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How to build a confident dog

If lockdown has knocked your canine’s chum’s confidence for six, what can you do to help them be less fearful around other dogs so that they can enjoy life to the full? In fact, it’s a problem that’s been identified by leading animal charities, which have carried out research into how lockdown life has affected our pets.

The latest PDSA PAW Report into the health and wellbeing of the nation’s dogs, cats and rabbits found that 15% of dogs who found homes during lockdown are now showing signs of fear, and 11% are showing signs of aggression towards unfamiliar dogs.

Dogs Trust also conducted a survey into the impact of the global pandemic on dog behaviour. Key findings included:

  • The majority of owners (80%) reported that their dog’s routine had changed (57% a little, 23% a lot), with only 1 in 5 owners (20%) stating their dog’s routine had not altered compared with before lockdown. Some owners also reported more difficulty when out and about with their dogs especially when other dogs and people were nearby. Find out how to train your dog to make a polite hello >>
  • Just over a quarter of owners reported their dog showed at least one new problem behaviour during lockdown, with Google searches for ‘dog bark’ increasing by around 48% and ‘dog bite’ by around 40%, suggesting people were seeking help for these worrying behaviours. We also found that growling, snapping, or nipping children when approached and handled by them increased by 57% during lockdown. These are a dog’s way of communicating that they uncomfortable with whatever’s happening at that moment, suggesting dogs found parts of the lockdown period particularly difficult. The family dog – making it work for pets and children >>
  • During lockdown, there was an 82% increase in reports of dogs whining or barking when an adult household member was busy and a 20% increase in reports of dogs frequently seeking attention from owners
  • There was a 41% increase in reports of dogs being clingy or following people around the house during lockdown, which ties in with concern over dogs coping should they need to be left alone in future. Follow our tips on how to help your dog feel calm and safe when you have to leave them home alone >>

While transitioning from lockdown may be difficult for older dogs, it’s especially challenging for puppies. Dogs Trust advises: “Early life is an important time for puppies to learn how to communicate with other dogs. This is tricky right now, but you can start introducing the sight, sound, and smell of other dogs at a distance. It's important that your puppy meets with other dogs as soon as possible after lockdown to catch up on this part of their early learning.” Find out what 'socialisation' for your dog really means >>


Not all dogs want to make new doggy friends

Every dog is different and while some enjoy socialising with lots of other friendly canines, others prefer to have a small, select group of buddies they enjoy spending time with. It’s important to note that some dogs simply prefer the company of their human over hanging out with other canines.

PDSA advises: “If your pup is nervous around other dogs, you may feel like you want to encourage them to interact as much as you can. However, the most important thing to remember is that you should never force them to interact if they don’t want to, as this will only build on their fear. Keeping a good distance away from other dogs while allowing them to be aware of one another should help your pup remain calm and unthreatened, resulting in a good experience.”  

Not every dog to dog interaction goes to plan and there are definite rules of the game when it comes to dog park play that need to be followed >>

And, while you can’t make your dog like other dogs, it’s possible to help build their confidence so they’re less fearful of other canines – and life in general.


The power of problem solving

Canine behavioural expert Sally Gutteridge of Canine Principles explains it like this: “Dogs want to do things. They get bored and need mental stimulation just as we do. They can grow valuable self-belief and confidence through enrichment and problem solving. Why is it so good for our dogs? It’s good because it fulfils many of their natural needs.”

Importantly, Sally Gutteridge is keen to stress that this approach isn’t about training. She says: “The objective is to give your dog something enjoyable to do. A dog that is enjoying an activity, is naturally having his life enriched. Enrichment activity has some wonderful side effects. The dog is naturally calmer because they have spent some time problem solving. Mental energy use leads to mental relaxation, so gentle problem solving will alleviate boredom. Anxious dogs that are low in self-esteem benefit from the boost of solving a problem all on their own. An enrichment activity is pressure free. No expectations are placed on the dog, they are just provided with a problem to solve and left to it. Whether it's, treats in a box stuffed with easy rip paper balls, breakfast in a Licki-mat or dinner from a towel, snuffle mat or ball doesn’t matter. It should be within your dog’s current mental confidence and capacity, fun and enjoyable.”


