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Tips For Training Low Confidence Dogs
October 1999
By Devon Chan, top dog canine training services



A common problem in dogs is low confidence. This can be caused by many things, such as being the lowest pup in the litter, being mistreated, not being socialized as a pup, having a traumatic experience, etc. Or it can just be a personality trait. More and more dogs are exhibiting signs of having low confidence levels, probably because of the increasing amount of stress in the owner’s lives. These signs include:

- shyness and cowering around strangers, men, adults, etc.
- rolling into a submissive (belly-up) position
- submissive urination (not to be confused with housetraining problems)
        eg. dog urinates when petted, when someone comes home, when disciplined
        your dog cannot help this
- tail held low or between rear legs
- fear biting (not to be confused with aggression)

In order to help a low confidence dog, you must build up his or her confidence. The best way to do this is through obedience training. As the dog succeeds, he will gain confidence in his abilities. Here are some guidelines.

  1. Use consistent training techniques.
  2. Use lots of praise, and as little correction as possible.
  3. Use encouragement, praise, and rewards in order to get the dog to perform.
  4. Start with no distractions, and add distractions very slowly.
  5. Always set your dog up to succeed.
  6. Begin with non-threatening exercises such as "Heel" and "Sit", before working up to more submissive postures like the "Down".
  7. Make sure your dog is successful at each exercise before continuing to the next.
  8. End on a positive note.


Guidelines Explained

  1. Use consistent training techniques
  2.         Consistency is one of the keys to raising a dog’s confidence. Always use your dog’s name before giving a command. Always use the same command for the same action. "Down" means "lie down now", not "don’t jump" or "get off the couch". Never use your dog’s name if you must correct. Say "no", and only as forcefully as needed to get a response. Don’t display anger or emotion. Dogs pick up on your emotions and low confidence dogs are often very sensitive and easily affected by your emotions.

  3. Use lots of praise
  4.         Praise your dog for every single thing she does right. If she makes a mistake, consider it your fault and try to find a way to get her to succeed. For example, if she breaks a sit because of excitement over your praise, gently put her back and this time release her before praising. Do not correct her unless you are sure that she is purposely testing you. This is uncommon in low confidence dogs. Correcting for misunderstanding or fear will only make matters worse.

  5. Use encouragement to get your dog to perform
  6.         Rather than forcing your dog to do something, try to induce him through encouragement, praise, and even food rewards to begin with. However, don’t baby or coddle him because this will encourage his fearful behavior. Act happy and confident and your dog will pick up on it.

  7. Start with no distractions, and add distractions slowly
  8.         Part of ensuring that your dog succeeds is working in a very quiet, non-distracting environment, such as alone in your home. Once your dog is performing well, take your dog outside where there are mild distractions. Move on to a fairly quiet playground, then a noisy playground, until you can heel your dog through a crowd. Of course this will take LOTS of time. If your dog appears upset or fearful in a given situation, then you are proceeding too fast.

  9. Always set your dog up to succeed
  10.         In order for your dog to gain confidence, she must succeed. If you are going to give a command, say the dog’s name clearly and give the command in a calm purposeful voice. Don’t give a command if you think your dog may not respond (for example if she is excited or distracted). Remember that with a low confidence dog, your primary goal is not flawless obedience, but rather to build her confidence.

  11. Begin with non-threatening exercises and work up
  12.         If you begin with commands such as "Sit" and "Heel", your dog will probably not feel threatened. However, the "Down" is a very submissive posture. Forcing a low confidence dog into a Down at the beginning of training may only cause him to act more submissive. When you do teach the "Down", use encouragement and rewards – don’t force him down.

  13. Make sure your dog is successful before continuing
  14.         In order to minimize confusion on the part of your dog, work on only one command at a time. Make sure your dog has mastered the exercise before moving on.

  15. End on a positive note
    Always end your training sessions on a positive note. If your dog is really having trouble with a new command, go back to one she knows and then end with lots of praise. Do your training before a walk, play session, car ride, or something else that she really enjoys. This way training will be associated with good things.


Get Involved

        Finally, get involved in agility, flyball, group obedience, herding clubs, etc. Basically, you should take part in any group activity you can find that your dog enjoys. In doing this, your dog will be building confidence by learning new skills, as well as socializing with other dogs and people. These are ideal environments for socializing because the other dogs (and people) will generally be friendly, well behaved, and under control.