Building Confidence

The issue of confidence has been cropping up in my life more and more these past few weeks ranging from issue in dogs to even bigger issues in people. Both are important as they relate to the raising and training of the service dog puppies we do here.

One of the single most important things an owner can do for a dog is to develop a strong sense of confidence; the same is true with their puppy as he or she is growing up. This is something you have to be aware of and deliberately working towards every day. I guess I have raised so many puppies over the past 45 years that it has become second nature to me, but I certainly make an effort every day to work on building the confidence of my puppies and dogs.

There are two sides however to the confidence question. The first side concerns the genetic make up of the dog. This is something you should have been looking at when you were selecting your dog for the future work you had in mind for the dog. There are many bloodlines of dogs who are sweet and kind but have no confidence to go out on their own, think on their own, or be able to handle even low level stress that training for a job entails. We ask a lot of our service dogs and the last thing I want as a breeder is to produce a dog that crumbles under the least amount of stress. There is nothing you can do to change the genetics of the dog once you get it so just be aware of this factor if you are still shopping for a puppy or dog and be sure to choose a puppy or dog that displays the most confident of attitudes.

The other side of confidence is something there is much more control over and that is the building of a self-confident attitude in your dog or puppy. My philosophy is pretty simple. I feel success builds confidence. How do you create success? I think this starts in the whelping box. From the beginning, we stimulate and challenge the puppies in gentle ways as they are developing their senses, moving around, and gaining the ability to process information. When they get older the stimulation is ramped up. Pat Hastings, author of the Puppy Puzzle has a rule of 7 for the pups that states by 7 weeks the pups should:

  1. Have been on 7 different surfaces,
  2. Have played with 7 different types of objects,
  3. Have been in 7 different locations,
  4. Have been exposed to 7 challenges,
  5. Have eaten from 7 different containers,
  6. Have eaten in 7 different locations,
  7. Have met and played with 7 new people.

This is fairly easy for breeders to accomplish with a little fore thought on the setting up the environment where the puppies spend most of their time. The more enriched that place is with different things the better for the puppies. To build success into this equation we start very early challenging the pups to go a bit beyond their comfort level and reward this with a tasty treat or part of their meal. This sets a habit that we will use repeatedly as they are developing and learning their service dog skill sets. It is important when you are raising your puppy that you learn to anticipate what the puppy is about to do or what they are thinking as they approach a new situation; by doing this you can set up the situation to be a positive learning experience.

Lab puppy and man Turning street Corner

This pup shows the confidence you want to see in a developing service dog candidate.

A simple example of setting a puppy up for success relates to housebreaking. Right after an eight-week-old puppy finishes a bowl of food for example, it will have to eliminate. An astute person will realize this and be prepared in advance to take the puppy immediately outside after the meal. When the pup eliminates this person will reward and will help build the confidence of the pup that it can do things to please the person. What I see more often is that people will wait until the pup starts to eliminate in the house, they scream “NO!” in a harsh voice, scare the pup and then the poor scared pup is taken outside in a rush. Now confused why the person is angry, they have forgotten about eliminating; this further frustrates the person who is clearly conveying this to the puppy whether they realize it or not. Raising pups is not easy, as you must be thinking all the time about what the pup will try next and try to stay one step ahead of them. Do things wrong and you can destroy the confidence in a puppy which is difficult if not impossible to recover later on.

The same is true for people training older dogs. We sometimes start with older dogs for the service dog work and find we can change their confidence level just by offering them a solid program of training in which there are clear rules they can understand, provide consistency, and rewards that dogs find satisfying to keep them motivated. When working with owners who are training their own service dogs, especially the diabetic alert dogs, one of the biggest problems I see is a lack of a structured program. As proven by many years of testing, dogs respond the best when they are presented with a logical progression to the training they can understand. Consistency in both the application of that program and its progression through the tasks being taught as well as trainer’s use of rewards and praise are key points to remember. Not that it is any fault of the owners trying to train their own dogs that life gets in the way, especially if you are dealing with a condition like diabetes, but this will have an effect on the dog’s education. How can you overcome some of the curve balls that life throws at you so you can set your dog up for success and build in that confidence for them to do a stellar job for you? I think if you have a structured program you then have a framework to keep you on track. If you get waylaid at any point, that delay will not have that adverse an effect on the dogs progress since  you have a solid starting point to continue forward. This is the value of a well thought out and researched program when it comes to the practical world of training dogs where we sometimes cannot continue under ideal circumstances every day.

The last point I want to discuss is the confidence of the handlers.   I see so many people so worried about doing the wrong thing, not looking right, not being able to control the dog in public, wondering if the dog will preform when they are in public, worrying about this little thing and that little thing, that they talk themselves and subsequently their dogs into a state of timidity and un-sureness. This is exactly opposite of what we desire for all good working teams. I feel that confidence is not about ability or achieving perfection, rather is it simply a state of mind; it is as simple as saying I am going to do this and you go out and do it. It doesn’t matter if it was perfect or not. I don’t think for one minute that any of my dogs ever wake up and say to themselves, “Oh I don’t know if today is going to be good or not, maybe I won’t do well.” I feel rather they wake up, tail wagging, ready for whatever the day may bring. And for my guys they are always ready and happy to try whatever that might be. That confidence is what we breed into them and develop, but the point is they have the right attitude and that is what we need to mimic. If you can just say to yourself, “I’m going to take this day and whatever it has to offer one step at a time and just do the best I can”, that conscience thought and deliberate positive action will do more than anything else to help you accomplish the synergy with your dog that will make you an ace team.

“If you’re presenting yourself with confidence, you can pull off pretty much anything”– Katy Perry