How to tell if your dog is feeling scared and stressed

If you learn to recognise the signs, you can remove your dog from a situation before they feel too anxious. Signs of stress may include:

  • Blinking excessively
  • Turning head away
  • Yawning and licking their lips
  • Low body posture
  • Freezing
  • Hiding away
  • Cowering
  • Flattening their ears and tucking their tail between their legs
  • Avoiding other dogs
  • Stiffening up and staring
  • Growling and barking
  • Snapping

(Source: PDSA)

Find out more about how dogs communicate how they're feeling >>


Entertaining enrichment ideas

Canine Principles has some great enrichment ideas to try out to get your dog’s neurons firing. Simply get some of your dog's favourite dry food and get inventive – for example:

  • While your dog is taking a nap, prowl around the house hiding treats. Make the hiding places match your dog’s ability to find or he or she may lose confidence and give up. The ability to find hidden food will grow along with the confidence of your dog and you can progress to different heights and more difficult hiding places
  • Hide food in boxes, in bigger boxes and let your dog pull them apart. Wrap and tie rags around a treat and let your dog rip them open
  • Make or buy a snuffle mat, which is simply a mat with large felt strips for snuffling in after tasty nuggets of dry food – most dogs love them
  • Search dog games are great fun. Begin with a toy that holds a tiny bit of food and ask your dog to stay while you pretend to drop the toy in various areas in an outdoor space. Touch every area you pretend to leave the toy in with the toy, as this creates a scent disturbance. Then return to your dog and send him or her out to find the treasure

TOP TIP

To ensure your puppy or dog stays in shape, use a portion of their daily food ration for games and enrichment activities.


Gaining in confidence

Sally Gutteridge advises: “The more you carry out enrichment, the happier your dog will be. In addition, the better at it he or she will become. Remember that all dogs are different, and some have more confidence than others. Whilst most dogs will work out what to do, some struggle due to self-belief. This often doesn’t mean a lack of interest but simply low self-esteem. Offer help, just enough to make it easier for progress, keep it pressure free and coach that confidence.”


TOP TIP

Products such as Pet Remedy or Adaptil can help increase your dog’s sense of security as they release comforting pheromones to aid canine relaxation.


Steps you can take to help your dog feel less worried

PDSA suggests that by using desensitisation and counterconditioning methods you can gradually, and slowly, expose your dog to situations that make them feel nervous (desensitisation), while helping them become more comfortable by building up positive associations and changing how they feel about the situation (counterconditioning).

To help your best four-legged friend feel better about other dogs, you’ll need to help them associate meeting dogs with positive experiences. The charity outlines three simple steps that can help desensitise your dog to canine stranger danger:

  1. When you first start the process, it’s important that you keep your pup far enough away from other dogs so they’re not reacting and are remaining calm. When your pup is relaxed, reward their behaviour with a high value treat or toy – this will help create positive associations and change their mind-set about strange dogs
  2. When this has been repeated lots of times and your dog is able to remain calm in the presence of another dog from a distance, you can try bringing them a little bit closer, constantly rewarding them to reinforce the positive association. Remember, if your dog starts to show any signs of stress, immediately create a bigger distance from the other dog and allow your pup to settle down. Doing this is important to ensuring that their fear doesn’t get worse.
  3. Repeat this process until they reach a comfortable distance – bring it back a stage if they feel uncomfortable. The key to success is not to rush – be patient, take baby steps, and don’t be afraid to stop and try again another day if your pup appears worried. Desensitising your dog won't change their behaviour instantly – in fact, it can take months, or even years. However, if it's done slowly, it can be very successful

If you notice any behavioural changes in your dog, speak to your vet. They can check to see if there’s a medical issue, give you advice and refer you to a behaviourist if needed.


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