It’s Children’s Mental Health week here in the UK. It should be children’s mental health week every day I reckon. But a week is good if things happen that can make a difference.
I have been thinking lots about confidence, anxiety, self esteem and resilience lately. Partly in relation to myself and my own wellbeing; and mostly in relation to some of the young people I work with.
How many struggle daily with everyday things we probably take for granted.
The bus journey into school.
The lunch queue at dinner time.
Navigating the complex world of friendships and social media.
Speaking out about how you really feel, and what is happening for you .
Finding your voice.
I don’t have any answers here in this blog, just a quiet reminder to myself, and everyone else that it can be hard to speak your truth. And for those of us listening, to work hard and really listen.
Dogs, of course find it so much easier- I am excited. I am frustrated. I am bored. I need company. I need cuddles. I need exercise. I am sleeping. I want a second dinner.
I am always interested in the dogs people choose, and why. Here at our home our dogs are all very different. We choose them for various reasons, usually pretty random, but also dependent on the group we already have living as a family group, and who would best fit in. One thing generally apparent though is that we don’t really do cute. We don’t usually do puppies either with a couple of exceptions. My favourite kind of dog to choose when i visit a shelter is a NDBD. That stands for Non Descript Black Dog. (yes i know there is a bit of artistic or literary licence there but bear with me please).
We know most black dogs linger longer in shelters.
See I don’t think you cant beat a dog that is so ordinary that people passing through the shelter usually ignore them, and lots of people don’t rush over in the street because they just have to touch them. Of course it goes without saying that all of my dogs have been beautiful in their own ways with endearing qualities and that they are much loved, so I wont say it.
But the fact is that most of them are nondescript. Funny, quirky, loving, magnificent, hyper, gentle, fearsome, clever……….all kinds of things . But not cute.
They are not featured in calendars, win photo competitions, or elicit oohs and ahhs from passing strangers. They are not cute. Did i say that?
Here’s the thing, I’m not cute either. I have never been described as cute. Plenty of other things (some admirable, some not so much). But never cute. Photos of me (a rarity in itself) do not elicit oohs and aahs either.
I am pretty ordinary. So are my dogs.My horses too, come to think of it are workmanlike, not fancy, nor prone to airs above the ground or vast displays of prowess or beauty.
In this current world of everything being amazingly awesome and each experience having to surpass the one before, each animal needing to possess something that sets them apart , or above another, our need for everything to be “special”, somehow, anyhow. Lets celebrate the glory that is ordinary. Lets not be afraid to be occasionally less than amazing, to not always have to shine.
Lets be happy to just be, much like our dogs and horses.
And of course choose the dogs in the shelters that others will likely pass by.
PS . Actually we now also have Teya. So I may have to rethink the whole “not doing cute” deal.
Today was a good day working with a new school, with two different groups of new students. The set up was perfect- a room away from the main school building, away from the bustle of over a 1000 students rushing through the corridors at break time. Car parked right outside, access to fields and outdoor areas. The first group of students were young people who for whatever reason lacked confidence. They were shy, helpful, kind and caring. The second group were the ADHDers, and slightly older. Half the group were loud, brash, and acting a little like 7 year olds-talking over me, the staff, and each other. We had a discussion about trust, and how I needed to trust them before I bought my dog inside. They almost managed a minutes silence when I first bought Billy into the room. Then we had to split the group, so the ones who were struggling but succeeding in mostly self regulating their behaviour got to play fun stuff outside with Billy. Not sure what the other group did but I expect it involved some kind of a lecture, and I did get an apology from one on my return.
Here’s hoping we have a better second week!! The first is often difficult. ADHD can make life tough for students. But in order for it to be an enjoyable session for my dog, there needs to be an element of trying to self regulate from the young people. Usually the second session is better. Lets hope so.
On my way home I reflected , and I have to confess shed a few tears, on how much I , and the project in general missed Cassie the go-to project dog. Cassie was amazing with all young people, took everything in her stride, and would have negotiated her way round the two very different groups with grace and skill. The students lacking in confidence would have received a very clear ask for a cuddle, and a roll on the back- stroke my tummy please- and probably she would have sat on someones lap. She would have liked them all equally, gazed into their eyes, and made them laugh and feel loved. With the second group she would have remained totally unfazed by their loudness, would have energetically joined in the outside activities, begged appealingly for treats, and wandered around amongst them curious, confident, distracting and engaging.
She always seemed to know what was needed and required, her tail waving as she confidently strolled about, comfortable in whatever surroundings she found herself, and with a zest for life, and people that was incredibly infectious. She died way too young.
And she would do it all with grace, and with skill.
I always try to emulate those qualities, but suspect I am often sadly lacking.
She is very much missed, and I am pretty sure there will never be another doggy co tutor with quite so much grace and skill to add to our programmes.
One thing it is really important to stress is that fear is a healthy, normal reaction intended to keep us safe. There are many times that we experience fear that help us make good choices- for example where not to walk, or who not to trust. One thing I hope I do is allow the dog phobic person the chance to make good, informed choices and strategies to manage the fear they may be feeling. There is a mixture of information, strategy and fun!
Time for me to shut up and let other people to say how it helped, and the difference it made.
Rebecca says about my work with her daughter Ellie
“When I contacted you, we had just been for a day at the beach which Ellie had not been able to enjoy because of the dogs that she came across. This was typical of a day out and I worried for Ellie that it would only get worse. Ellie’s fear of dogs has been a life long issue.
From the very start, you were calm, friendly and you spoke to Ellie in a way that enabled her to connect directly with you, without needing me as an intermediary. Not many adults achieve that with Ellie but you gained her trust very quickly which I think has been vital.
I think that the pace has been ideal for Ellie. The first time, you came to see you Ellie, you didn’t bring a dog which gave Ellie the chance to get to know you and to understand what the plan was and in her own way to let you know how she felt, although I know that she didn’t say much that day.
Once we started the dog sessions, the difference was immediate. The concept of helping her to live at peace in a world where she will regularly encounter dogs rather aiming to make her love dogs is one of the elements that is important to your ongoing success with Ellie. She knows that you understand and that your goal is not for her to be a dog lover. This has given her the freedom to talk to you and work with you around how to cope with her fear and how to find the best strategies for her, together.
So far, the most obvious progress is that if we are walking past dogs on leads, Ellie is no longer frightened. I no longer get anxious and step in. She can walk past dogs with no reaction now. The next challenge now is how to get her coping with dogs off the lead and I’m sure that you and she together, will find a way. “
How wonderful to read- it goes without saying that Ellie herself is a determined young lady who will work very hard to overcome her fear- and who has already offered to keep Billy If I would let her!
Karen says about our work with her daughter Jessica-
“We were very thankful of being referred to the K9 project. The work that Chris, Kev and the wonderful Cassie along with Taz, Ruby & Billy did with Jessica really changed her life, she no longer put herself in danger at the first sight of a dog. 6 years on we even have our own dog and you’d never know that she once had a phobia of dogs.
Jessica says ‘I loved meeting Cassie, Taz, Ruby & Billy. Without the help I received we wouldn’t ever have been able to get a dog of our own’.”
They made the local paper and now have their own very beautiful puppy!
When I worked with Tina’s son Jack, who as a young adult with Downs Syndrome was very scared of dogs – I discovered he was a West Ham Supporter – so a facebook appeal ended up with a West Ham scarf which Cassie was happy to wear. Tina says Jack is still scared when dogs are off lead around him that he doesn’t know but that he is more able to control it and
“I use the techniques you taught us reminding him to stay calm and look straight ahead and not to look at the dog. It definitely was very helpful and I think you approached it in a good way gradually introducing a bit more each week, gradually building Jack’s confidence with one dog and then more. I think Jack became confident with your dogs but cannot always transfer that to other dogs. His Dad has recently got a puppy and Jack has met it a few times now and apparently he is scared each time at first but will then stroke him and throw a ball for him so I hope this will build his confidence. “
For me that is the main point- building confidence. A confidence that comes from knowing that you can either loose a fear or learn ways to control it; that your life does not have to be limited and you can do all the things that other people can do. It might sometimes be a bit harder, but it is possible.
