I was painfully shy as a kid. It took me years to build up my self-confidence around new people. Even now I do not immediately start a conversation with strangers, nor do I volunteer to step in front of a crowd. Unfortunately my eldest son inherited my shyness trait. Watching him get nervous and clam up in a group setting breaks my heart. In all my attempts to help him get comfortable around strangers, I did not expect a nervous, shy dog to help bring him out of his shell.
I do not push my son to interact in new situations. He prefers to watch on the sidelines and slowly assess his surroundings. Occasionally he warms up and engages, but most of the time he just watches. However, if there are any dogs around, he will make friends with the dogs immediately. It’s not unusual for people to be more comfortable with animals versus humans.
Think about it: Animals are not judgmental — well, maybe cats are. The social anxiety that exists in some people-to-people interactions is often absent in the presence of another species, especially dogs.
A recent viral story talked about how kids reading to shelter animals help the animals get adopted. But those events do not benefit only the animals; they can help change the lives of the kids too, kids like my son.
My son has been around dogs his entire life. He’s a pro at reading a dog’s mood. He can tell in a matter of seconds if the dog wants to play or not. Perhaps that’s why he prefers a canine versus a person — they are easier to read. When a local county shelter advertised a program offered to homeschooled kids called Books for Paws, I knew this was a great way to help him build up his confidence.
The program is designed to help socialize shelter pets so they are more adoptable. Kids are invited to participate every week by bringing a favorite book to read aloud to one of the shelter animals. My son is a good reader but too shy to read aloud, especially in front of total strangers. He will not participate in a group setting at all. So I figured that if he's reading to dogs, he will be more relaxed and possibly engage with the other kids who have a similar interest in helping dogs.
When we first arrived, several kids were already waiting in the lobby. My son immediately went into his shy mode. When some of the kids said hi to him, he hid behind me. Then the shelter volunteer came out and started asking the kids if they wanted to read to a dog or a cat. My son didn’t speak up. She looked directly at him, and I saw the panic in his eyes. I mouthed “dog” to her. She tilted her head and said to him, “I have the perfect dog for you.”
A few minutes later, another shelter volunteer came out with a very timid dog named Fay. Her tail was tucked in so far you wouldn’t think she even had one. The handler had to coax her through the gate and into the gazebo where my son and I set up to read. She took very small steps toward us. My son slowly approached her and assured her in a soothing voice that he wasn’t going to hurt her. He handed her a cookie, but she was too scared to accept it.
He didn’t try to force any sort of affection upon her — he gave her space and waited for her to sense his energy. After a few minutes, she started to relax. My son finally pulled out one of his favorite stories and began reading, completely oblivious that the dog’s handler was also a part of his audience. Fay came up to him and gave him a sniff, and she eventually allowed him to pet her. She even accepted a few cookies. At the end of his story, my son patted Fay on top of her head and told her he’d be back next week to visit her. Fay left with her tail untucked.
The next dog was a ball of energy named Lizzy — the complete opposite of Fay. She bounded in and gave my son a big lick on the face, and wanted to sit in his lap. He laughed and began to ask questions about Lizzy to the handler. Yes, my shy son was talking to a stranger and was completely at ease. He read Lizzy a story and gave her a few cookies and belly rubs. As we packed up to go, he asked the handler if he could read to more scared dogs next week. The handler said he could, and he beamed.
On the way out we passed a group of kids headed to the shelter. They said hi to us, and my son was slightly hesitant in his greeting back. As they passed by, he suddenly turned and said, “The dogs are really nice. Hope you have fun!”
He walked the rest of the way to the car with his head held high. The little boy I knew a mere hour before would have never talked to kids he didn't know. My heart fluttered with excitement. Since then, he's been a bit more responsive when people talk to him. I know it will take some time. He's already planning what book he is going to read to Fay next. I’m happy knowing that not only is he improving his reading skills and helping homeless pets, but he is becoming more confident and self-assured.
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