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Using Play to Boost Confidence

  • Heidi

Two Games to Play with Your Dog

Do you have a shy or fearful dog? Believe it or not, these are common behaviors. That’s because dogs can lack confidence, just like people do.

Dogs can be fearful for several reasons, ranging from genetic predisposition to experiences – or lack of experiences – during critical stages of their socialization period (3-14 weeks of age). But, with the right approach, you can give them tools to gain confidence, even through play.

We’ve talked about shy and fearful dogs in the past. In that post, we focused on identifying these behaviors and ways to help dogs overcome their fears with training and counterconditioning. This time, we wanted to share another approach to help them gain more confidence: Games.

Here are two of our favorite games for all dogs, especially those who are shy or fearful.


We can’t recommend teaching “Target” and “Touch” enough. This skill is the foundation of numerous activities, from pushing a ball to giving your fist a “nose bump.” Plus, it gives you a way to draw a nervous dog’s attention away from something troubling to something fun and pleasant. It’s also super easy to teach.

To start, just hold your hand out in front of your dog, either at nose level or slightly below. As soon as they sniff it, click or mark the behavior by saying “Yes!” and give them a treat. Remove your hand and repeat. Continue doing this until they realize that touching your hand results in a treat. At that point, you can start saying “Touch!” or “Target!” the moment you offer your hand.

Once your dog loves the game, you can start mixing up the objects they “touch” and even ask them to play when they seem troubled about something!

“Find It”

Dogs have an extraordinary sense of smell. And, like targeting, encouraging them to use their nose can significantly increase their confidence, helping to change their emotional response to fearful things.

This game is also ridiculously easy to teach. Begin by positioning your dog in front of you with a handful of tasty treats behind your back. Tell them to “Find it!” or “Search!” in a happy voice and toss a treat a few feet away. When they find it, click or say “Yes!” right before they eat it. When they returned to you, repeat this step, tossing the treat in the other direction. Continue alternating where you throw the treat and asking your dog to “Find it!”, gradually tossing the treats a bit farther each time. Once your dog understands the game, you can toss a handful of treats and distract them with a positive experience if they end up in a scary or stressful situation!

To take this game to the next level, try hiding some of their kibble or treats around the house or in the yard, and then tell them to “Find it!” We like putting kibble in old toilet paper tubes, asking our dog to smell it, and then “Wait!” while we find a good hiding place. Then, we send them off to “Search!” and encourage them to “Find it!” until they find their reward. This foraging activity also provides mental enrichment that taps into a dog’s natural instincts – and it’s fun!

Don’t forget; it’s important to be patient when you have a shy or fearful dog. This also helps strengthen the bond you share, which will also help increase their confidence.

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