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How to Build a Dog's Confidence: Training & Tips, Even for Shy Dogs | Pupford

January 9th, 2024

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Your dog's confidence levels can drastically affect their ability to learn, respond correctly to cues, and generally feel happy in their environment! In this episode, I sat down with Emily Fitzpatrick (VSA-CDT) to discuss ways to improve your dog's confidence!

Emily also helps break down why confidence is important, things that can break your dog's confidence, and daily actions to help make your dog more confident and happy!


Emily Fitzpatrick is a Victoria Stilwell Academy Certified Dog Trainer and is the owner of Misunderstood Mutt Dog Training. Emily trains pups and pup parents both in person and remote. She focuses on helping parents create effective and long-lasting change using fun, reward-based dog training techniques that will enhance your bond with your dog!

Related Reading: How to Bond With Your Dog


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a dog that looks confident and secure | Pupford

Building your dog's confidence takes time and patience, here are some ideas:

  • Find what your dog does enjoy and do that often
  • Consider if getting a second dog could improve your dog's confidence
  • Give your dog lots of choices throughout their day
  • Give your dog the freedom to try new things
  • Try simple trick training to improve confidence
  • Consider new games and enrichment

Now, let's dive into more info about dog's confidence. ⤵️


(Starts around 2:32)

It's important to have an understanding of what confidence in dogs really means. Here is what Emily had to say. 👇

  • It can be different for every dog
  • Confidence comes from within, feeling comfortable with what you are doing and knowing you are able to perform the act comfortably and successfully
  • To understand how your dog is feeling you will want to understand your dog's body language to see how they look and act in different situations
  • Is their tail wagging? Are they happily engaging with things in their environment? Or is their tail tucked? Are they hyperfocused on one thing and unable to interact with their environment?


(Starts around 4:00)

a shy dog without confidence under a bench | Pupford

  • A shy dog generally isn't very confident
  • If they are feeling fearful around people, animals, their environment, etc. they probably can't feel confident

A dog can become shy for many reasons, but often it's related to situations that caused fear in the past.

Related Reading: How to Socialize an Adult Dog


(Starts around 4:52)

  • Confidence helps a dog naturally learn the good behaviors that pup parents want their dog to show in a day
  • A shy dog may take longer to learn a skill because they don't feel comfortable with themself to learn the behavior
  • If a dog doesn't have confidence to begin with, they may not really be understanding / or able to absorb what we are asking of them


(Starts around 7:45)

Taking the time and effort to build your dog's confidence is extremely important, for a shy dog especially. Here are some ideas for how to build a dog's confidence:

  • First: find something that your dog does like and let your dog be around that as much as possible (maybe confident dogs)
  • Adopt another dog to give your dog a companion
  • Give your dog a lot of choices in their daily life. Letting your dog choose what treats they want, what toys they want to play with, what tricks they want to learn. Capturing helps as it allows your dog to lead the training session
    • Try this: Get a couple of bowls and put a different treat in each. Let your dog investigate and let them choose. Try this 3-4 times and see which one(s) they go to first
    • Try this: Scatter some toys and let your dog choose what toys they want to play with
  • Let your dog try new things on their own

Building your dog's confidence will pay huge dividends in the long run. Plus, it can improve your relationship with your pup too!

Related Reading: How to Talk to Your Dog + 3 Reasons You Should


(Starts around 12:30)

  • Using aversives (like prong collars). This is just teaching a dog what they are doing wrong, not what they are doing right
  • Pushing your dog to do things when they aren't ready to do them (getting too close to other people if they are scared of people, making your dog go next to kids if they are scared of kids or other animals, etc). So wait until your dog is willing and comfortable with that thing!


(Starts around 17:50)

  • Cowering/tail between legs
  • Look at your dog's face (ears especially)
    • If they are fearful, they may have a dry/rigid pant and their tongue is straight out of their mouth
    • Eyes are red if they are really stressed (whale eye). They are looking in multiple directions and are hypervigilant
    • Ears are pinned tightly back to their head
  • Sitting back away. They are pointing their body away from what it is in their environment they are afraid of
  • Hackles are up

It's important to check in with your dog regularly to see how they are feeling in a situation. Even if you don't understand a lot about dog body language, but feel like your dog may be uncomfortable, they probably are! Remove them from that situation.


a dog feeling happier after his pup parent worked on confidence building | Pupford

Whether you have a shy dog or just a pup needing a confidence boost, remember to be patient. Look for ways to give your dog choices and play games that will help your dog succeed.

