Build Your Dog’s Confidence—How To Go From Mutt To Super Hero

Whether you’re headed to the vet or heading out to sea, a confident pup is a happy pup. Honey’s confidence has grown tremendously since we’ve been living on the boat.

They aren’t making movies about her yet. But I swear that wearing her life jacket, she bears a striking resemblance to Wonder Woman.

Honey the golden retriever asks a question.

Do you really think I look like Wonder Woman?

How Confident Is Your Dog

Honey has never had any reason to be afraid. From her first day on earth to today, she has always lived with people who only want her to be happy, safe, and comfortable.

As a puppy, she had top-notch socialization and was gently exposed to a variety of people and situations.

And yet…

Honey has a timid temperament. She will “jump” at the sight of balloons hanging on a sign. She hates when the boat ramp moves under her feet. I can’t even imagine what it would take to get her flying down a teeter on an agility course.

Despite her timidity, Honey is comfortable with conditions most dogs (and many people) would find disconcerting.

We spent time building her confidence before we moved onto our sailboat, Meander. And the hard work has paid off.

Honey the golden retriever comes back to Meander in a dinghy.

It took me a while to feel confident to stand up on the dinghy seat. But now I’m glad because I have a better view.

How To Build Your Dog’s Confidence

If your dog has a soft side, like Honey, try some of the things we did to build her confidence and see what happens.

Train Your Dog

In truth, this post could only mention training and it would still be worthwhile. Nothing will boost your dog’s confidence like training new skills.

Want proof?

We’re lucky that not all of Honey’s gun dog heritage has been bred out of her. She does not mind loud noises like gunshots, fireworks, and thunder. But we experienced one particularly severe thunderstorm when we lived on land that made Honey uneasy.

She would not settle down and could not sleep through the pyrotechnics.

Honey the golden retriever touches confidently in a training session.

Touching her hand is an easy way to earn treats. Boy, have I got her trained.

Luckily, we had worked on training Honey to close a cupboard door. So I took her downstairs, got out my clicker and some yummy treats, and worked with her on closing kitchen cupboard doors on cue. Once her brain entered training mode, Honey lost her fear of the storm outside. And after a few minutes of work, we were both able to return to bed and sleep until morning.

But besides simple behavior and trick training, we worked with a professional trainer to get Honey ready for life on a boat. Honey’s trainer had ideas for building Honey’s confidence that we would never have found on our own.

So if you’re planning to share a big adventure with your dog (like taking a trip, moving house, or even going to the vet), you might find it worthwhile to find a positive, relationship-based trainer to help you.

Besides the biggie of training, there are things you can do every day to build your dog’s confidence.

Let Your Dog Choose

Who made the rule that dogs have to obey our every wish every second of the day? What can it hurt to let your dog make choices as long as they are safe and not being a nuisance?

Besides, a dog who can make choices grows their confidence.

I am not recommending you allow your dog to choose to chase squirrels (I did that once and it didn’t work out well). And if you let your dog choose what time you serve her breakfast, you will definitely regret it.

But what if you let your dog choose their toys? Or the length of their walk? Or their friends?

Abigail the boat dog, guards a sailboat in a marina.

Abigail is our boat dog neighbor in a Florida marina. She chooses to be vigilant.

Now that I’m self-employed my schedule is flexible. So if Honey looks hesitant to return to the boat after a walk, I just keep going.

Honey’s toys are in a bag loose enough that she can get them out as she likes. And if she doesn’t “like” a dog we see on our walk, we keep going no matter how much their person tries to insist the two meet.

Dogs that get to choose grow more confident.

Help Your Dog Succeed

If you want your dog to gain confidence, set them up for success.

We did not train Honey to use a ramp by taking her to a moving dock on a day with twenty mph winds. We started by placing the ramp flat on the ground. When we moved to training on the boat, we braced the ramp so it moved very little. And before we asked her to walk up a ramp at a steep angle, Honey had walked the ramp nearly perfectly horizontal hundreds of times.

Honey the boat dog walks a steep ramp in Georgia.

I told them we should take our walk at high tide but they just didn’t listen. I guess I’ll just have to walk this steep ramp.

Every time Honey used her ramp successfully, she grew in courage. By the time we found ourselves in rough conditions, Honey knew what to do. She had been set up to succeed.

Play Games Your Dog Loves

As an adolescent, Honey took K9 Nose Work classes at the local SPCA. Nose Work developed her confidence more than any other sport we tried.

But we saw even more amazing results watching other dogs in the class.

K9 nose work is a great sport for reactive dogs. Each dog competes alone on the course. And the act of sniffing out a target, closes the brain off from noticing other scary stimuli.

One dog in Honey’s class had recently been adopted from the SPCA. During the first class, she came out with her tail between her legs. Each week, we saw that tail rise higher and higher until she came bouncing out with her tail held high at the thought of sniffing for treats.

Whether your dog loves retrieving, agility, nose work, or something else, play games with your pup if you want to increase her confidence.

Honey the golden retriever is confident she can fetch these cannon balls.

I love to fetch. I’m confident I could fetch these cannon balls.

Practice, Practice, Practice

No person ever got more confident sitting in the living room watching television. So if you want your dog to gain confidence, you need to go out and do the things you want them to feel confident doing.

