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Confident Canines

How many times have you met a dog that pees when you say hello or cowers, shivers or backs away when approached? The ears go down, the tail curls underneath, the dog might roll over onto its back or it may look as if it’s done something wrong.
Written by Deborah Rosen | Photo by David Henkes
It is likely that the dog suffers from a general lack of confidence -- social or situational shyness. For these dogs, the glass is half empty. How do we work with dogs like this to help them see the glass as half full?

The World Can Be So Scary
Some dogs, like certain people, can be more introverted and will not feel comfortable engaging with new people or novel dogs. There are also dogs that are easily startled by loud or unfamiliar sounds such as large trucks and buses, skateboards, bikes or other mechanical things like vacuum cleaners.

Some dogs are this way due to a deficit of positive social interactions or lack of exposure to some of these things at an early enough age. Others may have become “sensitized” to these things or may have been traumatized by something that happened before you even met the dog. In other cases, social shyness seems to occur for no reason at all and these dogs may be somewhat timid forever.

If the dog I’m describing resembles your dog or one you know of, he or she may need a course of confidence building to help the dog adjust to the things that provoke these negative responses. If done at an early age you may help the typical urban dwelling dog become more adjusted to a world filled with unpredictable sights, sounds and everyday occurrences—ones that are not necessarily instinctive to dogs.

One of my favorite dogs named Butter (great name) is a prime example of a shy and fearful dog that simply arrived that way as a young puppy. Her owner did everything she could—brought her to puppy classes, did some private training and still, Butter remained quite fearful of strangers. We brought her to our daycare, and avoided eye contact and did not address her directly and before long, she started to accept strangers in a less fearful way.

Keep it Positive
The process of building confidence in dogs may appear daunting to some, but there are many easy ways to help dogs feel better about the things they find scary. To help a timid dog to feel more confident, it is vitally important to use only positive reinforcement. This means using only positive responses (what the dog considers “good”) when he or she does something well, and it means trying very hard not to do anything the dog would view as negative—even if he misbehaves. To criticize or scold a timid dog is only going to produce more anxiety and fear.

Working with scared or under-confident dogs takes both time and patience. It is more than likely that you will take small steps and make slow progress, especially at first. For dogs that are slow to meet and greet new people and other dogs, it will always help to use the following steps when a new person or dog comes around:

1. Have a very tasty soft treat ready.

2. The second the dog notices the new person/dog without doing anything you deem negative (bark, rear, growl, cower, etc.) deliver the treat.

3. Ask the person to look away from the dog and avoid making eye contact.

4. Keep the person at a safe distance, and ask the person not to say anything to the dog.

5. As the dog gets more comfortable, have the person/dog take a step closer.

6. As soon as the dog observes the person, deliver a treat and happily praise the dog.

7. Keep this up for a couple of minutes before you ask the person to look at the dog.

8. Ask the person to look directly at the dog. If the dog does well, praise him and deliver multiple treats.

9. After you’ve done this several times, place a treat in the person’s open hand and have her offer the dog a treat. Make sure the person has no fear. Fear from a human creates more fear from the dog.

10. Do this at least ten more times and repeat it with new people as often as possible.

This process can also be done with moving vehicles, bikes, skateboards, the vacuum cleaner and so on. Basically, you are taking something that the dog views as a negative and making it a positive. If every time the dog sees a skateboard, she gets a treat, she’ll stop reacting badly to the skateboard in anticipation of a treat. The difficult thing is preparedness and timing. If you always have treats ready and pay close attention to what is going on around you, chances are good the dog’s fear will dissipate over time.

Vacuums are Big Scary Monsters
Just this week in puppy class, I brought in a vacuum cleaner. Several of the dogs in class had negative responses to it—like lunging and barking. One of the dogs would even try to attack the vacuum and he had to be put outside whenever the owner vacuumed at home. We started the process with the vacuum off and followed a procedure similar to the one described above. After about five minutes I started to turn on the vacuum for just a second and as soon as the dogs would observe it, the owner would interrupt the dog and deliver praise and a treat. Before very long, the dogs could tolerate having the vacuum on for a short time without reacting.

Submissive Urinating is Common
Even extroverted dogs can express lack of confidence. Often, young puppies and sometime older dogs will “submissively urinate” when someone new or someone they really like greets them. The cause of this is typically due to our vocalizing—or becoming “too happy” and when we first see the dog. This causes the dog to become over stimulated and lose control of its bladder.

The behavior, while extremely common, can be corrected by simply greeting the dog without saying anything to it for a time. Vocalizing in a very high-pitched voice, which we often do, especially when we see a cute little puppy, is generally the cause of submissive urinating. For a while, try ignoring the dog/puppy when you first see her (this is harder for us than it is for them) and see if the problem goes away.

There is really no reason to subject our pets to a lifetime of fear. Try not to get discouraged if your dog appears to take occasional steps back after making progress. Remember that learning for dogs is a slower process than it is for humans. By taking very simple steps early on to build their confidence, it is very easy to help our furry friends to see the glass as half full instead of half empty.
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