Building a Child’s Confidence Through Dog Training

Many people who know me and are friends with me now, have a very hard time believing that it was not that long ago that I was a nervous, insecure person with horrible self esteem, and no self confidence. And there are two things in my life that I credit for this miraculous turn around. Ginger girl training her lovely petThe first was finding the 12-step fellowship program of Narcotics Anonymous, and getting my act together. But even that had not given me the ‘personality make-over’ I so desperately craved. Those early years of recovery for me were not easy, and it did not ‘cure’ my insecurities and low self esteem. It did, however, open the door for me to get a job with an old friend who owned a puppy store…which reminded me of just how much I had always loved working with dogs. Where I had once suffered from serious depression, working with the dogs made me happy again. On a bad day, holding one of the pups and petting it made me feel so much better. And I was so fortunate that sometimes my boss/friend would allow me to take a pup home overnight. Those were always the BEST nights for me in those early years! (I hope someday he knows that I will never forget that kindness he did for me, and will forever be grateful for it!)

But as I immersed myself more and more into the canine world, and started training dogs again, I started to feel a bit more confident with each new person I worked with. One day I noticed I held my head up instead of looking at the floor when talking to people. Not too long after that, I started to notice that I was looking people in the eyes. Suddenly, I had these dogs and their owners looking to me for feedback and advice and help…. And my confidence grew more and more every day. I also started to notice that when I asked my customers to do something, they weren’t so sure about it…but when I told them what to do, they never questioned me. So I grew stronger, and again, more confident. And with my confidence growing, my body language changed as well… my shoulders weren’t so slumped, but stood taller. When I sat down, I sat erect. And I started to understand more and more the absolutely wonderful value of Pet Therapy. But although I saw this change in myself, and others who were close to me saw it, I really understood for the first time a few years ago that this could not only change my life, but I had clients with children who were quiet, nervous, shy, scared….. and it was while I worked with them, helping them to train their dogs, I saw miraculous changes in them as well!!

A great example of this was about 6 years ago. I had a client who hired me to work with her Golden puppy. She had gotten the puppy for her daughter, who had experienced some “emotional challenges” during her first year of college. She got the pup as a companion for her daughter, but the pup was being a typical Golden Retriever pup, very nippy and hyper and a bit wild, and the girl became afraid of the pup, and was becoming more introverted. So I started to work extensively with the daughter and the pup on “dog training”. I would say, “Tell him to sit.” And in this tiny little voice, she would repeat the word, and the dog did nothing. So I joked with her, “Say it like you mean it!! Let him know you mean business” and her voice got just a tad louder. I said, “Better…. Now again, louder!! He still thinks you are joking with him!” And we did this again and again. I did not allow her to get frustrated, but we kept going…. And all of a sudden, out of this shy quiet girl, came a blast of the word “SIT!” And to her utter shock, the rump on that pup went right down! This young girl’s face lit up like a Christmas tree! It warmed my heart right to the very core! And this young girl was suddenly laughing, and wanting to learn more and more! It was so exciting to see the metamorphosis of this young girl…. who went from being a caterpillar in a cocoon, to a beautiful butterfly! Her smile lit up the room! Within a few short weeks, we had him behaving well enough to walk outside appropriately next to her on the leash, and her head was high, she was smiling, and people were drawn to her and her beautiful dog! People stopped her to ask questions about the dog, and she answered them with confidence and her head still held up. We had worked with her and the dog on eye contact, and because of this, she did not look down to answer them, but looked them right in the eye as she talked with them! Her Mom cried and hugged me. It was a moment I will never forget in my dog training career, and have since repeated several times, and it still gets me every time!