We hope you learned something and feel more confident in your ability to help your dog feel confident. Thanks for listening!

Have any questions? Let us know in the comments!


Devin : This is The Perfect Pup Podcast, helping you build a better relationship with your pup. Presented by Pupford. Hello, pup parents, and welcome to today's episode of The Perfect Pup Podcast. My name is Devin. I'm very excited for today's episode for a couple reasons. First, we have a brand new guest we've never had on the show. We have Emily Fitzpatrick with us. Emily, thank you so much for coming on the podcast.

Emily Fitzpatrick : Yeah, thanks for having me. I'm really excited.

Devin : I am as well. And another reason I'm excited is because of the topic that we're covering. It's one that personally, I don't think it's talked about enough. I know Emily, you kind of focus on it and, or not focused, but talk a lot about it on your Instagram, in different places. And we're going to be covering improving your dog's confidence and the role of confidence in our relationship with our dogs, in our dog's behavior and just all things, dog confidence. So before we dive into that, just want to give a quick intro on who Emily is. So you know who we're talking to here. Emily is a Victoria Stilwell Academy, certified dog trainer, and the owner of Misunderstood Mutt Dog Training and learned earlier that she has been an animal lover pretty much since, as long as she can remember, always hanging out with the neighbors dogs, or cats or any animal that she can find. So that's Emily in a nutshell. Anything you want to add about, maybe funny facts about you or anything in particular?

Emily Fitzpatrick : I don't think so. I mean, the funniest thing that I've done as a child was I used to dress up as a cat and then meow at myself in the mirror. So it's always been a thing. I've always been there for the animals.

Devin : I love it. I mean, that's like the most pure form of animal love is I wanted to be an animal.

Emily Fitzpatrick : Truly.

Devin : I love it. That's awesome. So let's dive into the topic here. Again, like I said, in the intro building your dog's confidence. I think this is one of those things where if you have never experienced working with a shy dog, or a rescue, or a dog that has confidence issues, it may not be something you think about a ton, but even if that is the case, if you're listening to this and thinking, my dog seems pretty confident, or sometimes too confident, this is still going to be important. Because the concepts behind improving confidence and building confidence in our dogs is going to help even if you feel like your dog already is confident. It crosses all planes when it comes to our dogs and their behavior. So first things first when we're talking about confidence, most people know what the word confidence means, but in relation to our dogs and their confidence, what exactly does that mean?

Emily Fitzpatrick : Yeah, I think that could be kind of different for every dog too. I think of it in terms of people, everyone feels confident doing different things. So confidence kind of comes from within, feeling comfortable with what you're doing and knowing that you're able to perform the act or whatever it is comfortably and successfully. So I think for dogs, it's a lot of really observing their body language and learning about their body language in general, and just seeing how they look and act in certain situations.

I think of it in terms of when your dog is out on a walk, if you look at their body and how they are, are they upbeat? Is their tail wagging nicely? Do they kind of have that nice little pep in their step and they're happily engaging in everything in their environment? Or do you feel like their kind of more reserved and their tail is tucked and they're hypervigilant, looking everywhere and not really able to engage in their environment or engage in you because they're feeling fearful. So when you see your dog kind of doing the other one where they're really happy to engage in everything, that's where I would tap into them feeling that confidence.

Devin : That makes sense. So in this sense, the opposite of confidence for our dogs could be shyness or even fear, and even just like general hesitation to engage with the world. I guess I'm wondering if my dog is shy, does that mean that they just don't have confidence or they maybe just nervous about environment? I don't know. Does that make sense?

Emily Fitzpatrick : Yeah. No, it definitely makes sense. I would say, a shy dog probably isn't a very confident dog. A lot of dogs are shy and pretty reserved and don't really want to go out and socialize with everybody, which is totally okay. But I feel like if they're feeling that fear, then they probably aren't able to feel that confidence. It's kind of like, they're polar opposites of one another and that's how I see it in my mind. I'm not sure if you kind of see it the same way where it's like, if you're sad, then you're not happy. If that makes sense.

Devin : Yeah. No, 100%. So with our dogs and their confidence, how does it affect, because I know you said, them being able to engage with certain things around them and have the confidence to do what we're asking of them. So how have you seen that confidence in dogs correlates with their behavior? When I say behavior, pretty much everyone's trying to get a well behaved dog, right? So how does confidence tie into that?

