Knowing how to build a dog’s confidence is vital to good pet parenting. Just like humans, dogs often suffer from low confidence and self-esteem, which can affect their quality of life. Dogs who lack confidence suffer from anxiety, fearfulness, and even aggression. So building their confidence can resolve many behavioral issues.
Having the right equipment to build a dog’s confidence is also essential. This includes a good harness, helpful toys, treats, and puzzle games. Occasionally, we may consider sending a dog away for training with a professional or we may become frustrated and look for ways to train stubborn dogs.
However, that is not always an option for most of us, so we need to know how to increase our dog’s self-esteem.
Here we will look at some of the main points made by Marty Becker in the book From Fearful To Fear Free: A Positive Program To Free Your Dog From Anxiety for how to build confidence in dogs that are fearful, submissive, or even rescue dogs that are struggling to adapt.
So, What is confidence in dogs?
People often confuse behavioral issues like aggression, possessiveness, and reactivity with confidence in dogs. The reality is that a confident dog is neither aggressive nor fearful. They can appropriately handle new situations, other dogs, new people, and new environments.
A good indication of confidence is whether a dog shows that they believe in their own “agency” or ability to handle a situation. They will neither shrink away from a challenge or change in their environment nor react aggressively.
Agency means that a dog believes that they can get what they want. Whether it’s a toy, a treat, or some other reward, a confident dog has a deep sense that if they apply themselves, they can control the outcome. Just like with humans!
Mostly, this is a good thing, but sometimes this kind of confidence can be problematic. For instance, a confident Jack Russell Terrier will happily solve his own problems because he has a sense of agency. Unfortunately, this could mean finding a way out of the yard and into the neighbor’s chicken coop.
Meanwhile, a dog without a sense of agency may not even attempt to escape the yard because it simply never occurs to them that they can.
We use this example to show that while confidence in dogs is a good thing, it’s also important to channel that confidence. Confident dogs are good at solving problems and “winning” and if you don’t give them an outlet for that, they can easily cause mayhem.
What you will most commonly see in a truly confident dog is that they believe in their own ability to achieve their goals.
Confident dogs may be either energetic and boisterous or calm and laid back. In general, a dog’s energy level is not an indication of confidence.
Why do dogs lack confidence?
A dog may lack confidence for many reasons, including a lack of socialization and prior abuse or neglect. However, a major overlooked reason is often bad genetics. In this video, K-9 trainer Haz Othman, shows a very nervous young German Shepherd puppy with no confidence from showing bloodlines.
Compare the puppy in the video above to the puppies in the next video that show no signs of nervousness at 6 weeks old, no matter what they’re faced with. In the second video, you can see puppies naturally bred with a high level of confidence and not frightened by a new environment, strangers, or loud noises.
One thing is true, dogs bred from confident bloodlines are more likely to be naturally confident.
How do I build my dog’s confidence?
We build a dog’s confidence the same way we build a human’s confidence. That is, we give them plenty of opportunities to overcome small and big challenges and provide them with a blueprint for behaving in various situations.
Overcoming obstacles and challenges builds a dog’s self-esteem, and knowing what to do in new situations allows them a sense of security.
But if that seems vague, let’s break it down further.
8 Steps to build a dog’s confidence
1. Socialize your dog thoroughly
The first step to a confident dog is plenty of positive socialization, especially during the puppy’s socialization window of 3 & 12 weeks old. The emphasis is on the word “positive” because if a puppy is exposed to a negative experience, such as being bullied or even bitten by another dog, they will have a much harder time regaining their confidence.
Keep in mind, too, that if you have an older dog at home that is extremely dominant and bullies your puppy, it will damage their self-esteem too. We will touch more on how to build a dog’s confidence with other dogs below.
During the socialization period, the puppy needs to see as much of the world as it is safe for them to do. Of course, socialization classes are vital, but they should also go to any public space that allows dogs, and navigate crowds, stairs, car rides, escalators, and any other potentially intimidating experiences.
That said, some places, like public dog parks, are inappropriate for puppies. Firstly, because of their chance of catching a disease like parvo while their immune system is undeveloped. Secondly, dogs at dog parks are not always well-behaved. They may be aggressive to your puppy, causing fearfulness in the future.
2. Set your dog up to win, always
A major mistake that many dog owners make is to set their dog up for failure by asking too much too soon or by punishing their dogs for natural behaviors. To truly build confidence, your dog needs to be set up to win. Too often, people will put a puppy that is learning to “stay” in position and just walk away. They may then punish their dog for breaking the stay.
This sets a dog up to fail and will break their confidence. We ask them to do something before they fully understand the task. Then we compound the anxiety with a punishment. A dog builds confidence when they “win.” Making tasks as easy and simple as possible, particularly in the beginning, helps them rack up wins.
In the video below, a puppy lacks confidence when retrieving a toy from inside a couple of tires. The trainers first try encouraging it. When this does not entirely work, they simplify the task by removing one of the tires and making it easier. This way, they build their dog’s confidence by always showing them how to win.
3. Play the right games (and monitor how they play with other dogs)
There are plenty of confidence-building games for dogs, but one of the best is a simple game of tug. Encouraging your dog to play tug and letting them win is a great way for them to start believing that they are big and strong (no matter their actual size).
