We’ve had a couple recent calls about dogs that are a little nervous in a new home, and seem to lash out sometimes – at resident kids, other dogs, or the owners. They may show signs of anxiety in different ways: some don’t want to come out of their crate, cower or piddle when approached, scurry past or flee when something changes. Their new loving home wants to help – help them to be happy, comfortable, and feel how loved they are – they just aren’t sure how to get there. McGee (pictured above) was one of these dogs. He had been in rescue for a long time waiting for a family to come along and invest the time he needed!
Young pups that grew up feeling slightly insecure or without enough socialization can experience the same issues. Something makes them uncomfortable and they don’t know how to react. Maybe they try barking or growling and it works – the thing that made them uncomfortable goes away. Eventually something comes along that makes them uncomfortable and barking/growling aren’t cutting it, so maybe they lash out and nip. Nipping works, and the uncomfortable thing goes away. So the puppy learns that they can get out of an uncomfortable situation with aggression. The puppy isn’t aggressive – he’s scared – and trying to fix it the only way he knows how.
Nova was a perfect example of this. Read this note from her family before we started working on building her confidence:
With older dogs, especially rescued ones, the issue may be something they’ve struggled with for a while. It may also be a temporary issue while they adjust to a new environment. Side note: I recommend that anyone adopting a new dog give them two weeks to really settle in at their new home. Training can start right away when the dog comes home, and will help them adjust a little quicker, but count on two weeks for them to really settle in.
We’ve all seen the small dogs that rest in their owner’s arms, lashing out at anyone that comes near, barking, growling and carrying on. Small dogs get away with this more, and actually fall victim to a secondary issue more often: when your dog gets uncomfortable and you reach down and try to comfort them with some petting, cooing and some “it’s ok”s, you’re actually praising your dog for being uncomfortable (and whatever associated behaviors he’s displaying). That teaches your dog that barking/growling/snarling is the response you WANT him to have to new people, new dogs, etc. Basically the exact opposite of what you’d actually like them to learn!
Confidence building is the only real way to treat this kind of behavior – the only fair way. When you build a dog’s confidence up, fewer things make them uncomfortable. When they aren’t uncomfortable, they don’t need to lash out. Building confidence cures the problem at the source, instead of just teaching a different response to the discomfort.
So what’s the magic formula to build a dog’s confidence? I’m glad you asked! Off Leash K9 Training, Central MN specializes in it!
Step 1: Create rock solid obedience!You can’t help your dog overcome any issues without rock solid obedience – trust me. Start in a quiet place or where they are most comfortable and work on basic commands; come, sit, stay, heel, down, etc. Practice until they’re so good at them that they get bored with doing the commands for you!
Step 2: Gradually increase exposure to distractions. When you find your dog bored with basic commands, create some small, manageable distractions. Ask your dog to hold a sit while you walk away, walk in a circle, twirl around, clap your hands or jingle your keys. Get creative! When he can hold it for small distractions, make your distractions a little bigger, then a little bigger, then a little bigger.
Step 3: Gradually increase exposure to things that make your dog uncomfortable.When you find your dog bored with basic commands with distractions, go to a place or situation where they’re a little uncomfortable. Practice the same commands again and again until they’re bored with them again. Get a little closer to the thing that makes them uncomfortable. Practice more. Repeat.
If your dog is used to being held or comforted when they get uncomfortable, work on them listening to your commands without being held – sitting on the sofa beside you or on the floor near you, not on your lap or in your arms. This will foster a little independence and help your dog realize that only their positive behavior (obeying your commands) will be rewarded, regardless of what they’re used to!
As you practice, you should see your dog get more and more comfortable around the distractions and things they typically struggled with. If they get overwhelmed, back up and do some easier practice for a while – but don’t give up! It’s a slow process to build confidence, but it’s extremely rewarding for you and especially for your pup! The more your dog practices having confidence, the more he’ll have!
As we went through these steps, McGee improved to the point where his foster family could adopt him and feel comfortable that he lash out at their young children anymore as they played around him. He’s also doing much better at meeting new people, and has a confident new lease on life!
Nova did too! Check out this note from her family just 6 weeks after her training started:
Need some help? We’d love to see your dog become the happy, confident, comfortable pup he’s meant to be! We can’t get enough of watching dogs’ confidence go up as they master new tasks, and your pride swell in the process!