Building a Confident Pup
How can you build a confident pup? It’s no secret that doing something repeatedly buids experience or skill. That skill then builds confidence. It is said that doing anything for 10,000 hours will make someone an expert at that thing. I’m not sure if that’s true, but certainly there will be an increase in skill and confidence. I like to play the piano. I am not great at it, mostly because I do not practice. But when I do practice, I definitely feel more confident in my playing abilities, and because I like the way that confidence makes me feel, I want to continue to practice and play.
The same holds true in dog training. When I teach a dog a new behavior, I can shape or build it with positive reinforcement. If I want the dog to turn around in a circle, I will click and treat the smaller behaviors that will get him there, like a turn of his head, or the slight turn of his body. He understands the small behaviors I am looking for because I reinforce them, and then he repeats them because he knows I will reinforce them again. As he becomes confident in what I am looking for, he is willing to progress. If I stop reinforcing him along the way, he will cease to repeat the behavior and cease to feel confident. And so it goes.
So why the title of this blog? Have you ever called your dog repeatedly, only to receive little to no recognition from your furry buddy? “Sparky! Sparky! Sparkeeeeee!” Or you ask your pup to “Stay” and then repeat it 3 more times as you slowly walk toward the door and your dog sits there looking at you? The dog is staying – there is no need to repeat ourselves, but we do. Our repetition is based on a lack of confidence that Sparky will come when called, or that he will stay as we head out the door.
For the dog, the repetition can work two ways: either it causes the cue to become meaningless, or it builds duration so that the cue becomes the repetition of what you really want the cue to be. For example, the cue “Stay” is now, “Stay….stay….stay.” So in order for the cue to work, you must repeat yourself. Your repetition displays your lack of confidence and it does not increase understanding or skill in Sparky.
But how can you be confident that your dog will come when called when he only does it sometimes? What if he won’t stay unless you repeat yourself? You need to increase your pup’s confidence with a different kind of repetition: repetition through positive reinforcement. If you offer a treat every time you call your dog and he comes to you, he will do it more frequently. He will want to because coming to you means good things: a treat, a game of tug, or a thrown ball. Maybe your dog comes-when-called 100% of the time when you are in the house, but almost never when you are outside. There are a lot of distractions outside and you are competing with all of them. As the distractions increase, you need to increase your value. You want coming to you to be more valuable than anything else out there.
It won’t happen the first try. Remember: repetition builds confidence. More specifically, repetition plus reinforcement builds confidence. Over time, Sparky is going to start feeling pretty confident about your treat-giving skills. And you will be feeling pretty good about his ability to return to you when you call him. Start with low distractions and build. And if you tell your dog to stay and he is staying, there is no need to repeat the cue. The dog is doing what you’ve asked! You can build duration of the stay with positive reinforcement, not with repeating the cue until you’ve shut the door.
So, focus on the good kind of repetition, the productive kind. Positive reinforcement builds confidence, too, and it works every time.
See how confident I am?
Cheers! For other tips on helping your pup, see my previous blog, “How to Fail at Dog Training.”
Lynn Webb, M.A., KPA CTP, CTMT