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How to raise a confident dog

Dogs, like people, display a wide variety of personalities. Some are robust and outgoing, approaching each new life experience as a wonderful fun adventure. Others are more reserved, needing frequent reassurance and time to assimilate a situation before jumping in and trying something new. Your dog's own genetic makeup will define the limits of his natural personality; however there are many external factors which you can control that will help your dog become the best, most confident, well-adjusted dog he can be. Put simply these are the three Es - Enriched Environment, Exposure and Education.

ENRICHED ENVIRONMENT The Breeders (0-8 weeks)

Many puppy tests have been developed to try and pick puppies with particular personalities for particular tasks. This is often a difficult task because within a litter will be a hierarchy with some pups consistently dominating other pups. A puppy that was at the bottom of the litter hierarchy however may blossom into a confident dog when removed from its bossier litter mates. This will particularly be so if the breeder has provided all the pups with an enriched environment which repeatedly has been shown to have an enormous influence on the ability of the puppy to develop confidence and social skills later in life. A good breeder will try to provide an environment rich in:

  • Sounds and smells common to life in a family home such as children's screams and voices, vacuum cleaners, hair dryers, thunderstorms, TV and music. Always look for a breeder that has pups in the home rather than isolated far away in a kennel or barn.
  • People particularly children and men (most dogs seem to be more comfortable with women though it is not known whether this is a result of more exposure to women breeder/handlers or because of a natural preference).
  • Other puppies (especially if the pup has come from a single litter) and a few adult dogs.
  • Textures and surfaces to explore such as grass, dirt, concrete, shallow water.
  • A variety of angles and heights to climb and explore such as a slightly raised wobble board (uneven surface), an angled slope or one or two shallow steps. Puppies that are exposed to these mild physical stresses have been shown to cope better with new stresses they encounter later in life.

EXPOSURE - a new world (8-16 weeks)

You bring your beautiful new puppy home to a whole new world away from brothers and sisters and all he has known. If your dog is from a shelter or pet shop you probably don't know what sort of early life he has experienced. If your breeder has been doing all the right things you are off to a great start. In either case however its important to continue providing for your pup an enriched environment with increasing amounts of exposure (particularly exposure to people and dogs, also known as socialisation). Even if you do not wish to put your puppy on public ground prior to the completion of his vaccination programme, you can:

  • Continue exposure to all the things listed above. Particularly children of all ages babies, toddlers, school age and teenagers. You can carry puppy to schools and playgrounds where they are bound to attract the attention of young kids. The more your pup is use to the jerky movements and loud noises kids make the more relaxed he will be in their company.
  • Throw a 'welcome to the puppy party' and encourage everyone to treat and play with the puppy when awake. Even when puppy takes a nap, the exposure to party noise and music will be a useful experience. Your puppy is learning that loud noises and strangers of all kinds are nothing to worry about.
  • Introduce other animals from both within and without the family home such as cats, birds, rabbits and of course other friendly, healthy dogs.
  • Gently handle and restrain your puppy regularly. Making certain your pup feels safe and relaxed when being handled will make all health care issues such as nail trimming, grooming, and veterinary check-ups much less stressful for you and your dog!
  • Take car trips to accustom your pup to the sounds and smells of traffic as well as the motion of the car. Make sure to include some fun destinations - not just the vets for vaccinations.

Attend a well run puppy pre-school. A good instructor will provide lots of opportunities for socialisation with people and pups in a clean, safe, fun environment. Make certain the curriculum is based on positive reinforcement training only and beware of any classes that encourage puppies to wear choke chains. To build confidence in a young dog it is important that emphasis should be placed on teaching the puppy what is right rather than punishing mistakes.

Although puppy hood is considered the most important period in a dog's life, a time when he will bounce back quickly from any initial fright that causes no harm, it is important to continue to expose your dog to as many situations as possible throughout his life. Continued socialisation to people and dogs is particularly important throughout adolescence (6-12 months)when lessons previously learnt may be put to the test.

