A healthy mind lives in a healthy body – Dana’s story, part 7

So, our story has been on a bit of a break, because life just worked out to me. Since the last article, Dana’s story has of course continued, and is now basically forcing me to continue writing. Why? Because her development is so fast that I won’t be able to keep up with the writing otherwise. But first it’s time for part 7.

It’s well-known that being ill causes stress. A dog (or a human for that matter) who is ill won’t be able to handle environmental stressors as well as a healthy one. Of course it is important to keep any dog at optimum health, and this is also important for a dog who, like Dana was back then, is chronically stressed. We don’t want to be making the chronic stress any worse, obviously – we wanted to break that cycle. In order to have optimum health, we want a diet that works well for the individual dog, have appropriate physical and mental exercise, enough quality sleep and a minimum of environmental toxins, to name a few factors. In this post I want to address diet, because it has been a particularly large factor for us.

For Dana, a healthy digestion has always been a bit of a struggle – okay, at times it was more like a huge struggle. This was already the case when she came to us. At the time we didn’t realise yet that the dogs need to be with us at night, so they slept in a separate room. I would often find a pile of poo in the morning, and a hugely stressed Dana. One advice I got from a dog trainer was to “put her in a crate for the night, she will have to try harder to keep it in if she doesn’t want to lie in it. She’s old enough to be able to.” Wow! Can you imagine what that must be like? Desperately needing to go, not wanting to do it right then and there at all, but having no alternative? Granted, most dogs at 6 months of age can sleep through the night without needing to pee or poo. So why didn’t Dana?

We at least addressed the fact of her needing to eliminate at night when we opened our bedroom to the dogs at night. While Dana still chose to sleep next door for a long time, I was able to hear what she was doing. If she was pacing at night, I woke up and I knew she needed to go outside. I can’t count the times that I had to get up at night and stand in the garden with Dana for 20 minutes while she was eating grass because she was feeling ill, having a runny poo or even vomiting. For weeks, if not months, I barely got a whole night’s sleep. Sure, I wasn’t thrilled, but it meant that I was there for my dog, it helped her, so it was fine with me.

Starting to solve the puzzle

Obviously we consulted a vet – more than one, and on more than one occasion – and the result was always that there was “nothing physically wrong with her”. So frustrating! Eventually I heard about Nutriscan, a way of testing dogs for food sensitivities. While this is very expensive, I was definitely desperate enough to give that a go, and it was well worth it. We got the results in January 2016, and it turned out that she has multiple sensitivities, many of which are against things that are often contained in dog food geared at dogs with “allergies”: white fish, venison, potatoes, as well as some others.

So we eliminated these foods from her diet. To make it easier for her to heal, we also switched from feeding raw food, which she had been used to all her life, to highest-quality canned food, as cooked food is more easily digested than raw. From needing to go outside at night more often than not and feeling ill very often, she went to having these issues only every now and then, less and less often. A huge relief! She would still have days (or nights) with digestive issues sometimes, especially after a stressful day.

We also came to the realisation that she digests very quickly. We fed the dogs twice a day, at around 6 AM and 6 PM. Sometimes I would wake up at night just from the sound of her stomach churning. She was hungry! We can only speculate, but we think that one of the reasons she needed to go outside at night may have been that she woke up because she was hungry and her tummy hurt, and since she was awake, she also needed to eliminate. I think many people know that feeling themselves … So around March 2016, we started feeding the dogs more often: 4 times a day instead of two. The last meal of the day is at around 10 PM, to shorten the interval between the last meal of one day and the first one of the next day. We kept feeding them the same amount of food, of course, just spreading it over more meals. This was one more piece in the puzzle that was Dana’s health.

Do what works

Over time, I also learned a lesson that should have been obvious: do what works for your dog. I was and still am convinced that a diet with raw meat, balanced with some other ingredients, is the healthiest thing you can feed your dog. So after a few weeks with canned food, I tried switching Dana back to raw. It didn’t work. Every time she ate raw meat, she would get diarrhoea immediately. I gave up for a while, tried again in the autumn of 2016, by which time her digestive tract had healed enough to deal with raw food again. However, both on canned and on raw, she still had to wake me at night about once a week, and sometimes she would feel too sick to eat the morning after that. Something was still missing.

So I tried the one thing I never wanted to feed my dogs: kibble. There was only one brand of kibble I would even consider, and that is Celtic Connection. I always knew that it contains only good things: 70% ethically sourced meat, all of it dried or freshly cooked, so none of it is meat meal, great supplements, herbs, berries, no grain or other fillers, no gluten, no GMO. The one reason that kept me from feeding it to my dogs was the idea that it would be terrible for them to eat the same food every day. After all, they had been used to eating something different every day of the week all their lives. But it’s not about what I think is best, it’s about what is best for them. It was the one thing I hadn’t tried and I needed to give it a chance. So I bought a bag of Celtic Connection Lamb and Goat (the one recipe of the brand that doesn’t contain anything my dogs have a sensitivity for), and tried it.

The result is absolutely astonishing: Dana hasn’t woken me ONCE since she started eating Celtic Connection for all of her main meals in January 2017. She hasn’t had diarrhoea even ONCE. Both she and Corey are excited to eat it every day. Since we often share our own food with them, they still get bits of fruit, vegetable, yoghurt and occasionally a little bit of meat, so it’s not as if they never get to taste anything else than their kibble. Eating the same thing every day does not seem to bother them at all so far. We have found that last piece of the puzzle, despite my reservations. It shows not just in Dana’s stool, but also in her mood: She has been increasingly relaxed since switching to Celtic Connection. I guess this blog post is starting to sound like a dog food commercial now? So what! I’m just glad that a) I found something that works for her (and for Corey too, by the way!), and b) I got over my own weird idea that I know better. Nope. My dogs know better. And I sincerely hope that other will do the same: do what works!

On a side note, it also works for my conscience. I had always been trying to find a canned food or source for raw meat where I could be certain that the animals whose meat went into the food didn’t have such a terrible life as is often the case in factory-farmed animals. This is something that Celtic Connection provides, and I’m glad.

Yep, we’re kibble fans now … 

Another positive side-effect of feeding my dogs kibble is how easily we can use it for mental stimulation now. It was always a bit of a struggle to find or somehow make treats that I could use for treat searches or food rewards. Not a problem any more. The lunch treat search has become a daily ritual. I just throw their lunch in the garden instead of serving it in a bowl. They are busy for 15 minutes, I get to watch them have fun and not do a thing, and they are tired out afterwards. Our garden is separated in two sections, so I can still be sure that they are each eating their own portion. Bonus: They like their Celtic Connection so much that I can even use it as a food reward. I know that some dogs will turn up their noses at kibble when it comes to rewards. Not my dogs 🙂

January to April 2016

Here’s some of our progress at the beginning of last year: Dana grew increasingly relaxed at home. Her urge to pounce on Corey lessened, the pacing in the evenings stopped, and she became interested in activities of us humans inside the house that would previously have frightened her. This is her “helping” us put together an Ikea cabinet in January 2016 … 😉

2016-01-03 15.33.53

Yep, super helpful … 🙂

She would still get worried about seeing people during walks, whining and pacing as soon as they appeared, even if they were far away. BUT she would calm down much more easily.

