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.
Grace on her first adventure to the beach: