I’ve been thinking and talking about confidence a lot lately – and my fur-niece, Lillie, is the reason it’s been on my mind.
Over the last year or so, my sister has allowed me to work with her dog to run off leash on certain trails. Lillie is a sweet girl who gets very excited to meet people, especially if they have treats — and if she sees houses, it’s all over. She will run to them and bound all around the yard. Lillie loves to explore.
But she is also a dog who gets nervous and sometimes downright angry when other dogs approach her too quickly or get in her face. It doesn’t matter whether the other dog is friendly; this is not how Lillie likes to be approached. And she doesn’t appreciate unexpected obstacles arising in her path. (This might be why we have such a special bond.) A couple snowmen really threw her for a loop this winter.
Lillie enjoys the dog park, but doesn’t often play with other dogs. She’d rather be out on the trails.
I’m not a trainer, but I do know a thing or two. And one thing is for sure: you can’t just let your dog off leash right away and expect her to come back when called. You have to work up to that. Trainers have various ways to teach this and different techniques for different dogs, but slow is key, at least in my experience.
And of course, Lillie already knew her basic commands. But this particular situation required learning to mind me even with LOTS of distractions.
Lillie and I needed to build our relationship (we had a pretty good one already, but this requires a deeper bond than just being fun to hang with). She needed to learn that I am home base. That I am going to keep her safe when other dogs approach.
I needed to teach Lillie to want to come back to me. Luckily she enjoys praise, but she is also super treat motivated, so I had easy tools at my disposal. My parents’ dog, Rascal, would prefer to run off and explore, and when she does so she couldn’t care less about treats, praise, or toys. I’m certain Rascal could be trained to be off leash, but I also know my limitations. I don’t have that expertise, so she will always be tethered to me on our walks.
But back to Lillie and her confidence. Over time we have been able to allow her to go further and further away to explore. She’s learned to start turning and looking our way when she sees other people ahead — we always ask whether they’d like us to leash her — and comes back if the answer is yes.
She has become more interested in splashing through the water. She loves scrambling up rocks. Lillie has become much more patient when other dogs run up to her. When we’re out on the trails, she’s even begun to invite some of those dogs to run with her for a bit. And one thing I have really noticed is that at the dog park she has become more interested in checking out and meeting the other dogs — even playing some. Only a little bit, but it’s happening more often.
Lillie has become more confident. She knows what is expected of her, and she enjoys showing off what a good girl she is. Lillie seriously has what we call a “proud face.”
Her confidence has shone through in her behavior. Her developing patience with other dogs is because she has more confidence, and because we were patient training her. Her taking more risks and meeting other dogs and running with them, especially on the trails, is due to her developing confidence. The way she looks at her mother, brother, and I is because she knows she is safe, and that makes her confident.
People are the same. It takes time to build confidence. Even when we have the desire to do something or try something new, we need to go easy on ourselves. Some people do best when they jump right into it. Others need slow introductions. We need to get to know ourselves and what works best for us.
I’m sort of in the middle. I need time to mull things over, to explore and feel like the benefits outweigh the risks, and that I will be able to handle those risks if things don’t go as I hoped. Even with something wonderful, I need time to think it over. That is one thing that people with anxiety or who have survived traumatic experiences tend to have in common. Yet once I do make that decision, I often want to jump in and get things moving. It just might take me awhile to get to that decision.
But this isn’t always the case. I don’t make decisions in the same way for every situation. While people are different from one another, we are also different within our own selves, and that’s okay. It took me a long time to understand it’s okay if I need time to build confidence in one area, but not at all in another.
The confidence I have developed in myself has taken lots of time, hard work, and a boatload of patience with myself. Working with dogs and being patient with them — especially the timid ones, as well as the owners who are super nervous about having this stranger take care of their precious pups — has come pretty easily for me.
As I gained more clients and developed more relationships, I finally began to realize that I should allow that same type of patience with myself. I’ve heard it. I knew it. But I didn’t really practice it when it came to my own perceived or real shortcomings.
As I watched how the dogs in my life, as well as some of their caregivers, gained confidence — partly due to my patience and willingness to meet them where they’re at — and then decided to take more risks, it made me see how freeing our lives become when we are patient enough to give ourselves time to build our own confidence.
Lillie has so much more freedom now that she is confident and now that we know we can trust her. It didn’t happen in a day. It took time, patience, and a bit of risk-taking on our parts as well. We’re still working on some things. But what a difference it has made for all of us.
Confidence doesn’t just happen in a snap. For most of us it takes many, many baby steps. And sometimes we feel like we’re not making any progress. But stick with it, whatever it is. You will get there.
And if you doubt it, just ask Lillie.