Friday, October 8, 2021

Confidence and Bonding

What does building up your dog's confidence have to do with building up your team bond?

If you've spent any time around dogs, you've probably noticed that some dogs are more confident then others.  Some of this is genetic and breed specific, for example an Aussie that has great herding instincts might seem confident managing the "herd" or a bloodhound might be confident in a nosework activity.  But confidence can also be developed outside of the instincts the dog is born with.  In my years of working with rescue dogs, it was very apparent that some dogs need a huge, loving dose of confidence.  And many trainers will share various confidence building techniques as there are a ton of activities that can grow your dog's confidence.

First lets examine what makes a confident dog?

We tend to compare dogs to humans in this aspect.  A dog who makes new friends with people or dogs is seen as confident.  A dog that can excel in an agility or other competition ring is for sure confident.  A dog that doesn't startle or get afraid easily seems confident.  And there are many other examples.  But for me, the most important demonstration of confidence is a dog that is good at making the right choices in day to day life.  For example, a dog might have a huge prey drive going after all kinds of small creatures, but if they mess with a skunk or porcupine once then learns their lesson and avoid them in future encounters has made an educated decision or choice based on their best interest.  Service Dogs need to be confident in a wide variety of locations, but also need to learn when to use intelligent disobedience to keep their person safe.  This is based on having decision making skills and a strong bond to their person.

What can you do to help your dog be more confident?

There is an easy answer that is not so easy!  I've found 2 things that always help dogs grow in confidence.  First is playing games and doing activities that they are naturally good at.  And second is giving them choices in their day to day life.  Playing games that encourage them to expand their skill level helps them learn that they can be successful, and having a history of success sure makes us all more confident.  And dogs have so little control over their day to day life, so finding ways to provide choices also helps them to feel more successful.  Let's face it, we as humans control when and what dogs eat, where they sleep, how frequently we take them outside, train them, etc.  What choices can we give them?  Well, that all depends on how much you are willing to relinquish control in your dog's life.  I'll dive into to control in a future post, but for this post I want to focus on playing games that expand their natural instincts and skills.

What games do you play with your dogs that expands their ability navigate their day to day life?

There are many games that make learning skills fun!  I love scent games because all dogs can play them.  Some breeds may be able to take scent games to more advanced level, but all dogs can enjoy scent games on a basic level.  My favorite scent games include Find It & Hide-n-seek that are both simple searching games.  Dog sports are also great at building confidence; agility, disc dog, parkour, etc.  Even the AKC recognizes that participating in dog sports is an excellent way to increase the bond between dog & handler.  AKC link  My favorite dog sport is K9 parkour because it uses skills that I already train my dogs & things that you find in your environment.  There is no need to buy any special equipment, take expensive classes, or compete with other dogs to be successful.  Dogs will see instant success when they do any of the activities or positions that are developed doing K9 parkour.

Azul has to be one of the most confident dogs I've ever seen!  I often use him to help less confident dogs conquer their fears.  Several dogs pull strength from Azul while doing a wide variety of activities.  But when we started K9 parkour, Azul wasn't real sure he could do some of the challenges.  For example:  Since he was young he found it easy to walk along narrow ledges such as a balance beam.  But balancing on something like a downed tree or jumping up on small surfaces was a bit scary.  Thankfully he has a few other friends that love to play on trees and tables using these skills.  His friends helped him build the confidence to try out his skills on new objects.  And of course he saw instant success when was able to do the fun activities with his friends!  Here is video of Azul being successful doing a parkour activity on a recent walk.

Azul's confidence on the log is due to the practice and time we've spent as team doing fun things like this.  In K9 parkour, you never force a dog to do a skill but your encouraged to use positive reinforcement to reward a job well done.  Also, at a beginning level you start pretty simple with obstacles that are safe for your dog, then build up to more challenging obstacles.  Dogs learn skills to help them safely navigate in multiple environments, skills that help a dog decide whether to step of an obstacle or go around an obstacle.  K9 parkour skills can help to prepare dogs to expect the unexpected when an obstacle suddenly appears, that obstacle now becomes a chance to have fun instead of something that might be scary.  How far you go in the sport of K9 parkour depends on how well you and dog learn to work together as a team.  And the greatest chance of attaining the bond we seek with our dogs is developing that working team relationship.  I'll have more on creating a working team based relationship with your dog in future posts.  You don't have to enjoy K9 parkour as much as Azul and I to have an effective team, but it sure can't hurt.

