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Nervous Puppy? How to Build Confidence

Updated: Aug 3, 2022

How to build confidence in a nervous puppy or dog
How to build confidence in a nervous puppy or dog

I have worked with hundreds of puppies, and each and every one of them has its own unique personality. Some are bold, bashful and very confident and others want to hide away as if they were invisible. It can be very hard for a new puppy owner to realise that they have a nervous and shy puppy, it can feel like the job of a puppy parent has been made even harder.

A puppy's socialisation period is said to start around 3 weeks of age, it's around this age that puppies are able to start to make associations. Puppies tend to go home to their new families around 8 weeks of age so it falls heavily onto the breeder to put in place a very good socialisation plan for the litter of puppies. Hence the importance of finding a really decent breeder. A good breeder should be helping the puppies to get used to the world and their environment, positively exposing them to sounds, sights, novelty, environments etc. Puppy farm puppies are likely to have suffered in this area, the bitch would have experienced a lot of stress during pregnancy and the puppies would have had a lack of social contact during the critical socialisation period, setting them back. I do want to add there is no rule as to whether your puppy will be confident and bold or nervous and shy, I have worked with many puppies from very good breeders that are very shy and I have worked with puppy farm puppies that are extremely confident.

So how can you tell if you have a nervous puppy?

There are many ways in which you can assess your puppy. I would look at:

  • How is your puppy when they approach something new? A confident puppy will most likely run straight up to new things, whether that is a person, a novel object etc. They are happy to interact with new people that they've never met. They may climb all over an object that is brand new to them. A shy puppy may hide behind their owner rather than approach something new, they may only take a couple of steps toward something new and they are likely to retreat and move away. They may keep their back legs firmly planted and use the rest of their bodies to lean in. They may bark continuously while that "new" thing is in the environment.

  • Body Language It's vital that you learn to read your puppy's body language, being able to read your puppy's body language will provide you with so much information about how your puppy is feeling. I always say to my clients, learn your puppy, observe them in every situation and environment. Learn what they look like when they are relaxed and happy at home with you- look at the tail, eyes, ears, and body. Once you have a good idea about what your puppy looks like when they are relaxed and happy then it's learning to notice the subtle or obvious differences in their body language in different situations. The tail is a big giveaway, many people assume that a wagging tail means the dog is happy but that is not true, it depends on the speed of the wag, the tail position, the rest of the body etc. Thinking of this in human terms, we can smile when we are sad, happy, angry etc, our smile can mask a million different emotions and the same can be said about the dog's tail. I'd recommend buying this book about dogs' body language.

What can you do to boost a puppy's confidence?

  1. Give them choice! Giving a puppy choice can empower them and ultimately build confidence. Allowing your puppy the choice of whether to greet someone or approach something new is the key to building confidence. It's so important to not flood a puppy, flooding a puppy would be 'making' them say hello to someone or approach something new. Allow your puppy to stay back and observe from a distance, allow them to sniff the environment, and allow them to create space and move away. Never hand your shy puppy over to someone so they can hold them, this will remove all choice and the puppy is likely to shut down at this moment as they can't do anything else. Giving your puppy a choice allows them to avoid stressful situations when they are not ready to face them.

  2. Be Patient! It can take time to build confidence and resilience in a puppy, there is no quick fix to this. Putting the right steps in place and taking things slowly is better than rushing. All puppies are different.

  3. Reassure and Comfort! In the past, the advice was that you should never comfort a worried puppy but this is simply not true. It's good to work out what you think reassures your puppy, for example, it may be kneeling down next to them and giving them affection, it may be walking them away in a different direction, it may be taking out a tug toy and having a game. Like us, we all have different things that would comfort us in a time of worry.

  4. Build Optimism! Building confidence and optimism is one of the best things you can do for your new puppy. An optimistic dog is not reactive; they are calm and confident whether that be busy streets, noisy traffic, the vet’s waiting room, or any other scenario they are perhaps not used to. Below are some ideas to build confidence and optimism.

  • Cardboard Chaos This is a great game to develop confidence and build optimism in our dogs. Take an empty cardboard box and fill it with other pieces of recycling, Scatter food into the pile or hide your dog’s favourite toy in it. Let your dog find the food/toy.

  • Scatter Feeding This is a great game, instead of feeding your dog their breakfast from a bowl, take your dog’s breakfast with you on your morning walk and scatter it in the grass at a safe and appropriate place and let your dog forage for it. Your dog will love using their nose to hunt out its breakfast. Sniffing is also massively calming to your dog. Your dog will have fun and be relaxed and confident in the game which can help with issues such as building confidence when out and about, relaxing in new environments, and focusing on you when on walks, the list is endless!

  • Can You Get In The Box? This game is about boosting your dog's confidence to explore novelty. In this game, you will use 'Shaping' shaping rewards a dog’s natural curiosity and reinforces them for trying new things. Check it out here.

  • Training Start training with your new puppy, training is a great way to boost confidence. Having a few behaviours to work on out and about will keep your puppy cognitive, they say if a dog is cognitive, they don't experience fear or anxiety. I love working on behaviours such as 'Touch and 'Middle' these two cues to teach a puppy early on.

If you have a nervous puppy and want some more help then please do get in touch, we can work on this remotely via Zoom or in person if you are within my catchment zone.

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