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Helping Dogs Develop Confidence and Resilience

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

In a previous blog post I wrote about how important it is to help your dog develop resilience. Dogs with resilience are better able to adapt to change and cope with stress. They are also more likely to be happy and healthy.


Having resilience can help a dog cope with a variety of challenges:


  • Changes in their environment, such as moving to a new home or having a new baby in the family.

  • Challenging experiences, as an example being lost or being in a car accident.

  • Medical conditions – such as arthritis or injury.

  • Behavioral problems like separation anxiety or aggression.


One of the best ways to develop your dog’s resilience is to help them gain confidence. Resilience and confidence are two closely related concepts. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from setbacks, while confidence is the belief in one's own abilities. There is a positive correlation between resilience and confidence, meaning that dogs who are more resilient are also more likely to be confident.


Teaching a dog to be persistent, and also to overcome an uncomfortable situation to achieve something wonderful, can really help a dog develop confidence and also resilience. The one thing you do not want to do however, is to put the dog in a situation where they will be frightened or overwhelmed, and become stressed and call it quits.


Below are some activities you can do with a dog to help develop your dog’s confidence. While it’s not bad to see slight hesitation in these activities, you really don’t want to see avoidance or fear. It’s always better to go backward and make things easier to help your dog regain confidence before going forward.


If you get stuck, think about what you can do to make it slightly easier than your sticking point, but slightly harder than the successful previous step.



Forage Game


Behaviorally, dogs are natural scavengers. It's one of the reasons it's so difficult to keep them out of the garbage! It's also the reason that snuffle mats have become so popular, because it is a great way to provide an outlet for that natural inclination.


The Forage Game is another way to provide that opportunity to your dog, but additionally it gives you the option to increase the difficulty. As you increase the difficulty you are presenting ever growing challenges to your dog, and helping your dog learn to be persistent.


The best part about this game is that you don't have to purchase anything, all you need to do is to find things in your home and use them.


One thing you will need is a box, or a bin of some kind. The size of the box will depend on the size of your dog. A shoe box size box is perfect for many dogs. If you have a large dog you might want to go to something bigger. It doesn't necessarily have to be a plastic box, a cardboard box will work just as well. The downside of a cardboard boxes that you will be putting food in there and it will not be easy to clean.


Starting with something that is super easy will prevent your dog from getting frustrated and walking away. It's important that you make sure your dog can easily be successful, especially at the beginning.


Place a portion of your dog's meal, or a couple of treats in the box. I like to use a few toilet paper tubes to begin with. The reason for this is that cardboard rolls will not make any noise, and will be easy for your dog to move around in order to get to the food.


Place a couple of toilet paper tubes on top of the food, place the box down and let your dog eat the treats. The goal here is to get the dog to need to nudge the tubes out of the way to reach the food. If you're dog chooses to pick up the tubes and take them out of the box, your dog gets bonus points for great problem-solving skills!


Once your dog has easily mastered two or three toilet paper tubes you can add even more. Gradually you can add so many that there are enough toilet paper tubes that they completely cover the floor of the box.


The next step would be to find another material to place in the box on top of the treats that is slightly more difficult for your dog, but won't be too hard, and will not make noise that will startle your dog. You could use a few tennis balls, or a couple of tennis balls and mix in some toilet paper tubes.


When your dog is enthusiastically shoving their nose in the box and pushing things out of the way to get to the treats, then you know that you can move on to the next step. You are waiting for your dog to be enthusiastic and confident before you do so, or you may do the opposite of what we are trying to accomplish and sensitize your dog to being fearful.


Make sure you are working with one item per day. It won’t be beneficial to work your way up the difficulty level in one session, and can actually cause your dog to get frustrated and quit.


Some additional items you can add to the box would be:


  • Crumpled up pieces of paper

  • plastic spoons

  • Plastic shower curtain rings

  • Plastic Easter eggs

  • Clean, empty yogurt containers

  • Empty plastic water bottles – intact and then crumpled

  • Metal spoons

  • Clean empty soda cans – intact and then crumpled

  • Some of your dog's smaller toys

  • Use your imagination and find items around your house!


