Looking for ways to help your nervous or anxious dog grow in confidence?
Whether your dog barks and lunges because of fear or hides and shakes - helping them bloom in confidence can help combat their nerves and make them feel better about the world.
These 4 super simple confidence building exercises for dogs are easy enough for even complete beginners - you can watch Bella and I giving them a go below!
Dog trainer, Niki French has joined us to demonstrate 4 fun training games that are super helpful for supporting fearful dogs to grow in confidence.
Dog anxiety symptoms
First up, let’s explore the common signs of anxiety you may see in your dog. Some are more obvious than others, so getting clued up on the more subtle signs can help you greatly in supporting your dog before things develop.
- Panting (when not hot)
- Shaking or quivering
- Lip licking
- Yawning (when not tired)
- Tucked tail or crouching
- Turning away (head or body)
- Stiffening up or freezing
- Ears pinned back or low
- Whites of eyes showing (also known as whale eye)
What causes low confidence in dogs?
There are many things which can cause low confidence in dogs, from traumatic/scary experiences, to genetics or early socialisation. It’s important not to blame yourself - us humans are very good at that, but it won’t help your dog.
Helping your dog to feel safe, learning about dog body language and closely observing your dog can go a long way to growing your dog’s confidence. I recommend focusing on the things you can control rather than the past - which cannot be changed!
If your dog has previously been attacked or had an incident with another dog, then read to the end to grab Niki’s expert tips to help your dog bounce back and recover.
Can you train a dog to be more confident?
Yes, and dog trainer Niki French from PupTalk is going to show you how! Being mindful of your dog’s body language is one piece of the puzzle, as this will help you identify when your dog needs extra support.
But there are also specific confidence building games you can play with your dog to grow their courage and combat nerves.
4 confidence building exercises for dogs
1. Teach your dog ‘two feet on’
This simple dog training game is a superb confidence booster. Through teaching and encouraging your dog to move their body and position themselves with two paws up, you can have a positive impact on how they feel.
Think of yourself all hunched up or slouched versus standing upright, shoulders back and head held high - it changes how you feel, doesn’t it?
The same can be true for your dog. Teaching your dog ‘two feet on’ delivers an instant confidence shot - watch the video below to learn how.
- A low/non slippery object
- Training treats (or squeezy rewards tube like this)
We’ve used a yoga block for this video, but you could use a small step or a book. Choose something stable and not too slippery - use a towel to add extra grip if needed.
Step 1: Place the object down and grab some treats
Step 2: Use the treat to lure your dog towards your object
Step 3: Slowly move the treat up and over the item, encouraging your dog towards it
Step 4: When your dog places their paws on the object, feed 2 - 3 treats to reward them and keep their feet on the block/item
Step 5: Pop your foot on the corner of the object to steady it (so it doesn’t tip or move when your dog hops off)
Step 6: Say ‘break’ and throw a treat over your dogs head, away from you to teach your dog a release cue and move them off the item
Rinse and repeat!
Play this game for 2-3 minutes maximum and watch your dog’s confidence grow. Once your dog has the hang of the game you can introduce a cue such as ‘paws up’ or ‘feet on.’
Once your dog learns 2 feet on, you can use logs or other low objects out on walks to boost your dog’s confidence outdoors.
2. Teach your dog ‘middle’
Middle is a great game for dogs who are scared of other dogs or people. By teaching your dog to position themselves between your legs, they have an instant sense of physical protection.
Other dogs are also less likely to come into your physical space, giving your dog the distance and feeling of security they crave.
- Tasty treats
Step 1: Grab your treats and stand in front of your dog with your legs apart with a treat in each hand
Step 2: Use hand 1 (with treat) to lure your dog towards you and around the outside of one leg
Step 3: Reach hand 2 (with treat) to meet your dog between your legs (with your dog facing forwards)
Step 4: Reward your dog with a few treats while they remain in position (between your legs, facing forwards)
Step 5: Say ‘break’ and throw a treat forwards and away from you to teach your dog a release cue and move out of position
Rinse and repeat!
Play this game for 2-3 minutes and your dog will soon get the hang of it! Once your dog is quickly positioning themselves between your legs, you can introduce a cue such as ‘middle’.
Use this on walks if you see dogs or people nearby to give your dog a sense of physical security and protection.
3. Teach your dog ‘The cone game’
Your dog’s nose is their most sensitive sense so teaching them to feel confident choosing to put their nose into something is a great way to boost their courage.
This is also a brilliant way to build your dog’s confidence before muzzle training.
Your dog doesn’t have preconceptions about wearing a muzzle - we simply need to build your dog’s confidence with putting their nose into something!
Getting your dog used to having something touching their muzzle and their face (and choosing to do so) is a brilliant confidence booster for nervous dogs.
- A cone, yoghurt pot, cup, or a muzzle.
- Tasty treats
We start by teaching a hand touch
Step 1: Have a treat in one hand ready
Step 2: Pop your hand without the treat out in front of your dog
Step 3: When your dog orients towards your empty hand and touches it - reward them with the treat from your other hand
Transition onto the cone (or similar item)
Step 4: Briefly hold the cone out in front of you
Step 5: When your dog orients towards the cone mark with a ‘yes’ and reward
Step 6: Practise with different items to build confidence
Remember: This game is about building confidence so choice is really important. Resist pushing the cone towards your dog or trying to rush them into putting their nose into it.
4. Play cardboard chaos
This is a super easy confidence boosting game to try with your dog. It helps grow confidence with different textures, noises and movement. If you have a dog who gets spooked by sudden noises, movement or surprises, this one’s for you.
Go at your dog’s pace and give it a try!
- Cardboard box
- Egg boxes, loo rolls, plastic bottles
Step 1: Place your cardboard box on the ground and place some treats on the floor around it
Step 2: If your dog is comfortable - pop some treats in the box (watch out for flaps on the box so they don’t cause your dog surprise/concern)
Step 3: Once your dog is happy - add some extra boxes to explore at different angles
Step 4: Introduce some extra (gentle) chaos - pop treats inside egg boxes/loo rolls to take exploration up a notch
If your dog is a chewer or a shredder, be mindful and present to ensure they don’t swallow any items.
For dogs who struggle with noise or movements, this can be a real confidence booster. Your dog is controlling the noise and movement and making it happen themselves, which can help them develop more resilience to sudden surprises that happen outside of their control.
If your dog struggles with any of these exercises, you can use movement to reset and relax them. If your dog gets stiff or looks worried, confused or unsure - toss a treat away from you to get your dog moving and loosened up to learn.
Helping your dog recover from a dog attack
Many of our anxious dog community report that their dog’s fearful behaviour started following an attack or incident with another dog. This can leave not only your dog more fearful but often you as an owner will also feel on edge and afraid about a repeat incident.
Niki has a fabulous ebook which shares 10 top tips for helping your dog bounce back after a scary experience with another dog - and it includes a bonus confidence building game for you!
Are dog walks stressful for you (and your dog)?
Niki is also the author of a life changing book for reactive and anxious dog owners. Stop! Walking Your Dog is a best selling book and it’s incredibly helpful for owners (and dogs) who find traditional dog walks stressful.
It’s packed with Niki’s perspective shifting insights as an experienced dog trainer and offers alternative solutions that can be a real game changer for fearful dogs.