So, how can YOU take your shy, quiet, nervous, child, who lacks self esteem and confidence, and use dog training to help build this up? Here is the recipe:

Start with:

  • One child (any age, any sex)
  • One dog (also any age, any sex…size and temperament appropriate)

Mix in the following ingredients:

  • Patience
  • Compassion
  • A sense of humor
  • Tons of encouragement
  • Tons of praise.
  • A Dog Trainer (optional ….If you need assistance finding a professional trainer in your area, you can find a great list of them by contacting the IACP)

Begin your regimen by putting the dog on their leash, and showing your child how to do the first easy basic command of “SIT.” Remember, even if your dog knows it, the point is to let your child be the dog’s new teacher. Have your child hold the treat in their hand, bring their hand up slowly, and tell the dog to “SIT”. If he does not do it, do not let your child get frustrated or disappointed. Listen closely to how your child said it…. Did they whisper it? Did they look the dog in the eyes? If they whispered it, tell your child, “You did it right! But I am not quite sure he heard you. Try it again, but this time a bit louder” And let them do it again. And again, and again and again. Praise your child and the dog. Laugh with your child! If your child was looking at the floor, point it out in a non-judgmental way by saying something like, “I’m not sure Fido knew you were talking to him!! Can you look him in the eyes this time…. Just to make sure he knows who you were talking to?” And let them do it again!

As your dog starts to respond more and more to your child (as they most certainly will, because dogs listen to those who are willing to lead them!) you will see your child’s confidence grow more and more each day. Then here is the amazing thing that happens with their interpersonal relationships…. The mind- set of how the dog listened and respected them when they were strong and confident with it, starts to slowly be practiced on friends. And when friends respond the same way….. well, the sky’s the limit! How do I know all this? Because it happened with me, and a young girl I once knew. And so many other children since I have become a dog trainer. Let them get involved. Let them take an active role (age and size appropriate, of course….. I would not recommend giving a small four year old the leash of a ten month old Golden Retriever…. Remember, we want to set them up for success, not failure, so know your child, know your dog, and let them do tasks together that they can accomplish!) Let them feel proud of themselves!

And one other important thing I do not want to forget to mention….. we are not trying to correct the kids, but to encourage them. So it is okay to say things like, “LOUDER!!!” or “STRONGER!!!!” or “I DON’T THINK HE’S LOOKING YOU IN THE EYE!” But be very careful of critiquing and accidentally criticizing. Remember, how your child holds the leash….. not important. How your child holds their own head up…. Super important!!!

Let’s let our dogs help us to raise happy, confident and self assured youngsters!!! And extra training for Fido is never a bad thing!!!

About the Author

I trained as an EMT in NY, than recertified in Atlanta. I loved being an EMT and was involved with it for several years. I worked on the “Rainbow Response Unit” at Egleston’s Children’s Hospital in Atlanta, and when not on a call, worked in the PICU and NICU, which was both a blessing as well as a heartache because I learned and saw so much. Helping to create a child safety seat for ambulances was my way of making sure children who were already compromised health-wise, would not be put in any more danger. When I realiized I could no longer be an EMT due to medical reasons, I found an alternate outlet for my desire to nuture and protect; I became a dog trainer...something that was always a second love and passion for me. Now, whenever possible, I combine my passion for children and canines by working to make the world a safer place for both. Suzanne is a member of the PedSafe Expert team


2 Responses to “Building a Child’s Confidence Through Dog Training”

  1. Sandy Schnee says:

    Great article! I am as proud of your ability to write so beautifully and openly about what it took for you to feel pride and accomplishment in YOUR life, as I am about your willingness to “put it all out there” for others to see and be helped by what you’ve learned. I love you a lot……Mom

    • Suzanne Hantke says:

      Thanks Mom! I would never be where I am today without your support and encouragement every step of my journey. There was a time when I was ‘secretive’ and tried to hide the obstacles and challenges I have had to face…. but I learned that secrecy causes shame. I had nothing to be ashamed of, and everything to be proud of. It may have taken me twice as long as others to get to where I wanted to be, but because I had to work so hard for it, I think the reward was twice as sweet! And besides, by me trying to ‘hide’ my past, I realized I was being selfish and denying others the opportunity to know that it can be done and change is possible!! That’s what the rooms of recovery are all about…. one addict helping another. Taking a struggling newcomer, and showing them that change is possible and life can be great!!!

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!