Breaking into the Church Hall

I realise it’s been a good couple of weeks since I last posted. Even WordPress have stopped trying to communicate with me so I wouldn’t be surprised if half my readers have given up as well. It’s not that I haven’t wanted to post, but there are a whole load of complexities that come with it.

First and foremost, because of the whole purpose of the blog – because Milly – I can’t write impulsively or when rushed. I already know most of the stories I want to share and can see most of the accompanying photos in my mind, but I have to wait until it feels like the right time to write.. Up until now this has mostly been in the evening after dinner, which inevitably leads to me staying up until gone midnight reading, re-reading and tweaking before finally hitting “publish” and sharing the post. Which brings me to the second reason for my delay – bedtimes. Over the last few months I have found myself staying up later and later and so getting more and more tired. I’ve been overcoming that with lots of coffee, and the odd weekend nap, but last weekend I was competing (well, I participated!) in a Sprint Triathlon and having done all the training and been mostly pretty disciplined with my nutrition, I knew it would be foolish to blow all that hard work by not getting enough proper sleep. So at the expense of blogging, I’ve been catching some early nights.

Thirdly, I don’t want to rush my way through the story. Not just in terms of quickly writing posts, but also from a timeframe perspective, I don’t want to charge through Milly’s short life in an even shorter few weeks. Probably fear comes into play here, because blogging is part of my healing.. if I rush through the blog more quickly than I progress on my grief journey then what? I feel I need to keep the two in sync a little bit. I’ll “know” when I don’t need the safety net of my blog to fall back to. At least, I think I will.

Finally, there’s the small matter of confidence. Which has waned over the past month. When I first set out on the blog, although the purpose was to share Milly’s story with “the world”, I really couldn’t have cared what “the world” looked like. I was putting my memories in to print. Publishing them. That made them real and out there for all eternity. That was what I needed. As the weeks went on, I received a few “likes” and a few comments, and built up a few followers either through wordpress or email, and have had some really sweet feedback from friends, either directly or on FB. WordPress helpfully (or unhelpfully, depending how you look at it) gives you a multitude of stats about your site. Number of visitors, number of views, views per post, links clicked on your site, number of referrals through facebook, instagram or twitter, visitor country and so on… If you were running a “business” site I can see how this would be extremely useful. As a lowly fun blogger, who is mostly writing as a form of therapy, it can make or break your day. After publishing a post I find myself regularly viewing the stats dashboard, looking to see if anyone has read it, comparing numbers to the last post, or the best day (currently standing at 95 views on 14th May!). Those stats can either lift you, or trash you. If the numbers are low you feel like a bit of an idiot, and so many negative thoughts creep in; “why would anyone want to read your stories anyway”, “it’s probably getting boring now”, “it was a novelty, and there were a few funnies, but now you should go get on with your life like your readers have”.

I know that is the nature of blogging, and of social media in general, people come in and out of favour, and are popular one day or not so much the next. One instagram post can have 50 likes, the next only 5. It’s part and a parcel of the beast. There is also the mysterious wizardry of Facebook that controls what you see, or how far and wide your posts are shared. I see a lot of posts from pages I follow (often small artists or creators) asking for “shares” or “likes” in order to get them back onto Facebook’s radar. Maybe it’s Facebook who is bored of my posts, and not my friends/readers! Perhaps Facebook hasn’t shown my link on anybody’s timeline which is why nobody has visited today…. but, whatever the reason, I think you have to be pretty hardy not to let the lows rock your confidence, and to just keep doing what you are doing because you want to and you believe in yourself.

“Hardiness” is not one of my strongest attributes, and I’ve had massive moments of self-doubt where I feel like a total loser for dedicating hours of my life to writing stories about my dog. AS IF people care….

So I have to pull back and remember why I am here, and why I started this page.. to write my memories, to help my healing. If someone reads it then that’s nice. But if nobody reads it then it doesn’t actually change the memory or the significance of it… it’s still just as important to me regardless.  That said, at the time of going to print tonight – my page has had exactly 2200 views – I’m no Zoella, but it is nice to see such a respectable number.