It’s funny: when I read my notes from back then, I see that I wrote: “She was sniffing in a relaxed way”. Funny because I remember exactly what that looked like. Funny because I’ve learned so much about dog body language since then, and about her specifically that I can now say: I didn’t even know what relaxation really looked like on Dana at that time. What I categorised as “relaxed”, I would now call “borderline upset”, and the way she sniffed was obsessive rather than relaxed. Sucking up smells can help a dog shut out other things, and that’s exactly what she did. But hey “not quite as upset” is better than her running, running, running with empty eyes because it was the only behaviour she had under those circumstances. I sometimes got the feeling that she didn’t even realise that I was attached to the other end of her lead. But that was an improvement over not actually wanting to leave the house …

Our relationship outside started to change, slowly. She started to react when I asked her to come away with me as opposed to freezing when she saw people on the street. We had a breakthrough when meeting dogs she had no wish to interact with. She came to me and put me between her and the dog in question, on two separate occasions. Needless to say, this made me incredibly happy! And, like a good parent, I reinforced her trust in me by protecting her from those dogs.

Her relationship with Corey had a little setback in January 2016. He had a leg injury and was not allowed to exercise, and at one point he was so annoyed with her that he snapped, and a fight broke out. Her leg had a small puncture wound as a result. Things were tense for a few days, but improved after that. It was not the first fight they had, but I’m happy to report that we haven’t had one since!

We continued our work with the essential oils, but did so more and more rarely, as she needed it less and less.

By April, we had made a whole lot of good memories together. While she would still get stressed out incredibly easily while out and about, the good vs. bad percentage started leaning decidedly towards good. I watched her self-confidence grow, and I became more secure in guiding her in difficult situations.

Someone to rely on – Dana’s story, part 6

Let’s face it: part 6 of Dana’s story is not so much about Dana. It’s mostly about me. But my own journey is so inextricably linked with hers that I can’t keept it to myself if I’m going to tell her story. I also wonder how many dog owners might recognise themselves somewhere in my predicament. This part will be the one that is the hardest to write, because it’s the hardest to realise and also to admit. And certainly among the hardest to put into practice: being a reliable and consistent partner for your dog to rely on. At first I thought: Sure, I can do this! I want to be there for her. I want to be her rock. I will act consistently and calmly when she cannot. It turned out that wanting to is a far cry from being able to.

Expectation vs. reality

When I decided to take in a second dog, I wanted a sporty dog, a dog I could “do things with”. I got (and in part also created) a dog who was unable to participate even in what people consider the most basic daily activities, such as taking a walk together with me and my other dog. I’m not going to lie, that was a huge blow. Not that I would have admitted or even realised it at the time. My heart was aching, not just seeing what a hard time she had, but also for all the unfulfilled hopes and dreams. I wanted … and wanted … and wanted …

Emotional baggage and high sensitivity

When Dana came to us 2 years ago, I was not exactly what you would call an emotionally balanced person. I was completely over-stressed, both by work and by life in general. I couldn’t watch the news, they would give me nightmares. I had an extremely demanding job in which I had to constantly multi-task, perform all tasks as quickly as possible against deadlines that were impossible to make, never drop the ball, never make a mistake. The pressure was too much, and it carried over into everything I was doing besides work. I was unhappy with how things were, had next to no self-esteem, constantly worried about what others thought and always focused on what I wanted, not on what I had. I was trying to use the dogs to plug the holes in my heart, and it wasn’t working – how could it! Another person or an animal can never carry you. You have to carry yourself. Needless to say, I didn’t realise any of the above at the time.

This started to slowly change when my best friend turned me onto a book about introversion (“Quiet” by Susan Cain). I’d known what an introvert was, and that I was one, but I hadn’t known that there are simple ways to fit one’s own introversion into this very extrovert-oriented world. Through this book, I also learned about the concept of high sensitivity, which also applies to me. It just explained so much! I even came to suspect that Dana herself may be an introvert as well as highly sensitive. I might elaborate on that in a separate article one day.

One of the first measures I took based on what I had learned was to change my work. Being self-employed, I was in a lucky position to do that easily. A couple of months after Dana joined our family, I swapped the high-pressure tasks for more relaxed and self-determined ones (ha! the power of choice! it’s good for both dogs AND people) and started finding my own way in the professional world a little better. Okay, maybe a LOT better!

Mea culpa

Besides stress, there was another element I was coping with badly. The more I learned, the more guilty I felt about how Dana had developed since becoming part of our family. I anticipated a challenge, but thought we would get past that soon, and as I have mentioned before, it got worse rather than better. That was at least in part due to the fact that I had pushed Dana too much without realising it. Having come to that realisation finally, I felt terrible.

Being dog-reactive is not just for dogs

Spending some time out in the world with a dog-reactive dog sure did do one thing to me: it made ME dog-reactive! Dana’s reaction to other dogs upset me, no question about it. I felt helpless and didn’t know what to do. And conditioning works oh so well in all animals, whether human or otherwise … It wasn’t too long before I noticed that whenever I saw a dog, even when I didn’t have one of my own dogs with me, my heart rate would shoot right up, and I would start to sweat. Even just hearing a dog bark in the distance would do that to me, to a degree. Dogs being what they are, Dana would of course pick up on that right away when she was with me, and it would make her own state of nervousness worse.

The funny thing is, it never occurred to me to perform any kind of formal training to rid myself of this problem. Yet that is often exactly what we want to do with our dogs. So what did I do, and how did I get over it? The answer is: I did nothing in particular, and, given time, somehow I got over it anyway.

Stress and Mindfulness

My colleague Paulien wrote an article about mindfulness that was not too favourable. The ensuing discussion intrigued me so much that I wanted to know more about it, to make up my own mind. I enrolled in a mindfulness class in October 2015, and for 10 weeks, I did the reading, did the exercises (daily meditation, oh yes!) and found it immensely beneficial. I was taught to look at/hear/feel/perceive there here and now, and not to judge what is happening. While I stopped doing the exercises pretty much immediately after the end of the course, my mindset had started to undergo a lasting change. I increasingly stopped caring what anybody else thought (“My dog is barking? So what?”) and started looking at: what is it like right now? And do we really need to do all the things I thought we needed to do? It strengthened my resolve even more to be patient while Dana takes whatever time she needs, to always watch out for how she is coping and act accordingly. And the more I stopped wanting to change her, the more she changed. And so did I. I got more relaxed, and not just where Dana was concerned.

I also learned that emptying my head, staying in the here and now and not caring about things that aren’t worth caring about is something that a person just does or doesn’t have, it’s a skill that’s acquired through practice. And practice I did. Countless times I told myself: stay in the here and now, don’t judge, whatever happens happens and is fine, wait and see, no use complaining about something that’s in the past. It’s not that I was immediately able to change the way I saw thing, but “fake it till you make it” got me a long way. It will hopefully get me even further, but there we are in the wishing and wanting department again … And that’s okay, too 🙂 Wanting more has always been part of my personality, and probably always will be. Knowing more, learning more, achieving more. I’ve just gotten a lot better at not to wanting too much from Dana. I don’t have to fix her, she’s not broken. It’s enough to help make her life a good one, and be happy with the outcome.