Emily Fitzpatrick : Yeah. So I feel like confidence helps a dog just naturally be able to learn those good behaviors that a pet parent would want for them to show throughout the day. The more confident a dog is the easier they're going to be able to learn and adapt to their environment and really be able to perform these behaviors that people are asking of them. So I think of it in terms of, if I'm teaching my dog a new skill, a shy dog is probably going to take a little bit longer to learn that because they may not be feeling super confident in themselves with performing the behavior.

So if I'm teaching my dog to not jump whenever I'm coming into the house, a confident dog is probably going to learn that pretty quickly. Pick up on the social cues, pick up on those rewards that we're giving them. Whereas a shy dog or a more reserved dog may not really understand that as quickly because their brain is having to process their scary emotions that they're feeling while they're also trying to learn this new skill and this new behavior. Kind of like if we're put into a situation where we're feeling really anxious, say we're going to go and learn a big math problem, but we're feeling really anxious about it. It's going to be a lot harder for us to absorb that information because we're also really nervous about messing up, nervous about our performance, nervous about not understanding the problem or the answer. And I kind of put that in terms of the dog's brain, where they probably have a bit of a hard time being able to pick up on all the cues and really what you're asking them for.

Devin : That makes a lot of sense. So it really, it's kind of about mindset. And I know that might be kind of a given, but if we're approaching things and we want our dogs to learn, it feels like you're saying, if they don't have confidence to begin with, they might not even be really even understanding or being able to, even if they want to, they just might not be able to understand or even absorb kind of what we're asking of them. Am I understanding that correctly?

Emily Fitzpatrick : Yeah. Yeah, definitely.

Devin : Okay. That's so important. And again, something that I don't think gets talked about enough. So I was so happy to see on your Instagram that you talk about it and I thought this was the perfect topic. So when we were talking about confidence, speaking of confidence, I got a confident dog coming out from a nap. What can we do to improve our dog's confidence?

Emily Fitzpatrick : Oh my gosh, I love this question. So I have a very shy and fearful dog. Whenever we got him, he was scared of everything, like literally would cower in the corner. And I was convinced that this dog was never going to be able to live a happy, healthy, normal life because he was just going to be terrified forever. And some ways that we went about improving his confidence was the first thing I knew that he loved other dogs and being around other dogs helped him to feel more comfortable, I think because he could see what they were doing and kind of mimic that.

And be like, okay, I understand what this dog is doing. So maybe if I just play a little copycat game, then I'll understand what to do a little bit better. So getting him around other confident dogs that were able to just adapt to different environments really easily, enjoyed being around a lot of people, were really social. That helped him. First off adopting a second dog that he could be around daily helped him a ton to be able to accept new people, which some dogs are like that. Some dogs like you just get them a companion and they can handle the world, which I feel like that was it for him. He got this emotional support dog, which helped him to be able to handle the world better.

But then giving him a lot of choice in his daily life. So letting him choose what toys he wants to play with, what treats he wants to use for our training sessions, what tricks he even wants to learn. I do a lot of capturing in our training sessions where he gets to kind of lead the whole entire thing and I sit back and I just reward him for whatever it is that I like in that moment. So doing things like that really helped him to learn that just figuring things out and trying new things on his own are going to bring really great things into his life. Like yummy treats, toys, play, and affection. So that helped him to really come out of that shell and get that confidence because he was getting all of that good kind of emotional boost and serotonin from all of these really good things.

Devin : I really like that. A question on the giving them options. So you gave an example of letting them choose which toy they want to play with or which treat they want to use even for training. Are you literally just holding up two treats and what ever one they go to that's the one you're giving or like, what does that process look like?

Emily Fitzpatrick : Yeah. So it can look different for everybody. One thing that I like to do is get a couple of bowls, like three or four bowls, put a different treat in each bowl, place them out. And then let your dog go and sniff and investigate. See which ones they go to first. Do that three or four times and see which one they tend to keep on going back towards, and then use that treat for your training sessions.

Or you can even put two different treats in a hand. So you have one treat in your left hand, one treat in your right hand, you hold them out to your dog, whichever one they bump first. Then you can use that one for your training session. For toys, I like to kind of just scatter a couple of toys around the floor. Whichever one they grab in that moment, that's the one we're going to play with. If they decide they don't want to play with that one anymore and they want to grab this one over here, then that's the one that we'll play with then because they get to kind of lead the game and make it all about them because they don't get much choice in their daily life.