I have also learnt how much I value peoples likes & comments – it makes you feel less of an idiot and that someone cares. Many of these have come from my friends, but also I have received comments from total strangers, who have come across my blog somehow, or are now followers on my becauseMilly Instagram account. I am touched by every single comment I receive. To be honest it doesn’t actually really matter what the comment says! They don’t need to think my post is good – I’m not after praise – but just the fact that someone else has taken a moment out of their day to read my post or look at my picture AND follow it up with a comment is really overwhelming.

I read articles all the time, but before now have never worried to like, share or comment… under the misconception that “the author won’t care that I’ve read it”. Now I am an author (?) I’ve realised that they do care, and that it does matter. So, now, if I’ve read something and enjoyed it I take the extra seconds to make a comment, or at the very least leave a “like”. If someone has posted an update, achieved something, feels proud or feels down it’s nice to acknowledge it. If one “like” can make my day then I’d be happy to know that I have had a positive impact on someone else’s day by doing the same thing.

So. All in all, a very longwinded and probably unnecessary explanation of where I’ve been for two weeks. Apologies if you just came here for the story!!!

Here is the next chapter (very late 2010/early 2011)….

As well as the fundamentals I described in harnesses and hotdogs, there were some optional extras in the toolkit that Penel and Laura gave us. Having explained already that we were totally throwing everything at the situation, we took these up these options as well. In for a penny in for a pound and all that.

Natural supplements for anxiety reduction.. we tried both Zylkene and Tranquility Gold (not together of course!). When you are trying a lot of different things and changing a lot of different things altogether it can be really hard to know what is working and what isn’t. Unlike the children’s game of Mastermind with the little coloured pegs, we didn’t really have the time to take a systematic approach, and only change one thing at a time until we found the winning formula. From memory we used the Tranquliity Gold for longer, so at the time must’ve thought this was having more impact.

Mental stimulation… Milly’s anxiety was all in the outside world – in the house she was calm and collected… but it was still important to give her grey matter a bit of a workout. We continued with our treat training for “tricks” that Michelle’s mum had shown us. We also added in puzzle-like games where she had to find snippets of cheese under plastic bones or chew her way into a sealed ice-cream tub to get at the treats inside. She loved her Labyrinth treat ball with biscuit bites or mixer.

Interesting feeding… using traditional Kong or other Kong Toys. We have always fed Milly with wet food, so smoodging it into a Kong for a breakfast challenge was no drama. What we didn’t anticipate was that on receiving it, Milly would happily trot off to the lounge with it in her chops. It didn’t take her long to work out that a very effective way of getting the food out was just to FLING it around with gusto – each time it bounced a chunk of Naturediet would be dislodged and deposited…. on the living room carpet! That carpet wasn’t kept for long but that was fine, absolutely everything was second priority to Milly by this point anyway. After a while I came up with my own genius, and slightly less messy idea for feeding.. an Ikea silicone ice cube tray. It wasn’t as flingy as the Kong, but still gave Milly some fun trying to lick and gnaw her food out of the corners. We actually continued using the silicone trays until not that long ago, basically up until the point that her stability during feeding was more important than the stimulation of doing so.

Chewing… encourage chewing.. it releases happy hormones or something along those lines. In some ways it was good that Milly wasn’t a chewer – slippers and trainers and furniture were all safe – but it meant she needed some coercing to chew the things she was meant to chew! We opted for the Stagbar – all natural cruelty free deer antlers – they don’t splinter, are long lasting, and they contain yummy marrow on the inside. Initially, to get her interested we would smear the antler with something interesting like peanut butter or cream cheese, but she soon got the hang of the chewing. Nothing made me happier than watching Milly having a good old chew!

Bizarrely though, she was a very sporadic chewer! Her antler would be in her box in the living room for days and weeks on end and she would pay it no attention whatsoever, then completely out of the blue, she would go and get it, and start chewing, like it was a brand new find. Eventually I realised that she would often only do this once we (the family) were altogether in the living room. It was almost like she wouldn’t allow herself to settle down and indulge, until she was happy that her pack were around her. Rather sweet really.

