Photo Credit @ Abi Post

“Praise your dog,” I instructed the owner as she meekly stood, holding the end of the leash tightly between both hands.

She did as I instructed, giving a quiet, “Good boy,” as she peered down adoringly at her pup, her voice so quiet I could barely hear her from a distance of six or seven feet.

“Ok,” I coached, “now let’s try that again. Act like you really mean it.”

She praised her dog again, her intensity increasing a fraction but remaining only a half step above her previous attempt.

I continued to encourage her to throw caution to the wind, get loud, and convince me, her dog, and the rest of the world that she was pleased with her dog’s performance. Her voice wavered, and her face flushed as she continued to praise, her meek tone (and her dog’s focus) getting lost in the noisy sea of people and dogs that flooded the busy park.

As a final attempt, I walked across the street. I called to her, “Praise your dog….but this time I want to hear you from over here!”

She looked like a deer in headlights.

“It’s okay….” I continued. “They all heard me tell you to do it….if anything, they think I’M the crazy one.”

Finally, a smile spread across her lips, and she praised her dog. I could hear her… but just barely. As she praised, her dog momentarily turned his focus from the goings on at the park and made eye contact with her, something that hadn’t happened the entire 30 minutes we had been working together. It was an “Aha!” moment that instantly registered with his owner who moved from being irritated with her dog’s lack of focus to owning it and feeling empowered to change.

Don’t blame the dog!

One of the most common problems I see when working with my clients is an affliction that, surprisingly, has nothing to do with the dog at the end of their leash. Owner after exasperated owner approaches me, frustrated that they can’t get their dog to engage with them in public places. It’s become such an epidemic that I find myself teaching seminar after seminar, course after course, and writing article after article simply on the topic of Engagement.

But again, the problem isn’t with the dogs. Exasperated owners often can’t get their dog to engage because of their own fear, insecurity, and need for social acceptance.

Passing judgement and bearing self consciousness are engrained in our culture. It seems as though everyone has an opinion, and few are shy about expressing it….especially when it isn’t asked for. As a result, people find themselves walking on eggshells, living in fear of what others will think of them. At the exact moment your dog needs you to step up and be a confident leader, you shrivel, insecure about what others might or might not say.


Does your insecurity affect your dog?


Your insecurity affects your dog more than you may think. Not only can it prevent you from doing what’s necessary to give your dog the structure, training, and guidance they need, but it also bleeds down your leash, adding fuel to any insecurities your pup might already have, leaving him searching for a leader and assuming the position if he can’t find one.

Check it out….

I once had a customer who kept her dog confined to the four walls of her home, because he suffered from mild aggression and she feared the judgement she would face if her dog was seen in a muzzle.

I’ve had more clients than I can count refuse to use any level of enthusiasm when praising their dog, because they feared people would think they were crazy.

I’ve had an equal number of customers fear playing with their dog….I mean REALLY playing with their dog in public, because they didn’t want to look like a fool in front of strangers.

I’ve seen top competitors refuse to troubleshoot in front of their peers, afraid of looking incompetent if they do.

I’ve seen well known and well respected trainers cower and cave when their theories are challenged.

I’ve seen people flat out refuse to train their dog in public, uttering words like, “Could you imagine what they would say?” as they let their fear trump their dog’s inherent needs.

And I’ve seen countless dog owners avoid social situations altogether, because they didn’t want to be judged.

Yeah, I’m talking to YOU

You might be reading along, thinking to yourself, “I would NEVER do that.” But check your ego for a moment, and really think about it. I would venture to say that a good 90% of us (if not more), at some point in our training, have changed our behavior to “fit in”; changed it to avoid judgement; changed it because we were insecure. I’ve seen some of the most well respected trainers in the industry do it, and I’ll admit first hand that I’ve done it more times than I can count.

I’d like to challenge every dog owner at this moment to sit back and really think about the question I’m about to ask.

What is it about complete strangers, in any context, that makes what they think about you more important than the well being of your dog?

