Working With Finn on Building Confidence

My Brother Finn

My Brother FinnAs many of you know from our Twitter feed, I am currently pet sitting for my parent’s dog, Finn AKA Finbar McCool.

Finbar is a mixed breed, somewhere between a schnauzer, a wirehaired dachshund, and an Irish terrier.

In all of my experience with working with and training dogs, I have never had the opportunity to work with a terrier. It would seem that over these next few weeks I have got my work cut out for me. Terrier life is starkly different to Lab life, Dane life, border collie life, pit life…I could go on.

Still, while the temperament of the breed is different, the training concepts are the same.

While I’m caring for Finn, I will be working with him on a little training – both to make him a more comfortable dog and to dust off my skills of working with a younger dog.

From Street Dog to Family Dog

Finn has quite a few “quirks” as the result of being a “street dog” before he joined our family. He is terrified of loud noises outdoors, he startles easily…the list goes on, but all relate to a lack of confidence and a feeling of uncertainty.

Challenge accepted.

Addressing Confidence

Finn and I are beginning by working on his confidence. We are using a well-fitting harness, plenty of praise, encouragement and allowing Finn to control our progress at his own speed.


The Harness

The harness provides minimal “compression” and offers Finn a little security without too much added heat (yes, overheating is an issue even late at night). Most importantly, however, the harness prevents dangerous situations for Finn. He has a history of pulling out of a collar and leash and darting away. He ALWAYS runs to the front door and sits there, waiting, but it’s dangerous nonetheless.

A prong collar remedied this issue, but you all know that I don’t agree with the use of negative reinforcement. I asked my parents to try a harness instead. Unfortunately, they invested in a poorly constructed harness and it took all of two seconds before Finn finagled his way out of it and once again, took off. So, they went back to the prong.

So yesterday, I headed out to pick up a harness.

Local options are limited. We couldn’t find the Ruffwear which was my first choice and the only Gooby harnesses carried locally are too small for Finn. So we settled on the Kong Comfort Harness because time really was of the essence.

The structure of the harness prevents Finn from slipping out in either direction and it is sized correctly so as not to rub his legs or pull at his neck. I would have preferred a front clip harness for Finn, but beggers can’t be choosers and he seems to be doing quite well already even with the back clip.


A Shorter Leash

Finn has a short traditional leash and an extendable leash.

While I am here, the extendable leash is being put up. The extendable leash offers no control over a dog and that lack of control and stability transfers directly to your dog.

The shorter (6 foot) leash provides more stability and also allows me to keep Finn beside me while we walk.

The added control, as well as my proximity to him, gives Finn added confidence.


Praise Your Dog


Reassurance is positive reinforcement and it’s a HUGE part of any successful training program.

What does positive reinforcement consist of?

“Good boy!”
“Come on, let’s go!”
“Way to go!”

Positive praise words said with enthusiasm.

A pat on the head.

How do these things help?

Well, not only do dogs feel encouraged by praise in the same way that we do, but praise is also a very effective way of communicating with a dog.

As much as we love our canine companions, the fact remains that as two species, there are communication barriers that we must overcome. Praise is a tool that can be used to overcome this barrier. Praise tells your dog: YES! You’ve done the right thing!

Praise works because you are creating an internal blueprint for your dog, providing them with structure, letting them know what you need from them rather than simply telling them if they are doing the wrong thing.

Punishment does nothing but tells your dog they have done something bad, it does not tell them what they did incorrectly or what they were supposed to do, just that they have acted inappropriately.

If I communicate with you by telling you only what I don’t want from you, can you imagine how long it would take for you to learn what it was that I wanted?

Punishment doesn’t create a well-behaved dog, it doesn’t give an understanding, rather it creates fear, mistrust, and further breaks down a dog who was not confident, to begin with.



Encouragement is another important element of successfully working with a dog who lacks confidence. Encouragement, like praise, lets your dog know that you like what they are doing, but it also builds your dog’s confidence and encourages them to continue trying.

A dog who receives no encouragement – even an exceptionally well-trained dog – will become disheartened. Where there is no encouragement, there is no fun and who wants to do anything that isn’t fun? Think about running a fifty-mile race, on and on, with no one to cheer you on, nothing luring you to the finish line…

The key to encouragement, however, is connecting with a dog. Find what it is that drives them and use it as encouragement to make training fun! Make that fifty-mile race worth running!

Finn? Finn enjoys chasing…he’s a terrier after all.

Encouragement for Finn when we are working together is to incorporate chasing into our work together. If he becomes distracted by a noise that will potentially cause him to freeze, it takes little more than a “ready….go!” to refocus him on our path as we pick up the pace and he and I run forward a few steps.

Jet was food motivated – many dogs are. Finn is not which can make training tricky, but not impossible.


Set The PacePacing

When I talk about pacing, I don’t mean allowing your dog to drag you down the street.

I talk about pacing in reference to fearful dogs like Finn.

Fearful dogs tend to stop, whip their head around, flatten their ears, freeze…it’s an alert posture. For Finn, this has very much to do with his life on the street before he came to live with my parents.

When Finn stops this way, I use encouragement, but I NEVER drag him. I NEVER force him forward.

The fear that he feels in that moment is very real. Imagine that every fiber of your being truly believes that the person heading towards you in the street is going to kill you. If I try to drag you towards that person against your will I would hope that you would put up a fight, at least try to run away.

This is the same instinct for a fearful dog.

The aim, of course, is to help Finn overcome that fear, but that’s the last thing that is going to happen if I simply drag him towards it. So, if encouragement doesn’t work, we wait for the moment to pass. I give him reassurance, we are okay, a pat on the head, a soothing voice, I put him in a sitting position if possible, and we wait it out.

How does this help to create a more confident dog?

It gives him confidence that I am not ignoring him, that I am hearing what he is saying to me, not telling him to act against his instincts. He gains more confidence in me as his trainer, not only because I listen to him, but that I am with him, waiting it out.

When he regains his composure. When his posture becomes relaxed I begin again with praise, encouragement, and we go on our way.

It takes patience, but it takes patience to build a confident dog.

A Few Last Words

Training, especially training a fearful dog, is about rebuilding how your dog sees the world. Showing him that things are not how he once perceived them to be – whether out of confusion or necessity on his part. Training is about what YOU can do for your dog and NEVER the other way around.

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