Only friends in the world

So you’d be completely forgiven for thinking that I’d given up on this blogging game, or, perhaps not even had the time in your own life to give us much more than a fleeting thought.  2019 was ridiculous, among other adjectives, and has flown by with an unbelievable speed.

*First up – could you please pretend that this is being written in 2019 at least – because this is what I had planned to do, and actually promised someone I would do (sorry Schwest).
The reason for the slippage into 2020 is totally justified I feel and I am shortly going to totally hijack Milly’s page to write a whole story about my final days of 2019, because they really were INCREDIBLE (in a GOOD way).

For the majority of the previous 355 days of 2019 I did not feel in control in the slightest. Whilst I had every intention of continuing Milly’s story months and months ago, life just took over. I had very few “spare” moments, and during those that I did enjoy I was either sleeping or just paralysed by writers’ block. Over the past few months I absolutely have had enough time to write a story, but not all in one go , and as you may recall from my earlier posts, I like to start and finish, and re-read and re-finish, each of my stories in one sitting, often burning some very late oil in the process. Add to that the ongoing confidence crisis and the fear that nobody even cares, or worse thinks that I am ridiculous, and so here we are at the end (see above*) of 2019 with no more of Milly’s story shared with the world.

I have thought a LOT about how I can summarise 2019 into a mildy interesting nutshell. And I’m not sure I can achieve “interesting”, but hopefully can give a whistle-stop tour of my year.

January to March was WORK, and nothing but work. No joke. For the first three months of the year I was completely consumed in a Project (hereafter known as “Project A”) with an intensity that I have never known, and can barely describe. Anyone who has known me personally for more than a few hours will have worked out that I am both a can-do person and an all-or-nothing type. I generally say “yes, sure I can do that” (regardless of whether I already know what I am doing or not) and then proceed to give whatever “that” is the absolute full force of my being to make sure that I live up to my word. After 20 years of working life I was already fully aware of my work ethic and my ability to take 100% personal accountability, but I genuinely did NOT have a realistic grasp of my capacity to deploy that work ethic and apply that accountability… and turns out that capacity is HUGE.
“Project A” was described by someone as the biggest undertaking bar none, EVER, for the regional business. I can’t disagree with that, and I am sure Matt wouldn’t either!
I was working at my 100%, for weeks and weeks and weeks on end.
In “real” terms.. there were days(/nights!) that I worked 18/19 hours straight, slid into bed in my clothes around 4am, only to back at my desk by 8am.
I clocked up 8 weeks of extra hours in 8 weeks….

Full disclosure – there was NO expectation or pressure from the company to work in this fashion.  This was ALL on me. And I am totally happy to own that.

My commitment enabled us to deliver something that was (and may always be) the best and biggest achievement of my career.

But what enabled my commitment was (and always is) the unquestioning and unwavering support of Matt… who did everything (literally everything) at home so that I had nothing else to worry or think about, and who never ONCE complained about my endless evenings and weekends shut in my office here at home. I could not do any of the things I do without Matt beside me.

And, who is us.. ? I know you noticed! Well through the delights of Project A I have well and truly met my match. Someone I have known in a work capacity for a few years, but whom I have never had the privilege of working alongside. My (new) leader calls us the “terrible twins” but I know that he means this with huge affection, and that actually he is in awe of the unstoppable force that we are…. I won’t name names but my fiery Polish redhead colleague is OFF THE SCALE on so many levels. Mrs R I truly salute you for your incredibleness and am thankful every single day for everything I learnt from you and, more importantly, for your friendship.

After the mayhem of Q1 April was all about recovery.. sort of.
I took a few weeks off, Matt had a big birthday, we recharged… a tiny bit… and just enough to launch ourselves into the next big Project – this time a personal one of the refurbishment kind – Number 1. That is a whole story but to be honest it is not one that I have the energy to tell… it’s emotional, it’s exhausting, and it’s taking everything that we have, and plenty that we don’t. I know it will end – we will finish it – but the relentlessness of it wears you down. Really cannot wait to have our life back.

So that one started in April and continues into the foreseeable – that’s the personal life. The work life kicked back off in May and ramped up again in June with another big Project due to wrap up for me in a few weeks time… pretty sure I’ll be due some leave then!

Anyhow – you’re here for Milly – not for me, so I should stop rambling some.

Despite all of the franticity (my own word apparently) of 2019 I HAVE continued to post daily on Milly’s instagram page, sharing hundreds of new memories, and making many new friends, albeit virtual ones – but still lovely kind friends all the same.

Friends. The topic of the day.

