Time for another dart back in time and to add a little bit more to Milly’s backstory.
Through 2010 I had made brilliant progress with Milly’s general obedience training – all of which was part of building the incredible bond that we shared. But there was no question that we needed more help.
After returning from our holiday in France, and relaying the tales to our nearest and dearest, we realised how very limited we were going to be in terms of travel and trips. This didn’t matter very much on it’s own and we could have just lived with that if she was comfortable on a day to day basis…. but she wasn’t. She was still wired, often unmanageable, pulling on the lead and 10/10 reactive to other dogs. It was absolutely not fair to leave her like this, and it wasn’t doing much for my wellbeing either.
Walks with her were at best a bit of a mission, and at worst an ordeal. Nobody could carry on like that long term. I’ve never thought about it before this moment – and I can barely type these awful words – but I guess that would have been the point at which someone else would have considered “returning her” to the RSPCA, or alternatively maybe she would have become a house & garden dog and never had any walks at all.
By now you should have learnt enough about me to realise that neither of these thoughts even crossed my mind. There was no choice but to plough on and do the best we could.
I didn’t have a network of dog experts (like I do now) so was doing copious amounts of research online. So many different methods and approaches.. it was pretty mind blowing. I did go and visit a local “expert” and came away pretty traumatised after learning the tool he would have had me use. A prong collar? No way Jose.
So the late night reading continued, with me scouring the internet looking for the “success story” that would lead me down the right path.
One of the hardest things I found about overcoming dog reactivity (and I guess it is similar with lots of every day triggers like bikes or buses) is that you cannot control, or even attempt to control, the “event”. On a walk, a dog can appear (or bark) at any moment at any distance, meaning you are left no choice but just to “react”, all the while your reactive dog is very convincingly reacting on both of your behalves, and uncomfortably tugging your arm off. It isn’t the ideal scenario for training.
I did have this idealistic notion of borrowing a dog, going somewhere extremely quiet, and just walking up and down, up and down, with the expectation that Milly would eventually calm down, and we could all wander off together in the same direction, and have a walk at distance. Repeat this often enough and to my mind, we would have cracked it.
The main problem with implementing this idea was the “borrowing a dog” part because we didn’t know many people with dogs. We did use Titch once, a darling JRT girly who belonged to Matt’s late friend Roy. Roy was very relaxed about us taking her over the road into the big field and doing some training. Unfortunately Titch wasn’t quite as laid back, although not in the way you might be thinking.
She wasn’t the slightest bit bothered about Milly’s extreme behaviour, and mooched about quietly in the same spot whilst Milly and I walked up and down, up and down, at the furthest distance we could. Trouble was, we were making such slow progress towards Titch and Matt that Titch was literally bored senseless. She wasn’t really used to be on the lead for long periods – she was Roy’s sidekick and was never more than a pace behind him – so half an hour of standing in a field doing nothing took her to her limits of tedious.
We had to abandon.
Although it was unsuccessful at the time and I came home completely deflated AGAIN, having gone down the path we eventually did, I see now that we did have roughly the right idea, but just that the execution needed some refinement.
Another funny Titch memory that has stuck in my mind is when Roy was repairing a car once, and using “The Yard” (which was the family land next door to / behind the Bungalow where Matt had his workshop) to do it. The Yard and our garden were divided by a fence, but because of Milly being out in the fresh air, Titch had to stay in the car. Roy came in with us at lunchtime for a drink and bite to eat and Titch – being unused to a) being shut in and b) being away from Roy – let herself out of the car and came sneaking into the garden through the back gate. She absolutely knew she shouldn’t be there because she had that favourite posture deployed by a dog trying to get away with doing something naughty…. skulking along the floor making herself as small as possible. Once again my A* Dog Radar picked up her presence before Milly did and although she was only a few yards away we managed to intervene and prevent contact.
Cheeky little monkey.
Titch passed away a few years ago and, tragically, Roy is no longer with us either.
On a day to day basis I was cracking on with the walking but I was pretty desperate and I just didn’t know what to do. Thankfully I was in the very fortunate position where money was no object – when I found the way forward I could and would take it, regardless of cost.
What I really wanted was some sort of “residential” where Milly and I could go together. A bit like a bootcamp I guess. But at the time of looking, there really wasn’t anything like that around. I realise now that it probably would’ve taken more than a weeks’ worth of drills to get Milly into some sort of manageable shape, and with only a limited amount of annual leave in the bank this may not have been the best option for us.
