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Confidence vs Courage; Why your dog needs both

Ive been thinking about confidence and courage a lot lately as I work to help a couple of fearful dogs learn new ways of greeting their world. These are actually quite different reactions to the environment and the difference lies in fear.

Think about the word courage for a moment. What is courage? Courage must stem from a place of fear. You cannot be courageous if the thing you're doing isn't scary. The more we face the world with courage and succeed, the fewer things will scare us, and the more confidence we will have.

Confidence does not stem from fear. Confidence stems from an inner understanding that everything will be alright. The more confidence we have, the less courage we need.

Lets explore this in a bit more detail. If I am afraid of heights but decide to try rock climbing, I am showing courage, because I am overcoming fear to try to climb a rock. The more I climb the rock, the more I am aware that I know what I am doing and the less fear I have, the less I will need courage.

Courage builds confidence, and confidence can replace much of our need for courage.

Courage takes mental bandwidth. Think of how your mind works when you're overcoming something you're afraid of. You are hyper-aware, your movements are slow and cautious, your mind is filled with fear and doubt. Courage is an act of will power, and it is exhausting both mentally and physically.

Confidence, on the other hand takes no mental bandwidth because it stems from inner peace and ease.

Some of the dogs I work with are what I call globally fearful. This means that every aspect of an unknown environment makes them afraid. They are afraid of trees, and objects on the ground, movement, noises, etc.. Any action on their part that is not based on flight or remaining frozen in place requires an act of courage. Every. Single. Step. that they take is an act of courage.

How exhausting!

Yet, the courage never pays off. They never get better. They live in this world of terror, because they do not know how to use the courage that they have to teach themselves that the world is actually safe. It's like being stuck on a cliff with no instructor. Almost too scared to move, but ill-equipped to do much else but flail around and hope for rescue. You are not learning confidence. You are reinforcing your fear and helplessness.

Here, Bella is afraid to leave her crate for treats scattered on the floor.

So, our goal when training these dogs is to give them an understanding that their courage is paying off. That they are facing their fears and not just surviving, but triumphing. We give them the tools to help them cope with the world by deciding when courage is warranted, and by understanding when they have succeeded. We work to break apart the world for these dogs, into manageable pieces, and then we let their courage lead them to confidence.

As our dogs gain confidence, they are able to think more because less emotional bandwidth is being filled with fear and the fortitude necessary to be courageous. The more our dogs are able to think instead of react, the easier it is for them to take past wins and extend them out into the world (the other tree I saw turned out not to be a murderer, maybe all trees are safe).

Fear is debilitating. Having to exert courage to move through the every day world is mentally and physically exhausting. In a constant state of forced courage, these dogs are unable to learn, or become anything more than shadows of their true selves. Until they are shown how to use the courage that they already have to teach themselves confidence, their lives will never improve.

Once our dogs have the tools to conquer their fears through their courage, and walk through the world in confidence, their whole world changes! Only a dog filled with confidence can build their best life!

Just two weeks later, Bella is becoming a happy, confident dog

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