How to Build Your Dog’s Confidence

fearful dogs Aug 31, 2021
Confident Dog

If you have a fearful dog, you’ve probably googled “How to build your dog’s confidence,” a time or two.  And you probably found all kinds of advice. Some of it was probably good, some useless but harmless, and some actually harmful. How are you supposed to sort through all of that and find the good stuff?  I hope this week’s discussion will help. 

In this video, I talk about what we mean by “confidence”, then get into a practical training example.  How can you tell if your dog is confident?  What does a confident dog look like, and what do they do?  In order to reach a training goal with your dog, you need to know what exactly the goal is, and how you’ll be able to tell when you’ve succeeded in reaching it.  Here’s a brief overview of our discussion on how to build your dog’s confidence: 


What is “confidence”? 

We all want our dogs to be confident- but what does that mean?   Our Facebook support group weighed in on how they could tell their dog was confident. They focused on identifying behaviors that they could see and describe. Here are some of their answers: 

  • Moving away from their people and sniff and explore;
  • Dog’s head held up, tail wagging, open, relaxed mouth;
  • Making eye contact;
  • Playing or chewing;
  • Looking around with “relaxed” body language;
  • Quickly returning to previous behavior after a startle response;
  • Lying down instead of hiding.


What do you think? Would you call a dog doing some of these behaviors “confident”?  

We can’t reinforce “confidence.”  Confidence is a label, not an observable behavior. The good news? We CAN reinforce “confident” behaviors, like the ones in the list above.  This gives you the ability to set specific behavioral goals when setting out to build your dog’s confidence.


Building Confidence = Training “Confident” Behaviors With Positive Reinforcement

When you train with positive reinforcement, you’ll create positive associations. You’ll start to see your dog behaving in order to get good stuff, rather than trying to avoid scary stuff.   I want my dogs to be primarily behaving to get more enjoyment out of life, and not spend much time and energy on avoiding unpleasant things. I think this is an important piece of what we’re looking for when we say we want to build “confidence.”

You also get snappier and happier-looking behavior when you train using positive reinforcement. You know how excited your dog gets when you go to the cookie jar? That cookie jar has become associated with good things- getting treats.  The behavior of following you to the cookie jar, and maybe sitting, are reinforced when you give your dog a cookie. The wiggly body and speedy sprint to the cookie jar are a bonus of training with positive reinforcement. Who isn’t a hurry to get a delicious cookie? 

There are other, less pleasant ways to reinforce behaviors, of course.  But if your goal is to build your dog’s confidence, training them to try behaviors to get stuff they love is much more likely to produce the results you’re looking for. 


Training Confident Behaviors Example: Sniffing 

Dogs love to sniff, right? But so many fearful dogs don’t do much sniffing when in a new place, or out on walks. Instead, they scan the environment, or try to run home. How can we help these pups enjoy exploring with their noses a little more?   

In this week’s video I showed how we incorporated Scent Work into our dog Pancake’s training. Scent Work games are ideal for building confidence (or at least, the “confident” behaviors of moving around and sniffing) for at least two reasons:

1)  Scent Work can be completely hands-off. You can set up a little search area, and leave the room. Your pup will find the treats and their exploring and sniffing should be reinforced without you needing to deliver the treats directly;

2) As your dog starts to sniff more on their own, sniffing is likely to be reinforced by smells found in the environment.  When dogs start sniffing, there are lots of reinforcers to be had in the big scary world. 

If you’ve used Scent Work to build your fearful dog’s confidence, I’d love to hear about it! Shoot us an email at [email protected]

If you're looking for more guidance with your fearful dog, check out our monthly training membership, or sign up for private training, and get the support you need.