Knowing your own limits

Through mindfulness, I realised that not only do I not have to fix her, we really don’t have to do anything. “Your dog needs exercise” gets hammered into a dog owner’s head so much that this “mantra” is often followed blindly. I’ve already talked about how it doesn’t make sense to do that when it’s too much for your dog, but it also doesn’t make sense to do that when you yourself aren’t in the right state of mind. I know that if I’m upset, stressed out, angry, sad, whatever negative emotion, it’s no use whatsoever to go for a walk with Dana. “But the dog needs to get outside” is just not an argument. Not a single one of those outings has ever gone well for us. She finds the world so much more challenging when I’m too preoccupied to be there for her.

November-December 2015

As I told you in the previous entries, after a summer of improvement we were having a really difficult time towards the end of November, until the second round of Zoopharmy came into play. Parallel to that, I was taking the Mindfulness class, and a little while after, we also started social walks. So from this point on, it’s no longer one specific change we’ve made the had an impact, it’s just a mix of everything.

I want to share with you my diary entry from December 29/12/2015:

Dana has me BAFFLED every day. She is so calm around the house! When I’m doing something (cleaning, cooking), she is just lying somewhere, watching with this serene look in her eyes. She is SO nice with Corey, she hardly ever barks in the garden. Yesterday there were dogs barking on TV and all she did was look up in alarm!! And went right back to chewing when the barking was over. I used to be afraid that her reaction would knock over the TV! She hasn’t paced in a while, she hasn’t woken me up in the middle of the night for a couple of nights, and she is actively seeking physical contact now. I’ve been able to give her massages, which was previously completely unthinkable. Last night she slept curled up against me for several hours. I could hardly believe it!
I have walked her a couple of times recently in various interesting places, each time meeting dogs, each time joining a group of dogs that we happened to meet. The approach was always calm, she was endlessly polite, every dog she met was polite to her as well. I’m not even seeing any fiddling once she is interacting with the dogs! She will still bark when she sees a dog she can’t approach (e.g. too far away to reach, on a lead, etc.), though the reaction isn’t nearly as strong as it used to be. I let her off now and then, and she’s had some stellar recalls – one of which after she had taken off when she heard a dog fight a few hundred meters away. I whistled and she turned around in mid-air and flew back to me!!! On the other hand, she has also completely left me behind once, following another dog and his owner. I didn’t have the guts to let her go out of sight and wait until she comes back out of herself, I went after them. I learned from this: I can tell now when she is going to “lose” the state of mind in which she is able to hear me calling and come back to me. I can then take her on lead before that happens, and bring her down using nosework, which works very well.
We’ve even made friends: An open-minded Brazilian girl with an extremely lovely female Samoyed. I think we might be seeing them again and the Samoyed would be a good match for Corey as well.
The most difficult thing for her right now are people. My in-laws were here on Christmas and that was rather difficult for her. She was fiddling around my father-in-law a lot, even though he was mostly polite and listening to my instructions. I put up the barrier and she was able to relax behind it. Eventually she was able to be in the room with us without fiddling, too. Seeing people on the street, even at quite a distance, is still difficult, not to mention children … We’ll address that in due time. Oddly enough, the dog owners we meet are not a problem. She is too happy to meet the dogs to notice the people, I think. And I always call out to people not to touch her, which every single one of them wanted to do, and I was mostly able to prevent.
2015-12-08 13.23.20.jpg
The reason I don’t want to go further than December in this post is that January brought another big element for us, which I will tell you about in the next instalment!

Will you be my friend? – Dana’s story, part 5

We are a two-dog household. So why would we need to meet up with other dogs? My dogs already have a member of their own species for company. For some dogs, that may indeed be all they need, especially if they get along very well. But for my dogs, that was never enough. They are a fair match in terms of personality and relationship, but not a great one, so meeting others would be a good addition to their social lives. Especially Dana, whose reaction to other dogs was so strong when out and about, would benefit greatly from interacting with others, I knew. Just how would we do that?

The idea for this website came to me over a year ago, while I was out walking with Corey. The reason was that “recruiting” dogs and humans to walk with is not easy around here! We needed a person who was willing to meet up with us in the evenings or weekends because I have to work during the day on week days. That was difficulty number one. Difficulty number two: the dog in question needed to be well-adjusted and social, as a dog who is themselves coping badly with their environment or with Dana herself would only stress Dana out more. Frankly, most of the dogs we meet around here are anything but well-adjusted! I didn’t immediately put the website idea into practice, and we went down another route at first: asking friends and acquaintances to help us out with their dogs. None of it worked out, as there were either scheduling issues, or the dog turned out not to be a good match.

So we met up with Els of Freedogz for social walks in a wonderful, open area with high grass and lots of water. She offers those social walks as part of her services and has two lovely dogs who help out with that. Dana met Lissa, the Australian Cattle Dog, first, and later Imaree, the Labrador, and she got along splendidly with both of them. The experience was very liberating, a careful approach, and then simply moving at her own pace, interacting with the other dog, exploring the surroundings together. And there was SO much to explore! The only downside was: it was an hour’s drive away, and for Dana, that was so very hard at the time, so we started looking for other solutions once again.

While Dana’s initial reaction to an unfamiliar dog was tense, depending on the situation even bordering on extreme, it was not so much of a problem once she was actually freely interacting with that dog. Her behaviour was never in any way aggressive. Oddly enough, she wanted to approach every single dog we ever met, and right THIS instant. If she was allowed to, she would fiddle about* (react in an overly exuberant way, in a huge playbow, barking at the dog as an additional invitation to play – not that any dogs went for that, it was always too much!) and then calm down and interact normally. If she didn’t get to approach, barking and jumping ensued. Until present day, it’s hard to be sure: Does she need to approach them because she’s worried about them and needs to make sure that they are not a danger to her by going up close (a good position to defend or to fiddle about, if needed), or is she just so keen on meeting other dogs that she can’t resist. I suspect it’s the former, because this behaviour only started after her awful encounter with that dog when she first came to us. Either way, once she has ascertained that the dog we’re meeting is okay, she does enjoy interacting with them very much.

*A little “excursion” for anyone not familiar with the term: fiddling about! There are 4 possible strategies any individual can use in a situation they perceive as potentially dangerous: 1) Freeze: don’t move, wait for it to pass, or take time to make a decision 2) Flight: run awaaaaay! 3) Fight: A good offense is the best defence, or so they say. And last but not least, and not so well known 4) Fiddle about. That’s when the individual tries very hard to make the “threat” take a liking to them, by playing and being “jolly”. The difference between this fiddling about and normal, relaxed play can be recognised from the fact that fiddling about looks more (in)tense, over the top, bigger movements. While it seems so much happier, a dog who keeps fiddling about needs to get out of the situation just as much as one who is about to fight, freezes or tries to flee.

