The Difficult Dogs Who Change Our Lives

It’s been a few weeks now since I last blogged and that’s not for lack of things to write about! I just simply haven’t had time and other things have had to take priority. I also had two weeks of jury service to complete which was an amazing and fascinating experience! It’s back to normality this week though and now that my to-do list is somewhat under control, I have something I want to blog about, and it’s difficult dogs!

Followers of my Instagram and Facebook will know that I am a huge dog-lover, and that I currently own three lurchers. Tinks, is a 12 year-old scruffy-haired lurcher who I fostered as a puppy and ended up keeping. We don’t know exactly what mix she is but my guess would be deerhound/greyhound/whippet. She’s a lovely, easy-going simple soul, who, apart from being a bit vocal in her younger years, has never given me a bit of trouble. She came over on a van from Ireland with no history and just slotted right in.

Next we have Jesse, my almost three-year-old boy. He’s a greyhound/deerhound/whippet/collie/bedlington terrier mix who came to us as a puppy in between Covid lockdowns. He’s a smart, loving, laidback boy who I would describe as selectively reactive. If you’re not a dog owner, you might wonder what I mean by ‘reactive’. It’s what we call dogs who react to things we would really rather they just ignored. A prime example of this is barking and lunging on the lead when they see other dogs. This can be because they are excited and frustrated that the lead is stopping them from saying hi, or it can be because they are fearful of the other dog and they are barking at them to keep them away. And guess what, it tends to work, so reactivity then becomes a cycle you find you and your dog trapped in. Jesse can go weeks without barking at anything on the lead, then suddenly he will take a dislike to a dog and bark. Sometimes I can get his attention back on me, reward him for disengaging with the trigger and often, just saying hi to the unknown dog is enough to settle him down. In short, I don’t worry too much about his reactivity but we do work on it all the time.

And then there is Ada…

I wasn’t supposed to get a third dog! It wasn’t on the cards at all. However, I had been telling people that I was broody for a puppy and as Tinks is getting on a bit. I had started thinking about what I’d get in the future to go with Jesse. Jesse loves company and I know he wouldn’t enjoy being a single dog in the house. And of course, if you mention thinking about another dog, people who know you tend to mention it when they come across a dog that needs a home…

I received a message from a lovely lady who had taken a puppy from a breeder she wasn’t overly happy with. The puppy was not quite right for her and her dogs, but she was reluctant to send her back to the breeder. She sent me a picture and asked if I would consider her. I fell in love right away but was sure my husband would say no. After all, we already had two dogs! To my utter amazement he said yes, and the next day we drove to pick her up.

Ada’s mix is not dissimilar to Jesse’s. Her dad was a greyhound/deerhound and her mother was a merle collie/whippet/bedlington terrier/greyhound/bearded collie. However, it quickly became apparent that Ada’s mind and personality are 100% collie. That is a risk you take with lurcher pups because although they are predominantly sighthound crosses, they often have other breeds mixed in, usually collie or terrier. Ada is my fourth lurcher and I’ve fostered over 100 of them in the past and I have never come across one with so little sighthound traits.

Sighthounds are obviously bred to be extremely fast and athletic and they hunt by sight, hence the name. Once they have had a good run, they are usually known for being couch potatoes who like to laze around all day and I’ve always found this to be true. They can be very smart but they will decide what they want to do and often their favourite thing is just sleeping!

When Ada arrived she was very confident. She acted like she had always been with us and was instantly extremely affectionate with the whole family and made great friends with Jesse and Tinks. I was so pleased with how well she slotted in. I figured I’d train her as I had the others, work on recall and disengagement from a really early age, and before she was allowed out for walks, she had mastered all the basics and more. I’d carry her around as much as possible to help her socialisation and I signed her up to Life Skills classes with the wonderful trainer we know. I was so excited! But it soon became apparent that things were not going to go as planned or hoped…

The first time Ada met a strange dog, she was still not old enough for walks but I hoped they could say hello quickly. It was a small friendly dog but Ada’s reaction was to bark at it in fear. I didn’t have my other dogs with me at the time so she wasn’t copying them. She just didn’t want to say hi. Not long after that we started Life Skills and I could see right that she was not comfortable with the other dogs in the class, or the other dogs she could see in the distance of the field. She would focus on me and was amazing at her training but she would bark if she heard another dog bark and I felt my stomach sink. No, this couldn’t be happening. Not again. Not another reactive dog. And at such a young age? I was so upset and worried. I wondered what I had done wrong.

