How to boost a dog's confidence?

00:28, Oct 13 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.

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"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.

"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.

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"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?"

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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 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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