Written by Samary Birkline 2021.
When bringing to mind the ideal dog, one rarely cultivates the image of a bashful animal. For most people, the “perfect” dog has a relatively outgoing personality, easily handles new people and seamlessly transitions from infancy to adulthood without bad habits, anxiety attacks, self-confidence complications, or hiccups. These types of dogs are easy to be around and a joy to share a home with. If a person has known one of these well-adjusted, happy-go-lucky dogs, one may be tempted to assume that they naturally come this way. But, the truth is that well adjusted canines are overwhelmingly a product of proper socialization, constant training, and thick emotional bonds between human and canine.
What Does a Self-Confident Dog Look Like?
Self-Confidence is defined by Mirriam-Webster as “confidence in oneself and in one’s powers and abilities”. Confidence is about certitude; being certain. Canine confidence, then, stems from a certainty of the world. A dog who is confident in his environment has the liberty to eat, play, sleep, and even eliminate in that “world”. He understands the “rules” of his environment and has learned how to freely move within that world without upsetting the balance.
The body language of a confident dog is nearly unmistakable. She is fluid in movement, at ease, and gives off signs of happiness; a wagging tail, rocking horse gait, relaxed facial muscles, ears at ease, soft eyes, etc. While confident dogs may choose to nap in a corner, in most cases, they do not choose to “hide” there when not resting. They move about the area without concern. Without a doubt, confidence is a skill that can be seen.
It’s important to note that the appearance of confidence can be breed relative. A Pug will not appear as fluid in movement in relation to a Doberman Pinscher or even a Poodle. But one Pug (or Pittie or Whippet) can appear more fluid or happy than others of the same breed or even the same litter. So, when evaluating confidence, be sure to consider breed characteristics.
What Does Self-Uncertainty Look Like on a Dog?
Self-Confidence has an opposite. Anxiety sits on a dog like a heavy coat they can’t take off. This dog is visibly shaken. Look for hunched posture, tight muscles, tucked tail, a rigid face, hard eyes, and a variety of other clear body statements. He is not comfortable in his environment; so uncomfortable that he may urinate to communicate his peaceful intentions. To almost anyone who witnesses this dog, it is very obvious he is not in his element and just wants to get away to somewhere he feels safe again.
This reaction stems on his uncertainty of the environment. The nervous dog feels anxious about either a new location, new person or dog, new/changed rules, and other unfamiliar aspects of the scene. Anxiety manifests in tightly closed body language; unwillingness to make eye contact, lack of desire to play or walk, etc.
It must be repeated that these reactions are breed specific. Even a confident Chihuahua will tremble, but typically, a trembling Doberman indicates anxiety. It is critical to consider the breed, even when evaluating a mixed breed. Discovering a dog’s breed mix can reveal amazing information regarding behavior motives and inner drive.
Confidence is a Learned Skill, Not an Inherent Trait
While there is no doubt that each individual dog is born with a certain amount of innate self-appreciation, confidence is a skill that is learned. Temperament is inherited, but confidence is a learned behavior/state of mind. Experienced breeders may be able to detect temperament almost from birth which pup in a litter will be the most vocal, submissive, pushy, etc. The differences are minor at birth, but they are there, nonetheless. As a puppy grows, its early life experiences will have a measurable effect on the way it sees the world. That’s where self-confidence comes in. Healthy puppies are able to relax in familiar places with familiar people, but they still become uncertain in unfamiliar places or even familiar places with unfamiliar people.
The first place a dog will gain confidence in is his home. Ideally, the puppy will have already gained some confidence in his breeder’s home, but that does not usually transfer to the new owner’s home automatically. Experts recommend exposing a new puppy to both familiar and unfamiliar people, places, and objects through the age of 12 months for proper socialization. Examples include, but are not limited to:
- A healthy variety of races, ages, and genders of people
- A wide variety of other dogs, from teacup to titan sizes and shapes
- As many other types of animal as possible (cats, ducks, horses, sheep, chickens, yard lizards, etc.), given they are not a threat to one another
- As many different settings and locations as possible (Different houses, apartments, condos, dog shows, pet friendly restaurants, parks, pet stores, etc.)
Ninja Tips to Build Confidence
Avoid Physical Punishment
Study after study reveal that physical punishment and even loud shouting are counterproductive. Though they “work”, they do more harm than good, and will have a boldly negative effect on any animal. Punishment damages the relationship between trainer and student, rendering many lessons unteachable for some dogs.
Provide Structure & Enrichment
Dogs thrive on structure. They’re best when they can predict on most days what will be coming down the pipe. Knowing what to expect each day can provide a great sense of security, especially for a dog with fledgling confidence. Simply the ability to predict when breakfast will come, at what time the daily walks will occur, when daily playtime and naptimes will occur can water the confidence seed. Structure is comforting to a dog, and it has benefits for the human counterparts, too. In building confidence, establishing a predictable schedule is key, and a great place to begin.