What I was hoping to get out of the social walks was to a) fulfill her social needs so she won’t have that irresistible urge any more and b) restore her trust in others of her species. I’ll tell you how that’s working out in a bit!

I eventually put my idea into practice and started this website, stating what we were offering and what we were looking for. It’s been easy enough finding walking mates for Corey, but still not so much for Dana. Though among her friends, she can now count Monkey, the wonderful pug, as well as two Shelties and a Collie (all from the same household, so we walk together with all three of them). We also occasionally just walk along for a little while with whomever we happen to meet, if dog and owner are a good match. While I always hand out a “business card” with the link to our website, we rarely ever hear back. This kind of walking does not appeal to everyone, it seems. And that’s okay. We will keep trying!

So, what did this do for us? Well, the more often Dana had friendly contact with dogs, the less extreme her reaction became. Despite that fact that good social opportunities for her don’t come along often, her reaction between then and now upon seeing a dog has gone from “complete freak-out” to “pulling a little, whining or going a little tense”, and continues to improve. Of course the social walks aren’t the only reason her reactivity to dogs has diminished so much. She has just become more relaxed altogether, thanks to the interplay of all the things we did, and probably more importantly the things we didn’t do! But the social aspect is still an extremely important one, and we mean to pursue it in the future. Now that Dana is not so bothered any more by riding in the car, we have more possibilities as well.

Getting a foot in the door – Dana’s story, part 4

With the changes to our daily lives and the occasional Parallel Walking session, Dana had started to calm down a little and was slowly learning to cope with some things. But of course that didn’t stop me from wanting more, so additional help was always welcome. We found that in the form of Applied Zoopharmacognosy. This is a way of helping dogs (or non-human animals in general) by offering them a large choice of medical plants in the form of (essential) oils and dried plants or powders. They can self-medicate, taking only what they need. This process of natural remedies, entirely based on choice (!), appealed to me right away and turned out to be a major part of our journey.

In May of 2015, we heard that Karen Webb was coming to Belgium to teach a workshop in Applied Zoopharmacognosy at Freedogz. While the workshop was not suitable for us because the dogs needed to wait their turn in the car, and that was not an option for either of my dogs, we managed to secure a private appointment with Karen.

She came to our house with her colleague and a huge number of bags, baskets and suitcases containing all the natural remedies. The appointment was for both dogs and we started the session with Corey. It was truly fascinating to watch him interact with the remedies, smell the essential oils, have them rubbed on him if that was what the interaction called for, and ingest all kinds of things, many of which I had never even  heard of – granted, my knowledge in botany is negligible! Since he was still on steroids at the time and not feeling well at all, we expected that he might choose remedies that are known to help against depression, but that’s not at all what he went for. He chose the calming ones, showing us under how much stress he actually was.

Dana was in the same room during the session, so she sort of surfed along on his wave. By the time her own session came around, she was mostly satiated and her own session did not last very long. She did, however, choose similar remedies: for calm, and against trauma. Not entirely unexpected! The whole process took several hours, and we were all exhausted afterwards – in a good way. Karen left us a couple of remedies to continue to work with, and we did.

May to August 2015

By the end of May, Corey came off the steroids, which caused a bit of a rough patch between the dogs. Suddenly he was well and wanted to play again. Dana was happy to oblige, but because she was still quite stressed, she played much too roughly with him, and it was hard to get them to stop playing like that in a nice way. But by August, she had mostly stopped the pouncing in stressful situations. Their play had become more gentle, and they were lovely around each other.

The mouthing and nipping at my husband when he came home from work had mostly stopped by the end of May, and entirely stopped by August. It also became somewhat easier to let visitors into the house, which previously had been a huge cause of upset to her. We’re talking several minutes of barking, and an hour of pacing at least. By August, she could settle within 10 minutes of a visitor arriving, though she would start pacing again as soon as any human in the room moved (got up, laughed loudly, etc.) or if they stayed for too long. The reaction to the doorbell was still extreme. We were stupid enough to try to avoid the problem by having people call us instead of ringing the doorbell. Even now, both dogs bark a little when I answer my phone. I’ve got only myself to blame …

At the beginning of May, we replaced the fence around our garden. The previous one was not really an obstacle for Dana and allowed a direct line of sight onto the skate park behind our garden, as well as the dozens of dogs and people who pass by there every day. The new one is 1,8 m (6ft) high and we put up sight barriers in all the relevant places. That made a big difference to Dana, not having to worry about every little movement outside of the garden. She became calmer when outside, but still not calm enough that she could settle down in any way. A dog passing by the fence, even though she couldn’t see it, would cause her to bark, jump, pretty much losing it, by the end of May. The only way of calming her was to take her inside (on a lead – she was almost never without a lead back then, even in the house and garden). By August, it wasn’t quite as bad any more, and she relaxed to the point where she could explore the garden in a calm enough fashion for half an hour – what a victory! After a dog freak-out, she would actually be able to calm down again a little bit, without having to go inside.

Going on walks was still hard, but slowly – very slowly – getting better. She was back then terrified of riding in the car. We did some work on choosing to get in the car, and it was simply not something she chose to do.

2015-06-06-21-37-15

Car? I can’t see any car … You want me to get into what?

The problem was that I sometimes simply HAD to drive her places, such as the vet’s or parallel walking sessions. So on those occasions I made her get in and destroyed any previous work we had done on this. It was one of the few things we made a conscious effort of (as opposed to just slowing down and waiting to see what happens), and it was a complete failure. The added difficulty was that we don’t have a garage or anything, our car is parked on the street, and dogs, people, cyclists … would pass by all the time and stress her out while I was waiting for her to choose to get in. So we went by car as little as possible. Unfortunately, that meant that any walks were done on those same streets, where we would occasionally meet dogs, people, cyclists … By the end of May, she pulled and paced just a little bit less, and by August even a little less than that. But that was only until a person or dog popped up. Not to mention cats! It was around that time that I bought a safety harness, because she managed to get out of the regular one in the attempt of chasing a cat. Siiiigh … If ever we met a dog, she became hysterical. Though by August, she recovered much much better from that! Walking her and Corey together was still impossible. Her stress level would shoot right up when he was present as well. Another “conscious effort” that lead nowhere was to walk him and her slowly in and out of the garden gate together. Just too stressful … Reading this again now, it all sounds terrible, but actually it was even worse before that … Baby steps, right?

Other kinds of activity went much better for her. Trick training, treat searches, coordination … Steady improvements! And around August, the unthinkable happened. She started seeking me out for physical contact! It never lasted long, but you would not believe how happy it made me to have her head resting in my lap for 10 seconds, or to scratch her ears for a little bit.

2015-10-07-12-49-53

Fancy safety harness – very much needed back then!

