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There are a lot of myths out there about dogs, and one of the most enduring is the idea that every canine is either dominant or submissive. In fact, this old story was developed from observing wolves, not domesticated dogs.
More modern theories of dog behavior help us understand that a canine can exhibit dominant or submissive behavior depending on the situation but, just like people, the emotional lives of dogs are far more complicated than this simple black and white picture.
Instead of using dominance or submission to judge a mentally fit dog, professional trainers focus on building a confident dog. Confident dogs are less likely to exhibit fear-based aggression, tend to get along better with other dogs, and approach new situations with a positive attitude.
Read on to find out more about how to help your dog become more confident!
Giving your dog confidence is one of the most important behavior traits that you can possibly give them! When canines are insecure, they can easily be pushed into “fight or flight” mode. This means they perceive threats that aren’t even there, and may bite or growl in self-defense or run into oncoming traffic in a panic.
A confident dog has a higher threshold before they will behave defensively. This means you have a safer and happier dog!
The length of time it takes to teach confidence depends on many factors, most notably, your individual companion’s history. If your dog tends to be fearful already, then the process will take a little longer. Be patient and look for opportunities to reward your pup for calm, curious and confident behavior and you will start to see results within a week to a month in most cases.
Confidence is important for all life stages. However, there are different aspects to focus on for puppies, adults and dogs that are already insecure from abuse, neglect or trauma. We will offer three different methods for building confidence so that all your bases are covered!
Training your dog to be confident is an ongoing and continuous process. It is a way of interacting with your dog that teaches them that the world is a safe place, as long as they follow basic manners.
Identify some things your dog loves, such as:
• A game of toss
• A small food reward
• Tug games
Once you know what they love, you are ready to look for opportunities to let them know they are a good dog. Good behavior does not need to always be commanded. Sometimes it is great to just notice that your canine is offering up a great 'sit' and make a big deal out of it. Who doesn’t love some unexpected praise?
Below are some more tips for how to train your dog to be confident, depending on their life stage and insecurity level.
The Confident Puppy Method
Sign up for a basic manners puppy training class that uses positive training methods. There you will learn how to focus on reinforcement to shape your dog’s behavior. By teaching them what to do right, you will avoid most punishment. This gives your growing puppy confidence that they are safe in the world. It also makes punishment count more when it is appropriate, such as in cases of safety or to “proof” already learned behaviors.
Socialize your puppy early and often. Giving your puppy a chance to play with other puppies, once their first round of immunizations is complete, lets them learn vital doggy language so that they can play safely with other dogs. This will help them learn that playing with other dogs is something to look forward to and enjoy.
Take your puppy with you as many places as you can. Bring your treat bag mixed with some of their regular kibble and reward them whenever they give great behavior like not jumping, not barking, or walking well on the leash.
Give treats to people that want to pet your puppy as well. Encourage them to wait for a 'sit', or other appropriate behavior, before dispensing treats or praise. This teaches your pup that new places and people are nothing to fear.
Play tug-of-war with your puppy, and let them win often. This builds confidence, not dominance. It teaches your puppy that you are lots of fun and a great playmate!
The Confident Adult Dogs Method
Look for opportunities to reward and praise your dog when they are doing things that you love. Just like people, dogs like to be validated for doing things that make their loved ones happy.
Avoid punishment at all costs. If you find yourself yelling at your dog over and over for the same thing, then you have failed to teach them an appropriate alternative behavior. Before using punishment, make sure your canine knows the “right” thing to do.
Try taking away good things for problem behavior instead of direct punishment. For example, stop petting them when they jump, give them a “time out” if you catch them chewing on furniture, or end a training session if they are distracted.
Find a game that your dog loves to play, and play it often. Examples include tug of war, fetch or hide and seek. Let your canine win the game and keep things fun and exciting for best results.
Learn positive training methods, such as those offered in the many Wag! training guides. If you make a little time every day for a few short, 10 to 15-minute training sessions, you will be amazed how much confidence your dog will find!
The Insecure Dogs Method
Observe your dog and take careful note of both when they seem comfortable and when they seem anxious. Make note of both the positive and negative triggers.
Make sure that the things your insecure dog loves are happening more than the negative triggers. Reward and praise your dog when they are calm, relaxed or pleasantly playful.
For negative triggers, try exposing your dog to them indirectly and distracting them with something they really love. For example, if your canine companion is nervous around the vacuum cleaner, try having the vacuum cleaner out of the closet and in the corner and turned off while distracting your pup with a game of tug-of-war that they enjoy. This can build a new association with the negative trigger. If your canine freaks out, then you have “over-exposed” them. Try again another day from a longer distance away.
Keep it positive
Avoid rewarding negative emotional states. If your dog gets whiny, pees on the floor, or exhibits other kinds of fear and insecurity, be sure to never reward that with attention. It may seem counter-intuitive, but unless your dog is experiencing real trauma, reassuring them for being afraid of nothing is simply reinforcing that negative reaction.
Know when it is time to consult a professional animal behaviorist. Insecure dogs can be dangerous. If your dog has expressed aggression to other people or dogs, it is too important to ignore. Consult a professional that uses positive training methods right away.
By Sharon Elber
Published: 12/29/2017, edited: 01/08/2021