We continued with classes and she was amazing. She started coming out for walks, on lead and off with my other dogs and again I could see that she was not happy with other dogs, and worse than that, she was starting to bark and lunge and react to bikes, scooters, cars, joggers and children. Pretty much everything, to be honest! I tried not to panic. I told myself it was the puppy ‘fear stage’. She would get over it. I just had to keep taking her out, keep meeting other dogs, keep rewarding her when she didn’t bark and so on. But inside I felt sick with worry. She was only three/four months old. Where had these fears come from? Where would they lead?

For a while, it got worse. Ada off lead would run up to other dogs barking. She would never reach them – she would always turn back or circle around or go and hide. It was all fear, but it didn’t look good! On lead, she would lunge and bark and growl at cars, bikes, joggers, kids and dogs. It was so embarrassing because she still looked like a puppy. I almost died in the vets when she went in to get weighed. She was fine with a little dog sat next to us but when an excitable spaniel straining and panting on its lead came in, she lost her shit! After that, two big labs plodded in and she froze in terror and wouldn’t stop barking. I had to pick her up. I almost cried. It was awful. A trip to the pet shop was equally as embarrassing. I started wanting to hide away. I thought, I’ve made a big mistake here. What is going on?

Thankfully for me I know lots of lovely, well-informed and educated dog people, including my wonderful trainer Jodie. One Facebook friend pointed me in the direction of collie-based information and articles and everything began to click together. Off lead with my dogs, she acts like a border collie herding sheep. She runs to the left or right, she crouches, prowls, lies flat, stares, fixates, pounces, then runs ahead again. It was fascinating to watch but she seemed to have no bond with me when out. She was not paying attention to me at all – she was was all collie thinking independently and trying to herd the other dogs. Her reactivity to cars, bikes, joggers and dogs was movement based – it was the movement that was triggering her. Collies are notoriously sensitive dogs. Their senses quite literally go into overdrive – so a moving car, a flapping bird, a loud bang, a barking dog all at once or after the other, can be hugely hard for them to cope with. They tend to bark and lunge because they are on lead and cannot control the movement.

Once I read more and more about the collie brain and what it had been bred for, I began to understand this complex little girl all the more. She is insanely clever and extremely motivated to learn. Jesse will get bored of learning new things after a while and he will just wander off. She now attends trick training once a week and for that entire hour she focuses on me and learns at a fast pace I know my other lurchers would not cope with. I’m on the waiting list for Hoopers and I hope eventually to try agility and scentwork with her. We do little bits of these activities at home already and she loves them.

Her sensitivity at home was bewildering until I understood it too. If you get cross, raise your voice, say ‘no’ or just mutter a swear word to yourself about something that does not concern her, Ada will get very worried. She will run away and hide. If I tell off a child or another dog, if I say ‘no’, that’s it, she’s gone. So, I can’t use those words or that tone with her, not ever. If I do, if I lose my cool, or get frustrated or impatient with her, she shuts down, she won’t learn. It’s not worth it.

She responds to positivity. She absolutely loves being told she’s a good girl! We have been slowly working our way through fears and anxieties. I think I had to grieve a bit first, for the dog I thought I was getting and I had to accept the dog I have. Now that I understand her, life is getting easier for us both.

I take her out on her own as much as I can. I have to be very careful not to push her too fast though. But she does need to gain confidence on her own and I can work on her issues easier if it’s just her and me. This is time consuming, of course! We are slowly getting there. The other day I took her to a fairly busy area and she only barked at two dogs out of eight. I call that progress! She now has two local friends because some of my neighbours kindly agreed to help me with her reactivity by walking with us or down the lane in front of us until she learned to relax and disengage. She has friends at her trick training class and knows not to bark at them! Her confidence is slowly creeping up with all things. She still barks at dogs if they’re too close, too sudden, too scary and maybe she always will, but we will never stop working on it.

I don’t care what anyone else thinks of us. I’ve had to let the guilt and the embarrassment go because it was just getting in our way. We want to move forward. I want to get the best from this unique girl and I believe I already am. Most people don’t understand dog reactivity and a lot can be very judgemental. Some people get easy dogs and a lot of the time it is just luck. Try telling them that though! When you know you’ve put way more training, work, article reading and effort into your dog than they have with theirs, it can be hard to see the rolling eyes, and the judgement in people’s faces. But I don’t care because my dog is amazing.