 What other fun activities do you do with your dog?  You can find more fun games by doing a search in my Yooper Paws Facebook page & I'll soon be adding a games page to this website.


Tuesday, October 5, 2021

How do Dogs Show Love

Just as dogs bond with us differently then we bond with them, they also show their love differently then we show our love to them.

Here is a list of 5 ways dogs show humans love:

  1. Gazing into your eyes
  2. Happily greeting you when they come home
  3. Listening to your voice
  4. Seeking emotional comfort from their owners (you!)
  5. Unconditionally loving us
OK that list might seem simple and kind of obvious to most of us dog lovers.  But let's break it down a bit so that we can understand it a bit better.

1. Gazing into your eyes - Some people put eye contact on cue or command so that they can ask their dogs to focus on them better.  So what's the difference between getting eye contact via command, via cue, or naturally occurring?  Giving your dog a command means that you are issuing an order for your dog to carry out & you expect compliance.  In this situation, many dogs really struggle with eye contact because your command paired with the hard eyes you would typically have making a demand is off putting to dogs.  Some dogs even turn away thinking of this demand for eye contact as a challenge that they don't want to participate in.  In the dog world, diverting eyes is a passive way to avoid conflict.  Giving your dog a cue means that you are offering a suggestion, that if followed will earn reinforcement that you dog wants.  In this situation, there is no penalty for not following through with the request and dogs are free to look away or choose to look you back in the eye.  A dog that trusts you, will typically easily turn to look you in the eye unless they are distracted by something that has a higher value then the reinforcement you are offering.  When a dog offers eye contact naturally, that is a true sign of love!  I capture this eye contact as often as possible because this eye contact has been proven scientifically to make both dog and human feel happy.

2. Happily greeting you when you come home - OK, so this is one where opinions may vary in the dog training world.  (Read the linked article from to learn about the science involved here.)  Many dog trainers advocate that you teach your dog to go to a specific place before a door opens or closes, which often includes when you come home.  I'm not saying there isn't good behind that practice!  Dogs learn that if they are calm and do as they are trained, good things will happen.  So if you totally ignore your dog when you come home until they are calm, you are teaching them good manners.  But science has proven that the initial greeting from your dog when you get home, floods both the dog and the person with hormones that help us to feel happy.  This probably is why so many dog owners struggle with training their dogs to stay back away from the door, because it prevents that happy feeling when your dog greets you at the door.  I choose to do things a bit differently, because dogs can learn the difference!  If I'm home and someone comes to the door, my dogs are taught to stay back away from the door.  But if I am the one coming home, my dogs are allowed to be their happy, goofy self when greeting me.  Of course this is also paired with training that helps them keep all 4 feet on the floor so they are not jumping on me or knocking me over.  I suggest you embrace that "Welcome Home" greeting and allow it to flood both you and your dog with that "feel good" emotions.

3. Listening to your voice - Maybe you've noticed that your voice changes when your speaking to a friend vs to a stranger?  How about a young child?  How about the love of your life?  As humans, we typically use several different tones of voice to get our point across.  We command something to get done using a stern voice.  We ask nicely in a pleasant voice...prompting a child to "Say Please!"  We tend to speak more rapidly when talking with a friend about a topic we enjoy or are passionate about.  Dogs may not stand every word we are saying, but they sure understand our tone of voice.  If all you ever do is issue commands, your dog may learn to tune out your voice simply because they don't receive anything good in return for compliance.  If you talk to your dog using your "Please" voice, your dog is likely to keep trying things that have worked in the past to earn reinforcement.  And if you talk to you dog in a story telling voice, they often learn that you are not expecting them to change the behavior they are doing, which allows them to relax and simply listen to your voice.  (Again read the linked article to see what science says about the benefits of this.)

4. Seeking emotional comfort from their owner - Everyone, including our dogs, experience fear or anxiety.  When dogs experience an emotion that is uncomfortable they will commonly turn to their most trusted people.  While this happens naturally without training, we can develop this reflex to become even stronger.  Now, I'm not suggesting that we put our dogs in situations to intentionally cause them fear or discomfort so they can learn to depend on us more!  All training sessions should be set up for success, not failure.  What I am suggesting is when our dogs experience something not so pleasant, we pair that with comforting speech, high value reinforcement, and offering our protection or shield from the scary object.  You can't reinforce fear by giving your dog treats when there is a trigger present.  Again, embrace this natural emotional occurrence by comforting your dog which in turn will help to make your bond with your dog stronger.

