Everyone wants an obedient dog because no one wants to be embarrassed by their four-legged companion! However, you may not realize that having a confident dog is equally important. When I talk about confidence, that doesn’t mean your dog is approaching strangers and asking to be pet. Confidence means that your dog can stay calm, cool, and collected in most situations and new places. Confidence is built upon obedience, and will help you and your dog navigate new situations. It’s easy to build confidence in your pup by practicing obedience in new places.
You may think, “my dog is never going to leave the house, or my yard.” Wrong! Even if your dog has access to a yard, you should be taking them on regular walks. You should also expect to take your dog to the vet at least once a year for their annual physical examination. It’s easy to identify dogs that do not get out as often as they should in the clinic waiting-room. They come barreling through the door, dragging their owner, and have no concept of boundaries. They are usually overstimulated by the new environment and other animals, and will either be reactive out of fear or excitement.
Universal basic obedience commands include sit, stay, down, and come. Walking on a loose leash, and at a heel is also important. Two commands that I think can be overlooked are “look” and “touch.” Even if your dog has these commands practiced at home, it is important to practice them in other environments with distractions.
Look means that your dog looks up at you with eye contact on command. I have found this command to be the most useful when training my own dog. Before working with a professional trainer, I had no idea that this was a command my dog should know!
You always want to reward your dog when they look to you for direction. To build this command, you would need to start with a treat at your dog’s nose, and ask them to “look at me” or “watch me” and pull the treat up towards your face. Once your dog makes eye contact with you, reward “Yes!” and give them the treat. Eventually you can remove the lure, and just use the command.
Another command that I learned working with a professional trainer is “touch” or target training. This simple skill is your dog learning to touch your hand (or eventually an object) with their nose. Sometimes, in a chaotic environment, I have found asking my dog to touch my hand is easier than to ask for “look at me.” This command is very helpful for an easily distracted or reactive dog. Redirecting their attention to touch your hand will interrupt whatever they may be fixated on. It can also help build their ability to come when called. Touch is also useful to get a nervous dog to touch something new, and build their confidence. For example, I used touch for my puppy to touch the vacuum! After the “touch” command is established with your hand, you can replace it with fun objects like their toys. Then you can move to more everyday objects like a kitchen spoon. The idea is for them to understand that you are asking them to touch any object with their nose. They do not have to hold the touch, it is a quick “boop” of the snoot and a release. Of course, like with any command you can build on duration.
Building exposure to new, and potentially “scary” objects is important, and you can do that when you have mastered basic obedience skills. Objects like bicycles or skateboards are common, or items inside of the home or yard like a vacuum or leaf blowers because of their unpredictable noises. It’s important to manage the exposure so that they do not become overwhelmed or afraid. It’s great to start these activities when your dog is a puppy because dogs that already have established fears will need more work to desensitize.
Desensitizing means that you are exposing your dog to a less threatening version of what they fear. I thought I had exposed my dog to loud noises like garbage trucks, and public transportation, but I found out the hard way that he was fearful of fireworks. He had no problem with fireworks when indoors, but if I tried to take him for a walk at nighttime, he was terrified. He grew up in an urban environment that was prone to close range fireworks during the summertime. Even the sound of a car backfiring would trigger his fear. I had to work very hard, and continue to work on his fear. In hindsight, what I would have done differently is introduce the sound of recorded fireworks when he was a puppy. And then increased those to banging pots and pans. What I have learned is that the fear is truly rooted in the unpredictability of when or where they are going to happen.
When moving into new environments it is important to pay attention to your dog’s body language. If they begin to show signs of fear, you may want to take a step back. The biggest mistake you can make is encouraging the fear. This is controversial, and some argue that you should not “comfort” your dog when they are afraid. You can comfort a dog without rewarding their fear. It’s best to remain calm, and move on. I believe that if you dwell on their fear, and hold or coddle your dog, it encourages their fear. A clear example of this is when socializing your puppy at a puppy class or play group. You, the owner, are not supposed to be in the space during free play because your puppy may try to hide behind your feet or jump up to you when they become afraid. You are teaching your puppy to naturally be confident by letting them figure out a stressful situation on their own.
This doesn’t mean ignore them completely, but rather redirect their attention to something that will help de-escalate their fear, for example, if your dog has a favorite toy or likes to play fetch. You never want to force them to remain in a state of discomfort. When your dog is anxious and uncomfortable it is easy to let our emotions get the best of us. By moving on, you are avoiding putting pressure on your dog with your own negative reaction to their behavior.
Even some of the most confident dogs can have some fears. It is important to always build on their confidence by associating their training with good things like high value treats and praise. A confident handler is also important because your dog should be looking to you for direction. Set small, obtainable goals for you and your dog. One of the many benefits to working with a professional trainer is that they will help you work on your own human behaviors as well! Dogs can definitely feed off of our energy, which can have a negative effect on their behavior. A confident human handler is going to be the first step to having a confident dog!