EDUCATION

Dogs have shared our lives for so long that we sometimes forget that they are a different species , with a different culture and a very different language. Today, more than ever before dogs are not free to live a substantially normal doggy life, wandering the neighbourhood freely, socializing with dogs, kids and stay-at-home mums. Today, if your dog is to feel confident within his human pack, he needs to learn how to cope with all the restrictions of modern life that go with it - he needs an education. The education of dogs is normally referred to as 'training' a term which is sometimes erroneously associated with an attempt at punitive robotic obedience.

Good training is the key to developing a mutually beneficial communication system between you and your dog. A dog already knows how to sit, stand and down, what he doesn't know are the human names for these behaviours and why he should do them? Training is the vital link that will help provide these answers to your dog helping him to feel confident in every situation.

Positive reinforcement works best.

The way you chose to train will have a tremendous impact on whether your dog becomes more or less confident. Traditional training methods focused on correcting dogs for wrong behaviour. The result was that dogs often disliked training and lacked motivation. At worst, they became confused, fearful and aggressive. Positive trainers look for what the dog is doing right and reward the dog with things it wants such as food, toys, games and social interactions.

The benefits of positive reinforcement training for your dog include:

  • Improved Communication. Learning new things gets easier and easier as your dog becomes more fluent in your communication system. Many problems associated with misunderstanding and frustration disappear.
  • Positive attention. Time spent training should be the best time you and your dog spend together, a time when your dog enjoys your full attention.
  • An enhanced, positive association with learning and the learning environment.
  • Increased confidence fueled by success. Success quickly becomes self-motivating and encourages the dog to keep playing the training game.
  • An outlet or brain game for active, outgoing dogs which will redirect rather than destroy energy and confidence into more desired, acceptable behaviours.
  • Minimal stress. As positive training looks only to reward desired behaviour, there is no appropriate application for the use of physical scare tactics such as scruff shakes, alpha rolls or shouting. Your dog learns that you can be trusted to remain cool, calm, and emotionally consistent at all times - not rewarding one minute and punishing the next. Truly a worthy 'leader of the pack'.
  • More opportunities to socialize as a dog that is well trained is more likely to be invited on social outings such as sports days or picnics.
  • An enhanced relationship based on authority without domination, love without subservience and respect without fear (also known as The Clicker Trainers Goal.
  • "In positive reinforcement training, the relationship between dog and owner is a partnership of mutual empowerment" (Pat Miller - The Power of Positive Dog Training 2001). The dog learns a way to control his environment by doing the things you have selected to reward - a win/win situation for both . In studies of both humans and dogs it has been found that empowerment to control one's environment plays a substantial role in reducing stress and increasing the self-confidence of an individual to cope with daily life.

Consistent Routines = Confident Dogs

Perhaps even more important than teaching your dog commands or cues for basic behaviours, is establishing routine good manners around the home. When you first get your dog, plan exactly what you would like him to do in every situation (not just 'be good' because 'good' is not a behaviour) and consistently train him to do it. All dogs learn best with consistency, but shy dogs in particular will benefit from knowing what is expected of them in routine situations from home comings to meal times to going for a walk. For example, if you sometimes allow your dog rush out the front door to greet strangers, and sometimes reprimand him, he will quickly become confused and unreliable. On the other hand if you teach him that his greeting etiquette is always to sit just inside the front door, your dog will not only be more reliable but will also be more confident, knowing he is doing the right thing at the right time.

The Timid Dog

Timid, shy, submissive, fearful are all words to describe dogs who seem to be overly sensitive to certain stimuli such as loud noises, certain people, changes in their environment, touch or a variety of other fear inducing sights and/or sounds. This timidity may vary from well within the normal range (activated only by a few things or only to a mild degree) without affecting the dog's ability to enjoy a substantially normal life to extreme fearfulness which effects and diminishes every aspect of the animal's life. (Extreme cases would certainly require the attention of a qualified Veterinary Behaviourist).