These were all fairly easy things that we could add into our every day routine, and were all to happy to do so.

We were also introduced to something called Tellington TTouch, or TTouch for short, and put into contact with a local practitioner. I’ll leave you to read the full description of TTouch on their website, but in very rough summary it is a method of working with animals using techniques, like physical touches, to release tension. Sounded good to me and I got straight on the phone. I instantly clicked with Jacqui and she listened intently and with concern as I described Milly and her issues, and where we were at on our journey. She booked me in for a consultation as soon as she could, but in the meantime gave me a few instructions over the phone of immediate things I could do. One of which was get an old T-shirt and get it on Milly, tying at the waist… I did it, and she went straight off to her travel crate (that we were testing out in the lounge).

I eagerly awaited our appointment, but ploughed on with ALL THE THINGS – outdoors and indoors – in the meantime. It was all very full on.

Finally the date came. I had taken the day off, and Milly and I were ready about 2 hours before we needed to be! We were only going to Coulsden, but as with everything around that time, I had so much hope and so much expectation. Maybe this would be THE THING that really moved the needle. I had the address, had looked it up on the map and planned the journey (even though I knew that route with my eyes shut from numerous Ikea trips). Off we set in the car. Milly in her travel crate strapped in the back of that bloomin’ white Passat. We got there early and managed to park right outside. Right on time I saw another lady turn into the round and pull into a spot. This was it!
A quick hello on the pavement with Milly still in the car, then Jacqui just had to pop over the road to get the keys from the caretaker and then we’d go inside and get underway.

Ah. C’est un problème! The caretaker wasn’t home… and wasn’t contactable on the phone. No caretaker = no keys = no session. Noooooo! We didn’t know what to do. Jacqui knew she had made the arrangements, and I didn’t doubt that she had either, but we were stuck outside. We tried the main doors and looked through the windows – nothing. Nobody inside and no lights on.

I don’t know why but with Milly in tow we went to look round the back, and completely bizarrely, there was an open door. Not just unlocked, but actually open! The three of us scrambled through some undergrowth, over a broken chair, and up the fire escape steps to the door. Gingerly we called through it – genuinely unsure if we were about to interrupt a burglary – but there was not a sound inside. We went in…
Jacqui did a quick sweep around – and there really was nobody there. We must’ve just been lucky I guess, but ultimately we had broken into the Church Hall!!!

After a rather eventful start we secured the room and let Milly off the lead. She immediately spotted a squirrel on the patio outside and went berserk. Great, as if I wasn’t wound up enough already! But it was actually a good thing – similar to Penel & Laura – Jacqui needed to see Milly in all her glory… The squirrel hot-footed it and we drew the curtains, so that was one problem solved.

One of the first things we talked about was the TTouch Body Wrap (again look on their site) but in a nutshell it’s a elastic strip, like a bandage, that you wrap snugly around the dog in a figure of eight. There are a number of benefits, but they include increased physical awareness and decreased anxiety. On putting a wrap on Milly she had an instant and very intense reaction. She started gulping and swallowing repeatedly, like she was going to be sick. It was actually frightening. The wrap was immediately removed. The gulping stopped as suddenly as it had started. If I’d had any scepticism about it’s effect on the body then my mind would’ve been changed right there. More evidence of how highly strung Milly was.. the wrap was just too much too soon.

We moved on to groundwork exercises and the famous “touches”, the most well known of which is probably the “clouded leopard”, where using your fingertips you draw a one and a quarter clockwise circle. I cannot even begin to do justice to the technique, the history behind it, and why it works, but it does.

Our session came to an end, and we clambered back out the way we had got in. Bursting with a load more information, and things to learn and to practice, my little pupil and I headed home to excitedly bombard Matt with an update on the events of the afternoon and tell him all about our new friend.