5. Unconditionally loving us - I think most of us agree that our dogs forgive our mistakes quickly and do whatever is in their power to help us feel better.  This is one of the most quoted dog memes out there.  It's ok if we made a mistake in our training session, dogs forgive us.  It's ok if we had a busy day and didn't have the time or energy to spend on our dogs.  Our dogs simply want to be with us as much as possible, even if we are not the best pet parents on the block.

Sure there are other ways that dogs show they love us.  Some dogs like to cuddle, some don't.  Some dogs prefer playing games with us.  Some dogs follow us from room to room.  Dog trainers use another common quote "Train the dog in front of you!"  I believe we have to apply this to loving our dogs back unconditionally as well.  You may love to cuddle, while your dog may not, and forcing this can drive a wedge between you.  Figuring out how your dog is most comfortable relaxing with you can help to make you a stronger team where looking out for each other is a regular part of your day.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Understanding the K9 Bond

I get asked quite often, "How can I make my dog choose ME instead of other things in the environment?"  The very first step in building a better bond with your dog, is understanding bonding from your dog's perspective. Dogs that seem to struggle the most with bonding issues are adolescents (6-18 months) due to the brain changes going on during the adolescent stage, including fear periods, high distractibility, & low impulse control.  

We as people tend to bond with dogs at a much younger age or in the first few months the dog is in our lives.  But dogs don't bond the same way.  If you bring home a puppy home, they spend much of those first months being socialized to new things.  If you bring home and older dog, they spend the first 3 months decompressing from whatever their previous home was like and adjusting to their life in your home.  The first 3 months we have a new dog of any age, as humans we tend to focus tons of attention on this new comer.  We show pictures to all our friends!  We go on walks more often!  We enjoy training sessions!  While we are excited about the new family addition, our dogs are focused on other things.  This house has so many new smells!  Who are these people?  Where do I sleep?  Where/When is my next meal coming?  This means we bond much earlier with our dogs then they do with us.  Typically by the end of the first week with a new dog, we are in love.  However, the average dog takes 3 months to adapt to their new surroundings and fearful or shy dogs take even longer.

Adolescence is generally the most distractible period of a dog's life and we tend to think their being distracted is evidence of trouble bonding.  The hardest time often falls somewhere between 10-15 months.  At this point, we often feel like our bond is weak, as our dogs find us less important.  I use this time to play lots of bond building games, many of which make me the most fun thing in the world.   I teach new games at home or in my yard in low distraction areas.  Once my dog is hooked on a game, understanding it and finding it fun, I'll start adding in distractions or playing in more challenging environments.  Games help you to provide for your dog's exercise and mental stimulation needs, and will help you and your dog grow into a more effective team.

I'll be going over all my favorite games in my Winter Workshop: Building a Better Bond!  

It's important also, to have realistic expectations for our dogs.  As humans, we take it personally if our dogs choose something in the environment over us.  In this picture, both Cam & Azul are focused on the deer on the horizon.  They are both very bonded to me, but unexpectedly seeing deer in this environment definitely amped up their prey drive.  They typically run in this environment and have never seen deer here, which has them hoping I will give permission to chase.  That is not happening!  So instead, we sit down and watch the deer at a distance, allowing my dogs to decide when it is time for us to get up and continue our walk calmly.

We need to remember, despite all our training and hard work dogs still have instincts that come in to play in some environments.  Instead of taking their inability to focus on us personally, we need to manage the situation is environments that hold higher distractions then what our dog is prepared for.  Then we need to continue developing that bond and our teamwork skills in environments where are dog has a reasonably good chance of success.  To be a successful team, we need to listen to our dogs just as much as we want them to listen to us.  That means sometimes, we have to do the type of activities they want to do; play games, go on sniff-a-bouts, play in the water, etc.  The more fun we have with our dog will lead to that stronger connection we are seeking.

Hard Realistic Expectations

 Last year I wrote on blog on how to set you and your dog up for success creating a plan that had realistic expectations.  Jump over here to...