Trolleys, sliding doors and music …

Filthy weather here yesterday. So vile, in fact, that Grace and I did something we don’t normally do. We didn’t have ‘outdoor exercise’. Instead we went to Percy thrower’s Garden Centre and spent over an hour looking round all the different departments and practicing heelwork up and down the aisles between the Christmas decorations. We had fun!

Nothing fazed Grace – not even the automatic sliding doors, or a trolley being wheeled past within inches of her furry body. We had a brief moment of what can only be described as ‘startlement’ (yes, it is a word) when there was an ominous rattling and banging sound that was heading our way. Peering over the display of Wellington boots, I spotted the source of the noise.
“It’s just a trolley” I told Grace. She didn’t look convinced but then when the trolley finally revealed itself to her, I could see her relax. Her expression said it all ” Meh! Just a trolley – nothing to get worried about!”

This was outstanding progress and Grace’s focus immediately returned to me. With her little face turned to look up at me we continued with out heelwork, Grace stopping only to have a quick lick at a roasted bone that was too tempting to ignore…
The air conditioning unit that was making a loud whirring and buzzing noise was not frightening, indeed it was worthy of investigation. The large fan blasting warm air directly above one of the entrances into the gift department was also taken in her dainty stride – not so a few months earlier. Grace’s reaction then was to turn tail and run as though a fire breathing dragon was after her.

In every situation we tried out some heelwork and Grace was ready and willing as soon as I muttered the word ‘close’. Her focus and attention was incredible – I had to remind myself that she is barely 10 months old as we moved forward, backward and sideways in each direction with Grace taking her cue from my movements alone. No words needed, other than “Good girl! You are so clever!” and a gentle game with her tuggy rope that always finds its way into my pocket.

We also managed to practice some moves stood next to a portable CD player that was blasting out Christmas songs. Again Grace showed no fear as she concentrated on matching her movements to mine. This was also great progress as Grace is also terrified of music – anything with piano, strings, brass, woodwind… pretty much anything Classical, which is a problem. As soon as she hears  a violin (or anything else) she starts to cry, scream and howl and with her ears flat on her head and her eyes darting round, and her hunched body, she is definitely frightened. Very frightened. At the moment, she has a real hatred of the Marks and Spencer TV advert music. As soon as it starts she screams and I have to grab the TV remote and turn the sound off. She just can’t take it.

Again we have spent hours working at not being afraid of music. We have some way to go, but again there is progress. If she is training with me, she is now able to focus more on what she is supposed to be doing rather than screaming her head off (and boy can she scream!). She has also learnt to grab a toy (if one is available) when scary music comes on, and she brings it to me for me to play with her.

If it’s not one thing it’s another… or everything all together. I have no real desire to ever attempt to compete with Grace, but if we ever did, just being able to  walk into the building with all the people, dogs and loud music would be an achievement.

I am extraordinarily proud of Grace and how hard she has worked to try to overcome her fears. We have a long way to go but together, who knows what we may achieve?

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Learning to believe…

The last months have been challenging here. Not only due to Grace being so scared of the world and the amount of work we have been doing, but for other reasons. Regular readers will know that when Chandi was alive, I talked about selling our house and taking her on an adventure. I did indeed put our house up for sale and two weeks after Chandi left my side, it sold. I couldn’t proceed with the sale; I was barely alive.

As Grace slowly anchored me back to the earth and breathed new life into me, the desire to be different –  to do something different –  returned with a vengeance. Sick and tired of paying out hard-earned money to live in a house that was bigger than we needed also spurred me on. I put our house back up for sale and sold it again, within days.

This will be my third move since my Mum died, and things have to be different this time. Feeling as though I was suffocating with all the stuff that was crammed in the loft and the garage – the vast majority of which didn’t even belong to me – it was definitely time to make huge changes.

This past year I have spent almost every weekend sorting through all the boxes that I have dutifully carted round (or rather paid removal men to cart round on my behalf) and have made many trips to two charity shops in Church Stretton – Border collie Rescue and Hope House Children’s Hospice. The council recycling centre has been on the receiving end of a fair few car loads of stuff that was cluttering both my house and my mind.