Might sound harsh….and that’s because it is.

When we sacrifice our training because of our own insecurity, our need for social acceptance, and our innate fear of what others will think of us, we are forcing our dog to take a backseat to complete strangers. It’s not okay, and it’s time to make a change.

Overcome your fear and engage with your dog

You CAN make the adjustment.

Whether you have your dog out in public, you are working with colleagues, mentors, or trainers, or if you are simply taking your dog for a walk, remember that your pup is your priority….not catering to the hypothetical opinions of others.


  • Be Proud – You are working hard to give your dog structure, training, and exercise. You should be proud. Let your dog’s successes empower and drive you. You’ll find that your relationship drastically improves if you do.  
  • Perfect Isn’t Possible – Making mistakes is the foundation of learning and evolution, so don’t fear it. Instead, embrace your mistakes as opportunities for growth. You can’t get better without them, so quit trying to avoid them, and instead, learn from your mistakes and evolve your training.
  • Get Above It – What gives people the right to judge you? What gives their words power? Even if they are judging, what makes them qualified to do so? People can say what they want, but at the end of the day, it’s your dog and you’re the one holding the leash. If they have suggestions, be open. If they approach with hate (which from experience, I can honestly say they RARELY, if ever, do), don’t give their words value. You’re actually training your dog and giving it more than a vast majority of the population will ever give, and for that, you’re AWESOME.
  • Engage, Play With, and Train Your Dog – I can tell you that 99% of the time, I train my dog at the park, and we are LOUD, and we are PLAYING together, and I completely tune out the world around me. I’m met with so many kind words, inquisitive people, and compliments…. even (or especially) when I am making mistakes and troubleshooting. It’s rare that I am ever met with judgement or hate. Be your dog’s cheerleader. He’s your biggest fan, so step up and make him believe you’re his too! 

Remember that, when you are working with your dog, they are your top priority…not the opinions of strangers you’ll likely never see again. And keep in mind that even the most judgmental “dog lover” is speaking out from a place of love, care, and concern. If they do speak out, cut ‘em some slack, they’ve simply lost their social graces. At the end of the day, you should be proud to work your dog in public. As a dog trainer of over a decade, I can tell you without a doubt, by simply training your dog in public, you are doing more than most, and your pup will benefit from your time (and enthusiasm) spent.

Check out our comprehensive course on building a work ethic and maximizing engagement HERE.

Meagan Karnes
Meagan Karnes

Meagan has been training dogs professionally since 2002, most recently working with private security, military and law enforcement to provide K9s for high level applications. She owns both The Collared Scholar, an online dog training academy, and 690 Security Services, a company that trains and deploys Executive Security and Protection K9s to private customers. She recently partnered with both Average Frog and SM Leaders, who repurpose the proven performance principles of the Navy SEALs for individuals and organizations.

    14 replies to "Praise Your Dog – Fear, Insecurity and the Need for Social Acceptance"

    • Paula

      Sure, on my very first trainings sometimes I also looked like a fool during training where I felt a bit embarrassed. But it never stopped me since I soon saw that others made mistakes as well. So I finished the training and did an other one after that. Rewards were a Rottweiler totally focussed on me that behaved everywhere and was friendly to everybody. Biggest reward of all was that a neighbor who was very scared of big dogs dared to come in my garden and give it a cookie!

    • Rachel Hanna

      Would you mind if we published your article on our club’s newsletter? It’s generally done all by email and of course we would give you due credit. We are South Central Kansas Kennel Club.

      • Meagan Karnes

        No problem! I’d be honored. I’d love to see if a copy if possible when it goes out! Thanks 🙂

    • Tiffany

      This article reminds me so much of me, lol! I used to be very meek and shy growing up. Speak louder, I can’t hear you! People would tell me. After awhile it just clicked, and I’ve become better of just ignoring the shyness factor, and just talking silly to my pets, praising them, as if no one else around me matters, as it should. Glad I am getting over that! Great article!

