How to boost a dog's confidence?

Last updated 13:28 13/10/2011

How do you build a shaky dog's confidence? My partner and I have wrestled with that question for two years, and I've blogged about the stages that troubled little Connor has gone through. Reader Katie is going through some similar problems right now with a new dog, and she sent me her story.


Kaylee and Piglet walk"Your recent blog about Calm Assertive Energy got me reading Cesar Millan's website and books trying to find a way to help our new furbaby - Kaylee the chihuahua. I know you aren't a help column but I have to ask for advice from someone. Since you own two small dogs as well, not big "real" dogs like a lot of dog trainers seem to [Don't let Connor and Phoebe hear that - NB], I figured you would be more likely to understand the situation and recommend some ideas.

"We already have a dog, Piglet the Staffy Jack cross, who I got at the age of six weeks. She is now 11 years old and is a happy, friendly, mostly well-adjusted dog. She has issues with birds, which is her one vice, so we either avoid them or let them train her (in the case of swans who can defend themselves rather well).

"In hindsight I was extremely lucky with Piglet; her driving ambition is to please her family. She was smart so learned quickly and without much effort at all on my part. Toilet training was a complete non-event, she had one accident inside and after that would go outside under a bush. The staffy in her made her naturally sociable with people, especially if they smelled like food! ...

"Then along comes Kaylee. I got Kaylee when she was already eight months old. The first day she arrived she had just spent 36 hours in a Pet Courier van and was a shivering wreck. We took care to introduce her to Piglet on neutral territory with both of them on leads and it went well. A month on and they are adjusting to each other and run around like a little pack of two.

"I figured that Piglet would act as a role model for Kaylee being calm and assertive, but no. Kaylee is terrified of new dogs and people.

Kaylee and Piglet"I have always made an effort not to get anxious when I see a stranger coming so Kaylee wouldn't pick up on it. We walk to the local park every other day with both dogs in an effort to socialise and expose Kaylee to as much new stuff as possible. She loves the park and loves sniffing all the new smells, but if she spots another dog she instantly starts growling even though Piglet is showing no emotion apart from polite interest. If the offending stranger gets closer to Kaylee she starts yelping like she's hurt and runs away. As funny as it is to see her hurtling around like she been stung by a bee, it's not exactly constructive.

"Unfortunately she also has the tendency to forget or not hear any commands and has, more than once, run all the way home without us. The only way I can get her to stay put is to pop the lead on her before she notices the stranger then forcibly hold her still once she starts yelping and backing away.

"We have tried positive reinforcement by giving her treats when she sits or stands still but she is completely uninterested in anything - even dog chocolate! We have tried rescue remedy prior to walks to put her in a calmer mood but with only a small amount of success. We have tried "small dog playdates" with a friend's Pomeranian: Piglet enjoyed it but Kaylee turned into a quivering mess.

"The last thing I want is to end up with one of those "psycho chihuahuas" you see on YouTube, snarling at the camera and lunging across the bedsheets. She gets treated like a proper dog (albeit one who is allowed on couches and sleep on the bed... dogs make the best foot warmers) - no toy dog pampering here. She has to walk on the ground, not get carried, except in situations where Piglet gets carried too. She eats from a bowl on the floor, not up on the coffee table. She gets greeted by visitors only after the humans have been greeted, and only gets to sit on knees when invited.

"She lives by all the same rules and guidelines as her big sister Piglet and yet has issues that make her appear, to those who don't know her, like a pampered spoilt princess. I am unsure at this point if she needs a firmer hand or if we need to boost her confidence. How does one go about building up their dog's confidence anyway?"


I've never met Kaylee. I'm not a dog behaviourist and have no business "instructing" any other dog owner. All I've done is help play an owner's role in turning a panicky, shaking puppy into a bolder, more manageable, better-adjusted if still tautly strung dog. It took a while.

In the tentative hope that they're useful to Katie, here are some things we did with Connor.

* Gave him a safe home, and gradually introduced him to as many people as we could in various situations. We'd give strangers a couple of treats to feed him, so Connor would warm to them. He's gone from barking for a solid hour when we had a visitor, to being calm with all people (apart from those strangers he thinks are intruding on our safety).

