Raising Puppies to Be Brave: The Top 10 Ways to Create Confident Dogs
Breeders and owners can do many things to raise puppies to be confident, stable adult dogs.
Confidence, self-assurance and composure are characteristics all of us want in our dogs. Confident dogs handle the craziness of daily life with aplomb and are often called stable or bomb proof. They trust their owners, as well as the people, things and environments around them. Because of their temperament, they are less aggressive, more healthy and longer lived than more timid and fearful dogs. These are all great things so how do we make more of these dogs? Well, here are ten things breeders and owners can do to improve the confidence of every puppy.
1. Pick Self-Confident Parents.
Breeding stock selection is essential to producing confident dogs. Fearful dogs, both fathers and mothers, may pass their fears on to their offspring (and grandpups) while stable parents tend to produce more confident puppies. However, confident dogs are as much made as born so read on for nine more things you can do to help your puppies become stable, confident dogs.
2. Pick Good Mothers.
Nurture also plays a big role, starting with mothering. There is strong evidence that attentive, doting mothers raise more confident offspring, even if those babies’ natural mothers were timid. A January 2016 study in Nature showed that doting dog mothers produce more outgoing pups that readily explore the world around them and are less aggressive. The reverse is also true. Poor moms that ignore or worse yet, correct their pups too harshly can reduce the confidence of inherently bold puppies.
3. Handle Your Puppies.
Touching and holding puppies from very early in the pups’ lives, particularly in the first three weeks, improves their ability to handle stress, learn and problem solve as adults. You can do this in formal ways, like Early Neurologic Stimulation and Early Scent Introduction, or you can just cuddle with each puppy every day. It’s a tough job but someone has to do it!
4. Send Pups Home at 8 Weeks or Later.
Sending puppies home too early, say at 6 or 7 weeks rather than 8, increases the chance that they will be fearful and reactive as adults. This holds true even if the litter has been taken away from their mother. Simply staying with their littermates helps build self-confident dogs.
For some reason, many performance breeders and owners still think puppies should go home at 49 days. This misinterpretation of John Paul Scott and John Fuller’s research has been refuted regularly by behaviorists. I think Dr. Ed Bailey gave the best explanation for why the 49-Day Rule is a myth not a rule in “Producing Behaviorally Sound Dogs,” Gun Dog Magazine.
5. Present Pups with Appropriate Challenges.
Some folks believe that baby puppies should be shielded from any fright or challenge that might stress them. We believe the opposite, although we obviously do not allow our puppies to get injured or terrified. However, we know that to gain confidence, puppies must do things that are hard for them, that take them out of their comfort zone.
Puppy equipment that is too easy for the puppies after 4 or 5 weeks of age is cute but not developmental. Watching a 7-week old Lab puppy on a 1” high teeter or a German shepherd puppy on 4” dog walk may be fun but it isn’t doing anything for the pups because there is no challenge.
By six weeks of age, puppies need situations that are physically and mentally difficult and a little bit stressful. Pups need to struggle to gain confidence, whether getting on a platform, sliding down a slide, or wading in a stream. A pup may have to try a dozen times, perhaps over several days, to climb up on a platform. He may whine, cry and even howl. He may give up or fail, over and over. Yes, he will get stressed and it will be hard on him (and you) but if we allow the puppy to solve the problem himself, he will become more coordinated and confident. If we make it too easy or if we rescue him, he will not. Independent success and achievement create confident puppies.
The Avidog Adventure Box is an example of such a challenge. We don’t hang stuffed animals from our boxes. Instead, we have clanging paint cans and large plastic cups that bop puppies as they go by. We intersperse soft paint brushes with heavy chains so as the pups bite the brushes, the chains hit them. It is made to be noisy and slightly stressful while still being very, very safe.
MAKE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE BOX
6. Change Things Regularly.
Because of the way puppies’ brains develop, challenges need to change regularly. Puppies quickly habituate to things and when they do, development stops. So change up your puppy pen, moving items around and rotating things in and out. When you walk your pups, go in different directions each day. If your pups are doing everything with ease, make them a little more difficult.
7. Take Your Pups On Adventure Walks.
Taking your pup or puppies out for off-leash walks over moderate terrain not only helps them develop confidence and proprioception, it significantly reduces the risk of hip dysplasia in adulthood. If you can, get off the path and go cross country with your pups so they meet and overcome challenges like ditches, hills, fallen trees, stone walls and more.