Before we moved onto the boat, we slowly exposed Honey to different experiences around water, starting with swimming (she hates it). We moved to kayaking which she liked more. And finally, we took her sailing.

Now that we live on a boat, Honey gets loads of practice on boats. And she gains in confidence every day.

Why You Should Build Your Dog’s Confidence

I know that some of you S’Waggers are total homebodies. You’re as likely to move onto a boat as I am to wear a bra and shoes every day. Which means almost not at all.

But there are several good reasons to build your dog’s confidence even if you don’t have any new adventures planned.

  • Just because you’re not planning to have an adventure doesn’t mean you won’t have one. It might be moving house or fleeing a natural disaster or having a family member move in with you. And don’t you want a dog comfortable in his own skin before your adventure finds you?
  • A confident dog is easier to train. If your dog is at ease, she won’t be distracted when you’re teaching her good behaviors.
  • And finally, as I said before, a confident dog is a happy dog. Don’t you want your dog to be as happy as possible?

Because she grew in confidence, Honey has been able to enjoy deserted beaches, meeting new people, and traveling with us. And it hasn’t been a half bad life.

Honey the golden retriever is confident of getting a treat.

I’m feeling confident I’ll get a morsel of something to eat if I just look cute enough.

What do you think Honey? Do you feel like a super hero yet?


Your Turn: Have you had to grow your dog’s confidence? Why? 



  1. This is great! I’m going to share it with the other members of the rehab team at National Mill Dog Rescue. I especially agree that nose work is wonderful for building confidence in very scared dogs. I was lucky that Richie is pretty naturally confident, but lots of puppy mill survivors are not at all.

    • Rehabilitating puppy mill dogs is such valuable and difficult work. And confidence-building ends up being a lifelong project.

      Richie and Honey are both great examples that while nurture is a major part of developing a dog’s personality, they have their own innate nature that comes through no matter what their early circumstances. Kinda like people, eh?

  2. http://Roberta%20R%20Beach says

    My newbie Foxhound, Betty D, is afraid and reactive to everything. On the other hand, even as she avoided adult rescuers trying to save her from starving, she allowed children to come close enough to saved and head to rescue, ahem, but then stopped forever at my house. I think Nosework would help, and the other day (1), she ate her meal in the kitchen with everyone else. Normally, she prefers her safe corner. Thank you for a great read and good suggestions.

    • Seeing Betty D on your FB page tugged at my heart strings. She made me think of our majorly fearful foster dog, Cherie.

      When I read your comment, my first thought was to think that none of my little suggestions (except serious training) would make much of a difference for a severely fearful dog. But then I thought back to Cherie and remembered how much she enjoyed the agility equipment in the back yard.

      We had set it up to help Honey be more confident as we prepare for boat life. But surprisingly, it helped Cherie come out of her shell. And her confidence on the equipment helped Honey make strides too.

      So who knows what is ahead for Betty D? BTW, our trainer had us teach Cherie to lie down on a towel on cue (go to bed). Eventually, I used to take her for a walk with the towel around my neck. When I saw something really scary about 6 blocks ahead (like a trash truck), I’d toss the towel on the ground and tell Cherie to “go to bed.” I was astounded to see how well she associated the security of her towel with being in safer places.

      Perhaps you will be able to help Betty D associate her safe corner with other places as well. I look forward to seeing her progress.

  3. Honey sure can strike a pose! She does have an air of Wonder Woman in that first photo. I think it’s the way she’s holding her head and looking out with confidence.

    I agree with you about the importance of training and interactive fun with our humans. It builds trust and confidence.

    • He he! Actually, Honey hates to look into the camera. I end up with lots of shots of her looking off knowingly. 🙂

      But yes, I don’t know why every biped doesn’t understand the importance of training and fun. They’re missing out as much as their dogs are.

  4. Great advice. Time and patience are key in getting dogs to learn new things and feel comfortable doing them. Fun is also a key component in anything you train, no fun, not good.

    • Heck, time and patience are key in getting PEOPLE to learn new things and feel comfortable doing them.

      I’m active on a FB sailing group where people will regularly post about their fears and asking for help to get over them. Many people tell them to study the engineering of a sailboat and how it is designed to tip over and float back up to help them cure their fear.

      First off, who wants their sailboat to tip over at all? There is nothing fun about that.

      But I give them the same advice I do for dog training–slow, pleasant exposures; staying under threshold; and if you think you’re going slow enough, go slower.

      I suspect that if people treated each other the way your mom raises you and your sisters, we’d be in a much happier place.

  5. Sometimes it seems Ducky is a bit too confident; but truthfully she’s just “normal” and “wide open” at times. Shadow is just, well, Shadow. What she really needs is more time at the vet’s when all she has to do is relax, without concern of being poked, prodded, or examined. Alas, getting into and out of the car is not much fun for her anymore (though she does still enjoy just riding in the car).

    • OMD, you have such a great idea about the vet. Wouldn’t it be nice if they could hold occasional “open houses” so people could visit with their pets when they don’t need care? It would probably make dogs much more comfortable when they do need treatment.

      • Actually, our vet would not have a problem with me bringing Shadow in at a time when they’re not too busy. It’s just finding that time.

  6. Certainly rescuing a puppy mill dog has had its challenges in the confidence dept. But Elsa’s growth has been quite remarkable and think nose work may be just the ticket to keep her moving in a forward direction. Unless Honey is available for training sessions. 😇