An ADHD Dog Trainer Shows Special Kids How To Use Calm Energy

I have been writing articles about safe and healthy interactions between kids and canines for Pediatric Safety for over two years now, and in those articles I have shared numerous personal stories with you all… so I think it’s safe to say that through those stories many of you have gotten to know me pretty well. I have shared about what is was like growing up with ADHD and learning disabilities in a time where it was not really known about in my post: Growing Up With ADHD – Have Things Changed?“. I broached the subject of being in recovery from addiction in Kids, Pets & Your Holiday Party: Read this List (check it twice!) and I got into a bit more detail about it and also talked a bit about suffering for many years with low-self-esteem in Building a Child’s Confidence Through Dog Training“.  

So now, I want to combine little bits of all of that into this month’s article, because being a professional dog trainer, and especially being a member of a wonderful organization like the International Association of Canine Professionals (IACP) has changed me.  There are so many observations and realizations I have made about myself since becoming a member; both personally and professionally! The changes I had to make to grow as a trainer helped me take a new look at the struggles I had so many years ago and how I might have handled them today.  It is my hope that in sharing this story with you, I may be able to help many of you who have dogs and also a child who struggles with ADHD. I hope I can potentially offer you a different perspective on how they may see and perceive things, not based on years of research, studies and statistics, but based solely on my own personal experiences… who knows, maybe some of those same tactics can help you and your child too.

Early on in my career as a dog trainer, I really did not understand why I did not do well with toy breeds such as Yorkshire Terriers, Maltese, Chihuahuas, etc. It was obvious (even to me) that I did not do well with them, but I just couldn’t grasp the ‘why’ of it. So I shied away from them. I took all the calls for the mid-sized dogs (Cocker Spaniels, Beagles, Wheaten Terriers…)  large breeds (Golden and Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, Huskies…) and even giant breeds like the Great Dane, Rottweiler’s and Mastiffs!. I was consistently successful with any breed that wasn’t tiny and typically nervous, so I referred those clients elsewhere. But I think deep down, it did bother me! Who wants to admit they cannot succeed in any area of their chosen profession? I sure didn’t!

But it was exactly this time, eight years ago, that I attended my first IACP conference!

To say that I ran the gamut of emotions- from excited to nervous, insecure, and petrified -would be a huge understatement! I do need to mention here that as a New Yorker, we all tend to talk a bit faster than most. I arrived at the conference a New Yorker with ADHD and extreme nervousness! Fortunately most of the other attendees acclimated to my hyperactivity pretty quickly… but I couldn’t help but notice how often words like, ‘Calm, tranquil, peaceful, and consistent’ were used in conjunction with the word ‘energy’ (ie: ‘calm energy,’ and  ‘tranquil energy,’ etc.).  Even the trainers who had their dogs with them … Both the trainers AND their dogs… were all so STILL!  And my first thought was ‘CRAP! I can’t do that!’ I immediately flashed back to my childhood. It was a time in my life when the word ‘can’t’ first became my mantra.

But then came the main meeting…. And the main speaker, Cesar Milan, took the stage. His primary methodology is all about using a calm energy… building the dog’s respect for him by being assertive, firm and consistent…and CALM. At the end of his speech, when it was time for questions and answers, you bet I had some! But when I stood up to take the microphone to ask it, in my nervousness, the rapid speech was tripled, and my words seem to come out in a jumble, all tripping over each other! And Cesar, obviously having no clue what I was trying to ask, came to the edge of the stage, and in a calm and very thoughtful pose, looked at Peter, my husband, and asked, “How often is she this hyper?”

At this time the entire audience of trainers, all of whom had spent the last few days already with me and having already witnessed my hyperactivity, began to laugh… and in front of thousands, I began to cry. All that pent up nervousness, all of those hidden insecurities up until that point, all the overwhelming new knowledge (and with it, the self-doubt) came rushing to the surface.

I somehow regained my composure, eventually got out my question, and he answered it, but it was when we spoke afterwards that some things suddenly started to make sense to me. I envisioned myself arriving at a client’s home with a tiny dog, that is fearful and nervous, and me coming at them at a hundred miles an hour! How would I personally feel if I was afraid, and someone came at me like that? I was just lucky that I hadn’t gotten bitten yet!

As I thought more and more on this, other memories resurfaced…. How as a child, our dog Brandy would often come to me to rough-house and play, but if he wanted to cuddle, or just wanted to be calm and still, it was my sisters he sought out. As a kid, I took it as a personal rejection. Now I realize it wasn’t.

And I started to change the way I worked with my clients.