All breeds can do Adventure Walks; you’ll simply make the challenges smaller for toy breeds. Make sure it’s not too hot or too cold, and that your Adventures are free of other dogs. Use your yard, your friend’s yards, or those hidden wild places. Where not to go? Never a dog park or the local dog hangout.
8. Recognize That Wariness is Normal in Puppies.
There seems to be a new philosophy that if pups are afraid of something, people should get involved to help them. The vast majority of the time, nothing could be further from the truth! In all but emergencies, our involvement reduces the puppies’ self-efficacy and changes them from independent problem solvers to dependent ones. If producing confident dogs is our goal, we want to give puppies the opportunity to deal with their own concerns while still keeping them safe.
Starting at 5 weeks of age, it is natural for pups to be wary of new objects, people and places. However, wariness is not fear! Wariness is being cautious about possible dangers or problems. Puppies go from being completely unaware that things can hurt them at 3 and 4 weeks of age to recognizing that there are dangers in the world. Between 5 and 9 weeks of age, pups become hyperaware of novel items because they now have the mental ability to assess whether a situation is safe or not.
Pups at this age develop at different rates so you may see some pups showing caution earlier than others. That’s just because their brains and nervous systems are maturing at different times. What appears to be a slow or even fearful puppy may just be a pup whose brain needs to finish up myelination, a key step that enables learning.
When these puppies come upon a new thing, they might move to a safer distance to observe and smell the item. They might circle it to see what happens and then approach cautiously to touch and sniff the new thing. All of this is not only normal, it is SMART!
9. Avoid Labeling Young Puppies.
If we label a 6-week old (or worse yet, younger) puppy as “fearful” or “manipulative” simply because it is wary around a new object, we have made a serious error. What the puppy is doing is normal for its age. The difference between it and others in its litter might be due to physiology rather than temperament. Like people, dogs develop at different rates. Since we are talking about puppies that haven’t even been alive for two months yet, giving them the benefit of the doubt seems appropriate.
Psychologists have long known that labeling children affects how others treat them. Once we label puppies, we look for evidence to support that label, even if it isn’t there. We may think we are unbiased but once we have labeled a puppy, we are no longer. We watch “stars” and ooh and ah over the great things they do, overlooking their moments of tentativeness. No matter how hard we try, we treat a “weanie” or “scaredy-cat” differently.
10. Allow Pups to Solve Their Own Problems.
We compound our error if we then step in to “fix” the fearful puppy by interfering with the natural process by which puppies learn about themselves and their world. Instead, we should quietly and unobtrusively support ALL puppies in the 6- to 13-week period. We should give all of them as much time and experience they need to become comfortable with the strange things they find in the world around them. We should set up or repeat experiences our pups find bothersome until they gain confidence. About all, we must be trustworthy, never allowing the pup to be hurt or terrified during this process.
So what should we do if our puppy is afraid? We should wait quietly, giving the puppy time to complete its evaluation and make a decision regarding the novel item. Often, we just put the item in the pen with a pup so it has all the time it needs to resolve its concern. If the pup is still with it’s litter, this allows it to watch its littermates or mother interact with the item.
If we can’t put the object in the pen, we stay quietly out of the way while ensuring the puppy is safe. We might support the puppy by sitting or standing nearby but we do not take control of the situation. This is between the puppy and its world! If we encourage the puppy, we are putting pressure on it, increasing the stress it is feeling. If we push, pull or physically place the puppy near the item, we may cause it to panic. If we start training, we teach the puppy that we are in charge in strange situations rather than him. We are making him dependent and needy. Remember, our job is to do nothing but ensure the puppy is safe and offer him the comfort of our presence!
If the puppy is still concerned about the item after 15 minutes, we will plan a return trip, perhaps with a confident older dog. Puppies learn a lot by observing older dogs so we use them to help puppies gain confidence. For this reason, we also never allow puppies to walk with fearful adult dogs since the older dog’s concern may rub off on the pup.
In all walks of life, confident dogs do best. Raising confident dogs must be a goal for all breeders and owners. Use these ten steps to get started and then do your homework!
Your homework: What baby step can you take to help your puppies become more confident? Woods walks? Adventure Boxes? Problem solving games? Share your ideas in the comments below.
Alter, Adam. 2010. Why It’s Dangerous to Label People: Why labeling a person “black,” “rich,” or “smart” makes it so. Alternative Truths>. Accessed at https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/alternative-truths/201005/why-its-dangerous-label-people.
Bailey, Ed. 2010. Why Not Seven Weeks–-The Forty-Ninth Day Revisited. Gun Dog. September 23rd, 2010. Reprinted above with permission from Gun Dogand Dr Bailey.
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