Two steps forward … one step back

With the help of zoopharmy, occasional parallel walks, and doing not too much, things kept improving … until suddenly they didn’t. What “brought us down” was the simple fact of days getting shorter as autumn came. I used to take her for short walks in the evenings, but now it was dark at those hours. I couldn’t go during the day, as I couldn’t leave Corey home alone (he suffers from separation distress) and there were far too many dogs around anyway. So I had to wait until my husband came home in the evening. The thing is, I am uncomfortable in the dark. It stresses me out. Guess what … That stressed her out in turn … And I was so focused on keeping her calm that her stress stressed me out even more. It was horrible. By December, Dana was so stressed that she couldn’t settle down in the evenings. She would pace and pace and pace … And come over to hump me, for a change, or pounce on poor Corey again. It was all too much, and something had to happen.

Another “round” of zoopharmy

By that time, she had pretty much stopped interacting with the zoopharmy remedies we still had, so it was time for an update. Since Karen was not scheduled to be back in Belgium, and Marina had by now completed her education in zoopharmy, she took over and did a session with Dana and me. It was as fascinating as the first time, and she chose a few different things, a few the same as before. We started very intense work with the essential oils on our own after that. I would put down the bottles in a certain order, and Dana would smell them. No two sessions were ever the same, sometimes she would spend more time with this oil, sometimes that, sometimes a meter away from the bottle, sometimes with her nose right in it. Some days, the session would take hours, other days she would show little interest at all.

2015-11-30-10-52-29

A bottle of essential oil right next to her, just not on the picture. Can you tell the degree of relaxation from how she’s lying there?

 

And within days, I saw that things were happening in her mind. It was as if we had finally gotten a foot in the proverbial door! Here’s some things that happened in the next couple of days.

Day 6 – We went for a 20 min walk in the dark (!) and she hardly pulled, had her nose on the ground, exploring the entire time

Day 8 – We met the neighbour’s Beagle outside, and while she pulled, wiggled, jumped initially, she did not bark, and she had a very nice interaction with the dog, the two of them sniffing together on the ground. The same day, some fireworks went off behind our house, and neither dog so much as looked up from their spots on the sofa.

Day 10 – Dana started seeking physical contact more and more, just wanting to lie against me or (!!) my husband. Completely unprecedented! She did not pace in the evenings, she was not afraid of the laundry we folded, did not mind that the TV was on. We were just completely flabbergasted!

Day 15 – A Great Dane walked past, across the street from where we were. Dana froze completely, did not move a muscle nor make a sound. So proud of her!!!

About 3 weeks in – I loaded her into the car (which went okay!) and took her to a huge open space a 10-minute drive away, next to a lovely patch of forest, where we never meet anyone. She had a great time exploring without stressing.

2015-12-06-14-49-50

Hi there, Beauty!

That year, we stayed home for Christmas. I really wanted to see my family, who live a 2-hour drive away from us, but  I just didn’t want to do it to Dana. The drive, sleeping over in an unfamiliar place, a whole evening with 10 people … I was so sad that we couldn’t go, but at the same time happy to be spending down-time with my dogs. The first day of Christmas, we had my husband’s parents and grand-parents over, and Dana … coped! A little stressy at first, she settled beautifully after a while. Good times!

We love curves – Dana’s story, part 3

In the last instalment, I told you about the changes we made following the seminar by Winkie Spiers. Those were absolutely great, but we also wanted to do some of the practical things Winkie had recommended, mainly social walking. So I started looking for somebody who might offer that, and I found Marina Gates Fleming of Happy and Relaxed Dogs. Now that sounded like something we wanted to achieve! She did not actually offer social walks, but proposed something else that turned out to be an important part of our journey: Parallel walking.

So one day in March 2015, when Dana was 10 months old, we drove to a large empty parking lot to meet Marina and the other participants of her class. The concept is simple enough: the dog and his human walk parallel to something the dog finds threatening or worrying, at a large enough distance so they wouldn’t need to worry, and to gradually reduce the distance as they become more comfortable. This was to be done on a lead of at least 3 m long (so the dog has enough space to express their body language and to explore the environment), and with the dog wearing a harness (so their neck won’t get hurt if they pull). We’d always used a harness, and a 3 m lead was procured easily on the internet. But while it seemed simple enough, it turned out not to be simple at all.

Reactive to dogs? Yes, among other things …

I had contacted Marina primarily to work on Dana’s reactivity to other dogs. I viewed that as her number one problem, as dogs elicited the strongest reaction from Dana. Imagine my disappointment upon learning that we would be working with … people! And imagine my surprise upon realising: Marina was entirely right to suggest this, since Dana was extremely worried about those people, even at a fairly great distance. Up until that point, I hadn’t even realised that this was the case, and from that point on, I could not believe that I had been so blind, because it was really blatantly obvious. So after Dana had stopped running around me in crazy circles (it felt as if I was lunging a horse!), we set off, parallel to a group of people.

Multi-tasking at its best

So why did I not find this not simple? Because I was required to simultaneously
1) Manage a 3 m long lead so it wouldn’t drag on the ground – we wouldn’t want the lead to get entangled in Dana’s legs
2) Give Dana a hand signal – just hold up my hand to show her that I, too, had seen the thing she was worried about, and that we would be fine. This clashed with 1) at times, since lead management frequently requires the use of both hands.
3) NOT look at her – I already knew that dogs perceived staring as threatening, but it had never occurred to me that looking at her all the time might be perceived as either a threat or an attempt at communication, while I actually didn’t want anything from her at the time. So hard to break that habit!
4) Observe her body language – having familiarised myself with calming signals, I was to watch out for them, and for the movements of my dog. How on earth would I not look straight at her, and still observe what she does?
5) Whenever she pulled on the lead, stop immediately, and when she stopped pulling, to continue walking immediately. Easy concept, difficult to put into practice.
6) Stop Dana from circling around me by blocking her with my body language if she tried to get behind me.
7) Walk slowly.
8) Indicate with my body language where I wished her to go by fully turning in that direction. And yes, that does necessitate losing sight of her on occasion.
All – at -the – same -time! 

While all these things made perfect sense to me, it was immensely frustrating at first and seemed nearly impossible. But I was so determined about the philosophy behind it that I held on. It took me a long time (weeks? months? probably months!), but I learned not to let the lead drag, to watch my dog but not stare at her, to walk more slowly, to stop and start walking as needed, and Dana stopped circling me pretty soon. And of course the hand signal – after a very short time, she learned that it meant “Don’t worry” in this context, and she did indeed seem to worry a little less whenever she saw it.

Curves are just great! 

Having walked in parallel with the group of people a few times, with Dana becoming less and less worried, we eventually switched to crossing, meaning we faced them as they walked towards us, but still at a distance. We learned to actively employ one of the calming signals: curving! We walked in enormous curves at first, avoiding the group. And Dana calmed down about this as well, at first a little bit, and at later appointments a little more. This is a technique that we used and still use in daily life when facing people (be it pedestrians, hikers, joggers, cyclists, horse riders …) – we curve!

Enriched environments

Each session ended with an enriched environment, which means that all kinds of more or less common objects were scattered on an open surface and bits of liver paté were smeared on them. The dogs would sniff around for the paté (using the olfactory sense is calming!), lick it up (yippieh, a success and tasty treat!) and discover the objects at the same time (what’s this? is it scary? maybe? no, we can deal with it – success!). It was lovely to see how much the activity calmed her down. While we didn’t do any EE’s outside of class, I started making it a point to give Dana the time to be curious in all situations, to investigate at her own pace. We also incorporated paté searches into our daily lives. You wouldn’t believe the amount of liver paté I have smeared onto random bits of vegetation in my garden and in the forest in the past 1,5 years!

