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In conformation, judges not only look for that ideal topline, judges look for a presence in the dog. That presence is communicated when the dog's head is up and the dog gaits boldly. However, a dog with a quieter, more reserved nature, can become overwhelmed in a show environment, preventing the dog from showing his better character. Likewise, in obedience, a dog that feels insecure may not be able to focus on commands, and in agility the dog may shut down all together.
Kim Gillaspie knows this problem first hand. She had previously owned Italian Greyhounds (IGs) when she adopted two from rescue. At first, both her adopted dogs were very timid and totally frightened. After working to build confidence in the dogs, Gunner, now 7 years old, (NATCH Lil Six-Shootr Gun'n For Fun, MX, MXJ), has earned his NATCH (NADAC Agility Trial Champion), is close to earning his Versatility NATCH and is also working towards his MACH in AKC. Her newer acquisition, 3 1/2 year old Boomer (Lil ThundrBoomr PerfectStorm, EAC, EJC, OA, OAJ) is working toward his NATCH in NADAC and is currently competing at the Excellent level in AKC.
Kim has seen both extremes of personalities with IGs. Some are very shy and some are very outgoing. Kim believes that the handling of this breed when they're young is very important. Unfortunately when she got her dogs from rescue, the dogs had been handled poorly. Kim has employed several techniques for dealing with highly sensitive and highly reactive dogs when working to build confidence.
The first thing Kim does to build confidence is to build a strong trusting relationship. Just as some people don't tend to trust people they don't know, many dogs, especially rescues, need to develop a strong and positive relationship with their owner before the dog can learn trust in uncertain situations. With many dogs, you cannot drag a dog towards something he is afraid of and expect to reassure the dog if he has no confidence in you.
Both of Kim's rescue dogs were so insecure when she first got them, the dogs cowered when she simply stood over them or accidentally made any fast gestures. So, Kim got down on the floor at eye level to let the dogs get comfortable with her. She'd encourage the dogs with bright and playful antics to build a more upbeat relationship. Once the dogs warmed up to her, she was able to stand over them without having them slink away, or lower their heads and drop their tails.
Although having fun increased bonding with her dogs, Kim found certain games helped with building up her dog's confidence. She played "King of the Hill" where the dog was allowed to stand on top of her chest. Afterwards she'd gently roll the dog onto his back and follow up with a tummy rub, a reward for staying calm and trusting. Tug-of-War and "chase me to get the toy" games offered fun interaction where Kim could allow the dog to win. The "winning" process did wonders for her dog's confidence. All play sessions ended on a positive note, with the dog wanting more, and with Kim taking leadership by winning the last round.
Praise can help build confidence as well and Kim lavished praise when the dog made the right choices in training and showing self-confidence. She also liked to use a clicker in her training. The clicker helped to shape desired behaviors and allowed Kim to inch the dog towards things he is less sure of.
To build confidence, the dog needs to be exposed to a variety of people, other dogs, and situations. Kim made sure to find places where the dog would have success, and avoided loose dogs, unmanaged children, and large crowds until her dog had a chance to build up his confidence. Some people are too quick to coddle their dogs when they overreact to things that upset them, Kim explained. Dogs who are easy to pick up and readily curl up in your arms, are easy for people to accommodate, but a bad thing for the dog's confidence. Kim admits IGs can be overly dramatic at times, however, she feels one of the most important thing is to treat them like any other dog, regardless of size. Unless her dog is in danger, Kim gives the dog the opportunity to stand up to his own fears at ground level.
Kim recommends starting at the dog's confidence level and gently nudging the dog towards more confidence. Gunner was afraid of big dogs when she first adopted him. Although Kim had two large Dalmatians at home, which Gunner quickly got used to, he still feared large dogs he didn't know, and would cower or try to run away. To help, Kim asked people at dog shows who had good control of their dogs to help desensitize Gunner. She would have an owner walk by with a big dog from about 15 feet away. She asked the owner's to engage their dogs in some activity that would keep their dogs attention on them instead of Gunner. Once Gunner realized that the other dog didn't care about him, he began to relax. This allowed Kim to have the person walk by a little closer the next time, and then closer again. Gunner learned not to fret about large dogs and he actually made some doggy friends.
Working to build confidence does take time, so people need to employ patience. With encouragement, the dog will learn to relax if he isn't pushed or rushed, and if you keep the situation secure and upbeat. A dog owner can't force, scold, or bully a dog into a comfort zone, so never punish a dog for being stressed out. What works better is to push a little, then get the dog to relax. If the dog becomes progressively less comfortable or can no longer settle back down, then it is time to stop the training session. Depending on the dog's stress level, the first session may only last a few minutes, but the quantity of time will build.
Other tools when working to build confidence are to use a calm demeanor while ignoring an upsetting issue, and to get the dog to focus on a routine the dog finds calming. Kim had to use this technique before an agility run when Boomer, who is very sound sensitive, became rattled from a loud noise. Kim worked to get the dog to ignore what had just frightened him by acting as if the event hadn't happened. She asked him to heel for a short distance, practiced his turns, gave him a familiar back massage, did their usual stretching routine, and had the dog weave between her legs, which took his mind off of the frightening noise he just heard. Ironically, the run was quite successful and Boomer emerged acting self-confident.
Both Boomer and Gunner have gone from dogs who cowered inside the house, and were afraid of people and dogs they didn't know, to dogs who prance along side of her at the dog shows, waiting for their turn to run in agility. Both dogs have learned how to feel totally comfortable in what was once a very stressful environment. Gunner has even made a new friend. He just loves hanging out at the agility trials with Morgan, the Great Dane.
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