Photo Credit @ Tamandra Michaels

“He’s so talented.”

“He’s such a gifted trainer.”

“I wish I was as good as she is.”

“She’s so smart.”

“She’s a natural.”

No doubt about it, there is a sea of talented dog trainers and handlers out there. And in the mass of people trying to make a name for themselves in the industry, trying to build their businesses, or trying to break into competitive sport, there are no doubt the “naturals.”

Ever witness a natural in action? The ones who have such fluid movement you think they must have had an early career as a dancer? The ones who don’t even think, they simply react, and everything seems to always work out?

Ever look at your own work and think, “Good God, I look like an elephant trampling through the forest when I work my dog?”

Do you ever look at these “naturals” and think, “Will I ever be that good?” or “Will I ever make it in competition?”

I know I do. And I bet I’m not the only one.

But the crazy thing is, as we compare ourselves to other trainers, handlers, dog owners, and people, what we fail to realize is that talent and success do NOT go hand in hand.

Take a minute to let that one sink in.

Talent and success are not the same thing.

Sure, so-called “naturals” might have some successes. In fact, at times, they may seem to rise to the top at lightning speed. But there is one trait that sets those who stay at the top apart from those who falter. And that trait is more important than talent alone.

The single trait that consistently sets the best trainers, the successful handlers, and the successful competitors apart is…

Their mindset.

In fact, after meeting and observing literally hundreds, if not thousands of dog owners, dog handlers, and some of the most incredible and well-known trainers in the industry (and after working for three years at a company that teaches mindset for business leaders and individuals), I’ve begun to look first at mindset, and then at skill. I’ve found that this helps me more reliably predict the propensity of a person to excel and be successful in their work. Skill and talent alone will only get them so far. Mindset will take them much further.

World-renowned psychologist, Dr. Carol Dweck, has explored this phenomenon in detail in her research, and in her groundbreaking book, “Mindset.”

In her book and research, she discusses what she refers to as a “Fixed Mindset,” and what she calls a “Growth Mindset.”

She’s observed that “the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value.”

She goes on to say that, “Believing that your qualities are carved in stone – the fixed mindset – creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over.” She points out that people with the fixed mindset believe that, “Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed of fail? Will I look smart of dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?”

Photo Credit @ Frank Wisneski of Black Dogs Rule

I bet you’ve encountered a trainer who operates with this mindset. In fact, I’d venture to say that, driven by our modern culture, and things like social media, the fixed mindset is more prevalent than it’s counterpart.

Think about it.

Ever met a trainer, dog owner, or heck, another human being who constantly needed validation? Whose self-worth was tied up in their accomplishments?

Ever met someone who didn’t want to learn and explore new approaches because they didn’t want to be proven wrong? Someone “stuck in their ways,” and perhaps a bit argumentative, hell bent on being right rather than finding the most effective approach?

Or how about someone who views other trainer’s work and thinks, “I’ll never be able to do that?”

Do you know someone like that? Better yet, see yourself in any of those descriptions?

I know I do from time to time. Especially when it comes to “needing validation,” and comparing myself to other trainers.

But here’s the thing.

In dog training, people who operate in this manner inevitably get stifled by their fixed mindset and are rarely successful. Perhaps they will have a few successes, but they tend not to persevere. Either they don’t ever make it to competition, citing excuse after excuse, because if they don’t win, it will make it painfully obvious that they are NOT talented. Or they skate by on talent alone, until talent alone isn’t enough. Then, when confronted with a loss, they take it as a reflection of their lack, either placing blame to protect their ego or labeling themselves a failure and quitting altogether.

Eventually, even the most talented trainers who operate in this mindset fizzle out, working hard to protect their image, ego, and fixed talent, rather than learning and growing and getting better.

Dr. Dweck goes on to say teach about another mindset, the “Growth Mindset”,  where your traits are not fixed but instead, a jumping off point for development.

People with a growth mindset would, therefore, think: “Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem, instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you?”

Ultimately, the growth mindset is what sets apart the good trainers and competitors from the great ones. It isn’t timing. It isn’t skill. It isn’t technique.

In fact, I don’t care if you are all thumbs with your leash, you trip over your own feet, and you believe operant conditioning is how you cool your house.

With the right mindset, you can knock some of the most talented trainers out of the water.


With the growth mindset, you love the challenge. You will work tirelessly, learning, strategizing, growing, and improving your training.

You value the journey more than the destination.

You crave hard work and are constantly learning and evolving your method.

You don’t value the path of least resistance. You wouldn’t feel fulfilled if things were easy.

And you know that while you might not overcome every challenge you are presented with, you will always learn something new.

In this mindset, you persevere and grow despite challenges.

And the best news is, you and only you are in control of your mindset.

Every day, you get to choose whether you work to prove yourself, or you work to improve. And just recognizing your mindset is a step in changing it.

Which mindset will you choose?

Check out Dr. Dweck’s book if you want to learn more about shifting your mindset.

Meagan Karnes
Meagan Karnes

Meagan has been training dogs professionally since 2002, most recently working with private security, military and law enforcement to provide K9s for high level applications. She owns both The Collared Scholar, an online dog training academy, and 690 Security Services, a company that trains and deploys Executive Security and Protection K9s to private customers. She recently partnered with both Average Frog and SM Leaders, who repurpose the proven performance principles of the Navy SEALs for individuals and organizations.

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