Is your dog the nervous sort? Perhaps he doesn’t get along well with other dogs, or he cowers and pees when new people come over. Maybe he hides at the vet. Even a nervous dog can become a more confident dog with a little time, training, patience, and love.
A confident dog is a dog who is sound in mind and never asserts himself unless he’s being threatened.
Let’s talk about a Service Dog for a moment. One of the most important distinctions between a Service Dog and your dog is that the pup was taken into many different kinds of situations, environments, trained in obedience and properly socialized early with people, friendly dogs/puppies, other species and handled properly from the time the pup was 8 wks old until the pup turned between 2-3 years of age which is the age of maturity for dogs. The first 2 years of a puppy’s life are the years in which we as puppy owners can build and instill confidence in our babies. Just because you’re not raising a Service Dog doesn’t mean that your puppy doesn’t need early socialization. All puppies benefit from this. Not doing so can be detrimental.
Identifying a nervous Dog versus a confident Dog
Body language is key to identifying if your dog may be nervous. A nervous dog may show several signs. This includes a stiff body, raised hackles on the back or his tail held low. You may see his ears pinned back or pricked stiffly forward. He may show the whites of his eyes or bare his teeth in a “C” shape, pant heavily, or even give a low growl. These are all signs your dog is not comfortable with the situation.
In contrast, a confident dog may show different body language. He may have his tail level or in the air, with a relaxed body. His ears may be alert, but not stiffly pinned back or forward. He may have his mouth hang open loosely, rather than in a tight grin or growl. Confident, happy dogs tend to have loose and wiggly bodies.
Boosting confidence of your Dog through Experience
You can boost your dog’s confidence, but it does take time. Exposure to new things through socialization and experience can help your dog gain confidence. While this is most easily done in puppies under 16 weeks of age while they are still in the prime socialization window, any dog can benefit from constant exposure to new things.
Bringing along treats to a new situation can help. For example, if your dog is nervous at the vet, bring him when you don’t have a pressing need to. Offer treats in the lobby, see if you can spend some time chatting with the vet or a tech, and give lots of treats in an exam room. Constant, positive experiences are great for boosting confidence.
Go for rides in the car often and to fun places. Start with short trips to fun places, like his new best puppy playmate. Bring your dog with you whenever you can and introduce her to 100 faces/places in 100 days, moving slowly paying attention to her body language so you know if she’s becoming stressed or enjoying herself.
If you see your dog becoming too nervous, or they appear to be very stressed out, take a break. Taking a break and leaving the situation can help keep your dog from becoming too stressed and making the situation worse.
Boost confidence of your Dog through Training
Some dogs may benefit from a structured training class. This is a great way to boost the confidence of nervous dogs by giving them a positive, structured environment to interact in. You can also use training as a way to set rules that can help your dog learn routines and be less fearful.
In some cases, the situation making your dog nervous may be dangerous to yourself or other pets. At these times, seeking the help of a professional trainer in private lessons, or with a behaviorist is best. Reward-based trainers can tailor a safe and effective plan for gradually introducing and desensitizing your dog to these events. They can monitor at all times to ensure your dog and anyone around stays safe.
Teach games: fetch, tug-o-war, hide and seek. In teaching these games you are teaching these cues as well: Get It, Drop It, Ready, Hold, Wait, Find It and much more. Games are also great teaching/training sessions that help build confidence as well.
Whether your dog is shy around new people, fearful of the vet, or just needs some extra help; time, training, and patience are beneficial. Even a nervous dog can become a more confident dog with the right tools and techniques. If you are unsure of where to start, speaking with your trainer about public or private classes is best. Many even often classes specifically designed for confidence building.
Get the Dog Decoder app from Jill Breitner, to help you help your pup. It’s available in iTunes and Google play.
Image from Dog Decoder smartphone app. Illustration by Lili Chin of Doggie Drawings.