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Building Confidence in Dogs


When pet owners discuss a lack of confidence in their dog, a few descriptions that come up are words such as insecure, fearful, nervous, or shy. These characteristics describe real behaviors that influence the physiological state of behavior. However, to understand and alter behavior, we need to be cautious of putting human labels on our dogs, a process that leads to what is known as anthropomorphism. It's critical to decipher what the dog is doing in each new environment, around new people, and other animals.

A lack of confidence may look like the dog walking low to the floor with the tail down/tucked, an immediate freeze, or even a lunge at something that suddenly pops up. Getting familiar with dog body language can help you correctly assume what your dog may be going through. There are a variety of displacement behaviors to observe.

Displacement behaviors are behaviors that happen out of context, this can include suddenly sniffing the floor, scratching, yawning, shaking, looking away, etc. Some dogs tend to use these behaviors more than others. You’ll see more tongue flicks, looking away (whale eye), having the dog turn onto its back to show its belly (widely known as a submissive roll), and cautiously walking in new environments. These can indicate conflict and anxiety in dogs. If these traits describe your dog, confidence-building exercises may help. But first, let’s figure out where this may stem from.

Socialization Improper puppy socialization may be the answer to your dog’s low confidence. In some factors, genetic predisposition toward being cautious may be another factor, but mostly the answer concludes to little to no positive association to a certain stimuli or triggers. Sometimes people or certain characteristics of people trigger the response of your dog’s unnatural behavior, such as hat wearing, race, or gender. Other times it can be a certain item such as new environments, something on wheels, such as a bike or skateboard, or other animals.

Desensitization and Counter Conditioning Whatever the trigger may be, this can be overwhelming for a dog as it ages. As owners and trainers, we must be able to listen and observe what our dog feels comfortable with before pushing the dog over threshold. Just as humans, dogs must be introduced to specific triggers in a gradual approach. This approach is known as desensitization.

If you want your dog to become comfortable with moving cars, for example, you’ll want to start at a far distance to where the car driving by doesn’t trigger the unwanted response. While you’re here, you can provide a delicious treat every time a car drives by. This is a process known as counter-conditioning. Always observe your dog’s body language. Are they looking to escape? Do they look relaxed? Stick with observable behaviors. What can you see your dog doing?

If you can consistently get a positive response from your dog as cars drive by, or whatever the trigger is in question, you can steadily move closer. This will take some time. Don’t rush progress. Keep things slow and steady to see lasting results. It can be in a matter of days, weeks, or even months. It depends on how severe your dog’s initial behavior was and how consistent your practice is to witness the results.

If you aren’t seeing results, you may be a bit off on timing, consistency, or knowing when to move forward. Consulting with a positive-based trainer can help you and your dog progress to the next step.

Overall Confidence Building for Shy Dogs Now, let’s talk about overall dog nervousness. It's important to note that dogs, at any age, must progress at their own rate. Allow them to experience environments that are calm and quiet, this can be around the neighborhood, in a dog friendly store, or through a large field. Sniffing new environments, walking on new surfaces that they may or may not have walked on before, and even going through tunnels that are built with cardboard boxes can all influence the dog's confidence. In addition to this, have them figure out interactive food puzzles, join a FitPaws class, get them enrolled into a dog activity or sport, or test your dog's obedience by practicing various cues throughout the day. Other items and exercises that may boost your dog’s confidence are games like tug or fetch, give your pup a consent behavior to influence choice, teach your dog tricks and behaviors like touch and shake, and, mostly, my number one suggestion is to participate in things your dog loves to do!

The most important thing here is to not overwhelm or force your dog to do anything. These must be accompanied by your dog’s favorite items, treats, or experiences.

Helping your dog feel confident is part of pet parenthood and will take a lot of patience. Remember to act as your dog’s advocate when your dog feels overwhelmed by something or someone that may stress your dog out. By continuing to use positive reinforcement techniques and staying away from getting angry or frustrated, you’ll become the key to building your dog’s confidence.

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