to tell her to lighten up. This means lighter steps, soft eyes, a smile on my face and reinforcing a lot with drawn-out, softer-toned “what a good girlie”.

With Bode, I have to take a little more serious, business-like approach. I leave him and am more deliberate with my actions.  If I turn and reinforce, it is with a short and sweet “Good. Boy.”  My posture, smile and eyes are not as soft and relaxed; it is telling him “you can go when I say, but not a moment sooner.  I am leading this dance.”

Now Zoom never really loved the game of agility, but did it for me and could either be a rocket or a slug, depending on what side of the bed he woke up on.  If I had to lead-out, I was coiling the springs as I was leaving.   I was more bent over, creeping off the start and keeping his focus and connection with me high by saying “readyyyyyyyyyy?” The tone of my voice was 100% geared towards building excitement and preparing him to drive off the line.

If I were to handle Zoom’s start-line like I do with Solei or Bode, I wouldn’t have had any dog to run. While I did use the attitude I had with Zoom to proof Bode’s stays, I wouldn’t often do that in competition if I wanted to get through the course in one piece.   I think you get the idea…

It is easy for us silly humans to start thinking so much about getting our dogs around the course correctly that we give the wrong emotional cues.  If you worry about getting lost on a course and are so focused on thinking about where you are going, what attitudes do you emit?  Stress, uncertainty, worry and fear come to mind.  We easily get uptight and robot-like with a dog who tends to stresses or gets distracted.  We can be too relaxed and soft with a dog who needs more direction.

We also get caught up in the attitude of “names” of handling skills.  I joke with my students on the whole concept of the word “invite” when serping a jump where we want our dog to come in over a jump behind our leg while we are moving forward.  Just the word itself makes you think of sending out invitations to come to a party.  That attitude works just fine for some dogs, but others are perfectly happy to RSVP declining our invite (especially if our motion cue is giving directions to a better party)!  For those dogs, we need to have the attitude that it is an “insist”  and their presence is mandatory and not open for discussion.   Harder, direct eye contact, more meaningful body cues, tone of voice, etc will all help the dog get the message.

Lastly, we also need to keep in mind how the attitude of our emotional cues affect our dogs when we complete a run.  If it was especially brilliant, I make a point of praising my dog with a smile, happy eyes, laughter, and an upbeat tone of voice.  Sure, our dogs want to tug or get their treats, but we can’t forget how we need to be in that moment, engaged in celebration with them!  Even if it wasn’t our best performance, if I cross that finish line with my partner, it calls for a party!

Look out MOTION cues, EMOTION cues are hot on your tail!

Read more “Attitude” Blogs here:


  1. What a great intuitive post!
    Nancy G

  2. Love it, and believe it

  3. Oh, yeah, the experience of how different each dog can be! Been there so often. Sometimes with the same dog. 🙂 It was hard for me to learn how different they all are. Good post.

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