Factors which may contribute to shyness in dogs include:

  • inherited genetic traits.
  • a physical problem such as reduced vision, deafness or pain.
  • lack of early exposure/socialisation to the world the dog will eventually occupy- people, children, domestic noise, urban traffic etc. A gross lack of exposure prior to four months of age is likely to have a life-long effect on the dog's ability to bond with people and/or cope with new sights and sounds.
  • Early learning a negative experience causing shock, pain or trauma.
  • Inappropriate training methods.
  • A currently stressed environment - dogs are not immune to family conflicts such as divorce, illness, abuse, moving house etc. and may behave fearfully in a response to such surroundings.

The Fear Biter

Behaviourists generally agree that the vast majority of dog bites stem from fearfulness, not dominance, a good reason for wanting to help your puppy develop confidence early in life! Fearful dogs with active defence reflexes might initially try to escape a scary object but quickly change to fight, if escape is not possible. Soon, they learn that attack is successful in removing the scary object and biting soon becomes a routine coping strategy. These dogs can be dangerous and will require an individually tailored behaviour modification programme from a Veterinary Behaviourist to help them overcome their fears and learn better coping strategies.

The Avoider

Many more fearful dogs display passive defence reflexes preferring to avoid or escape their fears rather than actively attack. These dogs are generally safe to handle and there is much you can do to help them. It is essential to use positive reinforcement techniques only when dealing with shy or fearful dogs both for general training and behaviour modification. Training success may take a little longer with a very shy dog whose fear and anxiety levels will affect its ability to learn so patience and understanding are always going to have to play a part in building a shy dogs confidence.

Desensitization and counter conditioning programmes are usually designed individually for dogs with severe levels of anxiety. When exposing a dog to something that frightens them, it is important to start at a very low level of exposure. Reward the dog for coping with this low dose by associating it with something the dog really likes such as games or food. Very slowly, at the individual dogs pace, the scary stimulus is intensified. While some specific fears may never be alleviated - the most common fear in dogs being a fear of thunderstorms -improvements can generally be made.

Other strategies to help develop confidence in a shy fearful dog are:

  • Any type of positive reinforcement training particularly agility training. Agility develops a dogs mind and body, improving co-ordination and co-operation in an atmosphere that most dogs love.
  • Games such as tug, retrieve and find it are great ways to build enthusiasm, fun and success in a shy dog. Be sure to quit with the dog still wanting more.
  • Regular exercise to help relieve stress and provides opportunities for exploration and environmental stimulation.
  • Set a good example- by singing a song or simply acting happy. Your dog will pick up your happy vibes and realize if the leader of the pack isn't worried it must be ok.
  • Try doggy massage such as TTouch massage (Tellington Touch) and cue it with a word such as relax which can then be used to encourage relaxation in different settings.
  • DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) is new on the market but is safe and easy to use and is thought to control and calm dogs exhibiting behavioural stress and fear related signs.
  • Play a CD of sound effects to help with a desensitization programme, while massaging, feeding or playing with your dog. Remember to keep the level down to a non-fear inducing level.
  • Try Bach Flower Remedies such as Rescue Remedy, Aspen and Mimulus. Sometimes a Vitamin B supplement can help - try adding a little Vegemite.

In severe cases, pharmaceutical intervention may be advised by a Veterinary Behaviourist.

A confident dog has learnt to trust you provide safety and security in his life. The Australian Pocket Oxford Dictionary defines 'confidence' as firm trust - pointing once again to the importance of a trusting relationship between man and dog.

Dogs, through decision or circumstance, are tagging along with us on our whirlwind ride through the 21st century. We owe it to each and every one of them to provide them with the environmental enrichment, exposure and education necessary to help them cope with the challenging ride in confidence and joy.

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This article first appeared in Dogs Life July/August 2004 and is reproduced here by kind permission of the author, Karin Larsen Bridge of Get S.M.A.R.T (Successful Motivation And Reward Training) Dogs in Sydney - a dog training school specializing in positive training classes for pet dogs. She is a Delta Accredited Canine Good Citizen (TM) Instructor who writes and lectures frequently on dogs & dog related issues such as positive training methods, behavioural problems & responsible pet ownership.