Building Confidence in Puppies


From the time they are born, puppies begin to take in the world around them. Each new experience is associated with a reaction and helps shape the dog they will eventually become. The imprinting period from age 6 to 20 weeks is a defining time in a dog’s life when habits develop and overall personality takes form. With help from you, a puppy can take on new situations with confidence and learn to adapt to a variety of circumstances. 

Girl with Husky PuppyBuilding confidence helps puppies learn that new situations should not be feared but can have positive outcomes. To help build confidence, introduce your puppy to a variety of dog-friendly adults and children who greet the puppy in a calm manner and have them give treats. This will help build the association that meeting people equals a reward. Likewise, bring treats to any new place you visit with your puppy to help build good associations with unfamiliar places. It is important to not push your puppy too far beyond his comfort level with new situations. If he shows signs of stress, back up and try again slowly. Pushing too far can create a negative association and be detrimental to the progress you have made.

Reward-based obedience training, like clicker training, also builds confidence as the puppy learns that he is rewarded for desired behaviors. Clicker training is based on operant and classical conditioning and teaches a puppy to associate an auditory signal, like the clicker, with a pleasant outcome, like food rewards. The clicker is effective as it is clear, consistent and helps bridge the time gap between marking the behavior and sounding the reward.

Obedience exercises help when exposing a puppy to new experiences as the dog can focus on the task and be rewarded while in a new situation. More advanced applications of obedience exercises, like sitting to be greeted or going to a boundary stay when the doorbell rings, are especially helpful in new situations. Puppy agility or obstacle classes help teach puppies to walk on new surfaces, coordination and navigation of the unfamiliar. Outdoor hiking trails are also good for these types of sessions as the ground surface is often uneven and made up of a variety of textures.

Creating an Active Learner

A dog that is an active learner has learned through self-directed training how to make choices and try new things in order to be rewarded. Basic obedience and manners training is still recommended as a foundation and for overall communication, however there are other methods of training to get your dog thinking in a more independent way.

First, select the object that you would like to use — a box or basket is most common in these exercises, but any object can be used. With any behaviors relating to the object, click and reward your dog. The movement can be looking or sniffing at the object or moving to the object. Click and reward your dog with any new interaction with the object. This exercise simply encourages your dog to think of new ways to work for a reward. You are not necessarily working toward a finished action. 

As he begins to understand how this new game works, your dog should persist in trying new things to make you click and reward him. You may have to wait a few moments before he tries something new to gain his reward. Sessions should be kept short to maintain your dog’s interest. This exercise helps with future training as you will have an actively thinking dog that tries new things. It also is beneficial if you are planning for future competitive sport work. 

Exercises like this reward active movement versus stationary exercises. When you teach your dog to sit on command, you reward the finished result once the dog sits. The above exercise shows the dog to keep moving until he performs the desired motion in order to be rewarded. Only rewarding a finished outcome of one exercise can make the dog become “stuck.”  This happens when the dog has been rewarded for successful completion of a command and then continues performing that exercise because he knows it will likely garner a reward. Reward both active and passive behaviors so the dog learns that he can be rewarded for moving exercise as well as for being calm and passive. 

Use of interactive toys also encourages dogs to think independently. Toys that can be filled with treats or food and have to be manipulated in a certain manner make the dog try different things in order to get what he wants. Many interactive toys double as an appropriate outlet for chewing, which also acts as a stress reliever for dogs.

Puppyhood is the period that shapes how your dog will react to his environment and interact with people and other dogs. The more you can do to expose your dog in a positive manner to all the things he will likely encounter throughout his life, the more confidently he will greet the world around him.   

Triple Crown Dog Academy near Austin, Texas, offers training programs for trainers and dogs. Visit for information.


Used with permission from Today's Breeder, Nestlé Purina PetCare.

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