And – let’s be honest – not a word you would probably associate with dear Milly. The most reactive anti-dog kinda dog you could ever find.

In 2012, when we were many long, hard, slow months into Milly’s rehabilitation programme, under the expert guidance of Jon we were allowed to turn to Phase 2.
As a reminder, Phase 1 was just getting Milly to be “ok” with her place in space. Medication & training. Controlled and safe exposure to the wide scary world outside the garden gate, with loads of positive reinforcement. Desensitise her to “going out”.
It’s SO hard to describe what that means for a dog like Milly, so I’ll give you an example.
One weekend we “went out” no less than a dozen times. Each and every time required complete calmness before we left – no anticipation, no excitement – just a low-key harness and lead on, and slip out of the back door.
Each time we were “out” in the world for less than 10 minutes.
The remit was “go out, be ok, get treats, feel good, come home”.
Over and over again, for months and months and months.
Not really your traditional dog walk…

BUT – we did it – and it (mostly) worked. Which patience and resilience we were able to dial down her hyper-vigilance and extreme angst. If memory serves correctly we then underwent a change of medication. Off the Prozac and onto the Selgian..

“Selgian 10mg Film-Coated Tablets are indicated for the treatment of behavioural disorders of purely emotional origin such as depression or anxiety in dogs.  Selgian Tablets can also be used in association with behaviour therapy and for the treatment of signs of emotional origin observed in behaviour conditions such as overactivity, separation problems, generalised phobia and unsocial behaviour”

Little did we know at the time that Milly would never be able to come off of this drug. Perhaps I would’ve claimed from her insurance had I known.. I mean they put the premium up every year regardless of the fact I never once made a claim. £1 a day was a small price to pay for her wellbeing.. I’d have happily paid ten times that if it was what she needed. Money was no object.

The transfer from Prozac to Selgian was very carefully managed. The interactions between the two drugs was so severe that we weren’t even given the prescription for the second until she was well off the first.
In addition to the drug break we also had to enforce a walking ban… HUH?
But don’t we all think that “dogs MUST be walked every day”?  Another MYTH completely dispelled.
We were banned from walking Milly for 3 weeks.
THREE WEEKS – does not compute right?
But it was SO imperative that Milly did not have ANY negative experiences with other dogs whilst she was changing meds. The minute we went outside the garden the chance of seeing a dog changed from zero to not zero, and as that was not an acceptable probability we didn’t leave the garden.

Once Phase 2 began in earnest we were in full dog-desensitisation mode.
New rules. New objectives.
“See dog, don’t react, get treat, nothing bad happened, feel good, remember dog means treat, dog means good”
With this kind of training DISTANCE is your friend, as are the old faithful hotdogs.

Our agenda was to see dogs as often as possible, but to maintain distance and keep Milly under reactivity threshold. Paramount to this was ENSURING that there was ZERO CHANCE of an actual bad interaction. This therefore meant NO potential dog offlead situations. Parks, fields or any open spaces where 90% of people don’t think twice about letting their dogs roam free regardless of their ability to “recall” them still remained out of bounds. Suited me. My anxiety levels couldn’t handle it, let alone Milly’s.

In black and white, this training sounds so straighforward. And when someone is telling you what you need to do it sounds totally doable.

Being blunt however, the reality is quite different with a billion things that you cannot control.

Some of the challenges include:
Location – where do you go if you want to see dogs ON LEAD, at safe distance, and for more than a split second? No idea. 10 years later I’m still failing at this. But that is another story again.
Stimulus – supposing you succeed in your dog-spotting efforts, you have no clue how said spotted-dog is going to behave.. maybe it is a reactive dog and it barks first! (Unlikely – I grant you – but taking her to try and chalk up a “good experience” when actually her “fictional” foe is hell bent on proving that they are a force to be reckoned with probably isn’t doing to leave your dog feeling safe)
Other external factors – are there loud cars/traffic? People? Maybe there is a lonely carrier bag blowing along? Have you got eyes in the back of your head to make sure that nobody runs up behind you with their headphones in and their bounding dalmatian bobbing along behind where they can’t see it, cutting past you with barely an inch to spare?? That happened to us once… how that dalmatian still had all his spots I’ll never know. Ignorant, idiot man.
Milly – what sort of day is it? What sort of day was it yesterday? How did she sleep? What mood is she in? What subtle triggers (probably invisible to the untrained eye) have already put her on a path to reactivity?
Logistics – you’ve got to be in exactly the right spot at the right time and able to focus on the job in hand. Not frantically trying to scoop a poop and avoid tipping your entire supply of hotdog pieces in heap on the floor. That has happened to me too. Milly thought it was excellent… like winning at slots.

