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09/28/2020

Confidence in Dogs

Do you remember when you first brought your puppy home? Maybe it wasn’t a puppy, but rather a newly adopted…

Do you remember when you first brought your puppy home? Maybe it wasn’t a puppy, but rather a newly adopted adult dog. I remember Jesse’s facial expressions as he first encountered his new surroundings. That look of uncertainty, the way he hesitated to move away from the comfort of my arms, and how he was reluctant to explore new things. It pulled at my heartstrings to see this sweet dog so unsure, maybe even fearful of his new world. With all the preparations we had made for the new family member – new toys, new beds – I guess I expected him to bounce in and prop his little feet up and grab the remote! Instead, he was timid and apprehensive. I couldn’t wait to see that spark of confidence and assuredness in his eyes that comes from knowing that he is safe and “home”.

Signs of an insecure dog

A dog that lacks confidence has a certain “look” about them, don’t they? You can tell they are uncomfortable. We witness so many different dog personalities visiting Holiday Barn Pet Resorts, from shy to rambunctious. You can really tell the difference when you are greeting guests at the front desk. There are those sweet pups that cower and whimper – maybe even turn to run away – when they enter the lobby. They are afraid to face a new experience. And then you see the opposite reaction, the dogs that bound into the lobby, greet everyone, and excitedly seize the new adventure!

Just like people, some dogs are genetically born with a timid personality, while others are ready to take on the world. Have you ever watched a group of puppies playing? You will clearly be able to distinguish the timid pups from their bolder siblings. We chose two puppies from a litter one time… I chose the little guy who immediately came to me, forcing himself in front of the other pups as if to say, “I’m going home with you!”. And he was right. My husband chose the sweet, timid girl… the tiniest one of the bunch. All their lives, the male dog was in-charge. The female happily followed her brother, doing whatever he wanted to do. Without him, she was hesitant and indecisive.

If a dog is not born with a timid personality, they may have had experiences in life that caused them to be uncertain or fearful. These emotions can manifest themselves in many ways. Some dogs will turn their head away and hunker down to avoid situations that cause them to be uncomfortable. Others lash out by barking, showing their teeth, or lunging at whatever it is that they are scared of. Or, like our little timid girl puppy, maybe they are afraid to think for themselves. And some put up their best façade… You can sense their discomfort in a situation, but they try real hard to look stoic. Bless their hearts.

Puppy socialization period

There is a period of time during puppyhood that is known as the “socialization period”. It is the period when the puppy acclimates himself to the world, learning what is safe and unsafe, acceptable and unacceptable. It is important that the puppy has positive associations during this time. Sometimes something unfortunate will happen during this period that negatively affects the puppy’s psyche. As a result, they may become nervous and uncertain for the rest of their life, particularly as it relates to whatever it is that frightened them. Did the negative incident happen during an introduction to a person? Then the puppy may be afraid to meet new people. Was it during playtime with another puppy? Then the puppy may be afraid to interact with other dogs. Was it while he was eating? Then the puppy could develop a fear of food bowls, eating, or drinking.

An overly shy or fearful dog needs help, otherwise, they will spend their whole life nervous and insecure. Even positive situations, like a walk in the park, will cause emotional distress. Wouldn’t that be a miserable way to live? The good news is that you can help your sweet dog become more confident so that they can enjoy life more abundantly. Isn’t that what we all want for our dog?

Building confidence in dogs through obedience training

Zoey was a 3-year-old rescue that had a great deal of anxiety. While in the home, Zoey was calm, but when her owner would take her outside, she was afraid of everything. Her owners got to the point to where the only time they took Zoey outside was for bathroom breaks. Zoey’s Mom contacted our Midlothian Professional Dog Trainer, Dickie Martinson. Dickie worked with Zoey for two weeks, desensitizing her to everything she was afraid of. Zoey’s owner was overwhelmed with disbelief at how Dickie was able to gently help her overcome her fears. After a couple more weeks of reinforcing Zoey’s desired behaviors, exposing her and desensitizing her to additional stimuli, Zoey’s confidence grew. Even her body language changed! Now Zoey stands by the door and wags her tail whenever it’s time to go outside. She is no longer afraid but is confident, and happy.

Dickie used desensitization and counterconditioning exercises to help Zoey conquer her fears and establish a new behavioral response to whatever she was afraid of. When exposed to a fearful circumstance, Dickie helped Zoey focus on him and on his instructions, whether it be a down-stay, sit, or some other command. This helped “re-train” her brain and eliminate the fear.

In addition to working with a dog to overcome their fears, obedience training is important. Obedience training creates an understanding between you and your dog. You develop a language so that you can communicate with one another. When your dog faces a scary situation, or life gets confusing, he can look to you for guidance. It builds his confidence to know he can depend on you for direction and assurance.

What does confidence look like in your dog?

Remember those dogs that come bounding excitedly into the lobbies at Holiday Barn Pet Resorts? They’re wide-open, ready for anything. That’s confidence. These dogs are living life to its fullest, and it shows.

Confident dogs are alert and in-tune with their environment. Their tails are usually lifted or neutral. They’re relaxed. Confident dogs are devoted to their human, but not afraid to step away and explore, or give someone else some attention. They are outgoing, and adaptable in nearly every situation. Confident dogs are easier to train because of their lack of fear and their desire to please. They generally have a good energy level because they always ready and willing. Confident dogs trust their instincts and are friendly towards strangers. And often, they’re so very charming.

Confident dogs need a strong leader. Without firm leadership, these dogs are happy to take over. When untrained or unsocialized, they can become problem dogs. They can be a bit stubborn, and, as Dickie says about his own pups, “arrogant and cocky”. Dickie says his dogs can easily get themselves hurt due to over-confidence. While a confident dog is preferable, they definitely need management and structure.

How you can help build confidence in an insecure dog

First of all, talk to the Professional Dog Trainers at Holiday Barn Pet Resorts. Let them know what you have observed and discuss your dog’s specific fears, if known. Then enroll them in our Dog Training Program so that they can learn obedience as well as overcome their phobias. Add some Enrichment exercises during their stay to keep them focused and usher them towards even more successful outcomes.

Secondly, you can work with your dog at home. Teach your dog new tricks so that they can be proud of their accomplishments. Provide them with some puzzles so that they can be successful in solving them. Never force them into situations they are not comfortable in or punish them for being afraid. Try to identify their triggers, and manage their environment if at all possible, to reduce that fear. For example, maybe you have identified that your dog runs anytime the microwave beeps. To manage, stop the microwave just before it beeps. Leave the desensitization process to the professional dog trainer, because if done incorrectly, it can backfire, resulting in further fear and confusion.

Spend quality time with your dog every day so that they continue to evolve. It would be a mistake to take them to a point where they are adapting and emerging from their “shell” – and then just stop working with them. It’s an ongoing, lifelong process. Dickie says the best thing you can do to help your dog become more confident is to have more wins than losses and give them lots of praise. The more “wins” your dog has, the more enthusiastic they will be to experience new things.

Give our Professional Dog Trainers a call. In Glen Allen, the number is (804)672-2200. In Midlothian, the number is (804)794-5400.

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