Back to blogging …

Not blogging for these past few months was a choice. There was much to blog about, but I chose not to reveal every tiny detail of my effort with Grace and her apparent lack of progress. You see despite  a comprehensive socialization programme with young Gracie-Anne that started before she was 11 weeks old, she remained fearful of life outside of the safety of our car, home and country/beach walks.

My efforts to acclimatize Grace to seeing people in all their various shapes, sizes and glory was not going well, despite my carefully planned, sensitive handling of every situation. Similarly, everyday encounters with people and their pushchairs, bikes, shopping trolleys, screaming children, carrying bags of every description … absolutely frightened the crap out of her.

We spent four months over the summer making little trips into Church Stretton town. Grace was terrified of everything, and I mean everything, from scaffolding, to shop doors opening, to the two butcher’s shops – neither of which we could walk past.

There was only one way to even attempt to help Grace, and that was to take every frightening encounter and to identify exactly what it was that was so terrifying. At one point, Grace was freaking out at the sight of the lower part of a wall that was painted black. The shop walls either side were also painted black and these didn’t cause a problem. It did puzzle me for a while until it dawned on me that it was actually this particular section of wall that was the problem. I couldn’t see why it was so scary, but Grace was telling me it definitely was.

In order to show Grace these things were in fact not to be feared, I had to touch them with my hand and tell her the name of everything. Once she had calmed down enough to register that I was communicating with her she would dart forward and poke her nose onto whatever I was touching. Sometimes one ‘nose-touch’ would be enough to dispel the fear…. but only for that day; the next day, we were back to square one and we would have to repeat the whole process.

Walking past the public toilets was impossible without Grace dragging me into the road as she reversed at considerable speed. We started visiting the town after all the shops had closed and we pretty much had the place to ourselves. We could then take all the time we needed to practice walking past, after we’d spent ages examining the doors in detail and understanding how they worked and that doors very often banged shut.
This involved me standing by the door and repeatedly opening and closing the door, telling Grace what I was doing and what she could expect to happen next. None of this was done with Grace by my side, but four feet away from me at the other end of her training lead that was not only attached to her harness, but also to her collar and to my belt. Safety reasons you see – she was so fast and unpredictable in her reactions and actions I needed to know if one piece of equipment failed then there was one more as backup.

The only way to get Grace to see reason was to make everything into a game, and persistence was the only way to make this happen. Once I’d opened and shut the doors on the toilets about thirty times talking excitedly to Grace all about it, she would start to approach me asking to be involved. After what seemed like hours of effort, we were eventually at the stage where Grace was hitting the door with her foot and making it bang on her own… and finding it fun!

We worked like this with everything that scared her – for months on end. The successes were so short-lived as we were back to square one the very next day. However, each time we worked with the same objects it took slightly less time for Grace to ‘come around’.

Bear in mind she was terrifying of everything  – we couldn’t walk ten paces before something else needed the same amount of dedicated work, but we continued and I was determined to try to help her overcome her fears, even if it meant hugging scaffolding poles, stopping people in the street to ask them if I could touch their shopping trolley and show Grace it was safe…

It was hard enough coping with Grace without having to cope with people as well. It really wasn’t helpful to either of us for folk to stop and stare, make comments about my ‘poor little dog’ and then to bend down and make all manner of ‘clicking and kissing’ noises to try and get her to go to them! I was confused as to what these people thought they were doing – obviously they thought they were being helpful and that I couldn’t cope with Grace, but they only made the situation worse as Grace was completely freaked out by these strangers trying to touch her on top of everything else she was trying to cope with!

It was when one particular comment kept being made that nearly broke my spirit for good:

“She must be a rescue dog and have been abused”.

Actually no. I’ve been working with her for over six months. She’s never been ‘abused’, she’s just incredibly sensitive and intelligent and struggling to make sense of the world.
How ironic that I had bought Gracie as a puppy as I didn’t feel after the trauma of losing Chandi, I was ready to cope with potential, challenging problems an older rescue dog may have. That Grace’s brothers and sisters were sold to anyone make me wonder how they are all doing and if any ended up in rescue themselves…Grace’s behaviour was certainly challenging and I confess to alternating between feeling utterly devastated and totally soul-destroyed. Not really what I wanted to blog about…

You probably get the idea of how things were going without any more examples… but in spite of Grace’s fearful behaviour, we were able to enjoy walks in the hills and trips to the beach and were very comfortable in each other’s company.

Much training needed to be done in order for these outings to be relaxing. Grace is obsessed with sheep but now understands that she can look at them, but that’s all. In fact she is rewarded for looking and for ‘showing’ me the sheep, and when she sees a sheep she returns to me at top speed (without me having to call her) for praise and a game. She is trustworthy off lead due to the amount of training we have done and we achieved this without the use of an electric shock collar or any punishment whatsoever. I mention shock collars as they seem to be quite popular around here as the only method to prevent livestock chasing. Quite ironic that these dogs, whilst still wearing their collars continue to chase sheep…

Working with Grace to teach her that sheep were only to be looked at and not approached also taught her that other dogs fell into the same category. Much to my absolute delight, the trip to the beach we took shortly after embarking on this aspect of her training, meant that I could walk my 5 months old pup, off lead, down the beach with other dogs charging around and have her only focus on me.