And now … rest

During Marina’s classes, I learned that it may take several days to recuperate from a very stressful event. When I first heard it, I didn’t really believe it, but I started paying attention and noticed for myself: If Dana had gone through a taxing event the previous day (or even the day before that), she would react much more strongly to seemingly (to me!) meaningless events than if the previous days had been quiet ones. So after a session of parallel walking or a long walk (haha, long – for Dana, 30 mins was a REALLY long walk at the time), she would need rest. And she finally got the rest she needed, my sleepy angel.

Progress March – April 2015

So, what did all of these changes bring us? I started keeping a dog diary, writing down what had changed. I’m so glad now that I did this. It helps put things into perspective, for example when I got frustrated about lack of progress. It would remind me of how bad it once was and how far we’d come. In the beginning, I also wrote down what goals I had for her and for us, but I stopped that after a couple of months. It didn’t mean anything, and it was more likely to distract me from watching her and going at her pace than anything else. We have no goals now, we just do what works for us and see how it goes.

Before the changes we made, Dana would constantly harass Corey to “play” with her. Sometimes he would, but often he didn’t feel up to it and was very annoyed about how she pounced on him. It was a learned behaviour of hers to channel stress, so she did it more often and more forcefully the more stressful the current situation was. If Corey did engage with her, the interaction (can’t even really call it play!) was rough and unpleasant. She would grab him by the scruff of his neck and twist, and he would lunge at her in an attempt to keep her away. It had become so bad that I had to let them out into the garden separately, as the garden was stressful to her (strange noises everywhere, and sometimes dogs in sight!) and she was not able to leave Corey alone in that situation. She couldn’t help doing that, and she was never punished for it. I intervened by putting myself between them and giving her a hand signal. By mid-April, this behaviour had already lessened so much. Her harassment had turned into invitations, playbows, ear nuzzling, and she would stop if he didn’t engage.

In the garden, she would start a low, booming bark whenever she saw a dog, and constantly run in circles even when there was “nothing”. The stimuli outside were just too much for her to cope with. By mid-April, she was able to sniff in the garden (treat and paté searches, but also just investigate), and I was able to take her and Corey outside again together, at least for a short time. I had also learned to spot dogs long before she did, and guide the two of them inside calmly before they noticed them.

Before the changes, she used to get so excited whenever my husband entered the room that she got up and jumped up at him every time. When he came home from work in the evening, she was jumping up, barking repeatedly and in a high pitch, sometimes nipping at his clothes and hair. Within 6 weeks, she had calmed down so much that she would only get up and walk in a little circle when he entered the room, but didn’t jump up at him any more. When he came home from work, she would still jump up and bark, but less forcefully, and the nipping had stopped.

Taking her for walks before the changes was a total nightmare for me – and probably for her, too! Whenever she saw a dog, or even just heard one bark in the distance, she would completely lose her bearings, jumping up and down, pulling, barking in a high pitch. And it was never quite clear: Was she frustrated because I didn’t let her approach the dog, or was she scared and wanted to get away? Either way I would have let her approach, it was not possible for any dog to cope with her like that. Whatever sentiment caused it, the reaction was huge, and she didn’t calm down any more after that until we got home. To give her a chance to break this cycle of stress, we went for walks at a time of day when there would be fewer or no dogs, or in places where we wouldn’t meet any. By mid-April, her reaction was still unchanged whenever she saw a dog BUT she was able to calm down again afterwards. Baby steps!

Our activities at home, like treat searches, were okay to begin with, but initially she couldn’t concentrate very well. She would sometimes miss treats that were right in front of her, and became nervous if Corey joined the treat search as well. He is a very determined searcher. We did some trick training as well, for mental stimulation. She learned things, but sometimes got stressed over it and gobbled up the rewards so quickly that she would cough them out again. Also, she wouldn’t play with me at all, no physical play, no tug, nothing. Within a few weeks, she concentrated a lot better during treat searches. She became a little more confident in them, even if Corey was involved as well. We shortened the trick training sessions and she didn’t cough out treats any more most of the time. She started finding some balance in her body, no longer constantly bumping into things. She started playing tug with me, even if it was just for very short stretches of time. After that, she must have decided that it was too scary after all. She loved playing tug with Corey, but he had fallen ill again then and didn’t want to play. So she devised a different game: she started picking up toys, throwing them in the air and caught them – my smart girl!

All of these are little steps, but for us, they meant a big improvement and the beginning of a journey in the right direction. Being happy with the little steps, that means being majorly thrilled when your dog sniffs a garbage bag! Because she used to think garbage bags were out to get her, and now they just make a funny noise and smell interesting. Couldn’t have been more proud!

Keep calm and … respect your dog’s needs – Dana’s story, part 2

So there we were, me and my troubled dog. Why was she like this? What could I do to help her? After the somanyeth book that proclaimed yet another way of “fixing” a dog with such issues that didn’t really help me, I started going to seminars. TTouch was the first, and I was not too happy with it. The second one turned out to be exactly what I was looking for, it explained everything, opened my eyes and turned our world upside-down and inside-out. This one-day seminar was “Stress in training” by English dog trainer and chairwoman of the Pet Dog Trainers of Europe, Winkie Spiers

So, what was so revolutionary about this seminar? It was the first time I encountered a different point of view in living with your dog. It’s not about: “What do I want from my dog and how can I get it from her?” It’s about: “What does my dog need in life and how can I give it to her?” The rest would follow … I had always realised that by taking a dog into my household, I become responsible for their well-being. But until then, I had never fully realised what that entailed. After this seminar, a lot of things changed in our home. Be warned, this is a long article 😉

Stress

We had an introduction to the subject of stress in dogs. Every time a dog (or a human, for that matter!) experiences a stressful event, adrenaline circulates in their bodies, and if the stressful event lasts for more than 10-15 minutes, adrenaline stops and the stress hormone cortisol comes in its place. What is experienced as a stressful event is entirely subjective, the argument “this is normal, it shouldn’t be causing me/you any stress” does not count. Cortisol takes a couple of hours to leave the body, but if that dog now experiences a stressful event several times a day, it never quite runs out. This is called chronic stress, and it has disastrous consequences, such as digestive issues, bad quality of sleep, lack of concentration and impaired ability to learn, anxiety and/or depression, cardiovascular diseases, pain (such as headaches) and more. It was clear to me right away that this affected not just Dana but also Corey … and myself. So we needed to break the cycle of perpetual stress, for all of us, and take the time to heal.