Enrichment for a dog can be as simple as long, ambling walks, during which he is permitted to sniff all the things he wishes to sniff and wander aimlessly where he wants to go. It can look like enlisting in a canine sport, like dock diving or the FastCat. It can also include taking your dog with you as many different places as he is allowed to go. Websites like bringfido.com locate a variety of locations where dogs are permitted to go from dog friendly restaurants to hotels that welcome dogs.
Train, and Make it Fun
Puppy socialization classes and/or weekly training classes can bring out the confidence in a puppy, also. These classes bring out the confidence in many young dogs. For unknown reasons, being around other dogs his age will help a dog to feel more confident, given that the dogs surrounding him are relatively healthy in the way they interact with one another.
Even basic obedience training at home can make a big difference. Dogs quickly learn to learn. It takes the dog some time to understand that this game with the sitting and the yummy treats is really fun. Every dog learns at his or her own pace, but most dogs will quickly understand that the training game is fun. (Learn what my trainer wants and get rewarded for doing it is a game.) Once a puppy learns to enjoy the process of learning (think lots of positive reinforcement) training will bring out the confident streak.
Take up Agility
Agility is one of the best ways to foster confidence in a young dog. As mentioned above, learning is, in itself, confidence building. Agility adds the fun of jumping and running to obedience training and solidifies the bond between handler and dog. It is fun for everyone and can be done as a hobby or competitively. Dogs don’t have to be purebred to compete in AKC events, and are relatively inexpensive to participate in.
Use Introduction Games
Introduction games can help a dog feel more certain of new people. These will need to be taught to the pup prior to their introduction to a scary person. They’re easy to teach, too.
“Touch” is simply the act of the dog reaching out with his nose to touch the open palm of his handler. To teach it, smudge a yummy treat on a palm and then offer just the smelly palm to the dog. When he touches the palm, click with a clicker and then give a treat right away. After a few drills, do it without the smelly palm, offering just the open palm. After a few more drills with just the palm, the dog will get the game. It’s an easy one. AFTER the dog has it down, introduce the “Touch” verbal cue. (Good trainers don’t introduce a verbal cue until after the behavior is reliable.) Practice in lot’s of different rooms in the house, then outside. Then introduce a new person with a smelly palm and the “touch” game may help him; giving him a familiar aspect to rely on even when the new person is unfamiliar.
“Get it” is the act of scurrying to get a tossed treat. It can be used to maneuver a dog around a new person while offering a level of certainty for him. Again, confidence in a dog is about certainty. If he feels certain of at least some level of his environment, it will promote him to feel more confident. Perhaps the easiest of all cues to teach, simply toss a treat within the dog’s eyesight, and then say “get it” when it’s reliable that he chase after it. Gradually increase the distance from a few inches to several feet, to the distance of a yard.
“Get Behind Me” is aptly named. It is a cue to send the dog behind the handler’s feet. For bashful dogs, this is a source of comfort when things get too overwhelming for him. It can reinstate some level of confidence in the face of a scary object or introduction. For the dogs that need this, many of them already do it naturally, but giving it a name can give it an aspect of certainty and adds the positive association of a treat to the position. Running and hiding behind Mommy’s legs is comforting but getting rewarded to do it changes it into a training game, which in itself, promotes confidence.
“Bail Out” is an easy game to play, and is an offshoot of “Get it.” Bailing out is running away and it can be useful when even getting behind his Mom isn’t calming enough for him. It’s most useful when he has a set place to go; a crate or a favorite spot will do. Because of this, it’s easiest to use at home. This simply means teaching him that “Bail Out” means run back to your safe place. It gives him permission to bail out when things get too stressful for him, still instilling him with a “good boy” feeling because he’s followed a cue. It can be paired with a “get into your crate” command for a while to associate the connection, then the distance increased until he understands that “Bail Out” means go find your safe place and stay there.
Let Fido Set the Pace
When introducing new people to a new person, do it slowly. Taking it at the pup’s pace produces a much better result than rushing things. Also, have your guest use the calming signals (mentioned below) to help him relax.
Speaking Better Dog: Calming Signals & Culture Clash
Dogs use calming signals to communicate with one another and to try and communicate with their humans. Most people don’t think twice about a dog’s minor body language even if they notice them, but learning how dogs communicate with one another will help you to understand what he may be saying to you. Except for the asterisked items, you can use them, too, in communication with your dog. This list is a paraphrase from Turid Ragaas’ On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals.
- Head Turning – When two dogs greet each other, the diverted gaze via the head turn, is one of the most common ways to promote and to keep peace.
- Softening of the Eyes – When dogs want a pleasant interaction, they soften the eyes, sometimes blinking repeatedly or even closing the eyes.
- Turning the Body Away – Turning the body away is a very powerful message to calm down. You’ll see dogs use this on one another when play time is over, or to encourage a fearful dog to socialize.
- Licking the Nose* – When a dog is anxious or fearful, often the first sign is the licking of the nose and flews (his lips). Most dogs also lick their noses when they are faced with a camera.
- Freezing – Another incredibly powerful peace message between dogs is the full-body freeze.
- Walking Slowly/Using small movements – When trying to keep an interaction peaceful, a dog might slow his actions without stopping his movements altogether.
