The world is full of strange and weird things and it is amazing that some dogs seem to cope with everything they encounter whereas other dogs appear to fear their entire environment. So how can we help dogs to become bolder and more confident?
If a dog is constantly anxious and fearful then professional help should be sought from either an animal behaviourist or a veterinary surgeon, as deep-seated emotional problems require expert help. However, there are some simple exercises that owners can use to build confidence in their dogs.
The focus should be on games and other exercises that your dog finds exciting and enjoyable. Starting these off in a calm and relaxed environment before embarking on facing the world is important and establishes a rapport and positive relationship between you and your dog and ensures that your dog knows that he can rely on you in scary circumstances. The aim is to provide positive experiences and change his emotional response by getting him to do something he loves doing when things get scary.
There is a myth that comforting a fearful dog will reinforce his fear. Absolutely not!! If your dog is overwhelmed by a situation and is cowering and trembling, he needs to know that you will be there for him and keep him safe so don’t be afraid to cuddle him.
- Try to introduce your dog to unfamiliar things every week. Do this at home where your dog feels relaxed and comfortable. You could place several objects around your dog. These could be anything from new toys to a skateboard, a tin tray, a gym ball. Be inventive, but make sure you don’t overwhelm your dog. When your dog approaches one of the unfamiliar objects reward him with a treat. This will teach your dog that strange things have positive outcomes and he will feel more confident when experiencing new environments and stimuli. You can develop this further by getting your dog used to negotiating different surfaces such as bubble wrap, large bin bags, a child’s play tunnel or walking over a ladder on the ground. All these things will boost your dog’s courage.
- Take your dog to agility training. It doesn’t have to be competitive but learning how to cross a seesaw, run over an A frame and weave through poles will give your dog the ability to feel more confident.
- General obedience exercises should also be part of your courage boosting plan. Through positive reinforcement training your dog will enjoy learning when to sit, lie down, and come when called. Providing your dog with the knowledge that sitting when asked has a positive outcome (and makes him feel good) means that in a scary situation asking your dog to sit will relieve tension and replace his negative feelings with more positive ones.
- Play games, teach your dog some tricks, find all the things your dog enjoys doing. Use these activities, toys and games to help him relax and love playing in new environments and situations. You could teach your dog to nose bump your hand for a treat. Once you have got him to nose bump when asked you can use this exercise to change his focus from something scary and make him relax.
- A useful game is to teach your dog to find treats you throw on the ground. This is a great searching game and allows your dog to disengage from the scary thing approaching and do something he enjoys. You can always ask him to find more treats if you need to.
- Sometimes you may need a contingency plan if the situation is just too much for your dog to cope with. Teach your dog to ‘run away’. This is an escape strategy but should always be under your control. Begin this exercise in a calm and familiar environment. With your dog on a lead, on the signal ‘run away’ turn around, and throw some treats over your dog’s head in the direction you have just come from. This will teach your dog that running away is a fun thing to do and ensures that whenever there is something scary, he has an escape route and you will be with him to reassure him. Another good plan is to teach your dog to go behind you. By doing so you will be able to provide a shield from whatever your dog is fearful of and he will feel more secure.
- Finally, there are several techniques which can be used to help a dog become more confident. However, these should only be used under the supervision of a qualified behaviourist.
- CAT – Constructional Aggression Treatment. This technique is based on the dog changing his response/behaviour when a scary object/person appears and by doing so the scary stimulus retreats.
- BAT – Behavioural Adjustment Training. This technique is based on the dog changing his response/behaviour when a scary object/person appears and that by doing so he can retreat.
- LAT – “Look at That”. This technique is based on teaching the dog to look at the scary object/person and by looking he receives a treat/toy in order to replace his negative association with a positive one.
Teaching a dog to become more confident is a lengthy process but is one of the most rewarding things for an owner to embark on. Seeing your dog become relaxed in previously difficult situations and environments is one of the best feelings you can have. Good Luck!!