Some dogs have a lot of confidence and cheerfully greet the world unfazed by sirens, meeting new dogs, people wearing hats, or any other stimuli that might come their way. Others seem to view the world fearfully, expecting every encounter to be scary or negative. A dog with low confidence might react to something they find frightening by cowering and whining to show fearful submission or by barking and growling in a display of false bravery.
It can be challenging to have a dog with low confidence as a member of your household. Being aware of your dog’s body language and personality can help you to identify situations where they are feeling stressed and can help you to avoid or better prepare for those situations when you can.
It is also possible to work with your pup to help them gain confidence, so they can more bravely face the world.
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Why do some dogs lack confidence
In the same way that people have different personalities and ways that they interact with other people and situations, there can be a number of reasons why a dog might lack confidence.
It could be a matter of genetics. Some dogs are naturally more confident and outgoing and others are shyer and more reserved. Certain breeds like German Shepherds, golden retrievers, Jack Russell Terriers, and poodles are well-known to be confident and secure. On the other hand, chihuahuas, greyhounds, Great Danes, and Yorkshire Terriers are some breeds that can be extremely timid when faced with new people and situations. Of course, any dog can have a confident or a shy personality; it’s a matter of understanding your dog and helping them to find the confidence to move through life without fear.
A dog might lose confidence and become fearful if they have suffered trauma or abuse. A dog who is bitten by another dog can understandably become timid when later faced with a new dog. Dogs who have been abused by people will often exhibit fear behaviors toward people with specific characteristics such as men with beards, people wearing hats, or running children.
A dog who did not have enough socialization and exposure to different people, places, sounds, and situations during the critical period between 3 and 14 weeks or who had a negative or frightening experience during that time can also be fearful and timid.
Just because a dog falls into one of these categories, however, does not mean that you cannot work with them to help build their confidence.
Ways to build confidence
A confident dog approaches new people and situations happily, showing behaviors such as tail wagging, a relaxed body posture, and a loose, ‘smiling’ mouth. They don’t seem to have anything to prove and are adaptable and comfortable with whatever comes their way.
The most important thing for your dog is for them to trust that you have their best interests in mind. They should know that they can count on you to support them and offer a safe refuge if needed. That bond is built through positive training, attention, exercise, and play.
- Be boring—Dogs, and especially timid or fearful dogs, love routine. The more you can structure your dog’s life with set times for eating, exercise, training, and play, the more they can relax and know what is coming and what will be expected of them.
- Be patient—It takes time to help a dog become more confident. Remember that dogs can feel our stress, so try to remain calm during this stressful situation. Project an aura of calm confidence that your dog can pick up on. Build your dog’s confident behaviors step by step. If they are afraid of noisy children, for example, begin by having them interact with one child at a time and offer praise and a tasty treat; this is a technique known as desensitization as they slowly become used to the trigger stimulus and have it paired with a good reward. As they become comfortable, you can begin to carefully increase the triggering stimulus. Don’t rush the process, and try not to become discouraged if you don’t quickly see a change in your dog.
- Minimize stressful situations—If you can, try to avoid your dog’s known triggers. It might mean taking a different route through your neighborhood or putting up curtains so your dog can’t see the street. Don’t force your dog to face their fears by forcing them into a stressful situation. Allow them to approach on their own terms and reward them for doing so calmly.
- Distraction—If you can have your dog focus on you rather than on the scary situation, you can help them to avoid the feelings of being out of control and needing to react. Teaching and reinforcing basic obedience commands can help to give your dog the confidence of completing a job while taking their mind off of the triggering stimulus. If your dog is watching for your next cue to have them sit, they won’t be able to bark at a passing car. When your dog understands what you want from them, they can move forward with confidence.
- Positive training – It is important to only use positive reinforcement training. Punishing your dog for acting timidly will just convince them that they are right to be frightened, and it can cement those behaviors in place. If you know what their triggers are, and it is possible to anticipate them, start well ahead of the triggering event. Get your dog to turn their attention to you, and be sure to reward them with a treat. If they are already too worked up by the new event, it will be much more difficult to capture their attention.
- Lower the stress level—A dog who is constantly on edge might be easily triggered and reactive in new situations. ElleVet Science’s CBD + CBDA products offer science backed and veterinarian approved relief from stress. Dogs who only exhibit situational stress (a veterinary visit or grooming appointment, for example) can benefit from the maximum strength, situational use ElleVet Calm & Comfort Chews.
- Unwavering support—There is some controversy about whether comforting a timid dog will reinforce their fear behavior. What is clear is that you want your dog to see you as a source of good, whether it is in the form of treats, meals, playtime, or general affection. You know your dog best and should pair your amount of physical affection and attention to what your dog desires. For example, some dogs like nothing better than to be touching their favorite humans. These ‘velcro dogs’ thrive on close cuddles and belly rubs. Other dogs prefer to be given more space and squirm or whine if they are being held. These dogs might appreciate a kind tone, a good play session, and a nice walk, but they might want to approach at their own speed.
The bottom line
You can help boost your timid dog’s confidence. Offer plenty of physical exercise each day to spin off some of that extra energy, and you can use feeding puzzle toys to keep them mentally stimulated. Short, daily training sessions, whether to reinforce basic commands or to learn new tricks, also work to give them a focus and a sense of accomplishment that will boost their confidence and show them that the world is not as scary as they thought. Keep a good eye on your timid dog’s body language in order to be sure that they are not too activated before you try to change their focus.
It is very rewarding to watch your hard work pay off as your timid pup begins to face the challenges of the scary world with more confidence.