  • When I had to work with a small dog, when I arrived at the house, I had to take a few deep calming breaths before ringing the doorbell. And I found when I calmly and assertively greeted them, both owner and dog seemed more calm and receptive!
  • Another challenge I had was my impatience and aggravation sitting in traffic for an hour prior to arriving at a clients house…. So to combat that, I left an extra half hour earlier than I needed to to arrive on time. This allowed me to arrive, park near-by and do something (reading, listening to some music, etc.) to bring down my level of agitation prior to arriving at the person’s house… And amazingly, I found this not only worked well for the many small dogs I now worked with, but for the larger hyper pups as well!

When I tried to help my clients with hyperactive ADHD kids, and I would explain the importance of the kids being calm around the dog, there was one key fact that I forgot….

Almost anyone can be calm for an hour during a focused training session. But if I was able to curtail that hyperactivity full time, I would not have the diagnosis of ADHD! Was I seriously asking my client’s hyperactive kids to be calm full-time and expecting them to accomplish it?

I needed to figure out a way to help them interact with their dogs better, because I could physically see the different way the dog or pup reacted to the ADHD child versus older or calmer family members.

  • With the calmer children, the dog was more relaxed, did not mind lying next to them and even cuddling with them….
  • The ADHD child was filled with scratches and nip marks from the dog chasing them and jumping on them. Also a child that feels rejected by the dog that won’t cuddle with them will often try to ‘force the dog to stay with them’ by holding their collar or wrapping their arms around him. If a child physically restrains a dog and the dog wants to get away, there is a very high risk in that moment of the dog biting the child to free themselves.
  • My toughest challenge was trying to figure out a good way to explain these dynamics to the child as well as explain to the parents the potential risks and dangers in a way so that they could understand and be receptive to the necessary changes.

What we did (and what you can do)

  • The first thing I wanted to do was work with the child (and Mother) alone… without other family members present. (This made the child feel less self-conscious and more important – he was getting to work alone with the trainer)
  • Next, I wanted to show the child that they too can have a ‘cuddling session’ with the dog. I sat on the floor with the child and we just talked a bit about the puppy, and I asked him if he would like to be able to cuddle with the puppy too, and he looked so sad when he said, “Yes, but the puppy doesn’t like me that way.” This was my opportunity to explain to him that if all they did was run and go crazy with the dog that would ALWAYS be their relationship, so he had to show the pup that they can do this.
  • Next I sat side by side with the child, with my legs stretched out in front of me. I opened my legs a bit and I put the puppy on his back in between them, then gently held him in place. Once the dog had settled on me, I told the boy to gently pet all the way up, and all the way down the dog’s body, instead of quick rough movements in one spot, and to avoid the paws and ears for now, as they are sensitive areas on a dog that tend to get them easily riled up when messed with.
  • The little boy did as I asked, and then when the pup was nice and calm, I switched the pup over to in between Mom’s legs and we continued the gentle petting. It was important that Mom was comfortable with this and understand what she had to do if she was going to be able to continue this when I was not around.
  • After pup was relaxed with Mom, we instructed the child to sit the same way his Mom and I did, and then we calmly put the pup between his legs, and I let his Mom help him to keep the pup still and calm. We continued this, and much to the little boy’s delight, the puppy let out a huge sigh, and then closed his eyes!

When the pup was nice and relaxed, we got him up slowly and then put his leash on and all of us (Mom included) went for a walk. We worked on walking SLOWLY, and getting the pup to keep pace with the boy, instead of the other way around. The boy seemed to have a bit of trouble walking slowly for any length of time, so we practiced taking ten steps, and then telling pup to SIT. I praised the boy, and had the boy praise his dog (calmly and gently). We did this again and again…. Every ten steps we stopped and sat. The Mom told me she had never seen her son so calm and focused, and I pointed out to the Mom and the boy how receptive the pup was to his training.

A dog can be such a wonderful tool to help a child with special needs. All it really takes is a little know-how, some time, patience, and understanding. This is why they are so often used for therapy.

As an adult who has dealt with ADHD all of my life, I hope some of this helps you to help your child move out of the “I can’t’ Mantra, and into the “Wow… I really can!” all the while helping your child and pet build a safe and beautiful relationship!

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

Comments

3 Responses to “An ADHD Dog Trainer Shows Special Kids How To Use Calm Energy”

  1. Sue says:

    Great article Suzanne. As a special ed teacher my class theme was “I think I Can”. It was most effective. Keep up the good work, I wish you were here in Ca. Oliver misses you.

    • Suzanne HantkeSuzanne Haneke says:

      Thanks Sue. I miss you and Oliver as well!!

      I forgot you were a special ed teacher! I wish i had had a teacher with that sort of mantra when i was young! Your students were all lucky to have you!!

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  1. […] them to act or react in a positive or negative way. I had touched on this a bit in my article on teaching special-needs kids how to use “calm energy”. In one of the examples, I discussed the differences I saw in the way the dog reacted to the […]



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