Confidence 101

It was a sunny Sunday afternoon and I was off to Wal-Mart to buy a new eavestrough for the front of the house when it happened…. I saw one of my clients carrying her dog around the hardware department!

Now, to most people, the sight of a small Yorkshire terrier in the arms of a well-groomed woman is delightful.  People stop and admire, ever have a chat and by the end of the visit staff and customers alike are well aware of the little dogs name, likes and dislikes and favorite hobbies.  But to me…well, it made me let out a sigh of frustration.

I met Belle in one of our family pet classes.  For the first week she would not walk at all, instead deciding to dig in her heels and stay put.  As she is so small, about 5 pounds soaking wet, we attributed some of it to being a little bit overwhelmed in a group of dog who were much larger.  We did have a class that by coincidence had a majority of smaller dogs and we transferred Belle into it.  Week two come and went with Belle still having difficulty walking and now difficulty with the word stay.  Then came week three and the chat.  We talked about Belles lack of confidence and how we should proceed with dealing with it.  The client did indicate that she would like to rectify the situation and we discussed how to build her self-confidence.  Four days later, she is spotted in Wal-Mart!  Unable to leave her dog alone for even a short period of time, creating neediness within Belle that will only get worse over time.

Under confident dogs seem to be more abundant than ever before.  It may be the nature Vs nurture dilemma.  Is it the dogs that simply have that type of personality, or is it the dog owners who are creating the problem in the dog.  It is, in most cases, a combination of the two.  Sure, dogs just like people, are born with their own inherit nature.  Some dogs come by it honestly.  But a lot of the underconfidence can be created, or at least not helped, by their well meaning dog parents.  Remember…dogs repeat behaviors that are rewarded.  The more often the reward comes, the more the behavior escalates.  That is all behaviors.  If your dog constantly pushes your arm while you are sitting on the couch, and it is acknowledged with a pat on the head, the behavior will increase.  If you reward your dog for sitting nicely in front of you, again and again, the behavior will become the norm for your pup to solicit your attention.  Underconfidence is no different.  The more the dog is acknowledged for her actions, such as not walking, the more it will become the normal behavior for that dog.

There are some problems associated with this, and any dog training theory.  The problem is that scientific fact is only one component of dealing with people and their dogs.  It is one thing for me to tell my client the facts, it is another when we introduce emotion.  In cases of underconfident dogs you often, not always, have them handled by underconfident people.  So the scenario is quite often the same, and is slightly worse if the dog happens to be small.  This means that instead of instilling confidence into the dog, the owner often taps into it.  This can be anything from patting and reassuring the dog that everything will be alright, to quickly picking up your dog as soon as another dog approaches, to carrying the dog around Wal-Mart…the ultimate attention getter.
So, how do we deal with the underconfident dog?  First, you must be sure that the dog is actually underconfident and not just a really great actor.  Some of these dogs would put Tom Hanks to shame.  Sure, it starts out as shyness, or fear.  The owner then addresses the dog in a positive manner and gives it attention ( read..reward) and voila…a dog who exhibits the look of an underconfident dog for the reward of attention.  Again, the behaviour will increase if it is rewarded on a consistent basis.  

One little dog comes to mind.  He would stand with his owner and shake on the end of the lead. With his owner becoming very stressed herself due to the fact she truly believed that she was putting her dog through too much turmoil.  After taking this leash in a confident manner and walking him around the room for a few minutes and ignoring all the shaking.  It disappeared and he trotted beside me lovely, probably quite happy to actually have the leadership role taken by me. A miracle?  No, just a great actor.  By increasing the confidence in the owner we were able to eliminate this behavior, and her fears.

Some other pointers to help the situation are to introduce a lot of play, and to lighten up a bit.  It is far more important to teach your dog to feel good in his own skin than to teach a perfect sit.  Let your dog know that when you are teaching something, his efforts count.  Give him praise for everything he does.  Yes…everything.  If he sits a bit crooked, praise him, tell him he is a good dog for just trying.  Keep in mind we are talking about under confident dogs. Actually, dogs can become underconfident if they are constantly reminded that they are not good enough.  This is seen in the over training of dogs.  An example of this is teaching your dog to come and sit in front of you for an obedience trial.  Each time the dog comes, he is told to “sit straight”, with his collar being taken and the dog pulled into place.  This will often result in the dog coming in, perhaps even quite straight, but with his tail and ears down, totally lacking the confidence he may have once had.   

You can use a clicker to mark the exact behaviors that you want and if they are not perfect, praise anyway but simply do not click.  You may also want to try to clicker train your underconfident dog to touch an object. If he is shy around strangers, this can be transferred to putting the object in your hand, then the hand of a stranger and eventually you can click him for going and touching the hand of the stranger with his nose.  This will help him to understand that it is okay to go and investigate, that most people are fun to be around.

Stop and play tug with him in the middle of your training exercises.  Let him blow off a bit of steam, after all, he is under a certain amount of stress.  Learn all about stress signals and then keep your eyes out for them.  If you notice your dog looking away in an uncomfortable manner, licking his lips, sniffing the ground, don’t end the session or worse, pull on the lead and make him pay attention.  It is best to just make things a bit lighter and easier for him at that moment.  He is not being naughty, he is trying to tell you that he can’t cope with the situation at the moment.  Again, you must keep in mind the type of dog we are talking about….not a spunky, spirited terrier who is giving you a run for your money!  
You can’t eradicate under confidence by only socializing your dog.  It usually wont disappear if you just keep taking him to the park.  He may become overwhelmed.  At that time, he does not process the skills that will help him manage in a group of dogs.  Pushing him forward to go and play will increase his stress levels.   For some dogs who are a bit shy taking them to group class may actually help them come out of their shells and the learning process will help with their lack of confidence.   Keep in mind we are talking about those dogs who have a hard time walking down the street, the dog who will not even take a treat in this situation and who pull all the way back to the safety of their own home, even though they have been walked down this same street for the past year.  Throwing them into a group situation unless it is geared towards them does not help these dogs.  Some schools are now introducing programs specifically designed for dogs with these types of issues.

There is one other component to helping an underconfident dog.  The dog owner has to want to do it.  Sure, most think they do.  They do all their reading and then call in a professional trainer or behaviourist to help then.  But again, we are dealing with emotion.  There is neediness to some owners, some can feel complimented by the fact that their dog needs them.  It is important to remember that this is not what is best for the dog.  Parents raise their children so they will be able to stand on their own two feet, to be able to have the self confidence to go out into the world and feel good about themselves.  Parents should not raise their children to feel worried about leaving home.  The same goes for the dog parents.  Not that our dogs are leaving home, but to raise them to feel good about themselves and about their environment is the best thing for the dog.  It may not feel good, it may not feel as warm and fuzzy, but it is the right thing to do…for them.