As discussed in the previous posts for Dog Bite Prevention Week, dogs are most likely to bite when they feel threatened in some way. So how can we make our dogs more confident so they will be less likely to feel threatened?
Proper socialization is key to raising a confident dog. (but genetics can also play a big role in a dog’s confidence – more on this in a future post) The “socialization window” – the period when puppies will form most of their “opinions” about the world around them – is from 3-16 weeks of age. The most important socialization period is before 12 weeks of age. Up until this age, puppies are naturally curious and open to new experiences. After 12 weeks of age, they often start to develop fear of the unknown. If strangers, children, men, people with hats, etc. are unknown to a pup, she may become fearful and potentially become a “fear-biter.” At the very least, she may experience anxiety with unknown situations, which is no fun for anyone! Ideally, you will introduce your dog to many people and experiences before 12 weeks of age. These should always be positive experiences – don’t overwhelm your puppy if she seems hesitant. Keep her at a safe distance so that she can take it all in comfortably. Let her play with other dogs only if they are gentle – rough play at a young age can cause fear which may grow into aggression toward other dogs later.
How can we use training to help our dogs feel confident? Training is an important tool for puppies, and for adult dogs too. Even if you adopt a dog who is past his socialization window, positive reinforcement training and behavior modification training can do wonders for a dog’s confidence. There have been volumes written on this subject, but the most current research shows that positive training is the most effective method for helping your dog feel confident and for creating a strong, healthy bond between dog and owner. Positive training is based on the premise that rewarding good behavior has much better results than punishing bad behavior. In fact, in the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior’s Position Statement on Punishment, states, “Punishment can facilitate or even cause aggressive behavior.”
There is a wonderful local training company, with many Bay Area locations called Sirius Puppy Training. This is a great place for you and your dog to get a good training foundation, and we highly recommend that all puppies attend their Puppy 1 and Puppy 2 classes. There is also a great show on Animal Planet called It’s Me or the Dog, where trainer Victoria Stilwell educates problem dogs and their people in the ways of positive training.
Here’s the overview of positive training: simply reward the behaviors you want, and teach appropriate alternatives to those you don’t. This does not mean that you let your dog “get away” with bad behavior. If your dog jumps on you for attention, instead of yelling “no!” (which is giving him attention – and to a dog any interaction is attention, which is what he wants!) turn your back and ignore him. When he stops and offers calm behavior (ideally sitting, but standing calmly is OK too – you set the criteria), then give attention and/or a reward (food, toy). Keep this up and your dog will learn that he has some control over his environment – sit nicely and be calm = get attention. This builds confidence! If you just yell “no” or otherwise punish your dog, he may understand that you do not like his behavior, but he is not learning what you DO want him to do instead. He is learning that his behavior gets attention, and you are a confusing leader, or worse, he may learn to not trust you, especially if you use aversive punishment methods.
Training can also be used to address fears, like fear of strangers, for example. (But this can apply to anything: other dogs, the vacuum cleaner, etc.). The key here is to change the association of the presence of what the dog fears from a negative one to a positive one for your dog. To do this effectively, you need to set your dog up for success each time by rewarding your dog for calm behavior with treats when he sees what he fears – a stranger, in this example. This should be done at a distance at first, only decreasing the distance when the dog remains calm. Remember, you are creating a positive association, not going over the fear threshold! This can take a long time, but gradually you should be able to get your dog used to things he fears. He will most likely never be a social butterfly if he is afraid of strangers now, but he will probably be able to enjoy going for a walk without worrying about someone across the street. (see Patricia McConnell’s book The Cautious Canine for a detailed training plan). Look for future posts about how I’ve used these methods to address fears in my own dog.
One more very important thing to note: never punish your dog for growling or barking at something or someone she fears. This may stop the behavior in the short term, but you are doing nothing to address the underlying fear. The dog will learn that she is punished for speaking up and saying “hey, this makes me uncomfortable.” Do you really want your dog to skip this step? Probably not, because the next step is often a more assertive defense – a bite – and a dog who bites without warning is very dangerous. If your dog growls at someone or something, calmly walk her away and ask her to sit. Do NOT roll her on her back force her to do anything, and definitely do not force her to interact with the person or thing she was scared of! If you have moved far enough away from what has made her feel threatened enough to growl, she should offer calm behavior. At this point, you can reward her for the “attitude adjustment,” trying to end the experience on a positive note. If she was growling at a person, you should seek professional help to develop a plan for behavior modification and management of this behavior.
If your dog shows signs of fear or aggression, it is important that you seek evaluation by your veterinarian to make sure there are no underlying health problems which could be causing behavioral problems. It is also recommended that you seek the help of a trainer or behaviorist. You can contact us for a referral; there are many excellent professionals, and we can steer you toward someone who can help you and your dog with your specific problem.