In addition to the individual sessions I run I have also delivered dog safety talks to school’s, and workshops for professional staff who have to do home visits as part of their work role. I appreciate how difficult it can be to focus on the task in hand if a large rottweiler is trying to sit on your lap or staring at you from a higher seating position, or dogs are play fighting at your feet. These courses are very popular and get great feedback being a combination of knowledge, practical tips, and hands on practice. This enables staff who may already have a challenging role to concentrate on the purpose of their visit, rather than their own fears and concerns.
It is always interesting to see which dogs are the scariest, and for whom. Of course many people find the large dogs intimidating, whereas others find the really quick movements and noisy barking from small dogs more scary and off putting.
My sessions be they individual or group involve exposure to dogs of different sizes and energy levels, on lead, off lead (when ready), walking, running. maybe two dogs together. Taz our elderly large dog, although he can look intimidating at first glance actually moves pretty slowly now and most people find him easy. More anxiety provoking is Izzy who although small can be made to sing and bark, run and jump, and generally look excited. Teya and Billy are different again. I can always borrow other people and their dogs too if I need more variety!
This is probably the major difference in the work I do compared to more traditional and formal therapy. Often these sessions involve a lot of talking, thinking and planning, and writing lists. We do not usually write much (well anything actually) in my sessions but I do sometimes leave handouts and reminders for people once we are finished. It is very much a practical process and the sessions provided by others can lay a good ground work for ours.
However it can only go so far without exposure to dogs – in the words of one young man to his mum- “I am tired of talking I want to DO something”. Of course with that approach he made rapid progress.
In my next and final (for now) being scared of dogs blog post I am going to shut up, and hand over to the people who have been on the receiving end to have their say.
The official term is Cynophobia. It is a condition that affects many people and is I guess the opposite of Cynophilist – a person who loves dogs. Or more commonly a “dog lover”. Yep thats probably me, and possibly you.
Symptoms of being a dog phobic can include debilitating symptoms such as feeling anxious and panicky around dogs, constantly checking for dogs when out in public, avoiding places with dogs, and feeling like that fear interferes with normal life. All of the children I have worked with have experienced these symptoms, and this fear has definitely interfered with every day, normal life. This is stressful for both the child and the parents/carers, and wider family.
My aim when I am asked to go out is definately NOT to turn the child into a dog lover! I do not care if they do not like dogs at the end of it, this is not the aim of the work.
It is often a relief to parents when you say this as they are likely anticipating a dog crazy person trying to persuade them, and their children, that all dogs are lovely. (Of course I think they are, but that is not why I am there).
Curiously on more than one occasion the children have ended up wanting a dog, and on several occasions the families have ended up with a dog of their own. Which is all good, but not the aim.
The aim is to give children accurate information about dogs; to acknowledge that some dogs can be scary and some dog owners are not good responsible owners; to provide a range of tools and techniques that the child can use, for themselves, with support and back up from parents, which will help with their anxiety; to change some negatively formed neural pathways concerning dogs into more neutral ones; and. most importantly to give opportunity to practice with a range of different dogs and in different settings .
Things you wont hear me say
Its alright s/he wont hurt you
s/he just wants to play
come and be brave and stroke her/him
s/he has never bitten anyone
s/he’s safe s/he loves people
they can smell your fear
if you just stroke her/him it will be ok
Things you may hear me say – although each time is different and unique to each child/person/circumstance
you tell me when it feels ok
you let me know when you feel comfortable
its ok to take a step backwards if you feel like it
learn to be boring
do not look at the dog
you do not have to walk closer
you do not have to touch the dog (but you can if you want to)
you tell me when the dog is too close
are you red/amber/green ?
lets play a game (if the child is young)
tell me what you are seeing/feeling/ thinking
Each time I follow a slightly different process , depending on the child/ persons age, level of understanding, the scale of their fear, how long it has been in place. I can usually tell pretty quickly if it is really a reflection of the parents fear or dislike of dogs, if the child deep down wants to like dogs, and if I can eventually persuade them to get a dog ( no I didnt really say that it was a joke!)
I love being asked to undertake dog phobia work. For me to help a person – however old- to conquer a fear- is a gift. Because it’s not just about that one fear, but about learning how to conquer other fears, build confidence, and learn new skills. Continue reading “Being scared of dogs”→