Sleep

I learned that a puppy needs about 20 hours of sleep each day and an adult dog about 16. And that that sleep needs to be social sleep, not alone but in a group, so the dogs can feel safe. And that dogs are polyphasic sleepers – they sleep, they wake up, they go lie somewhere else, they fall asleep again. That’s the natural way for them, and it’s just not possible to do this if the dog is sleeping in a crate, in a separate room behind a closed door. So we changed the way we sleep, allowing the dogs in our bedroom, and we got rid of their crates. Corey made full use of that right away. He has been my loyal foot warmer every night since then. Dana chose to sleep within sight of us, but initially not in the same room. The door was open so she could come in if she wanted to.

IMG_7829.JPG

While she did not choose to sleep in our bed at first, it was more than welcome to her as a sleeping spot during the day 🙂

This set-up helped us tackle two problems at once: the dogs slept better, feeling safe around us. More rest = less stress. Also, since I was accessible to her, Dana was able to alert me whenever she needed to go outside during the night, to pee, poo or eat grass (to help digestion). A huge relief for her. Albeit not for me. I didn’t have a full night’s sleep for about a year after that, until we discovered and cured her digestive issues. I didn’t fret about the lost sleep. I wasn’t exactly thrilled every time she woke me, but getting up every night – sometimes even more than once –  was preferable to having a stressed-out dog in the house.

Another way of getting the dogs more sleep is to not have too much activity, and to make it a point not to get up when they’re sleeping, if at all possible, so as to not wake them.

Choices

I never realised this until Winkie mentioned it, but once you know this, you cannot stop noticing. We tell our dogs what do ALL the time! 

181796_399696530083358_584215532_n

Do this, don’t do that, walk right next to me, pee only when I tell you (!), stop sniffing that pole, sit here, lie down there, play with this dog, don’t approach that dog, sleep in that tiny space, don’t eat until I tell you to, come here and let me pat you, go away now. WOW! That is a lot to handle, especially since so many of the things they are told to do go against their nature.

If you’re told what to do all the time, how can you learn to act in a way that is both appropriate and satisfying during a difficult situation? It has been proven that lack of choices can lead to learned helplessness, which in turn leads to depression. Not what we want for our dogs!

So we started maximising our dog’s choices. Pick which chew they wanted to chew on, pick whether they wanted to go left or right during a walk, let them sniff however long they wanted to sniff. Let them choose where in the house they want to be, never tell them where to sleep. Let them go outside to do their business whenever they showed me they needed to go.

On a side note, I just had to interrupt writing this blog post because Dana asked to lie on my lap for a while. How could I ever say no to that? I’d be doing myself a disservice, I enjoy it so much when she chooses to be close to me. On this same note, I want to mention that even before Dana came to us, I did not believe in dominance. It is an important subject, but it does not figure in Dana’s story. So I would never deny my dogs anything for fear they might take over the “pack”, whatever that might mean. Another thing that doesn’t figure at all in this story is punishment. I’ve never believed in it and never intentionally used it. [/side note over]

Of course not all choices are theirs to make. They can’t eat their meaty bones on the sofa (ew!), and sometimes I just don’t have time to do something with them whenever they ask me for it. Sometimes the dogs they want to meet up close is showing signs of avoidance, so in order to protect the other dog, I will deny my own the chance to interact. That’s just life, you can’t always get what you want. But it’s always made clear to them in a gentle way.

I don’t tell them what to do, I ask them to do something, or not to do it. And even though they don’t understand the words “please” and “thanks”, I use them when interacting with my dogs. They serve as a reminder to me that I can’t take me dogs’ compliance for granted. “Dana, please go inside” when she had a pee pee break in the garden and I need to get back to work. “Thank you, Corey, we heard” when Corey is barking to alert us about something. If Dana really feels she isn’t done being outside right then, I won’t make her. If Corey really feels he needs to continue barking, he can. However, if Corey feels that he isn’t done licking the cutlery in the dishwasher, I will insist 😉

Safety

Another source of stress is not feeling safe. A good way of feeling safe is knowing what is going to happen next. So we started establishing routines. If the same thing happens every day at a certain time, or in a certain way, we all know what to expect and there is no need to stress. If I drop a couple of treats on the ground every time we get out of the car, nobody needs to get so excited that they jump into the lead. If I tell them “I’m going to toilet” every time I’m going to toilet, they know that they don’t need to get up. Nothing exciting is going to happen.

2015-11-24-08-57-49

You’re going to toilet? No prob, we’ll be here when you get back.

Safety for a dog is also: having your trusted human or a trusted fellow canine around. Having your human act with calm determination in a difficult situation. The latter remains a working point for me until present day. Though I’ve improved much over time, I still have more to learn in terms of not stressing. It’s impossible to overstate how important this is for my dogs, and for all dogs.

Food

Dogs have evolved to be opportunistic scavengers. They eat what they can get, wherever and whenever they can find it. So it’s hard on them if they need to eat the same thing every day (i.e. the same old kibble and nothing else). Luckily, we didn’t need a big change in this department, we were already feeding our dogs raw, with a great variety of tastes, textures and nutrients.

I learned that chewing on and licking things has a calming effect on dogs, so we made it a point to give them something to chew on (bones, high-quality dried animal parts, but no rawhide) or lick (frozen Kongs) as often as possible, taking the calories of this into account when calculating the portions of regular meals.

img_7825

Omnomnomnom! Beef head skin from Freedogz, a real treat!

Physical exercise

I learned that repetitive exercise, such as fetching a ball over and over, or running beside a jogger/bicycle can cause stress. This makes sense, because the element of choice is removed. In a game of fetch (chasing a ball), the hormones take over and the dog simply keeps on doing it until the human stops throwing, or until the dog is physically incapacitated. When running together with a human, the dog has to run to keep up, and again, it lasts until the human stops or the dog drops. This can cause injury as well, which in turn leads to stress. In our case, we never did any running, and we stopped the games of fetch.

As an owner of an Australian Shepherd, I was repeatedly told that my dog needed TONS of physical exercise. It would make her tired, and she would calm down because of that. But I had tried that, and it simply didn’t happen. If anything, she became more wound up. For a long time, that didn’t make sense to me, because I knew that during physical exercise, endorphines are released, which should make you feel better. Until I read this article by Sarah Stremming about the fact that exercise can be tiring (which is a good thing, within reasonable limits), but it can also be taxing (which isn’t a good thing at all). That’s just it: for Dana, being out and about has always been taxing. To her, the world was scary and overwhelming at the time, and still is sometimes. The taxing element has always been stronger than the tiring one. Consequently, it makes much more sense to take her on small outings, in quiet places that she can handle. This provides less physical, but enough mental exercise, while not stressing her unduly.

Mental exercise

Sniffing makes dogs calm down. So we do treat searches every day and our dogs love them. Just hide some treats around the house, or toss some in the grass in the garden, and the dogs are tired for a while.

We also do other kinds of mental exercise, but I will mention those in the coming instalments.

So these were some of the basic concepts that Winkie planted in my mind. I deepened my knowledge about these subjects through books and other speakers and dog trainers, and the changes we made had significant effects on our daily lives. Another thing I learned was that it takes about 10 months to a year to undo the effects of chronic stress starting from when the constant bursts of stress abate – which is something that doesn’t happen right away, even if you try. I will be talking about the first effects we experienced and about some more of the things that we did at the beginning of our de-stressing process in the next instalment.