Be very thoughtful about the items you use in the Forage Game. If your dog is likely to chew or even eat certain items avoid using them. For puppies I would opt to use items that are too large for them to easily swallow. This is a game that should be played with your supervision.

Forage game plastic bottles in plastic box

As you add more difficult things into your dog's forage box, do your best to ensure that it doesn't become too overwhelming for your dog. It's better to start out too easy and gradually make it harder, than to start out with it being harder and have your dog become overwhelmed.


Metal in particular can be very difficult for dogs. They don't like how it tastes in their mouth, and it makes a noise when it moves. So, as an example, when adding in a metal spoon, I would start out with one metal spoon and maybe a couple of toilet paper tubes. Once your dog becomes comfortable and confident with that set up, you can gradually add one more metal spoon and increase the number as your dog gains comfort. I would do the same with the soda can; start with one can and add more as your dog becomes enthusiastic moving the items in the box to get to the food.


Mixing items so that there is an assortment of textures, sizes and weight can also add some variety to this activity.


If you see that your dog is nervous with what you set up, then take everything out and let your dog eat the treats, and then go back to an easier setup that your dog is comfortable with. Build your difficulty up from there.


So what do you do once you've gone through a whole variety of different items, and your dog is enthusiastically scavenging in the box to get the food? The next step is to add a bit of difficulty.


Forage game metal container

Advanced level Forage Game


Find a large metal dog bowl, or baking pan, and start over from scratch. Because you've switched from either cardboard or plastic to metal, it's a whole new thing to your dog. The metal will feel different to your dog, and also make different sounds as the dog moves items around trying to get to the food. You want to start with the least scary item first to make it easier for your dog. I would recommend that you start with toilet paper tubes as they are quiet and not threatening.


Just like you did previously with the other box, you're going to wait until your dog is enthusiastically shoving the items in the bowl away to get to the food before moving on to add more challenging items.


Always make sure your dog is enthusiastic in behavior before you move on. The worst thing you can do is frighten your dog and have your dog be wary of this activity. You don't want them to give up, you want them to learn persistence. And the way they learn persistence is by gradual exposure.


Once you've gone through all the steps with your metal container, you can continue to add challenges. This might mean placing that metal container on top of a baking sheet with ridges so that it slides around as your dog is pushing items out of the way, and occasionally hits the edges of the baking sheet.


If you find that this addition is scary for your dog, you might try placing the metal container inside something that isn't as worrisome. It could be placing it inside of a plastic or cardboard box so that it's still sliding around, but isn't as loud. If the movement is worrying your dog, you can shove some newspaper on the sides to prevent the container from moving quite as much.





ACE Freework


ACE Freework is an animal-centered approach to learning that was developed by Sarah Fisher. It is a way of providing dogs with enrichment, relaxation, and the chance to communicate with their owners. Freework is set up like an open-plan obstacle course, and you can use recycled materials or items you already have at home. You can set it up inside or outside, and it is a totally mobile activity. Best of all, it is the ultimate activity for giving your dog choice!


To do freework, simply place a variety of objects around the space, such as cones, tunnels, pillows, and boxes. Your dog is free to explore the space at their own pace, and they can choose which objects they want to interact with. You can stay close by and observe your dog, or you can simply relax and let them have fun.


Freework is a great way to learn more about your dog's personality and preferences. It can also help to improve your dog's confidence and problem-solving skills. If you are looking for a way to enrich your dog's life and strengthen your bond, freework is a great option.


The goal of freework is to let your dog explore and have fun. There is no right or wrong way to do it. Just relax and enjoy watching your dog learn and grow.


Here are some of the benefits of ACE Freework:

  • It provides enrichment and relaxation for dogs.

  • It helps dogs learn and grow.

  • It builds confidence and trust between dogs and their owners.

  • It is a fun and rewarding way to bond with your dog.




Scent Work


We know that dogs that are naturally optimists are more likely to be resilient. But what if your dog is naturally pessimistic?


A 2017 study showed that pessimistic dogs that were participants in a nose work activity several times a week, became optimists.


Scent work has a lot of benefits. First of all it's a great enrichment activity in that it allows the dog to use their natural abilities. It's also an activity in which the dog is allowed to make choices in what they're doing as they follow the scent trail. And lastly, the dog learns that persistence and following their nose, leads to a positive outcome, since a successful search leads to food rewards or toy play.