Anyhow, I think I’ve made my point. There are just too many variables and uncontrollables to make these training exercises plain sailing. I have vivid recollections of middle school Science class and writing the word Variables, underlining it twice in my favourite pen before proceeding to list out all of the variables that could interfere with the outcome of my meticulously planned experiment.

Whilst I TOTALLY get and buy-in to the theory and whole-heartedly believe that it works…. achieving those optimal conditions just isn’t practical, not whilst working full time and trying to keep your sanity.  It is tougher than tough, and downright exhausting.

And – being candid – whilst the gold medal was always to try and have that good experience, and tick all those boxes, if I had already sussed out my variables and determined that the odds were stacked against me for success then yes, I would choose to hide in a large Rhododendron whilst body blocking anything from view, singing to drown out the jingle of the dog collar on the other side of the road and chain-feeding Milly hotdogs like I used to hoover up penny sweets.
Judge if you must – and roll your eyes at my “failures” – but unless you’ve lived (and walked) with a severely reactive dog, and been through what we have then I’d really rather you didn’t. Back in the early days I genuinely felt like the ONLY PERSON on the planet trying to deal with these issues. Many of the other walkers I came across did NOTHING to help me – which can be as simple as stopping and waiting for 15 seconds whilst I get out a visibly distressed Milly out of the way rather than marching straight towards me when I have nowhere to go. I guess I used to feel embarrassed, or ashamed, or inferior and totally “judged”.. you know “oh my goodness look at that woman she can’t control her dog, her dog is so badly behaved”. And in that moment, when all hell is breaking loose, you actually can’t do the whole “well hold your horses there luvvy, you have NO IDEA what I am dealing with so could you please just BACK OFF a minute”… so you scurry away, holding back tears of frustration/despair and maybe throwing a few choice words over your shoulder.. which they might’ve been able to hear if it wasn’t for Milly having a barky meltdown.
I am now familiar with an entire Facebook community who must be Just Like Me. Although I haven’t joined it, my favourite group is called “Emotional support & tips for reactive dog owners”… because if we need ANYTHING it is emotional support.

Anyhow, I digress.

Milly. Dog-spotting. De-sensitisation. We did it, as best we could, and tried to make progress.
I say tried, because honestly it felt like one step forward and two steps back, and with all of the “variables” in play it is frankly impossible to determine if something is progress or not.. was she better or worse.
Giving progress updates to Jon was extremely hard, and in turn I think it was really hard for him to tell me what to do next.
You can hear the dialogue..
Jon “How has she been this week?”
Me “Er, ok ish”
Jon “Any better than last week?”
Me “Er, well last week she didn’t bark at that spaniel at 30m, but this week she lunged towards the partially-sighted elderly greyhound 50m away, but I guess it was raining and the hound was wearing a coat..”

How on earth do you debrief that? And on an ongoing basis…?

Data. That’s how.

Jon and I designed an online survey that I would use to capture all relevant information, so that we could review the weekly reports look for patterns, trends and triggers.

Questions included:

Time of day
Single dog / Small group 2-6 / Large Group 6+
How noisy/active were the dogs (Scale 1-10)
Length of incident
How much control did you feel you had over Milly (1-10)
How agitated did you feel Milly was (1-10)
How did this compare to similar incidents (1-10)
Did Milly display
Attempts to bite, Snapping/Lunging, Barking, Snarling, Growling, Body tension, Staring, None of the above
Did the behaviour stop before the dog had gone away
How quickly did Milly completely recover

As you can imagine this added another level of complexity to our training walks… trying to assess each of these attributes real-time and firmly hold every dog-spot in my mind until I could get home and log the data in the survey.
We did this for MONTHS. And at the end of each week I’d get a link to a summarised report, with lovely stats and charts, so I could do the all-important data analysis. I have some of the weekly report print outs in front of me – something else I will probably never be able to throw away…

Through this exercise – through recording the data – it became apparent that Milly’s reaction was different to familiar dogs versus unfamiliar dogs. Her behaviour was mostly the same – staring, barking & whining – but the severity was definitely lower.

Unfortunately (or – at more trying times in our training – fortunately) there were not many dogs where we live, or at least not many dogs who were walked consistently, routinely, and at the same ungodly hour that we needed to walk to achieve our optimal conditions. It was very challenging to balance out our requirements..
Chance of dog-spot; medium to high
Chance of close range dalmatian-dodging: zero to low

Cue Angela, and her clockwork walking!

