A recent email received from a breeder asked, “What do you do to build confidence in your dogs?” The short answer is everything! There is very little Sam and I do not expose the puppies to when they are growing up. But this question intrigued me beyond the obvious answer of socializing. Most breeders and puppy raisers spend a lot of time socializing their puppies, but while we are socializing we are also confidence building. As I dwelled on this point, I realized that most people do not actively build up the confidence in their puppies while they are growing up. I guess it is one of those things I have been doing so long I just took it for granted.
To help a puppy reach their full potential, that is the potential of the genetic material of their breeding, it is necessary in my observations to do two things. The first is to watch and observe how the pup’s innate nature operates and learns. Not all puppies learn the same way nor do they learn at the same time in their development. A great example of this is the leftover pup from a litter that the entire world waited for out of two top performing field trial Labradors. This pup was rejected by all the experts as not having the “right stuff”. Finally he was sold to a person who was not a pro trainer but had a passion for his dogs and loved to work dogs. He didn’t care if the pup was the last pick and reject of the litter. The pup was rejected mostly because he did not exhibit as much drive and desire to retrieve and play with birds at the young age of 8 weeks. As that dog matured however, he later earned the highest of honors by becoming a National Field Champion. His owner took the time to develop his potential and the results paid off; the others were looking for the “instant” success and working with someone like that this pup may not have reach such a high achievement.
When you start a puppy out just watch while he explores and take note of how he uses his nose, eyes, and ears….what happens when he hears a loud sound? Meets another person? Another dog not from his litter? Then as you introduce him to new things and as you train him to new tasks and commands, use those cues from your observations to build his education in such a manner that is more natural for him.
For example, a cautious dog who likes to thoroughly check everything out before doing anything, would not be one that I would push do too many tasks in one day. I might even ask this dog to master only step of a task first; then later chain these steps together to build up to doing the full task. It all depends on the dog and their learning style. In the end all the dogs will perform the same; it is only in the learning they differ. But recognizing that variance between learning styles makes a huge difference when you are talking about building confidence. Look at Ava, the 6 month old pup I am now training as a service dog. I wanted to teach her to go to “Place” (this means go to whatever I was pointing at, which in this case was her Kuranda bed). She is the type of pup who learns best by teaching in steps. The first step was go next to the bed and with a bite of food
(Click and treat) Next step was to lure her up onto the bed paired with the “click” and another treat. Later I bridged the behavior with the “Place” command. Gradually I would move further and further away until I could be on the other side of the room and point with a command of “Place”; now she runs to the bed, jumps on it and waits for her treat. It might take me another week to get her to stay there while I do things around the house but eventually she will understand that going to “Place” is more or less like staying in an open crate. This also teaches a form of self-control another principle that all pups need to learn. Charlie, by contrast to Ava, learned this whole exercise in 2 days, including staying on the bed for extended times while I did things around the house. He has a different style of learning. The end result will be the same, but how I get there with the two different dogs is something I wanted to point out as so many people try to fit round pegs into square holes. It can only damage the dog if you do. It will not build confidence if you don’t recognize the differences in the learning style.
The second part of this process is exposing the puppy to all the sights, sounds, & textures of things that they will have to deal with in life. This list is by no means complete but includes:
- Uneven surfaces
- Rough surfaces
- Wire grates
- Slick floors
- Area rugs
- Vacuum cleaners
- Car doors slamming
- Kids running around screaming or riding bicycles
- Meeting other animals
- Lightning and thunder
- Sliding Electric doors
- Material door coverings and or doggie door flaps
When we are developing a puppy at our place, they are getting out in the world on a daily basis. Daily is the key word here that makes a difference; confidence is built as the pup is first socialized to the new things, and then repeatedly taken there or exposed until they feel perfectly comfortable with it. Meeting and seeing a variety of shaped people, sized people, difference races and physical conditions will help the pup to understand that just like in the dog breeds, there are many styles, sizes, and shapes of the two legged species. All the exposure you are giving that pup builds the confidence of the pup to handle all the things that life will throw his way. Another part of this early training is setting up the learning situations for your pups so they can make choices that lead to success and are self-fulfilling. Just as important is building in exercises that teach self-control. Without self-control a whole myriad of problems can develop in a dog, the worst of which are aggression issues. To begin to build confidence with the youngest of pups we start with something simple like Susan Garrett’s “Crate Games”. (Click here to read more: http://www.clickerdogs.com/crate_games.php) These are very simple games, the dogs understand and it is fun. When all these elements are present in your puppy rearing criteria, you are sure to have a steady and capable dog that is ready to work with you on anything you want to try.