Building a Good Foundation

By Valerie Barry

Whenever I’m asked “what’s the most important thing to teach your dog”, my answer is always “Confidence”. There are many skills you can teach your dog and some of those things will be different depending on where and how you live, but a confident dog is an easy dog to live with. Confidence is the Foundation of good behaviour. Confidence in a dog is not the big, tough, in– your– face kind of dog – the myth of the “dominant dog”.

A confident dog is one who is comfortable with pretty much everything he sees and experiences daily, knows generally what behaviour is expected of him most of the time, has the skills to make good decisions when he’s not sure, and is socially skilled and comfortable with most dogs and people in most places. He’s the dog your friends don’t mind you bringing over to visit, the dog you can hang out with on the patio at the coffee shop, walk through town with, the dog you can leave at home alone or leave in the car while you shop for groceries, find a new hiking trail with and take on vacation. He’s the dog who meets and passes dogs with ease on walks, plays appropriately and doesn’t mind you having guest dogs over to visit.

How do you teach confidence? Well, think of yourself and what makes you feel confident: being successful in your accomplishments builds confidence, learning new things builds confidence, knowing the right answer builds confidence, and so on.

Here are some things you can do that will help your dog to become more confident:

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1. Teach your dog the house rules and boundaries by which you would like him to live his life with you then teach him the skills he needs to follow them.

2. Be fair, consistent and reasonable in your expectations.

3. Teach impulse control – the ability to handle frustration and failure.

4. Create a system of communication that is clearly understood by you and your dog – like clicker training or using a verbal marker. Avoid training methods that force behaviours and use painful and aversive equipment that create anxiety and fear. Learning should be fun!

5. Once you have trained some specific skills, allow your dog to make some choices on his own within limited boundaries. Try to avoid constantly prompting or micro managing his behaviour. Wait for that “Sit” before dinner instead of asking for it.
Confidence Building Skills and Activities

Experience and education has taught me that there are certain area s in our life with our dogs that clearly make a difference in a do g’s confidence. Helping an adult dog improve these skills or focusing on these skills as you raise your puppy can make a world of difference to their overall behaviour.

1. Leash Walking
Teach your dog to walk politely on a loose leash. Teach your dog to stay within the boundary of his leash without adding tension regardless of what may be going on around you. A polite walking companion walks on either side of you without dodging back and forth from side to side and impeding your movement. A polite walking companion doesn’t yell at others – barking and lunging. Your dog should be able to turn and give you his attention when you ask (call his name). A dog walking on a loose leash is physically balanced and more confident, presenting a better picture to any oncoming dogs. A dog on a loose leash is paying more attention to you and the speed and direction you’re walking. It’s a win-win!

2. Handling
Teach your dog to be tolerant and easy to handle. Carefully and thoughtfully teach your dog that any and all types o f handling from gentle petting, to quick grabs of the collar are not something to be worried about or something to avoid. Dogs that are comfortably tolerant of handling all over their body are easy t o move around, don’t easily startle, a breeze to take to the vet, tolerant of the “friendly stranger”, don’t mind having their nails clipped or feet wiped off – an all around easier dog. An important part of the handling category is a dog who happily relinquishes any and all food, toys or favored possessions. The key here is “happily relinquishes”. It’s not about whether you can “make” him give it up. It’s all about teaching him to happily give things to you or show no concern about having anything in the presence of any human – that’s a safe dog to be around.
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3. Being Alone
Teach your dog to be comfortable on his own. Gradually teach your dog to be comfortable staying on his own for reasonable periods of time. Even if you have more than one dog, each of your dogs should be comfortable on their own. It’s easy to overlook this in a multiple dog household, but the reality is that sooner or later someone will need to be left behind, so prepare for that now. Utilize safe treat dispensing toys like Kongs to help make being alone entertaining and mentally satisfying. Keep your dog’s confinement room or area free from outside distractions like dogs or people walking by, or loud and unsettling construction noises. Keep the blinds closed and utilize the white noise of a radio talk show so your dog can just relax and sleep or quietly play without feeling the need to “be on guard” and monitor what’s doing on. Dogs who are constantly distracted by outside sights and sounds can turn into “barking sentries” and become very worried about doing their “job” causing anxiety to build.

4. Space
Teach your dog to respect personal space. Dogs who have good social skills already understand dog personal space, but we need to teach them to respect human personal space. Teach your dog to wait for an invitation from you to have cuddles or play instead of letting them demand and get your attention – barking, pawing, leaning against your legs. Don’t allow your dog to jump on you or your guests, but instead teach them to “Sit” and wait patiently for a chance to visit. If you have a worried dog, make sure they know that they don’t have to say hi, they can also choose to remain at a distance until they feel more comfortable.

5. Mental Exercise
Provide your dog with plenty of opportunities for mental stimulation and exercise. Make use of the numerous treat dispensing toy options available to feed meals and provide entertainment when he’s alone or when you’re busy. Daily mental exercise just makes for a happier and more content dog whose confidence will be bolstered by each successful de-stuffing. A nice balance of physical and mental exercise each day is ideal.
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6. A Big Repertoire
Teach your dog LOTS of stuff! The more things your dog knows how to do that that have a history of positive reinforcement, the more options the y have to offer when they’re in a position to make a choice. Don’t just stop at important (to us) obedience skills – teach some tricks, lots of tricks. The more things your dog knows how to do, the more confident they are that they will make a good choice that will be reinforced. Plus, the act of learning all those great things builds confidence with each success. A “trick” doesn’t have to be elaborate. It’s really just anything that isn’t traditional obedience – “back up”, “put your head on your paws”, “go find your orange ball”, “ring the bell”, “ bring your leash” – the possibilities are endless!

Above all, be instructive not punitive – keep it positive!