Angela – who lives 3/4 minutes away and whose house we passed every day twice a day – is still one of the most devoted doggie mummas I have ever met. Along with all other local walkers, Angela was very aware of us and our issues, and always helped by avoiding us if she could see that we were going to struggle to avoid her. After explaining our observations of Milly tolerating known dogs “better”, and our hypothesis that we may be able to accelerate her acceptance of those known dogs a little faster than unfamiliar enemies, she very kindly agreed to officially become part of our training team.

Based on her walking schedule, we made a plan for a daily 7am rendezvous at an agreed point on her route. Rendezvous is perhaps a little misleading – we never actually “met” them.. heavens above!!! But we positioned ourselves strategically in a spot where we could watch them coming towards us, pass by us at a very reasonable distance, and then enable us to follow behind them as we headed towards home. I lost count of how many times we did this, but it really was so valuable to Milly. She got used to this new item on our training agenda, and gradually she got more and more used to Bos & Socks. She never sniffed them – but she could stand calmly whilst they walked past on the other side of the road – which may not seem like much but for use, it was HUGE. I can never thank Angela enough for being so accomodating, and providing us with so many opportunities for positive experiences.

Thanks also have to be extended to Bosley and Socks themselves, who put up with Milly’s downright antisocial behaviour towards both of them on numerous occasions over the years.

Bosley was friendly, and wanted to say a very energetic HELLO to most. Much to his disappointment he had to be ignored by me, and shouted at by Milly, but to his credit he never ever shouted back. Socks could be selective with dogs but she too appeared to turn a blind eye to Milly’s antics. I later found out that Angela used to quietly but consistently explain to them Milly was special, and that she just couldn’t cope. No matter what she did and how they may have ordinarily reacted to another dog behaving as she was, they just accepted her.

Bosley had a terrible time a couple of years ago and was desperately ill. He was nursed back to health by Angela & Tony and I am certain that it was their dedication and love as much as the veterinary and medicinal treatment that brought him back from the brink. After his illness he was weaker and older, and his behaviour was different – not unexpectedly at all – but last year I was absolutely thrilled when he and Clover exchanged sniffs after we bumped into them outside their house. Whilst we still see Angela and Tony out often, they now have a very full house of retired greyhounds – not all of whom see eye to eye with Clover – sometimes they shout first, and sometimes she does – but generally for ease we give each other a wide berth. So that Saturday morning when we saw Tony and Bosley on their own it was a rare opportunity for some interaction.

Devastatingly Angela and Tony lost both Bosley and Socks in 2019. Bosley in June, and Socks in November. Whilst they absolutely have their homes and their hands full with their greyhounds, I know that the loss of Bosley and Socks will have hit them very hard. Angela’s soul dog was her Oliver – her beloved white boxer – whom she loved and lost before I even knew her. I have to hope she can take some shred of comfort from the knowledge that Bosley and Socks are running with Oliver.. and all three are happy and free from pain.

In my more optimistic moments I try to think that perhaps Milly is running with them too, also happy and also free from pain. Because I am not with her to protect her I have to believe that as well as being free from pain, she is also free from worry and anxiety, and that she left her deep-rooted fear of creatures of her own kind behind when she left us.

Before I wrap up this story, I should probably disclose that I started writing 3 weeks ago, but didn’t finish. Life ramped up again, and this time rather than keep myself awake into the small hours to get a post finished, I saved a draft for the first time ever. Last week I was in New York for work and was absolutely convinced I would have plenty of downtime to myself to finish and share. Unsurprisingly I had a downtime-fail! And so now here I am, finishing up and about to post, 364 days since I last posted and on the eve of Milly’s anniversary 😦 There will be no post tomorrow. Not because I don’t want to, or I don’t have anything to say, but because I know that there are only 24 hours in a day and realistically I just cannot spend 4 or 5 of them sat at the computer when there are a billion other things I need to be doing tomorrow…. I hope I don’t feel too disappointed in myself come bedtime.

For tonight, at least, I feel ok and proud and thankful.
Milly tried SO very hard and made great progress with Bosley and Socks.
She was never particularly warm towards them, and more often than not she was quite shouty, but they accepted her. They knew she was trying to overcome her past experiences and her fears. They accepted her faults and her flaws. Dare I say that they even “liked her” a little bit? Even if that might be pushing it, there is no doubt that they were her only friends in the world… and for that I will be forever thankful.

because Milly…

PS. You will notice the shortage and randomness of photos in this post. Whilst I have previously always tried to match the photos to the story, I sadly cannot include photos of Milly playing with the friends she never had… so instead I have included some favourites from 2012, and some that show the love that we had. Happy Valentine’s Day ♥  xx

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