Confidence Building in Dogs

We get asked often at our training facility, Canine Einstein, "how do I help my dog feel more confident?"  This is a great question, but it is also a complex question.  Every dog can benefit from confidence boosting, but not every dog will get there the same way.

What we know is that confidence is important for every dog.  Confidence helps to reduce reactivity, decreases stress and anxiety, promotes an overall wellness and helps our dogs have more fulfilling lives.  Think about the different issues some dogs have and how confidence building can help them:

  • Shy or Nervous Dogs:  there is a difference between a dog being introverted (or needing a smaller social circle) and being shy or nervous.  Shy and nervous dogs are often suffering from a lack of confidence, therefore confidence building may decrease the nervousness and help the dog tolerate meeting new people or dogs better.
  • Fearful Dogs: Like our nervous pups, many fearful dogs lack confidence or a feeling of security. Confidence building helps them feel not so afraid of the world
  • Reactive Dogs: many dogs who are reactive to dogs or people are so, not because they are aggressive, but because they are insecure and not confident.  They are unsure how to handle the feelings they are experiencing. Confidence building helps with reactivity by helping dogs learn to cope with the feelings they are having and reducing the stress, fear and anxiety.
  • Younger dogs: younger dogs are learning about their world and learning to navigate it- confidence building in these dogs helps them have experiences that are positive in nature.
  • Senior dogs: As our dogs age, their vision, hearing and overall health may decline.  This can lead to an increase in anxiety and stress.  Helping our dogs feel more confident, allows senior dogs more time to enjoy the time they have with us and to be able to relax- many confidence building activities, even help with physical or cognitive declines often associated with aging.


Before we get started:

Before we talk about confidence building in dogs, I want to cover a few very important items.  The first is that you cannot reinforce fear in your dogs, the second is the difference between safety and security and the third is the importance of building resilience for your dog.  These points are key if we are to do any serious work in building our dogs confidence.


You Cannot Reinforce Fear in your dog

Fear is an emotion, we cannot reinforce an emotion in our dogs.  We can reinforce how they cope with or deal with that emotion, we can influence how they experience a situation and help them have different emotions, but you absolutely cannot make a dog more fearful but supporting them through a stressful situation, anymore that supporting a child makes them more fearful.

Our dogs sometimes need us for support and encouragement.  It is not wrong to comfort them, show them that they can navigate a scary situation or even helping them by removing them from the situation.  For example, if you have a dog who has never been on a pier that moves, they may become afraid and want to leave the pier.  Instead of forcing them to face it and "work through it", it is much better if we and encourage them by stepping one foot on the pier and offering praise and a treat, then waiting until the dog is ready to move forward.  When they are- praise them and support them to move at their pace.  This teaches the dog to develop the skills to work through fear and enhances their trust in you.



Safety vs Security

Let me take a moment to discuss the difference between two very important concepts that our clients often get confused, and rightly so as they can be very similar!  Safety and security.

Safety is being free from harm or threat of harm or injury.  The harm or threat of harm can be physical, social or emotional.  When we think of safety, we think of dogs having enough food, a safe place to sleep, and dogs who have their medical needs met. I also include in safety, dogs that have the ability to live and learn without fear or the threat of being physically and psychologically harmed by use of outdated aversive like shock collars and prong collars.

Security is feeling free from harm or threat of harm.  Where the confusion comes in is when pet parents say to me, "I provide a good home to Fido and all of his needs are met, he is safe, but he is still anxious".  Many of us know that we provide a life for our pets that will keep them safe, but only our dogs can tell us if they are secure.  If they do not have a feeling of security, they will experience some degree of stress, anxiety or fear.

When we work with our dogs, we want to keep them safe and build a sense of security in them!  I saw a clear example of security this past weekend when teaching puppy class.  We have a puppy in class that is much younger than the rest, and is more shy.  He was nervous playing with the other dogs, but his dad worked on mat work with him and advocated that no dog approach the puppy when he was on his mat.  Since the other pet owners were diligent with their dogs and dad did a phenomenal job providing a safe space, his puppy would come out to play with the other dogs.  When he got overwhelmed, the puppy would quickly run to his mat!  Talk about security!

Our job is to help all of our dogs feel secure in the world- this can mean different things for different dogs, but generally speaking, we want our dogs to know they are safe from harm.

Resiliency is key to building confidence in dogs

Resiliency is your dogs ability to recover from adversity.  There are several components to building resiliency, and that topic is for another blog post, but here is a beautiful article written by Dr Kathy Murphy and Bobbi Bhambree that discusses all 7 domains of building resiliency.