 

The dog who makes me cry – Dana’s story, part 1

When she first came to us, I often wanted to (and did …) cry with frustration and despair about loving a troubled dog and not knowing what do with her or how to help her. These days, you’ll occasionally see tears in my eyes for a different reason: I’m unspeakably proud of her, and her trust moves me deeply. 

Dana was born in May 2014, and she came to me in November. I wanted an Australian Shepherd, because I wanted to participate in dog sports, and the Corgi I already had was not too well suited to this particular pursuit. I chose Dana because I thought she would be a good match with Corey. He is a dog who wants the world at his feet, and he wants it right now. Getting a second dog with this mindset seemed like a recipe for disaster. After all, the entire world can’t be simultaneously at two dogs’ feet within one and the same household. From the moment we met, it was clear that Dana was a gentle flower, one who would first wait and see before making a decision. She seemed ideal. And she was, she is! Just in a very different way than we thought.

I had seen her advertised on the internet on a Friday, talked to the breeder for about an hour on the phone, and on Saturday we made the 4-hour drive to meet her, and to take her home, if she was a good match. Arriving at the breeder’s, we were surrounded by a LOT of Aussies, jumping up, full of enthusiasm and excitement. Dana was among them, but did nothing more than to come sniff our clothing and then take her distance again. We liked that about her. After a while, the other dogs were put away and Corey and she were introduced to one another. It went like this: Corey paid her little attention. Dana hid behind a rock and did not come out for about 15 minutes. That might have discouraged someone who was thinking objectively, but since I had already lost my heart to her gentle brown eyes and sweet face, I wasn’t thinking at all. My husband had his doubts, but he knew he had no chance of changing my mind, so he didn’t try. Eventually she came out from her hiding spot and interacted hesitantly with Corey. Some time after that we loaded her into our car and took her home. She slept on my husband’s lap all the way home.

2014-11-02-20-23-51

Young Dana on the day after we brought her home. Her face says so much … 

Her breeder had warned us that she might be extremely timid at first, since leaving her entire family behind at 6 months of age would be a huge blow to her. She said that we should give her time, and we had every intention to do that. It turned out that what I considered “going slowly” was not at all the same thing Dana would have considered “slow”.

The first few days, she was not keen to even leave the house. We lured her out the front door thinking “She’ll be fine, once she experiences everything, she’ll get used to it”. I took her for a long walk in the forest before the first week was up. She seemed fine to me. These days, I know that I was just missing all the signs. It was all too much for her.

The “final straw”, making her lose all trust in the world and in other dogs was her meeting with another dog, an adolescent female, who wanted to play with her. That dog’s play style? Barrel into the other dog with full force and then run away waiting for the dog to chase her. Only Dana didn’t chase her. She was lying on the ground, screaming. Before we were able to prevent it, this happened 2-3 more times, the other dog completely oblivious to the damage she was doing, not comprehending why Dana would not play with her. From then on, Dana would bark at the top of her lungs and jump up like a kangaroo whenever she saw a dog from afar.

Other things were difficult as well. The dogs slept in a separate room at the time. When I greeted them and let them out in the morning, Dana was so excited that she would jump up as high as my face – not with her face in my face, no! That would have been easy for her to do. All four off the ground nearly as high as my face! That scared Corey out of his wits, and she frequently hurt him or me in her huge excitement. It was only later that we learned why. A) She didn’t want to be alone at night and B) she had stomach and bowel issues that we were unaware off. She needed to go outside at night, and keeping it all in was incredibly stressful.

She was afraid of everything. Vacuum cleaner? A nightmare! Garbage bag? Yikes, want to get out of here! Human folding the laundry? So scary, need to leave the room! Unfamiliar humans visiting our house? Dog screaming! Hearing a dog bark while out in our garden? Loosing her bearings completely. Noise from the skate park behind her house? Can’t calm down, must run in crazy circles. Getting in the car? Complete horror.

Despite  (or because of) all this, I thought I needed to “socialise her”. Her breeder had advised us that Dana had been taken on walks, with the group as well as on her own, and had been used to life in her household, but had not received the same socialisation as she would have if she had found her own family sooner. I thought we had something to make up for, so I took her to dog school, to the market, to the park … Of course, none of those activities were very satisfying, as Dana was either close to shutting down or “over”reacting to everything.

Initially, she got on well with Corey at least. They often slept in close proximity to one another, and they spent a lot of time playing.

2014-11-06-15-17-23

So very tired after playing together

To our great sorrow, that did not last. Corey became seriously ill within weeks of Dana’s arrival, he had to be treated with steroids and became very stressed. She became more and more stressed as well, due to her bowel issues as well as the “program” I was putting her through. This culminated in a few situations in which Corey was so annoyed with Dana that he lashed out at her. She did not know how to cope with that, and they started a fight. They didn’t hurt each other, but it seemed to be a matter of time before they would.

As she got more stressed, it was also becoming more difficult for her to find rest at home. She would pace all evening while we were watching TV, she would hump me, she would whine. When we brought Dana home, I had this idea in my head of the two of us cuddling with one dog each in the evenings, and going for extended walks with both dogs together. Her being an Aussie, I imagined she would need to do a lot of sporty things to keep her busy. Well, by Christmas we had given up on walking both dogs together, as Dana got Corey agitated with her nervous behaviour, and she was even less able to calm down around him than without him. By that time I had also given up on going to dog school. Not working out for us. And nobody was cuddling anyone.

What a mess, right? I had wanted to do everything right, I had read dozens of books on positive dog training, on behaviour, on adopted dogs, on canine body language, I had consulted a dog trainer about Dana’s dog reactivity, and I thought I was “taking it slowly”. Only … I wasn’t. I was doing too much, I was stressing her out, and I had become apprehensive and stressed out myself. I switched from one training method to another every other week. On occasion I lost my patience and shouted at her. What a horrible person I must have seemed to her. No support, no understanding, highly unstable. Still, I was desperately in love with this gentle soul. I could see she was having a hard time, I had no idea how to help her and that hurt. I felt like a failure, especially when I was being impatient with her. I knew that it was not her fault, and that that was not the way.

During all this time, I was never ready to give up. Sure, the thought had briefly crossed my mind, but I never seriously considered giving her away. She was MY dog. And it wasn’t all bad. We had moments of harmony, small moments of trust, small successes.

So I kept looking for solutions, I kept learning more about dogs in general, more about Dana as an individual, and eventually, I started finding the solutions I was looking for. Dana has been with us for exactly 2 years now (gosh, time flies!), 1.5 years of which we have been making use of the solutions I encountered, adding a new bit here and there on the way, and always staying true to the belief that using force on a dog is never an option. If you’ve met her then, and you see her now, it is hard to not believe that this is even the same dog. And not only she has changed so much – I have, too.

I want to dedicate a blog post to each of the things that have helped us on our way to where we are now, and will continue to help us from here on out. If you are among those who have been sharing this journey with us, you have our thanks!

2015-04-05-10-41-34

Not only is she such a beautiful and gentle soul on the inside, she is also a stunning beauty on the outside!