We know that dogs have about 250 million scent receptors, compared to humans who have a mere 5 million scent receptors. Giving dogs an opportunity to do what they are so good at naturally, has a tremendous amount of benefits for their well-being, but even more for helping them develop resilience.


There are many dog training businesses that offer scent work classes both in person, and online. but if you don't feel the need to train your dog to find the specific scents that are used in many sports, it's pretty easy to teach your dog to find food that you've hidden around the house. Using this handout as a training plan you’ll be able to get your dog involved in a treasure hunt!



Canine Parkour


Canine parkour is a fun and challenging activity that can help dogs stay fit, learn new skills, and bond with their owners. It is a non-competitive sport that combines elements of human parkour and dog agility. Dogs learn to navigate their environment by jumping, climbing, balancing, and crawling over obstacles.


Canine parkour can be done anywhere, as long as there are some obstacles to work with. Common obstacles include benches, stairs, walls, and logs. You can also use household items, such as chairs, tables, and boxes.


When starting out with canine parkour, it is important to start slowly, and gradually increase the difficulty of the obstacles as your dog gets more comfortable. It is also important to use positive reinforcement (lots of the best treats ever!) and never force your dog to do anything they are not comfortable with.


Here are some tips for getting started with canine parkour:

  • Choose a safe location to practice.

  • Start with simple obstacles and gradually increase the difficulty.

  • Use positive reinforcement to encourage your dog.

  • Be patient and don't force your dog to do anything they are not comfortable with.


You don't even have to go somewhere specific to practice parkour, you can just take advantage of obstacles and equipment as you find it. So for instance, when I'm hiking and I see a park bench or big rock, I'll pause in the hike to see if I can get my dogs to jump up onto that item. If I'm hiking after a big storm and there is a tree covering the path, I'll work on either over or under depending on the dog and how that tree is positioned.


Safety is extremely important in parkour. It’s a good idea when first introducing an obstacle to spot the dog, or hold on to a harness to prevent the dog from falling and becoming injured. Ensuring your dog's safety is not only important for their physical well-being, but also for their mental well-being. Remember that the point of this activity is to help your dog gain confidence. Falling and getting hurt when participating in it will create the opposite of that goal.


Canine parkour is a great way to get your dog moving and having fun. It is also a great way to build confidence and trust between you and your dog. So get out there and start exploring your environment with your furry friend!


You can practice Canine Parkour on your own as an informal activity, however there are dog training facilities that offer it as an official class. If you think your dog may like this as a fun activity, it may be worth it to enroll in a class and learn how to do it as a sport.


dog walking on a large log


Providing Choice


Choice is important for building resilience because it gives dogs a sense of control over their lives. When dogs, just like people, feel they have some control over what happens to them, they are less likely to feel helpless or hopeless. This can help them cope with difficult situations and bounce back from adversity.


Giving your dog control over choices can be as simple as letting them choose how long to sniff on a walk, or even what direction to take on the walk (as long as it’s safe.)


Cooperative care for dogs involves teaching the dog to be a partner in things like being brushed, getting their nails trimmed, and other husbandry behaviors. Dogs are taught to not only accept grooming events, but to cooperate with their caregivers by signaling when they are ready for the care to begin and continue. When dogs are allowed to participate in this way, the grooming becomes less scary and can even help the dog find it enjoyable. Instead of something that is being done to the dog, it becomes something that is done with the dog.


Another way to provide choice for a dog is to allow them to bow out of non-essential activities such as being pet and cuddled, play time, and training. Respecting a dog's boundaries can help them develop a stronger relationship with their owners, and make them more likely to enjoy those activities and seek them out.



Conclusion


These are just a few ideas as to how you can help your dog develop resilience. Other ideas would be to teach your dog new tricks, learn how to do agility, provide enrichment opportunities, and give your dog predictability and social support. Taking the time to help your dog develop resilience will make your dog's quality of life much better, and make your relationship stronger.


 

Do you need help training your dog? I offer virtual consultations for separation anxiety resolution, as well as for other behavioral issues or training needs.


I also offer in-person training within a 30 minute drive of Ixonia, WI.


I would love to work with you and your dog!


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