We had a follow up visit with Jacqui back at the bungalow a few weeks later. She came to see Milly in her home environment and check up on our progress. We did some more groundwork in the garden, and went out for a short walk, but as I recall it was freezing and we soon retreated to the living room to warm up with a cuppa! Although I had been practicing the touches, Jacqui had some years on me. She sat on the sofa, was immediately joined by a leaning Milly, who after barely few minutes of touches, literally flopped and relaxed into the most peaceful sleep before my very eyes.

Watching the tension fade out of Milly’s little body like that showed me that, whilst she was calm in the house, it didn’t always mean she was completely relaxed. What we were trying to achieve with everything we were doing, was helping Milly to “learn” what that relaxed feeling felt like. To reinforce a lot and get her used to it in the house, and then help her to achieve that same state outside.

We didn’t see Jacqui again in an official capacity but her and I were in touch regularly, and still are now. Jacqui has been through her own difficulties and had her own devastating losses over the years. She has been a tremendous support to me with Milly, not just in her professional capacity as a practitioner – giving me guidance and tools – but as caring, emotional, empathetic and lovely human, giving me buckets of kindness and moral support. Anyone who has been through a rehabilitation journey with a highly reactive dog will know how frustrating it can be. How one day you can feel incredibly high after a successful training session, but the next day you can just want to crawl back into your bed because you got caught off guard and on the wrong foot – literally – and so toppled sideways into a pool of mud. You need to learn to laugh at these things, but you also need someone in your camp cheering you on, and reassuring you that you are “doing great”. Jacqui was one of those people to me over the years.

When we lost Milly I was dreading telling her. I just knew how devastated she would be. Not just for the usual reasons – sadness for Milly and sadness for me -but, unavoidably, reminded of the loss of her darling Bonnie. I couldn’t telephone – in fact I literally couldn’t tell anybody verbally – still can’t really (choked up at work a fortnight ago trying to talk to a colleague just back from mat leave) – so I sent her a message. I know that on receiving it Jacqui sobbed and sobbed, feeling the loss and the pain so acutely herself. I’d like to claim it would’ve been because she adores me(!), and a little bit it probably was ;-), but I know that it was mostly for Milly. For dear, sweet, special Milly – who absolutely adored her Auntie Jacqui.

*Again major caveat that I have zero credentials or expertise beyond my personal experience so please don’t use this as a training resource*

During the this time I was absorbing everything that I could and observing everything about Milly that I could.
– I could see when her brow was furrowed or not.
– I could see when her fur was relaxed and laying flat against her body, or stiff as if she had goosebumps.
– I picked up her calming signals, lip licking and yawning
– I noticed when her bum and back legs were stiff and tense.
– I saw when her gait was less or more wonky when she went running down the garden.
– I could feel when her ears were warm or cold.

To be honest, there was so much information and so many things to take on board I was a bit overwhelmed. I can’t say I was always able to interpret and understand all of these signals, but I was becoming more and more aware of these non-verbal and sometimes subtle signs.

Nevertheless, Milly and I were becoming more and more connected. It’s so hard for me to describe it, or find a suitable parallel to draw on, without sounding a little bit bonkers. The best I can do is say that I had one eye on Milly in a way that nobody else did, and in a way that a lot of other doggy mums probably don’t need to most of the time. I wasn’t dramatic and over-protective, jumping in and creating a fuss every time I saw tension sign, but I was passively observing a lot of the time. Basically I was really getting to know her, my little complex and special Millybear.

One final word before I put this one, and myself, to bed. TTouch became second nature to me – I did the touches so often over the years that I had to think about NOT doing it, rather than think about doing it.

I read in the news that Sarah Fisher – the internationally renowned animal behaviour counsellor and leading TTouch instructor (and a friend of Jacqui’s) – had been appointed as an Official Ambassador by Battersea Dogs & Cats Home (another charity that Matt and I have financially supported for a number of years).

Immediately when I read the article I knew it was no coincidence that the appointment had been made just the day before.. on that fateful Thursday… the day our lives changed forever… Thursday 15th February 2018.

because Milly…


I should just add that Jacqui did get hold of the caretaker who had completely forgotten that we were coming and so gone out for the afternoon, but was very pleased that we managed to get in anyway, and left shutting the fire escape behind us!  No harm done.