How to raise a confident dog Part 2


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 then 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.
  • 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 Trainer’s 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.
  • An enhanced, positive association with learning and the learning environment .
  • Increased confidence fuelled 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.

Consistent Routines = Confident Dogs

Perhaps even more important then  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 effecting the dogs 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 trait
  • a physical problem such as reduced vision, deafness or pain.
  • lack of early exposure/socialisation to the world the dog will eventually occupy i.e. 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 then 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 effect it’s ability to learn so patience and understanding are always going to have to  play a part  in building a shy dog’s 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 with toys or food.    Very slowly, at the individual dog’s 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 dog’s 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

– to 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.

Article courtesy of Karin Larsen Bridge, partner of Get S.M.A.R.T. Dog Training, Sydney.
You can also follow this and other articles at my publishing site publishing site.

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