I have worked with a number of submissive, timid and insecure dogs over the years and to me they are the most difficult problem to solve. To me it is much easier to tamp down drive, check energy or coral enthusiasm than it is to build confidence, yet that is a problem presented to many pet owners who want to take their canine to the next level or even into Home Depot.
My experience with this has often been in female dogs, though I have seen a different presentation in males in the form of fear biting and barrier aggression.
At any rate, I have tried different things at different times, with different dogs, and have had different results. Dogs are not computers they are individuals, so while having a basic understanding of motivators is great, experience does not always replace trial and error.
Take Lika for example. Lika was slated to be a working dog because that is what her owner wanted to do. Unfortunately Lika was not sure that that is what she wanted to do, desperate as she was to spend time with her master. When I first met Lika I didn’t find her to be overly shy, but she certainly was laid back and very soft. When working with strangers she was reluctant and hesitant which was a problem for a SAR dog who needs to be eager to rush up to perfect strangers with enthusiasm and abandon.
Lika’s master also had a problem in that he was unenthusiastic. It was a terrible combination. Though they were no doubt wonderful room mates, it was almost a lose/lose combination. We tried a variety of games and activities, but nothing seemed to make a big difference. Oh, there were gradual improvements, just from repetition and habituation, but it was very slow progress.
I tried to convince Lika’s master that he needed to put aside all male pride, and become shrill, animated and ecstatic when Lika showed interest, pleasure or comfort in contact with strangers, but this was just not in his bag of tricks. I asked the volunteers working with Lika to make like squirrels and run from her on her approach. I watched her timidly wag her tail when she saw this game but she would look back at her master for approval only to get a gruff nod.
Perhaps part of Lika’s problem was not getting the level of approval and enthusiasm from her handler that she needed. Maybe she just was not wired to be a confident outgoing dog and trying to make her was spitting in the wind. Sometimes you have to be ok with not getting what you wanted and loving the dog you’ve got.
Other examples of confidence are clearly fear based. But not in the dog.
I was complaining to my animal behaviorist and training mentor that I hated nothing more than a dog that rocked the whole vehicle charging and barking as you walked by and my dog had begun to do just that. She explained to me that I had taken on a guarding breed and he was doing what guarding breeds do. Guard. She told me I got the wrong breed if I didn’t want my guarding breed to guard my car. Love the dog you got. But she further advised me it was not unreasonable for me to expect the dog to not do that when I was in the car. When I am in the car, guarding the car is my job. It is a matter of confidence.
If a healthy ambitious dog trusts that you are going to handle a situation, and you give him every indication that you can, he will submit to your leadership. If a healthy ambitious dog senses some ambivalence or insecurity in you, then he may just step up to the plate and handle it for you. Even if your insecurity is that you fear the dog is going to have an outburst at some unsuspecting stranger. This presents as many different problems to include barrier aggression. A weak or insecure person and a strong dog can be a dangerous and unpredictable combination.
I asked my trainer to help me work on my dogs vehicle barrier aggression. We started with obedience and again a muzzle. I feared something bad was going to happen when my dog confronted an unsettling situation. My dog thought that my fear was something he should act on, even though the fear was exactly that he would act. Placing the muzzle on the dog allowed me to relax and develop confidence. If I was sure nothing bad was going to happen then the dog sensed my comfort and succumbed to my leadership. Next thing you know he was getting cookies from every gas attendant, banker and drive through and I didn’t fear them reaching in the car. Problem solved. It was that easy.
Fear and barrier aggression is a common problem and I advocate muzzles all the time. Muzzles give these poor dogs and owners a real shot at addressing the issue with some measure of safety. Unfortunately there is a negative perception about a muzzled dog and that is very unfortunate. A muzzle can be a wonderful training tool and can deescalate an dog with an escalating behavioral problem, and give them the opportunity to become more socialized and well adjusted. This is an opportunity they may never get if their owner is too embarrassed or inhibited to be seen in public with a muzzled dog.