Devin : Yeah. I love that. That's awesome. I had this kind of thought, as you were saying that of so many times as pup parents, I think we, at least myself, I'll say, man, I wish my dog could speak English. I wish my dog could actually say words out loud to me. And sometimes I think I personally at least get hung up on that of like, oh, it can be hard to communicate with our dogs, but there are ways that we can do it. Our dogs can't verbally say, oh, I like salmon treats the best. But like you're saying you put four different bowls out. See that they go to salmon more frequently. Okay. In that sense, they're communicating with this. I just think that's such a cool little [crosstalk].

Emily Fitzpatrick : Yeah.

Devin : But yeah, although I hopefully one day. Right. Hopefully one day our adults can actually speak English. I'm holding out that like, if we can do all these things with AI and going to space, whatever it is, like someone should probably prioritize dogs speaking English somehow, right?

Emily Fitzpatrick : Yeah. Yeah. It's kind of like, the dog Bunny from TikTok where she pushes the buttons and speaks like that. I've wanted to do that with my dogs, but I'm also like, do I want to know what they would say? I feel like they would just ask for food all day long, either food and outside, food, outside and I'd be losing my mind.

Devin : You're probably right. Yeah. There'd be a couple words and they would just over and over on those ones.

Emily Fitzpatrick : Yes.

Devin : So on the flip side, because those are great ideas on how we can build our dog's confidence and now we know why it's important and how it can affect their behavior. What are things that you've seen pup parents do, or other people, or people online, or whoever it might be that can break a dog's confidence or decrease their confidence?

Emily Fitzpatrick : Yeah. I feel like this is going to be a bit controversial, but using aversive tools with training, I've definitely seen really breaks down a dog's confidence, which is funny because a lot of trainers do say that tools such as E-collars and prong callers help to build that communication and that confidence. However, when you're inflicting pain and punishment on a dog that really puts them into a crappy situation where they don't get the choice to avoid that pain. And I mean, if they do, they have to act in a certain way and they have to learn that that way is what avoids that uncomfortable kind of feeling in situations. So putting them into situations where they're set up to fail and then correcting them with some sort of punishment type method that really breaks down that confidence because you're just teaching your dog like, oh, you did that wrong.

You did that wrong. Nope. I don't like that. I don't like that. That was bad instead of saying, oh my gosh, that was really great. I love that. That was so good. Let's do that again. And I kind of think of it as, if we try and try and try something new and someone's just in our ear going, eh, wrong, wrong. Nope. It's really going to make you be like all right, I'm giving up. I don't even know what you want from me anymore. And that's really going to kind of tear your confidence down. It really sucks.

Devin : Yeah. I agree. I think that does suck. And you did say it could be controversial and to some people it might be, but I do think when you just step back and look at it through that lens that you just did of, Hey, if you were yeah, if you had a coach in a sport or something, and all they did was constantly say what you were doing wrong and why it was wrong and making you run laps because you did something wrong, but never once did they say, oh, that was right or that was good. You wouldn't really want to be on that team anymore. You wouldn't be interested in listening to that coach because it's all negative and it's all things you don't want to hear. And so I love looking through that lens and at the end of the day too, we talk about this a decent amount on this podcast that especially at Pupford and myself personally and you as well, we do not use aversives and we don't support the use of them.

And there are some people who get really up in arms about that. And I think at the end of the day, it's kind of going back full circle on what this episode is about. It's about confidence. It's not a matter of you're a bad person if you do those things. It's just, Hey, you might be inhibiting your dog's ability to learn. And at the end of the day, we all want our dogs to learn and to grow and to become better dogs and become well behaved. And if we're doing things that can break that down, it's going to be problematic. So I'm all for a little bit of controversy, right? I think, because if there's no pushing back against the norms, then those aversives have been around for a long, long time. And it's just recently in the past couple decades that we're starting to learn more about it and say, huh, maybe that isn't the best way. Maybe that is hurting our dogs. So I appreciate you being willing to say things that are potentially controversial for people.

Emily Fitzpatrick : Absolutely. I think it needs to be said and kind of along the lines of that, making sure that you're putting your dog into these situations when they're ready. So one thing that I did with Goose when he was a puppy, I did it all wrong. I would scatter food all over strangers and have him go and like eat the food out of these people's hands and off of their laps. And he was not okay with that. Looking at his body language now, from my perspective, as a professional, his tail was tucked. He was shaking. He was cowering. He was reaching for the food because he really wanted the food, but didn't like that interaction. As soon as he ate the treats, he would run and hide in a corner. Sometimes he would literally pee because he was so scared, but would just eat this food.

