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Helping Dogs Develop Confidence and Resilience

Updated: May 26

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.