    • Debbie

      I’m a fairly shy person, but fortunately, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some very good trainers over the years and learned long ago not to worry about what other people think. I’m a moderator on a German shepherd forum, and have often told people who are struggling to maintain their dog’s focus when working in distracting environments that if they don’t feel like an idiot they’re not praising their dog enthusiastically enough! For your dog to engage with you, YOU have to engage your dog. Men, in general, seem to have a hard time finding their “high, happy voice”, and/or being loud and silly in public places. I encourage people to use their face, their voice, their body language – everything, to signal their pleasure with the dog’s performance.

      I do remember feeling self conscious at first, but I got over that a long time ago. And like the author, rather than being judged as some weirdo, I find more often than not people are impressed. I’ve been asked if I was a dog trainer many times, (or it was assumed that I am), which I am not. I always answer no, I’m just training my dog. What a concept!

    • Jennifer Fisk

      I praise my dogs every time they do as I ask. Every time they kennel, get on their beds, come when called or whatever, they hear good girl or good boy. I do believe in balance and when they are doing something I don’t want they get a stern no and a good when they comply. I’m not the best trainer out there but I give above minimum wage.
      In SAR training, everyone wants to talk about what the dog did. I won’t talk until I’ve rewarded my dog and if I’m working with a trainee, I make them reward the dog before the search critique.

      • Meagan Karnes

        Yes. Such an important point. So often, as our dogs are working, we get distracted talking training techniques or simply chatting with the folks around us when we should be focusing on our dogs. I see it all of the time! People check out of training or working their dog to talk about the training that’s happening and they inadvertently leave their dog hanging. Brilliant. Thanks for bringing that up. Keep up the awesome work 😉

    • Cynthia Grubb

      My fur baby wears a muzzle to protect herself. She loves to eat mulch, as you can imagine this causes great stomach distress. I could care less what my neighbors think, I work on training outside all the time so we can work through distractions. If they want to know why the muzzle, I will tell them.

    • Kim

      I happily self-identify as my dog’s cheerleader…my dog, meaning any dog I happen to be engaging with at the moment. I’m sure I am identified by some as a real nut-job (and I often think my clients are pretty shocked the first time they work with me,) but the dogs dig it! Of course that cheer leading needs to be different for different dogs, but figuring out how the dog likes to be praised is one of the first things I am thinking about when I meet a dog. The difficult thing is getting other people to let down their inhibitions enough to be able to do the same thing. It’s hard enough when we are in actually engaged in a training session, but getting folks to understand that every interaction is an opportunity to make your dog feel good about behavior is the real challenge. To that end, I’m sure I will be sharing this frequently! Thanks for the terrific blog post.

    • Jackie Phillips

      Unfortunately, this affliction of not enthusiastically and publicly praising your dog is common in competitors, also. So often, just a pat on the top of the dog’s head is all that is given, when I would be having the dog jumping up and down and playing with them. So often, people want to be seen as, “in control” and that, “the dog does all this just because I asked them to.” When, in reality, the dogs have become so uptight and clamped down from being forced to perform with little interaction from their handlers.

      Enthusiastic praising is definitely needed everywhere in all forms of dog training, in both with the pet dogs and in competition.

    • Cindy Smith

      Love this you are singing my song!
      I have competed in obedience and agility, and taught classes for over thirty years now . The most difficult thing to get across is how to effectively praise their dog..
      Once at a rally trial with my dog I made a huge faux paux. I completely skipped an exercise. So a big NQ for us.
      I said that’s ok as I was praising my dog comming out of the ring.
      Merrily your a Rock star with a bad road manager. Where as so many people NQ come out of the ring angry. Does not matter if it was on the dogs part or their mistake.
      The negative energy these people pass to their dogs will make a dog hate the competition ring.
      My dogs can’t wait to get in the building from the parking lot.

    • Bethany Moy

      So pertinent for today’s world! THANK YOU!

    • Caroline Turney

      Brilliantly stated; thank you for sharing such depth of wisdom!

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