When Sue Richmond walked into my training class with Skipper, I knew we had a challenge. She had recently adopted the 3-year-old Shetland Sheepdog from a rescue group. All she knew about him was that he had spent his entire life in a backyard.
His lack of socialization was evident in his tucked tail, flattened ears, and nervous glances around the training yard. Like many adopted dogs, Skipper needed help changing his fear of the world around him into curiosity and confidence.
Sue had already charged the clicker by taking the little plastic box I had given her the prior week and feeding Skipper a treat every time she pushed the metal tongue to make a clicking sound. When I saw Skipper’s eyes light up at the sound of the clicker, I knew he was on the road to a better life. He already understood that the sound meant Treat! Now it was a matter of time, and small steps, to help him understand the world was safe.
A dog’s personality is a combination of genetics and environment-nature and nurture. A genetically bold puppy will be timid if he doesn’t get adequate socialization during the important development period from 4 weeks to 4 months of age. A genetically timid puppy can achieve confidence with lots of socialization.
Open the Lines of Communication
Your shelter or rescue dog will probably come with some baggage in the form of too little socialization, or a negative kind. When you adopt, you commit to help your new dog overcome these types of challenges.
Your first tool in building your adopted dog’s confidence is communication. A poorly socialized dog has had little reason or opportunity to communicate with humans. The sooner you begin communicating with the consistent use of terms, a calm and positive tone, and tools like a clicker and treats the sooner the two of you will start forming the all-important bond that will ensure him a lifelong, loving home.
Think of the clicker and treats as an interpreter — a means to establish a common language. The click says “Yes! You earned a treat for that behavior!” Dogs, like all living things, want to make good things happen.
When your dog discovers he can make you click the clicker (and feed him treats) by offering behaviors, he can start to make sense of his world. When you associate words or hand signals with his behaviors, the two of you begin to communicate — he’s learning your language. As you observe and interpret his behaviors more closely, you’re learning his.
Three More Tools for Confidence
Any positive training you give your dog will help build his confidence. Each time you ask him to sit or lie down, and he understands, responds, and is reinforced with a click and treat, it helps him become more sure of himself.
There are also specific exercises for building confidence:
Targeting: Most dogs seem to enjoy it, and it’s immensely useful for grounding fearful dogs with a familiar task they know they can do during a stressful moment. Simply offer your hand, and when your dog sniffs it, click and treat. If necessary, smear a dab of something yummy and highly scented on your hand to make it more tempting.
Repeat until your dog will enthusiastically bump his nose into your hand. Then add a word, such as Touch, just before you offer your hand, to put the behavior on cue. When your dog does this behavior easily, ask him to target when he’s a little worried. His enthusiasm for targeting can overcome his caution. You can also use the target-your hand-to invite him near or past things that are a bit scary for him.
Tug: Another great confidence game, fun for the human end of the tug toy as well. Offer your dog a toy that he likes. Tease him gently with the toy to get him to grab at it. Praise him when he does to generate more tug-play. When he’ll consistently grab the toy and hold on, tug softly to encourage him to tug back, then add the Tug cue. When he’ll play tug with enthusiasm, teach him to let go by offering a tasty treat as you say Give. When he’s confident about playing, you can use this game to raise his confidence level around things that are scary to him.
Counter-conditioning and desensitization: This approach helps your dog learn a new, positive association for things that really frighten him.
Start with the stimulus (the thing your dog fears) at a far enough distance that your dog notices it, but doesn’t yet start to panic. The instant he alerts to the stimulus, feed him tiny bits, nonstop, of an extremely high-value treat, such as cooked, boneless chicken. Keep feeding tiny bits until the stimulus is gone or you move out of its range.
Practice this until his fearful alert turns into an excited anticipation for chicken.
Then, move a little closer to the stimulus and start again. Do it enough, and your dog will think the frightening thing makes chicken happen. It will no longer be scary — he’ll want it to appear so he gets more chicken.
Skipper responded beautifully to his positive training program.
Richmond realized the value of targeting as a confidence-builder when she used it to invite him into her car. Previously, she had to lift him in, and she was concerned that a possible problem with his hind legs was preventing him from jumping in voluntarily. The first time she targeted him into the car, he leaped in easily on his own. Problem solved!
Skipper graduated happily and confidently at the end of his six-week class, a changed and well-loved dog.