Combining that focus with a instantaneous,bullet-like recall meant that when other dogs were allowed to charge at Grace, I could get her to me in an instant and out of harm’s way. How many times have you had someone’s out of control dog come charging full tilt, barking and growling at your dog only for the ‘owner’ to shout ‘Oh he’s friendly!’. This is NOT the approach of a ‘friendly’ dog and people need to take responsibility for their dog’s behaviour. The last person that allowed their dog to do that to Chandi also said their dog was ‘friendly’. This ‘friendly’ dog knocked Chandi off her feet (Chandi was standing by my side at the time minding her own, sweet, gentle business) and on to her back and stood with its jaws around her throat.

Words. Fail. Me.

Well actually they didn’t, but I won’t repeat them. Now when someone assures me their dog is ‘friendly’, quite honestly I don’t wait to find out.

Anyway, in case you’re wondering, Grace is less fearful nowadays due in no small part to the sheer amount of work we’ve done, but also due to her hormones. Yes, her hormones. I noticed a dramatic improvement in her fear response once she came into season for the first time. Imagine if I hadn’t done my research over many years and learnt that what many vets advise – spay a bitch at six months of age before their first season – was, perhaps not the best advice. If I’d have done that to Grace, I would have irrevocably damaged her for the rest of her life (in many ways).

Today, Grace celebrates being ten months old, and the future looks bright, well much brighter than it did a while ago. We still have a way to go, but there’s hope. But more than hope, there’s love – we are completely and utterly besotted with each other.

Picture 937

Grace on her first adventure to the beach:

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4 Responses to Back to blogging …

  1. Lynne Helmhold says:

    Hi Tina
    It’s lovely to hear from you again. And, so sorry to hear of your struggles, but you are doing an awesome job with Grace. Your devotion to each other will see you through this. Keep up the great work! I too, have an anxious border collie, so I have an inkling of what you are dealing with. Thanks too for acknowledging the value of hormones when dealing with this.( I wish I’d known earlier)
    Look forward to hear of your achievements as time goes on.

  2. Gail Walsh says:

    Good for you for not giving up on Gracie, which I am sure was never an option. It sounds like you are doing just the right things for her and she is on the right track.

    I am also dealing with a major situation with my young extremely over reactive borer collie. I am familiar with very active BCs since I have his uncle Pepsi, who is also a going concern. Panda however, is over the top with chasing shadows, looking up at the ceiling or sky and running wild. If I don’t monitor him he will run non-stop until his pads bleed. He ignores other dogs most of the time but thinks every person he meets is his long lost friend and wiggles from head to toe. Which is fine but not if you want to do musical freestyle and have your dog run over to meet all the audience.

    Much like Gracie, (although not fearful but over the top reactive), every new environment creates a challenge for Panda. I was told by several top trainers that there was no hope for him. I have worked hard with him and now my almost three year old boy, is doing so much better. Baby steps, and we have a long way to go but he is getting there. He has just competed in his first freestyle competitions. He got over whelmed with one of them and ran over to met the audience, but passed in two other ones and came in second in one of them.

    It is great hearing how you are doing. Hang in there. Gracie is in good hands.

  3. Kristine Hammar says:

    I was in a similar situation with my Speedy. I raised him from puppyhood, but a lot of people thought he “must be a rescue” who was “abused” because of his extreme fears. He was the only one of my dogs who had been loved and cared for every single day of his life! Sometimes people just don’t know what they don’t know.

    He’s 12 now and people don’t say that anymore. To all the world he appears a “normal” dog, happy and enthusiastic to explore the world. It took A LOT of work to get there. It took years. But we got there. He still has his challenges, but he truly has learned to interface with the world in much, much better ways and there is nothing he loves more than to be out and about exploring.

    You and Grace will, too!!

  4. Jacqui Brown says:

    So good to hear from you again Tina. I do enjoy your posts.

    Sorry to hear though it has been quite a challenge for you, with the ongoing struggles you really didn’t need at this time. They do have that intuition of when you are sad so I guess that hasn’t helped. With all the time you are putting in, it will certainly pay off in the long run. Little by little.
    Sometimes you forget how far you have come. So glad you have videos to reflect back on.

    I have an Australian kelpie, similar characteristics to a border collie, and it has been a struggle from 9 weeks. She is now 5. Like you, I often wonder how her litter mates are. We have formed a group on Facebook from the same breeder. So more and more are joining. One day her litter mates may join.
    How interesting too with the hormones, I wish I had known that, I would never of had her spayed.

    You are so right. You have achieved the two most import things you wanted to do.
    Recall and bonding with each other. You have gained her trust.

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