These days I seem to always be able to find what I’m looking for on the interweb. I don’t know if this is because Google have changed their search algorithms or if I have just become extremely good at drilling down to find the right keyword to search for. Back in 2010 I was still mastering the art but via some really long-winded link – I think through a site, to an article, to a blog, to a review – I saw something about a place called “Dog Communication”. Now with my interest piqued and a targeted search term at my fingertips I was able to find their actual website and read about their philosophy for myself. Everything about them was screaming YES and conveniently they were not too far down the road from us in Banstead, Surrey.
I immediately got in touch, giving a potted history of Milly and the struggles we were having, and frankly probably pleading for their help.
They didn’t have a space to see Milly for a couple of weeks, and there was paperwork to do, including a referral / confirmation from my vet that Milly had no underlying medical issues that could have been contributing to her behaviour. Whilst that was being organised they invited me along to see their classes in action one Saturday morning.
I arrived as instructed in my wellies and fleece in time to watch the end of the previous class, before joining them in the secure field with their clients and dogs for the next session. I was completely overwhelmed. Partly due to the fact that I had spent 12 months avoiding dogs at ALL COSTS, so to be in a field with a dozen or so, all off lead, was a far out concept even though Milly was safely at home on the couch. What was most fascinating was seeing Penel and Laura and their own dogs in action. How they were reading the situations, and how their dogs were basically supervising the interactions between the pupils.
I was only there for about an hour but I came home an emotional wreck. I couldn’t believe what I had seen. I was crying with amazement, joy, relief and profound HOPE. I had found what I was looking for.
Dog Communication – Penel and Laura – were what Milly and I so desperately needed.
Milly’s initial consultation came around a few weeks later, and Matt and I arrived at the crack of dawn with our little furry student ready to be assessed. I was as nervous as hell to be honest. I always was with anything to do with Milly. For some reason I always felt like it was me who was on trial or being tested. Her behaviour was being watched, and to some extent, so was mine. I needn’t have worried that day because Milly completely outshone anything I could have done. Unsurprisingly, she was OFF THE SCALE. In this circumstance this was actually a good thing – we needed them to see her at her worst.. and I can assure you they did. Although vastly experienced in their field I think Milly was one of their more extreme cases.
Unusually for me I can’t remember the finite details of the assessment – probably because I was so stressed throughout – but I know that Milly proved herself quite incapable of any reasonable interaction with Barley the Lurcher, who was Penel’s helper on that day. Thankfully for us Penel and Laura were not at all put off by Milly’s true colours – I was a bit worried that they would turn us away. But they did not, and they agreed to help us. Thank goodness for them.
They gave us long one to one slots first thing on a Saturday before any other clients would be arriving at the farm. A session consisted of 45 minutes of trying to desensitise Milly to the existence of another dog (completely stationary and silent) on the other side of the fence. We started at the furthest point in the field and walked back and forth, trying to inch closer with every turn, and all the while rewarding Milly with high value treats when she was not reacting.
The overarching assessment of Milly at that time was she was “too stressed to learn”. This makes me feel so sad.. this really was not a good state for her. Deemed totally over-comeable however, we were given homework exercises to take away. These largely involved “clicking and treating” to reward calm behaviour at every opportunity.
We had a number of weekly sessions but each time we started at the same distance away, and took the same amount of time to inch forward by the same small amount…. poor Milly was not making much progress.
During one session Dog Communication even brought their autistic dog along… my confused face was met with the kind explanation that sometimes special dogs can make a connection where the other dogs can’t. They can connect with their own…. and so we discovered that Milly was probably in that category… “Special”.
Alas that lesson still wasn’t a great success – Milly had a good shout at the autistic dog but we didn’t have a major breakthrough.
After several weeks Penel and Laura decided we really needed to focus first on reducing Milly’s stress levels. They gave us everything they could – tools, instructions, advice and recommendations on supplements she could take.
Armed with all of this, off we went, still hopeful that we would get there, but just accepting we needed to take this little detour on the path in order to get to the end point.
The only things they couldn’t give were motivation and resilience.
They turned out to be critical, especially the resilience… day after day I had to power on, implementing all of the strategies they had given us. Regardless of whether or not I felt they were working, I wanted to follow their instructions to the letter.
Success or failure was resting on my shoulders alone… I wouldn’t have been able to handle it had I “failed” but having knowingly not done exactly as I was advised.
So I followed the rules.
Me and my eager little student set out to de-stress… because there was no alternative