* Trained him a few key commands that would give us a little control over him. "Down" and "heel" and "c'mere" were backed up with treats and praise; the "heel" is a particular small miracle - if his walker stops and says "heel", Connor will stop pulling on the leash, walk back behind the walker and then set off again. It's a moment of calming routine when he's getting tense.

* Walked him away from trouble (on leash). If he started nutting off at another dog, we'd turn and walk him away, wait for him to calm, and reward him with a treat, then walk past the dog again, repeating the drill until he passed the other dog without barking.

* Introducing him carefully to another dog, on leash. This was crucial to forming our little walking pack, along with Phoebe's sister Tess and her owner. First we'd try to tire Connor out, reducing the energy he'd have for being worried. Then we'd walk across the park as a group, and eventually Connor got used to Tess's presence. When he was calm, we'd remove the leash, and try the next step...

* Call him away from trouble (off leash). Every time he returned from hassling Tess, he got a treat and praise. Soon, he learned to recognise when he was behaving well, and would turn up, eyeing us, wondering where his treat was.It took a lot of treats, but boy it worked.

* At moments of tension, keeping calm and paying attention to Connor, not to other dogs or people. He'd be looking to us for feedback, praise, instruction, a treat.

Connor and Errol
  Connor at play, grabbing a squeaker toy from Errol at the playgroup.
* Taking him and Phoebe to a local small dogs' playgroup. On about the fifth session, after Connor had exhausted himself trying to lunge at another dog, I walked him around the hall where the group met, stopping and heeling him, then returning to where my partner was sitting. Suddenly I could feel Connor's energy change. He began taking in his surroundings and sniffing things. We let him off the leash and he behaved well. Every session since then has brought improvements.

To sum up, the main things we learned were: get him out, walking past other dogs on leash; train him in a few key commands; use treats and praise generously; pay attention to him and make eye contact; stay on leash until he's calm; let him gradually make friends with a few safe dogs; be really patient.

With other dogs it might have gone differently, but I suspect that some of those points would be relevant for most dogs.

If you've ever had to build a dog's confidence, what methods did you use? What was the single main thing that you learned and would pass on to an owner such as Katie?

My own message to Katie is that patience pays - it really pays.

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bridget   #1   01:51 pm Oct 13 2011

haha this may help lou la bell

tain   #2   02:22 pm Oct 13 2011

lol you get that with hand bag dogs :) would say thats the reason the last person got rid of it after 8 months. Smallest dog to own jack russell don't get one smaller . but i love my staffi's so probably stick woth them or get the short legged staffi ha ha so much fun to watch them slide when running on wooden floors :)

viff   #3   02:30 pm Oct 13 2011

Sometimes it's easy getting inside a dog's mind, sometimes hard. Our 17-week old Retradoodle was the runt of the litter, rather shy, and dominated by all the other dogs and puppies, even younger ones. Over the 6 weeks we've had him, his confidence built up heaps, and he was really excited whenever he met other dogs or people. However, last weekend we took him to a dog park. When he tried to play with two older dogs who were running around very fast, they bowled him over, and one growled him and sat on him. Since then he's been rather timid around other dogs, especially large dogs, and he grovels on the ground, wets himself, and generally acts very submissively. We hope we can get his confidence back, and are thinking of putting him in "doggy day care" for a day for some intensive socialisation in a safe environment.

Sue   #4   02:39 pm Oct 13 2011

A couple of things. Firstly, forget Cesar Millan. Good looking chap, and he comes off well on TV, but his advice is just dodgy (i.e. nbg). For better information, from someone who really does know his stuff, check out John Bradshaw's book In defence of Dogs. Secondly, different breeds have different typical personality characteristics. What you are describing is exactly what you can get with chihuahuas - a one-person, miniature personal guard dog. You can really only work within an understanding that this is how she is likely to act, because this is what us humans selected her to do.

Von   #5   03:08 pm Oct 13 2011

We have a medium sized x-breed, half Brittany half Japanese Chin. Becos of the Chin she has a nervous disposition. She's 13 years old now and a wonderful dog. However,she is an alpha-bitch and likes to be top dog around other bitches. I have found that to keep her trained well it is all about keeping her feeling safe. i.e. When she is off the lead walking with me if I see another dog coming I heel her and make her sit by me until the dog has passed by. If she knows the dog she is fine and I then let her go and be social with that dog. You, the owner have to be in charge and keep your own dog feeling safe. Hope this helps.

FDO   #6   03:41 pm Oct 13 2011

So good to see you are treating her the same as Piglet and not turning her into a "handbag dog". Yes, small dogs sometimes do seem to be more temperamental, although I wonder if overbreeding is partly to blame.

It's great that she gets on with Piglet and this should really help.

I would agree with all the things Nick suggested. One thing that struck me when I read it is that you seem to have her off the leash when at least some of this is happening. I wonder if you need to keep her on leash for some time until this has resolved. I note Nick's approach was on leash until Connor demonstrated the right behaviour, and I think you should be doing this too. It'll serve several purposes. If she's nervous, she'll feel calmer when she's "attached" to you. If she's being a princess, this will help you to control her. She won't be able to run away. And I think it will reduce any anxiety you are feeling as well, so the calm assertive energy will be easier!

Unfortunately, I tend to agree you might be having to undo 8 months of habits, as Tain said. This is gonna take time, but it will happen. I reckon persevere with it, don't rush it, follow Nick's programme, and keep her on the leash. She's already good with Piglet, so that is bound to help... good luck with it!

Bella09   #7   04:45 pm Oct 13 2011

This is hilarous you say that when your dog "starts yelping like she's hurt and runs away and hurtles around like she been stung by a bee" I have a Chihuahua x Aussie Terrior and as soon as she starts playing or another dog approches her she does not like she does the exact same thing, twice she has even lifted her back leg as if she actually did get stung by a bee and ovcourse I freeked out and made sure she was ok but as soon as the other dog left she started walking/running as if anything happened, and its not like the otehr dogs are being aggressive, all they want to do is play with my dog (thsihas happend on more than one occasion)

Dee   #8   05:29 pm Oct 13 2011

If you want to let your wee dog run around but keep it on a leash so that you can try to work on the training, you can try visiting a marine shop and getting some thin lightweight rope and get a clip spliced ont he end. We used horse lunge lines, but that was on boxers, whippets and foxys, it might be a bit heay for a chi. It give the dog a chance to run, but it's still never out of control - alse really good for recall work.

AC   #9   05:39 pm Oct 13 2011

I've been involved with dog training & human behaviour for years, lots of 'fashions' come and go in terms of changing dog behaviour. It all comes down to consistent training and positive reinforcement so that the dog does the behaviour that you want it to do, when you want it to do it. Reward your dog for 'good' behaviour, and actively work through behaviour-shaping (step-by-step) to replace unwanted behaviours with wanted ones.

The comes doggy emotion. That can be dealt with, to a point, by basic desensitisation techniques, in the same way that people conquer their phobias by gradual exposure to the things they fear, along with more positive reinforcement.

A fearful dog has come about by two things, one is genetics, which is why it's always important to meet a pup's parents. The other is poor socialisation. Often, both have happened. Fearful, anxious dogs make fearful, anxious pups, and although dogs with these traits shouldn't be bred from, they often are when a breeder is out to make a fast buck. No matter how much you try with socialisation etc, it is highly unlikely this can be overcome 100%. Experience also plays a part, a genetically fearful dog may very scared for a long time and become very sensitive to something which a non-fearful dog would get a quick fright from (or no fright)and forget. Then there's socialisation- there are key periods for puppy socialisation, and if your dog hasn't been socialised with strangers/new dogs during these key periods, then, again, it will be an uphill battle. An 8 month old dog should not get out of transit 'a mess', and if they do it's a warning sign that sustained intervention is required asap.

1 dog 2 cats   #10   05:39 pm Oct 13 2011

Thanks all for the tips, lots to try :) One Cesar trick I found really useful was to give her little treats while saying her name and to resist using her name to tell her off. She now comes to her name almost 100% of the time as opposed to cowering and running away. tain #2, the reason she was 8 months old before coming to me is that the breeder wanted to find her a home where she wouldn't be used as a breeding bitch (she too small for breeding). She was not "gotten rid of" by anyone and grew up in a happy home. FDO #6, Kaylee is mostly on the leash when of our property, as is Piglet. I found that if one dog was on the leash and the other wasn't, then the "free" dog would hassle and dominate the leashed dog. The problem is, because she is so small, Kaylee's 1st collar would come off as soon as she started backing away. I gave up on puppy collars and made her one that's the right size.

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