Disclaimer: There is a difference between a dog who is traumatized and a dog lacking confidence or who is timid. While some of the techniques below may help rehabilitate a traumatized dog (for example, one with a history of dog-fighting or neglect), it would be better to follow a program of rehabilitation rather than behavior modification for a dog with significant trauma. The steps below top build confidence are not intended to replace such a rehabilitation program.
Some dogs are afraid of nothing. Others are more cautious, afraid of everything that is unfamiliar. Kind of like Lassie versus Scooby-Doo.
There are quite a few ways to help your timid dog build confidence. Your vet or dog trainer can provide assistance, but there are some suggestions you can try at home. One of the ways to overcome lack of confidence is counter-conditioning. Another is desensitization.
Your dog doesn’t just start displaying fear behavior. There’s some kind of cause. Dog behaviorists refer to this as a trigger. Maybe it’s thunder, maybe it’s a car, and maybe it’s something else. You probably have a good idea what your dog’s trigger is, but if it’s not clear (like thunder) you’ll have to observe her carefully to see when she starts exhibiting fear signals.
Desensitization is the process of starting with a low level of exposure to the trigger, and then gradually increasing the level of exposure until the dog has no negative reaction to it. This is generally combined with counter-conditioning.
This is the process of associating something positive with the stimulus that your dog reacts negatively to.
Desensitization and counter-conditioning in practice
Let’s say, for example, your bulldog hates the vacuum cleaner. The thing switches on and your dog heads for the nearest bed or couch and attempts to hide away. A desensitization approach would have you starting off by switching on the vacuum cleaner for a second and then immediately switching it off. You’d gradually increase the time you switch it on for, over weeks or even months, until she greets the sound of the vacuum cleaner with poise and equanimity.
With a counter-conditioning approach, you’d give the dog a treat or praise him whenever the vacuum cleaner goes on and she doesn’t freak out.
For more information on this, check out: https://www.animalhumanesociety.org/training/counter-conditioning-and-desensitization
Who’s a good boy, then?
Praise is very important to dogs. Your opinion matters so whenever she does something right, praise him. Keep your voice soothing and gentle. Give him (gentle!) affection when she’s resting by slowly approaching her on all fours (you’re less intimidating when you’re closer to her level) and gently scratching her belly or behind her ears. It’s important for her to feel safe and loved in her home in order for her to build confidence. If the dog withdraws from you or even runs and hides, don’t chase her down and drag her back, but attempt to draw her out with soothing tones or treats. Don’t push it. She’ll come out when she realizes you’re not a threat.
Training to build confidence
Obedience training, if undertaken slowly and gently, can strengthen the bond between human and dog. Dogs are not humans. It may seem counterintuitive to overcome timidity by giving dogs tasks, but in fact what you’re doing is creating a situation where the dog knows what is expected of her and knows how to obtain the outcome that produces something it wants. In a sense, obedience training gives a dog some control over how it is treated and the environment surrounding it.
You don’t have to get fancy or elaborate. Simple things like sitting, staying, walking to heel or coming when called are useful in everyday life and provide the dog with activities it can do with you. There are other activities such as “targeting” and “find it” which are fun games you can learn to play with your dog. Be slow and be patient and don’t expect miracles. Stick to a few minutes a day. When your dog’s attention begins to wander, stop. You do more harm than good in trying to force it. If you keep your sessions short, they’re a pleasant activity which results in treats for the dog. Something they might even start looking forward to. If they get boring, or if the dog becomes frustrated because it can’t figure out what you want, then the timidity will return. If your dog starts showing fear during any form of training, stop immediately and either start to play a game or show affection.
Over-submissiveness or timidity is not something that dogs have to live with. It’s a sign that something is wrong. As guardian of your canine friend, there’s a great deal you can do to alleviate fear and build confidence. With a little patience, you’ll be blown away by the changes you can create with just a few minutes a day.