Other great games to play with your dog to build their confidence are all based on your dog’s ability to solve a problem in return for a reward. This includes simple puzzle toys to more advanced games where they learn to search an area for a treat or toy.
Also, keep an eye on their playtime with other dogs. If you have a fearful and submissive dog playing with another dog who asserts themselves and takes away your dog’s toys and other high-value objects, your dog will lose confidence. Ensure that your dog plays with other dogs who match your dog’s energy and meets them with politeness and positive behavior.
4. Reinforce your dogs’ confidence
Never underestimate your ability to build your own dog’s confidence. Make a big fuss of your dog when they navigate a new situation or make even the tiniest show of progress in their training. Reward them with food or toys, but be sure to heap praise on them too. A dog should always receive a lot of positive feedback whenever they do a good job.
Don’t fall into the trap of giving your dog a distracted pat for doing well. Make a fuss and show your enthusiasm. Of course, if the dog is extremely fearful, too much excitement can be overwhelming, so watch your dog for signs of stress, like lip licking and yawning.
5. Give your dog a job or a sport
Most dogs thrive with a job to do. Enroll your dog in a sport like agility or herding, or take obedience lessons. Any activity that channels a dog’s natural instincts can help build confidence. Try to look for sports that align with your dog’s breed, such as herding classes for a Collie or Shepherd or earthdog trials for a smaller Terrier or a Dachshund.
6. Invest in routine and discipline
Dogs who know what to expect in life have more confidence. This means having a consistent routine regarding daily events like exercise or food. However, it also means being consistent with your own rules. If a dog is not allowed on the furniture, do not allow them on sometimes and grow frustrated at other times. Being calm, clear, and consistent builds confidence in dogs.
7. Watch your own confidence
Dogs are emotional sponges that take their cues from their owner. If you are nervous when you see another dog or a stranger approaching, your dog will perceive that you see a threat. This creates a feedback loop of anxiety and nerves between dogs and their owners. The more nervous or stressed the owner is, the more reactive the dog becomes.
Suppose you struggle with your own confidence in handling your dog and a situation. In that case, it’s time to turn to a professional for help with the situation.
8. Get the right dog confidence-building equipment
Puzzle toys and agility equipment at home can help build a dog’s confidence by giving them small challenges that can solve for a reward. Whether it’s learning to hop over a little jump, slip through a tunnel, or solve a puzzle, interactive games with a positive reward builds confidence.
How do I know if my dog lacks confidence?
Low confidence in dogs can take many forms. Still, the most common sign is a dog that grows anxious or aggressive around strangers, dogs, and new situations. Dogs with low confidence do not believe in their own ability to navigate an unexpected situation. This means they grow fearful, anxious, and even aggressive when confronted with a change in their environment.
You will often see the following behavior in dogs with low confidence:
- Lunging, barking or reactivity on the leash
- Poor social skills with other dogs
- Avoiding strangers, often nipping or snapping if strangers try to touch them
- Separation anxiety or an inability to be alone at home
- Avoiding people or other animals
- Fearful body language such as a tucked tail
- Extreme submissiveness, such as peeing when touched
- Reactivity, or a tendency to lash out when they feel threatened.
How to build a dog’s confidence with strangers
Building confidence with strangers should be a gradual process. Do not flood a fearful dog with tons of people or people who get in a fearful dog’s space and shower them with affection before the dog is comfortable. Rather, give your dog a safe space they are familiar with, and ask a trusted person to enter a room and ignore the dog. Make sure the dog can leave.
When the dog becomes comfortable with one new person, you ask more people to come over. Remember, if the dog is not interested in being petted, ask people not to pet or fuss over them.
How to build a dog’s confidence with other dogs
If a dog is fearful around other dogs or lacks good social skills, it’s vital to be careful. Flooding a dog that is not secure around other dogs with an overwhelming experience like going to the dog park will likely end in catastrophe.
A dog that lacks confidence around other dogs is unlikely to be polite and engage in good etiquette like sniffing butts. They may snap, nip, or run from other dogs or be extremely aggressive while on the leash. All of this can create a domino effect that can lead to a dogfight and more experiences that make the insecurity worse.
To build a dog’s confidence with other dogs, you need to use these principles:
Suppose the other dogs are too excited, playful, or do not have exceptional social skills. In that case, they will likely overwhelm a socially awkward pup. Ensure your dog only interacts with your area’s most balanced, calm, and stable dogs. Another dog that is calm and confident is sometimes the best teacher. But this only works if the other dog is reliable, steady, and confident in itself.
2. Get professional help
Whether you are socializing a fearful puppy or helping an older dog that doesn’t trust other dogs, this is not a problem most people can handle alone. A good trainer and behaviorist should be able to assess your dog’s confidence issue and be aware of problems they may face when meeting other dogs. Trusted professionals are also the best suited to finding suitable other dogs to introduce to your dog to help them gain confidence.
Confidence building is one of the most overlooked aspects of pet care. While some dogs are born confident, many are not nervous, fearful, or aggressive. Confident dogs feel secure in their ability to handle strangers, other dogs, and changes in their environment.
Setting our dogs up to win, giving them plenty of socialization, and improving their sense of agency help make our dogs more secure and confident.
Tamsin De La HarpeAuthor
Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions.
Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.
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