Our dogs will have moments of stress or adversity, all living beings do.  The best thing we can do is help them build their resiliency and thereby, help build their confidence.  After all, it takes some confidence to recover from a stressful or anxiety producing events.

Many of the activities we discuss later in this post will help build resiliency, but as pet parents, it's important that we keep this on our minds and learn how to help each individual dog!

World watching is a great way to build towards what trainers call "neutrality", which helps with resiliency.  World watching is letting your dog observe the world and activities at a distance where they feel safe and secure, and letting them process what they are seeing without pressure from us to interact.  It can be a real game changer for nervous, fearful and reactive dogs, but I also use it with my overactive, over friendly, dogs!

Keys to Building Confidence in Dogs

There are many things we can to help build confidence in our dogs, but today we are going to talk about the five easiest and most common ways to build confidence.  Remember that each dog is different and what works for one dog may, or may not, work for another dog. The key is try new things and try them a few times.  Sometimes, it takes a little practice for our dogs to decide if they enjoy something or not.

Learning New Things

When our dogs learn new skills, like a new trick, it builds their confidence.  Trying new things and experiencing success is a sure fire way to build confidence in our dogs, and there are so many things to try with them!

Popular items are things like scent work, new puzzles, agility, lure coursing, learning new tricks and skills.  All of these build confidence if you teach them in a way that is positive and sets your dog up for success.  In particular, things like Doggy parkour and scent work are great because they have added benefits like helping our dogs proprioception and calming them through sniffing!

Dog Training

Problem Solving

Like us, dogs feel more confident when they are able to problem solve.  Far too often in our dogs lives, we solve every problem for them.  We tell them when and what to eat, we put it in a bowl at their feet, we tell them when to play, when to sleep and when to go potty.  If our dogs roll their ball under the sofa, how many of us get it for them?

It is important to let our dogs problem solve and work through some of these issues- especially if they are safe in doing so.  Let your dog experience a little frustration and try to figure out the problem. The more successful they are, the more confidence they build and the more they will try to solve other issues they encounter!

Problem solving can also be things like puzzles, or food dispensing toys.  These require different approaches to get the treats out and require our dogs to think more.

Watch this video from our sister company, Canine Einstein, using a ball pit built to sit on top of a wobble board. The fact that the dogs need to problem solve how to get the treats out of the ball pit- with balance and snuffling- creates a more confident dog!


World Watching

World watching is an exercise that allows your dog to watch things that may make them nervous, but at a distance that they feel safe and secure at.  It helps build confidence because it allows your dog to learn about the world in a way that is not stressful or scary for them.

Start by sitting on the ground with your dog in a location that your dog can see other dogs, people, cars, etc.  Be sure to be far enough away that your dog is able to settle and relax.  Then just watch the world with them!  When your dog notices something (like another dog in the distance) offer them a treat and praise.  Keep it calm and relaxed. As your dog is able to experience the world without the pressure of interactions, they build confidence.


small dog world watching to build confidence

Using Games and Play

When we work with reactive dogs, one of the first things we do is help them build confidence by teaching them easy and fun pattern games.  These games work to build engagement and confidence in a few ways.

Dogs love predictability.  Pattern games give them the needed predictability, even in new environments.  When they know what to expect and how to succeed, dogs naturally feel more confident.  They are able to navigate new situations because the rules of the games do not change.

The games also help dogs move their bodies through space.  We teach "Spot" where a dog puts two feet up on something. Dogs learn to move their bodies, build awareness of their bodies and confidence! Once dogs learn to move their bodies in space and through the environment, it becomes fun for them to try new things- which in turn, builds confidence!

Play is also key to building confidence in dogs.  when they play, with us or with other dogs, they learn important social skills and how to interact with others.  As our dogs become more adept at social interactions, they grow in confidence.

This does not mean that all dogs should have a lot of dog friends.  Dogs are like us, some are very social and some are more introverted and want a very small circle.  If your dog is stressed with an interaction, stop and remove them.  Confidence is not built because they are forced to endure a stressful situation.  Play is meant to be fun for your dog.

black dog with front paws on a tree showing how games work

Advocate for your Dog

Our biggest tip is to advocate for your dog.  When your dog learns that you are there with them, have their back and will protect them, the are able to relax when triggers are present.  They develop a confidence that you will be there and will help them navigate what is going on.

When they learn that, their confidence grows, just like when a child trusts that their parents will catch them if they jump off the side of a pool into water.  the child is confident because they know their parents love them and want what is best for them- that trust builds confidence!  The same is true for our dogs!

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