So some dogs are literally so food motivated that they will go into that scary situation just so they can get that really delicious, yummy food. However, in their mind, they are so scared. So just making sure that you're putting your dog into these situations when they're ready, and they're willing, and they're comfortable and not just using food to lure them into something scary, because that can even make the food something scary to them. That can become aversive to them is using treats as lures because it's forced them to go into those scary situations.

Related Reading: My Dog Doesn't Like Treats, What Can I Do?

Devin : Yeah. That totally makes sense. And again, I think it's just so important to, like you mentioned in the beginning, it's different for every dog and every dog is different and it's important to, as we're approaching as pop parents, how we look at improving behavior and building our dog's confidence, training the dog in front of us and paying attention to their body language. So maybe kind of one last question on that note, and I know you touched on it a little bit, but I do think that dog body language is, I mean, it's a whole expertise in itself, right? There's so much that can go into it. I know you mentioned, like the cowering and the tail between their legs. Is there any other thing that people should be or things that people can look out for that might be a signal of, oh, your dog's overwhelmed, or shy, or nervous, or maybe is not confident in a current situation?

Emily Fitzpatrick : Definitely. Taking a really good look at your dog's face in those situations and their ears, especially. So a lot of times when dogs aren't feeling super confident, they'll have a really heavy pant where their mouth is stretched really tight back. You can see all of their teeth, but it's a dry pant. So it's not like they're happy, normal. Like, oh, I just played and had a lot of fun pant. It's really dry, really rigid. And their tongue is usually pretty straight out of their mouth. Their eyes are typically pretty red. If they're really stressed, they'll get really red eyes, but have whale eye. So you can see all the whites of their eye around them. They're typically looking in multiple different directions, hyper vigilance, and just kind of really scanning that environment, having their ears pinned tightly back to their head. That's a big sign that they're feeling pretty fearful.

And also just having that body posture, like sitting back away. So a lot of dogs when they're feeling confident they're going to be more neutral or more forward with their body. So if you notice that your dog is really kind of pointing their whole body away from whatever it is in the environment that they may be fearful of, it's a big sign that your dog probably isn't super comfortable. If their cowering away, their tail is tucked, their hackles may be up as well. And their face just looks like, oh my God, I am so stress. Please get me the heck out of here.

Devin : Yeah. Thank you for giving those extra points. It's really good points. Really good things to think about. And like I said, it's something I'm still learning a lot about and it's a complicated topic. So I really like those points that you made. And again, I think I'll just kind of add my own an opinion or two cents on all of that in general, with our dogs and looking at their body language is, if you're feeling like, oh, maybe my dog is uncomfortable right now. They probably are. I've noticed that for myself that even if you're not an expert on dog body language, trusting your gut and saying, Hey, like this situation seems like it could get bad or this situation seems like maybe my dog is starting to get uncomfortable, but I'm not completely sure. It's okay. Just get out of the situation if you can. In most cases you can step away and give yourself some space to let your dog at least breathe a little bit. And then you can kind of reassess as the pup parent.

Emily Fitzpatrick : Yeah, definitely. I totally agree with that. And kind of going off of that, these body language cues can happen so fast too. A lot of times it could be a millisecond that your dog shows that whale eye, and you may have missed that. So just being really aware of kind of looking at your whole dog and really analyzing them. You don't want to just sit there and kind of stare at them, because that may make them a little bit nervous, but really being aware of checking in with your dog and making sure that you understand how they feel, even offering them a few treat to see if they'll easily take food. And if they aren't easily taking food, then they're probably feeling like they're getting a little bit too stressed and that would probably be a time where you'd want to remove them from that situation again.

Devin : Yeah. I love that. That's a great idea. Great thing to remember. I've learned a lot on this episode. My head's kind of running through situations where I'm like, okay, I maybe was stressing out my dog or I could've done more to help them be confident. So I hope that listeners, I hope that you have learned something from this episode as well and hopefully you're feeling more confident in your ability to help your dog feel confident as well. So thank you so much Emily, for coming on this episode and for teaching me and teaching pup parents about building their dog's confidence.

Emily Fitzpatrick : Yeah. Thanks for having me. This was really fun. And I feel like it's a really important topic for people to be aware of.

Devin : I agree. And on that note, in the episode show notes, we will put links where you can learn more from Emily via her Instagram, all those social media, all the website, all that good stuff. And beyond that, we're at the end of the episode. I do want to say if you have not already left a review on Apple Podcast listeners, please go and do that. It helps other people find this podcast. And I personally look at every single review out there and I read them all. So beyond that, we will catch you on the next episode.


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