“False confidence” in dogs

Dogs who bark and lunge on leash, go after larger dogs, attack other dogs are often perceived as brave or overconfident.
I often hear my clients say: “my dog is too brave and thinks of himself as a boss, he goes after other dogs even bigger and stronger than he is”.
For them it so hard to perceive that their dog is exact opposite – he actually act/reacts out of fear, insecurity and/or frustration.

So such dogs have what I call “false confidence” meaning that they might act as a confident dog (in human eyes – we do not know for sure how other dogs perceive it) but they are far from it.
Such dogs act out since (due to their previous learning experience) they believe that is the best way how to chase the scary thing away. Best way to save themselves.
They are not doing that because they are brave but because they must “play a role” of being super brave, strong and scary in order to survive. They know that they MUST act no matter how scary it is, it is their only chance.
Their level of confidence is just high enough for them to “dare”.

I am not talking abut overconfident young adolescent dog who’s hormones and not yet developed brain make him think of himself as king of the world (with natural desire to sometimes “challenge” the world around).
I am talking about dogs who had to have some kind of trauma, negative life experience, some kind of repression in their life.

Truly confident and stable dog will try to resolve possible conflict, rather than go into one and will stay calm(er) in possibly threatening situations. His emotions will not overpower his reason easily.
That is because their confidence was build up gradually. Such dogs have strong foundations.

Those are the lucky dogs that possibly have such genetic predisposition. But were also allowed to think and chose for themselves; they were set up to succeed while learning.
They were gradually prepared for this world, learning along the way that life is safe and fun and if not – there is always a way out.
Such dogs do not go over threshold in one heartbeat and will have a whole range of skills assisting them in various situations. They will just know what to do and how to behave.
They will stay cool…

“False confident” dogs lack all that.
Their foundations are non existent, bad or cracked. Their world is easily rocked and that makes them feel insecure, frustrated and possibly very scared.
Their behavior that appears to us as very strong and willful is just a facade.
Such dogs are easily over aroused and easily go over threshold. They live near the “red zone” and as soon as they see (sense) a possible threat they are triggered into acting out.
It might even became a learned behavior after some time.
Such dogs need our HELP and not our judgment.

If we punish such behavior we will unfortunately diminish that little confidence they have.
Which will either play out as adding more “oil in the fire” and behaviour will escalate or they will eventually shut down.
So there will be no confidence left for dog to say to the scary thing – go away; he will not even dare to that anymore.
What is left but to hide within.
Such dog will live as a shadow of himself and that is is extremely sad.

So instead of extinguishing that little confidence that they do have we should realize that such dog needs assistance. We need to help such dog build new foundations and new life skills that will help him cope with life better.
We must prove to him that life can be safe (at least to some extent, it depends on how deep fear/negative experience is) and fun and that he has us on his side.
He must know that he is not alone and that there is always a way out.

So from “false confident” to ”confident in lots of situations” is a long path paved with lots of work and patience from our side. To what extend it will be possible depends on so many factors, but it is possible and it is crucial.
Everything else is not a good quality of life for that dog, for us, and whole environment where such dog lives.

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* Please excuse my English, it is not my primary language. 

Jelena Kallay – Vagabond Positive Animal Communication
Dip. Animal Behavior Technology, Dip. ABT – CASI
Karen Pryor Academy Dog Trainer Professional Program, KPA – CTP