Even in the world of training, it is easy to throw around concepts with the implication that everyone else knows and agrees with the definition of said concept. But do we? When it comes to training and setting behavior goals, it is so much easier to be as specific as one can be.
It really helps when we can define concrete goals and behaviors instead. In one of my professional development outlets, the question was raised as to what is a confident dog. They proposed certain typical usages and interpretations of “confidence” in dogs. Most of the definitions proposed would fall within the lines of what most people would consider confident, but there were also as well, obtuse and frankly not very helpful examples of the usage of “confident”.
One can think, for example, of a dog that is so confident that would without hesitation approach someone and aggress. Is this a trait that we want in our confident dog? Or how about the dog that is so freakin’ confident that takes it upon itself to harass younger dogs or those that appear “soft”? But what is a “soft” dog? I regress.
The best approach when using a concept is to carefully enlist the behaviors a confident dog normally a engages in. And furthermore, to decide as stated above if all these behaviors fall as desirable behaviors for us or for society at large.
Here is the thing: If we keep to observational traits, it will be so much easier to describe the behavior (s) of confidence. One could then follow up with specific goals and training plans for our confident dog or one that could use more of it.
I would like to propose then that we think of confidence in dogs as a continuum versus a trait a dog possess because of its rearing and perhaps even its breeding. Let me explain: Deuce, my Border collie, is one of the “chilliest” dogs you could meet. So far he has never moved away from a new person or if I recall a dog that he just met. Now, my very confident Deuce struggled for a long while for no apparent reason- as he is physically capable of jumping, with jumping into my car. Perhaps this is why I have a blown disc! Months of picking him up at a weight of 50lbs of moving flesh every time he needed to get in the car!
I would argue that this is the perfect picture of a dog that lacks confidence in his ability to jump high enough and effortlessly enough, to land safely inside my car. So is he confident or not? Well, it depends. Yes, I would argue that overall he is very confident, but not so much when he needs to jump and propel himself. Another example: we were walking in town with Rio and Deuce as we approached a bridge-like-structure that had some spacing in between. Deuce buckled. After some encouragement in the form of happy talk and some treats, he was able to walk back and froth with less hesitation. Rio on the other hand, walked back and forth and would have been able to do so with her eyes closed and on her tippy-toes. Then again, I would say that Rio is in general much less confident than Deuce when it comes to meeting people and even dogs.
I teach a class that I purposely named Developing the Confident Dog. With the idea in mind that confidence is more of a continuum than a fix trait.
What I like about this approach in defining “confidence/confident” is that it not only rings more factual to me but it presents us with the notion that our dogs can learn to be more capable and willing to investigate and engage with what is novel and even scary, with more conviction and less hesitation.
Thinking of confidence as a developing characteristic also allows for keen observation of areas where our dogs could behave more confidently. Once we have identified these, we can help them out by a carefully planned behavior modification program. One that will build resilience and conviction.
Now back to my initial question: Is your dog confident? I am really hoping that you’ll take a moment before responding because you can now consider that being confident is not a “thing” or a “trait” but a way of behaving in very specific circumstances and perhaps a qualifying set of behaviors that we consider desirable.