Trainer and behaviourist Jackie Drakeford shares 10 useful tips on how to help your dog be happy, calm, and confident.
Have you ever spotted a dog trotting along on a loose lead? Every now and then he looks up at his owner, who is so ‘together’ with him that she always returns his eye contact. This is a dog who goes past noisy traffic, family groups, and any number of dogs, without feeling challenged or threatened, because he knows his owner will keep him safe. If necessary, she will step between her dog and anything that might upset him, deftly bar the approach of the toddler who in all innocence just wants to make a new friend, or cross the road well ahead of the dustcart so her dog’s sensitive hearing isn’t hurt. We can all be this person, and I’m sure many of you already are. But, dogs and owners alike, few of us started out this way.
Just like us, some dogs are born confident, while others are naturally shy. Life experiences can alter either attitude, so you need to know how you can help the bold dogs stay that way without getting themselves into trouble, and enhance the courage of those who find the world worrying. Some breeds are naturally more confident or sensitive than others, and you cannot install whatever is not part of the breed bias, so what can you do to make the most of what is inborn?
1. Choose your litter carefully. Good breeders go to endless trouble to familiarise their puppies with the outside world, giving them rides in the car, going to the vet’s to meet friendly staff as a separate exercise from their vaccination visits, meeting different ages and types of visitor, getting them used to radio and television sounds, and playing on different surfaces indoors and out. You can continue that good work by giving your puppy short, happy experiences whenever possible. Your presence is supportive, and your puppy should see you as a protector and best friend.
2. If you are taking on an older dog who may already have had bad experiences, the approach is the same but you have to go more slowly. First, your dog has to learn to trust you, then trust in your support and protection. The first stage can take a long time, especially if the dog is a very sensitive breed type. There are natural developmental fear stages, which are biological and can’t be avoided. They exist to prevent growing pups from becoming too adventurous and getting themselves into situations they are too young to handle.
If a dog has suffered trauma during one of these phases, he may always be nervous in those specific circumstances, and you should respect that. Trying to jolly him out of fear merely confirms to him that you don’t know how risky something is, and you can lose your dog’s trust, rather than gain it. However, acknowledging his concern and immediately taking him out of that environment will grow his confidence. You may not have to do much; it is often sufficient to step between your dog and the item or creature he fears, or walk a short distance away, even turning back if you are on a narrow path. Do whatever it takes to create confidence in your dog that you have the ability to deal with whatever he thinks is about to happen, or happened once, never to be forgotten.
3. Different types of dogs show a lack of confidence in different ways; the one who pulls towards something, hackles up and barking, may be just as fearful as the one who cringes and dives behind your legs. Your response has to be the same with either — you go a suitable distance away as soon as your dog looks worried, and keep your body between your dog and the item he fears. There is no need to use your voice at all, because that just adds pressure. Stand tall, make yourself big, and act with confidence, even if you are short and small like me. Dogs are natural assessors of body language, and there are times when they much prefer it to speech. ‘I’ll deal with it’ is the best message you can give them if they are uncertain or afraid.
4. Trying something new in training or activities is eagerly enjoyed by most dogs, but some will hang back in unfamiliar situations, especially training classes full of strange dogs and people, maybe with an echo if indoors. Good trainers will see this at once, and allow both of you to watch from a distance, close enough to see what’s going on, not so close as to be overwhelmed by the strangeness of it all. Watch the other dogs to see if some are eyeballing others in a threatening manner, and if so, keep out of their line of sight or break it by positioning your dog to the far side of you. Your body is such a useful training aid — you always have it with you no matter what else you forget!
5. Are you a good explainer? You can’t tell your dog what you would like from him in conversations, but you can make it easy for him to understand, by breaking down tasks into small parts and then chaining them together into a sequence. Reward each response you want, and make sure you use rewards your dog really enjoys, which may not always be obvious to you. Always end on a good note, even if it means going back to a previous exercise that your dog understands well.
6. Be ahead of those situations that might fret your dog. Someone up a ladder, or half a someone (because the other half is unseen while they are working on a hedge or down a ditch) might be every day for us, but can be worrying for some dogs. Similarly, unpleasant noises or a strange smell are more upsetting to a dog’s fine senses than to yours — and you may well disagree about the pleasantness of some noises or smells! Always be aware of your dog’s reactions, because he will let you know when he is anxious about something long before he comes right up to it. A dog who gets a helpful response when he first asks for reassurance builds his confidence in you so much more than those you might unwittingly propel into a tricky situation before you do something about it. Be aware, read your dog, read your surroundings, stay alert. He will love you for it.
7. Make it clear what you want from your dog. We all have difficult days that seem to be one problem after another, and so often it seems those are the times when your dog plays up. Natural though it is to be impatient with your dog when he doesn’t do what you want, understand that he is anxious about your mood. Dogs pick up on your feelings very quickly, and if you are being negative, no matter how justified you think those feelings are, your dog will feel insecure. He doesn’t know what to do, and will sometimes choose the wrong reaction. So, take a deep breath, soften your thoughts, show him what you require from him, and reward him as soon as he tries to comply, even if he doesn’t get it quite right.
8. Celebrate small successes. Did he just go straight past that dog who was misbehaving? You kept him safe by moving him to the other side of you, so once the hazard is past, make a great fuss of him and offer several treats. If he knows how well he has done, it’s a real confidence boost for you both.
9. Always believe what your dog is telling you. People sometimes genuinely think that their rowdy dog is “friendly” and “only wants to play”, which is too often followed by “he’s never done that before” or “it’s your dog’s fault” and these are not conversations you need to get involved with. Swap sides, smile, keep walking.
10. Confident owners build confident dogs, but we can’t help being the personalities we are any more than our dogs can. If you work on building your own confidence, it will help your dog feel confident too. Be kind to yourself and do not set impossible tasks. It’s perfectly fine to avoid places or times that off er too much challenge.