I struggle to see the point in paying for more than I need, particularly when running my own business is extremely precarious these days. I am daring to be different and to go against ‘the norm’. The customary way of measuring success – big house, flash car, nice clothes, expensive holidays, the latest gadgets… leaves me wondering why… If this is how success is measured, then I am unsuccessful. Maybe there is a different way. I find there is and that I am not alone in striving to achieve it. Less is more. More time to play with Grace, more time to breathe, more time to allow magic into my life…Surrounded by less stuff I already feel freer. We have only what we need and I swear I will never buy anything I don’t need ever again.

We move to a tiny ‘two up, two down’ in a little village in January and it will be a new start for us both. With only the things we love and need surrounding us, who knows what we will achieve. Maybe I will finally respond to the multitude of requests I’ve received over the years to try my hand at running a Freestyle training course… who knows what the future may hold. Or maybe I can create my own future.

When I brought Grace home, I only wanted to achieve two things with her – a fantastic recall and to be worthy of being loved. There was no pressure on either her or me to do anything, other than fall in love with each other. I didn’t know whether this would be possible. Chandi was my ‘dog of a lifetime’ and together we achieved things that I would never have dared dream  – our years together were a fairy tale. To be loved and adored and to return her adoration, was the foundation on which everything else was built. She was remarkable in every way and her record setting achievements (still unequaled) meant that my cake was well and truly iced.

I found myself giving every bit of credit to her and taking none for myself. As Chandi got older, I savoured even more our time together and told myself that when she was finally gone, that would be it for me. Chandi made me special. Never again would my steps be in time with another dog as they had been with her – even when we did our special One Tempi (skipping). I was resigned to it and made my peace with it.

Grace didn’t have anything to live up to – I expected nothing and didn’t think I would be able to teach her anything much simply because I believed that my part in Chandi’s success was so insignificant. Watching little Gracie grow and learn made me think. Really made me think. I was glad I made the effort to video all those early training sessions as the evidence of how she responded not only to me, but also to my non-conformist training methods, could be studied repeatedly.

Slowly I started to wonder if I had indeed had something to do with Chandi’s phenomenal success (and Pepper’s achievements). My attitude to trying to teach Grace to skip was this: not going to be able to, but might as well just prove I can’t by having a go.

Within five days of showing Grace what she needed to do to perform the skipping move, she was doing it. Thankfully the video evidence was undeniable as I didn’t really believe my own eyes during our training sessions. Grace was 14 weeks old and I felt foolish. The realization hit me that I might just be quite good at working with a dog. No-one was more surprised than me. Chandi was my dog of a lifetime – a dog in a million – my love, life and everything – but Grace is too. It can’t just be down to luck  – seriously after all the bad luck I’ve had thrown at me these last few years (and especially these last few months) I feel as though my luck has run out! It has to be magic. The combination of me and Chandi, me and Pepper, me and Grace and endless work and dedication creating magic.

But,  there is no pressure on Grace or me to ever show ourselves in public. But, I can feel the flutters of the fragile wings of a dream stirring. Thank you Gracie for giving me new life, and above all, for loving me. I didn’t think I would ever be loved again when Chandi’s and my music finished playing for the final time. When I look at Grace, I see Chandi. Heaven sent.

Thank you Chandi for making my dream come true – to be loved – and to Grace for continuing when Chandi left. And thank you both for helping me to start believing in myself.

“Magic is believing in yourself, if you can do that, you can make anything happen.” ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

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“Life is measured not by …”

Maya Angelou said ” Life is not measured by the number of breaths you take, but by the moments that take your breath away.” I think she’s definitely onto something there.

Three years ago – well more than three years ago now – I had one of these moments. Unusually it wasn’t with Chandi, but with another hairy, four legged creature – one of the wild ponies that freely graze the moorland where we love to walk – The Long Mynd. I have just found the post I wrote for my private Facebook page to mark the occasion and wanted to share it here as well:

“Today I had one of those rare moments that completely took my breath away. There are wild ponies that graze the 26 square miles of open moorland where I regularly walk with Chandi. The ponies are always fascinated with Chandi, and usually one or more of the ponies will come towards her and want to sniff her. Chandi doesn’t mind and I’m always careful that things don’t get out of hand. Once the ponies are bored with Chandi, I always hold my hand out to see if any will want to touch me. Never, in 20 years of trying, has a wild pony ever touched me.
Today was different. A young chestnut mare reached out to touch my extended fingers. We looked at one another, me of course with tears in my eyes. I slowly pulled my hand back to see what the pony would do. She considered her options carefully, and then reached her nose out so she was again touching my hand. I gently stroked the side of her mouth and her soft, pink, fuzzy nose. I stepped away from her and wondered what she would do. She stepped towards me and again touched her nose to my outstretched fingers so we were touching once more. I backed away further and the pony walked towards me. I kept backing away, faster now and the pony began to trot towards me to make contact with my hand. I was having trouble believing what was happening – on this cold, wet November day, a wild pony had chosen to make contact with me.
Then I had a grey pony on my right who let me touch her nose and another chestnut pony who thought she might like to be touched, but wasn’t brave enough. I turned my back on the ponies to continue my walk with Chandi, and as Chandi and I walked side by side up the path, suddenly, with her shoulder level with me, the chestnut pony was walking next to me. Not following behind me, but walking as Chandi was, as my companion.
We all stopped as a mountain biker came hurtling down the path towards us. Of course the pony was startled, and so was I, and the magic was shattered. He forced his way around us and then through the herd of ponies that was blocking the path. My chestnut friend had moved out of the way and was about 10 feet away from me. I was disappointed as I thought our encounter had ended. Not so. The pony trotted back over to me and reached out to touch my shoulder with her nose while I stroked her face. It was entirely her choice to interact with me – I offered myself to her in the first place and she was free to choose. The first pony to choose to make contact.
If I hadn’t have stopped her, I don’t know for how long she would have walked by my side. I would have loved to have had her company for the rest of my life, but there was no way I could have fitted her in the car to get her home. Other people walking on the same path didn’t stop to marvel at the mad woman with a bunch of wild animals around her, I don’t think they even really registered what was happening and were oblivious to the magic that was in the air. This was an experience I will never forget, and I feel so glad that I had the desire to make contact with another creature in the first place, and that the wild pony saw something in me that made her trust me, and leave her herd to walk with me, if only for a few moments. Those moments will last a lifetime for at least one of us.”
Over the last three years I have been lucky enough to find ‘my pony’ on several more occasions, and each time she has recognized me and at times, run some considerable distance, to reconnect with me. Each time she makes this choice it totally overwhelms me. She also greeted Chandi so gently – watching them both touching noses and sniffing each other always brought tears to my eyes.
However, the last time I saw my pony was August 2012 – a sunny, blue-sky day. I hadn’t seen her since then, until two days ago.
Grace and I were driving along the road over the Long Mynd having enjoyed our walk when I saw her. At least I thought it was her – she was much bigger and had really filled-out. She was looking well, I was relieved to see. She was with her dapple grey friend and a tiny Shetland pony. There were two Shetlands that had been dumped on the Long Mynd about two years ago – the female found her way down into one of the valleys and was rescued, but the stallion remained on the hill.
As soon as I realized it was indeed my pony I stopped the car and with my hand on the door handle, I went to open the door. Pony had been watching the car this whole time, tossing her head up and down. Before I could open the door, she came trotting over to the passenger side where Grace was sitting on the front seat watching the pony.
To my surprise, the pony came right up to the car and reached out with her nose. She stood with her nose pressed against the glass while Grace pressed her nose against the pony’s nose. I was dumbstruck as I just watched. Grace wasn’t frightened, which was a surprise as she hadn’t been this close to a pony before. Did the pony think Grace was Chandi? I guess so. After all this time.
I opened the door and got out, calling to the pony. She came towards me, tossing her head so her flaxen mane danced in the wind. I offered my hand and held my breath. We touched and stared into each others eyes. I stroked her nose and then the side of her face and she let me. It was a beautiful moment.
Suddenly aware of some walkers approaching, I stopped touching my pony and moved away. She put her head down to graze as the walkers got closer. As they passed by, one of them said hello to me and the other stretched out her hand to stroke my pony as she had seen me doing. My pony moved away and didn’t allow this stranger to touch her.
 After the walkers had gone, I went back to my pony to say goodbye and she lifted her head and touched my shoulder. I stroked her nose once and more and turned to go back to the car. She didn’t try to follow me this time but joined her friends as they cantered past. She did stop, turn her head and look in my direction, at the same time that I paused for one last look before getting into the car.
I do not know why this pony allows me to touch her, but it fills me with such joy gratitude and humility, in the same way as the relationships I have shared with Pepper, Chandi and now Grace. Pure magic – these are the only words to describe the way it feels.
Those that don’t believe in magic will never find it.” ~ Roald Dahl.
I’m a believer….
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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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Another Birthday.