- Bow (Long Bow; much longer than the play bow) – The long bow is like the play bow, but much longer, and usually is followed by the sphynx down.
- Sitting Down – Planting one’s rear communicates good intentions, or perhaps a plea to calm down aimed at a human or another dog.
- Sphynx Down – Laying down on all four legs, with the orientation straight is another way to say “Let’s make peace.” to another dog or human.
- Yawning – Yawning is another commonly misunderstood signal. Not every yawn is a calming signal, but when a dog yawns during a social interaction, this is a sign he is anxious or feeling
- Sniffing* – When dogs greet each other, they sometimes sniff the ground. It’s a polite demonstration of good manners that says, “I’m friendly.”.
- Curving – Curving is an easy way for a human or dog to communicate peaceful intentions. A direct approach can be intimidating for another dog, and most will curve even when they greet one another.
- Splitting – Sometimes a dog will place himself in between two dogs that may be moving towards conflict. It’s also a powerful way to tell a dog to stop a fixating behavior, such as begging for food.
- Wagging the Tail* – Not all tail wagging communicates happiness. If you’re upset, your dog might wag his tail as a “white flag” to get you to calm down.
* Denotes calming signals that are almost impossible for humans to imitate. The others can be used easily to communicate with your dog.
We love our four-legged friends, but there are some pretty dramatic differences in our cultures. The following are considered impolite, aggressive behavior in dog-dog interactions. Without training, most dogs consider the following to be impolite at best, and aggressive at worst.
- Hugging – Primates (that’s humans) hug each other as a part of daily ritual. We hug each other when we’re happy, sad, in love, and sometimes just because we’re friends. Dogs, on the other hand, only use their paws to grip one another in mounting (either sexual or dominant).
- Alternative: Instead of full-on hugging, try draping an arm loosely around the dog’s hips while he is sitting next to you. The tighter you hug a dog, the more threatening the gesture is to him.
- Standing Over – Humans naturally lean over when greeting a dog. We do it to our children, too. It’s so ingrained in our behavior that eliminating it takes concentrated effort in practice.
- Alternative: When greeting a dog, whether it’s one you know or if you’re just meeting for the first time, consciously resist the urge to lean over top of the dog to say, “hello”, instead sitting, crouching or kneeling down to greet the dog at his level.
- Speaking Louder – We’ve all done it. When someone doesn’t understand (and sometimes just because they don’t agree), we’ll repeat ourselves, louder, in attempts to gain clarity in our exchange. In most cases it doesn’t work even between humans, much less likely it is to work across the gap of interspecies culture clash. Raising your voice to your dog simply will not work.
- Alternative: Resist the urge to get louder when your dog doesn’t perform for you. Instead, though it feels counterintuitive, speaking smaller, often helps focus the dog, though it won’t help him understand what you want. Maintain controlled body language, without repeating hand signs or words.
- Larger Gestures – Going hand in hand with getting louder, most humans get bigger, too, when things go awry in communications. Larger gestures and bigger hand signs usually accompany the frustration associated with mis-communication. Just like other people, your dog is not going to understand you any better when you get “bigger”.
- Alternative: Again, smaller may go against everything in the moments of frustration, but the extra-ness doesn’t help. Maintain controlled body language, without repeating hand signs or words.
- Head Patting – It’s natural for almost everyone to greet a dog by putting a hand on top of his head and rubbing it. But for a dog, this is impolite, almost rude behavior. Even dogs that are almost sleeping will react by shying away when a hand is hovered over their heads.
- Alternative: Greet dogs with an underhanded approach, aiming the hand under the chin or across the chest. This is a much friendlier zone to touch without previous contact. When first greeting any dog, stick to the underhanded greet.
- Note: Petting the head during cuddling is a different issue, and is enjoyed.
A Note on the Extremely Shy
There are shy dogs, and then there are the so painfully terrified of strangers that just eye contact will provoke submissive urination. These pups are beyond timid. They are so insecure that nearly everything from human speech to movement from a crate to the outdoors can push him or her over the insecurity threshold, resulting in urination, shaking, yelping, and/or rapid retreat or hiding. These dogs require rock solid patience and an ability to completely ignore messy accidents. The trainer or owner must maintain absolute peace while interacting with these dogs and extensive work is required. However, even the most painfully shy puppy can be coached into confidence. Indeed, the author’s best dog EVER was just as described above. It took several months of tedious training and work to eliminate Bella’s submissive urination, but after she realized the world wasn’t as scary as she thought it was, she bloomed to become a gentle-souled Doberman ambassador, with therapy-type disposition. It took work, but she is now confidently happy in nearly any situation. Consult a professional if you feel out of your element with an extreme case.
When it comes to building confidence in dogs, there are so many moving parts that it may seem overwhelming, but it’s worth repeating that canine self-confidence is really just about certainty. The more certain Fido or Fifi is about the environment, the better off that dog will feel. This will manifest into more confident behavior. Above all else, remember that each dog develops emotionally and physically at his own rate. A handler should work to create certainty for a dog in order to cultivate further confidence, creating a well-balanced dog.