Confident owners create confident dogs, says trainer and behaviorist Jackie Drakeford.
Confident handlers make their dogs feel safe. Dogs live in a human world, which is often difficult for them to understand, so if you make it clear what you want from them, then reward them when they do it, you take a lot of pressure from their everyday lives. You’ll come under less pressure too, which in turn makes you more confident.
Confidence comes easily to some, but the rest of us have to work at it, so here’s some advice on how you can build yours.
KNOW YOUR BREED / TYPE OF DOG
Once upon a time, all dogs were kept for work even lapdogs, who were expected to deal with rats and mice in the home as well as sound the alarm if any strangers approached.
Though for many modern dogs that initial purpose no longer applies, inborn traits and preferences related to their original tasks still exist. You owe it to your dogs to know what these are so you can help them to adapt to a pet lifestyle.
For instance, herding dogs want to work by ranging out to bring creatures back to their handlers, and in the absence of livestock, might try to herd the wrong animals, or even shadows, smoke, or light.
Retrievers like to have something in their mouths to carry about even if it is one of your slippers rather than a pheasant. If you want to avoid a soggy foot, you should put your own possessions away and leave plenty of dog toys about instead.
Terriers and hounds are inclined to hunt on their own initiative, and suppose that you might as well come along if you can keep up, but your input isn’t that important to them. Because you don’t want this to escalate into something illegal or embarrassing, you need to be very aware of those places where you may come across wildlife or terrier-sized holes in the ground.
Some breeds were created to bark at any unusual noise or movement, and still have a lot to say for themselves. Mixed breeds can lean to one ancestor in particular, or display certain characteristics from each of them. Finding your dogs’ bred-in drives gives you confidence because you know what to expect in any given situation, and when to intervene before it all goes wrong.
Probably the most versatile of training aids, the lead can be applied to any dog in any doubtful situation, so always carry a spare. A dog on a lead needs to know how to walk nicely, without pulling forward or dragging back, and to stay on whichever side you want him. Knowing your dog won’t lunge and pull you into a situation you can’t handle is a big part of confident dog walking, so lead manners are very important.
It’s important to keep your final goals in mind, but you shouldn’t expect PhD behaviour from a kindergarten dog. Instead, grade your training by starting in undemanding situations such as in the home and garden, working gradually up the ‘pay scale’ until you know your dog will produce the desired behaviour no matter what the distractions. Be lavish with rewards to begin with, then phase them out gradually, but never completely always reward an exceptional response. We all love rewards, and no matter how proficient you are at your work, a bonus always goes down well!
KNOW BODY LANGUAGE
Dogs ‘talk’ with their bodies, and understand other dogs’ body language, so your own confidence can be boosted by being able to read what your dog and other dogs are communicating, both to you and each other. This is a fascinating study, and it also inclines us to observe human body language, which is often at odds with what people are actually saying (‘Of course he’s never done that before’; ‘I can see how ‘friendly’ she is’; ‘Just wants to play, eh?’).
Dog body language starts off very subtly — an ear may swing back (‘It’s behind us’), both ears forward (‘See that squirrel?’), and there might be a change in gait, so by the time tails are raised or lowered, and posture changes have become significant, dogs have already had a big conversation. Similarly, if you walk tall but relaxed, with your head up and shoulders back, you will instil more confidence in your own dog, and respect in approaching dogs and owners, than if you droop along with your head down.
I always advise clients to go to the park or beach without their dogs and watch interactions between dogs and their walkers, which is a good way of learning body language without the pressure of keeping your dog safe.
THE RIGHT EQUIPMENT
Your own confidence is increased if you don’t have to worry about your everyday dog-walking equipment: simple things such as comfortable footwear with decent, non-slip treads; zipped jacket pockets so your keys are safe; a collar and lead that isn’t going to break (check the stitching often); and a treat bag that is readily accessible, mean you can concentrate on enjoying your walk rather than finding a hole in your one and only poo bag!
Confidence comes with knowing what is going on around you. Dog walking is not a time for screens and phone calls. Instead, you should take in what is happening in your immediate surroundings before any of it becomes a problem; be proactive not reactive. Being aware of what your dog is seeing and ‘saying’, what is behind, in front, and to either side, means you will be far less likely to have to sort out a scrap, or watch a disappearing set of hindquarters.
KNOWING YOUR LIMITS
All of us have off days, feel under par, or severely stressed at times. On these days, instead of putting more pressure on yourself because you think you ‘should’ or ‘ought’, you’d be better to choose an easy walk that isn’t likely to present major challenges or make you feel worse. Dogs are good at detecting weakness, and know at once if you are not your usual self. This means they can feel unsure about your ability to protect them. Depending on character, they may use this as a gleeful opportunity for mischief, or instead feel insecure and slink along defensively past other dogs, possibly triggering the very situation they — and you — want to avoid. There is also no shame in taking the occasional day off and staying at home, as long as you devote time to making your dog’s day interesting with puzzle games, or by laying scenting trails in the garden to follow together. Similarly, you should never feel you have to walk in any place where you feel unsafe, or where there are other issues such as difficult paths or too many dogs. Going for a walk should be the best ever fun for all of us.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. Remember it takes time and practice to build a confident relationship with your dog based on love and mutual respect
Confident owners will have learned about puppy development stages, and will know that when their erstwhile ‘little angel’ has been kidnapped by the fairies — and a little devil left in his place — this is a temporary situation. It has to be endured, and for the most part, it runs its course. You need to know when to step in and create alternative behaviours, and when to smile with gritted teeth and remember he will grow out of it.
Dogs have no concept of how we like our homes to be, and you need to put precious possessions away, food out of reach, and close doors or use indoor gates to restrict access to anything you don’t want chewed or taken down the garden and buried. Garden fences and gates should be checked frequently for the kind of damage that allows your dog to escape, or others to get into your property, and believe me, if they can, they will. Well-trained older dogs can be surprisingly reliable about house rules, although some will always see an opportunity and go for it. Years ago, I found my leggy Lurcher pup standing in the sink, just finishing the joint that had been defrosting for our dinner!
Advice is something we all get plenty of, sometimes from strangers or people who have never owned dogs, and it can be a struggle to remember that however stupid, outdated, or just plain crazy it sounds, it is usually kindly meant. Confidence in knowing what to take on board and what to ignore is often the child of experience, which is, according to the saying, ‘something you get after you needed it.’ There is a lot of awful advice everywhere, from old-school dog trainers to the internet. There is also some very good advice. I recommend researching work by Kikopup, Lili Chin, and Emma Judson. Confident dog owners understand that setbacks can be overcome, embarrassment is temporary, and no one is perfect. Confident dogs know that their handlers are on their side and will deal with any awkward situations.