Today is Chandi’s 15th Birthday. Well it should have been. Last year it rained on her Birthday, but we still enjoyed two walks together in the hills, and it did brighten up a little during our second walk. I remember practicing some heelwork together along the top of one hill – precious memories. This year we don’t get to spend the day together, but as usual, my beloved girl will be constantly in my thoughts.

It’s been a bit of a crap year so far. Eight days after Chandi died, my good friend Kirsty, also died. It is rare to find someone to call a friend, particularly someone who is involved in the same dog sport. Kirsty was lovely. I knew that from the first moment I watched her and her beautiful red tri Collie, Roo,  perform. Together they oozed talent and style and they were definitely an up and coming team and one to watch. I told Kirsty how great I thought they were as she left the ring after completing a wonderful performance at a Crufts semi final qualifying show. From that moment, we became friends.

Kirsty supported me so generously while Chandi and I were going through the whole Britain’s Got Talent ‘process’, and I was grateful for her constant support. Never once was there any hint of envy, or jealousy, just loyal, honest friendship and support. I can’t bear the  bitching and back-stabbing that goes on in every competitive environment and play no part in it. Having been on the receiving end too many times, I just don’t, and never have, taken part in the kind of behaviour that, at its worst, will hurt someone so much that they stop taking part in the sport.

It seems to be that in this country (perhaps others, I don’t know?) that we all too willingly support the underdog (no pun intended) but really hate to see others being successful, particularly if we can’t also achieve the same level of success. Truly sad. Perhaps if those wasting energy being nasty spent more time training their dogs and being creative, they might achieve something more valuable than a reputation for being vile. Just a thought…

Kirsty played no part in anything negative, and that’s why I loved her, oh and because she was beautiful, talented, funny, kind, generous….. Every time she and Roo competed in the Heelwork to Music Final at Crufts, I would be cheering for them and willing them to do the best performance they could.

Kirsty came with her husband and young son to the final performance of the Britain’s Got Talent tour that took Chandi and I all over the country. We performed in some amazing venues including Wembley Arena and The 02 Arena and the Edinburgh Playhouse. It was the performance at the 02 Kirsty came to see us (She had also been to an earlier tour date!) I arranged some complimentary tickets for them, along with backstage passes so we could meet up afterwards.

This last year was incredibly hard for Kirsty who battled adversity so bravely.There is no bigger testament to her bravery other than the fact that she managed to not only qualify for the Crufts HTM Final, but then managed to make it to the N.E.C. to take part in the Final. She did this with a small oxygen tank on her back and a mask over her face to help her cope with the exertion.

A week after Chandi died, and I was still reeling from the horror, but I phoned Kirsty. She didn’t answer her phone, despite having arranged to speak with her at that time. I knew how poorly she was and plucked up the strength to leave her a message telling her how proud I was and how talented she was and that I loved her. Nothing she hadn’t heard before, but I wanted her to hear it all again. I hoped her husband would play her the message and Kirsty would be able to listen. I didn’t mention that Chandi had died as I didn’t want to upset her. She of all people, would have understood my devastation.

My dear friend and supporter died the next day. She was 33 years old.
Love you Kirsty.

Kirsty.

Kirsty.

Love you Chandi – Happy Birthday. x

Chandi on her 14th Birthday

Chandi on her 14th Birthday

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Musical Grace.

Just a bit of fun … Grace likes to play the piano. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree …

 

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First big adventure …

Just back from our first big adventure… to the beach! Weather was overcast which meant we practically had the beach to ourselves. Grace enjoyed herself and loved dragging the seaweed along the beach and giving it a good shaking. Next time, we shall paddle …

Picture 698

Picture 705

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