Ada is the most affectionate dog I’ve ever owned. My other dogs have all been loving but she takes it to another level. The whole family adore her despite her quirky ways, because she is just so adorable. She will lounge over anyone’s laps, grunting softly like a sleep puppy, staring adoringly into your eyes. She follows me everywhere, has to be involved in everything. Her behaviour at home is exemplary!

Here is a list of positive things Ada does:

recalls, stays, gives paw, gives other paw, crosses her legs over when asked, retrieves and gives, middle, circle, orbit, backwards, around things, over things, standing tall, arch, beg, wave, pretending to cry, hugs on command, waits when told, doesn’t try to get our food, lies nicely and watches you eat, was easy to house train, never chewed anything she wasn’t allowed, doesn’t pull on lead (unless very nervous), behaves nicely in car, spins, doesn’t jump up.

Here is a list of negative things Ada does:

Sometimes barks at other dogs and things that scare her when on walks.

That’s it. Otherwise she is a perfect girl. She is an incredible girl. I have never experienced a dog like this before and I feel lucky and privileged to be on this journey with her. Yes, there will be hard times ahead. Yes, there will be days when all three of my dogs decide to react and bark when I really wish they wouldn’t. Yes, there will be days when other dog owners mutter at me or think the worst of me and my dogs. Yes, there will be days when I get tears in my eyes and want to hurry home to hide. Yes, there will be days when I get it wrong.

But I know we’re going to have good days too and I already know that Ada, this tricky, complex, difficult dog who was not at all what I was prepared for, is changing me and my life.

She is forcing me to learn new things, she is encouraging me to get over myself and my own selfish fears and doubts. She is making me go out there every day to help her, whether I want to or not. She is forcing me to be more patient, more calm, more positive and I feel like it’s spilling over into all areas of my life. This dog has changed me and my life and she is only seven months old.

I just hope I can do her justice. I hope I can be the owner she deserves. She tries so hard to get it right, she makes me want to be a better person, for her.

So, if you ever get a difficult dog, the kind of dog other people tend to judge, just hold your head up high and keep going. Keep doing what you need to do for that dog, the dog you have, the dog you ended up with. At the end of the day, all I care about is helping Ada feel more confident so that she can navigate the world with less stress. Other people won’t know that, they won’t know her, they won’t know what’s going on in her collie brain, but I can advocate for her and make sure I’m setting her up for success. She is so worth it!!

What Are You Waiting For? Write The Thing!!

Image by yogesh more from Pixabay

There is something in your head.

Something that keeps you awake at night. Something that pops into your mind at the weirdest times. Something that you ponder over and wonder about. Something that you can’t let go.

Maybe its been there for a long time. Maybe it only came to you when you got older. You know what it is yet you constantly push it down and deny it, because to admit what it is would be dangerous.

You have an idea. A glimmer or maybe something more. You have something growing inside your brain without your permission. No one knows how it got there and you don’t understand why it keeps evolving, taking up more and more space. It wants to be listened to. It wants you to look at it. It wants you to write it!

But if you are like a lot of adults I’ve known, you’ll keep ignoring it, pushing it away, denying it, trying to forget it. You’ll tell yourself it’s silly, you’ll tell yourself it’s stupid. You won’t tell anyone else about it because chances are they’ll say the same thing, right?

People are unkind to writers and negative about writing, even though telling stories is what makes us human and is what has drawn us together through shared experiences throughout time. It’s how we’ve passed on information, it’s how we’ve stayed alive, it’s what makes us different to the animals. It’s not silly, it’s important. It’s not stupid, its magical. But you won’t find that out until you give in and write the thing.

So, what are you waiting for exactly?

To get more time? Who is going to gift you more time? No one. Certainly not this life or this world. If anything, they’ll just keep sucking more from you, if you let them. Give up on the idea that you will ever have the time to write. No one has the time to write. They make the time to write. They demand the time to write. They steal it back and make it theirs so that they can finally write the thing.

What else are you waiting for? The space to write? Is someone going to magically deliver a special writing room or secret loft or wooden cabin for you? No chance. Grab your space, steal it just like you need to steal your time. You just need a desk, you just need a chair. You just need that thing that is in your head!

Are you waiting for confidence? Forget that and write it anyway! Whose permission do you need? Everyone is a beginner when they start. Everyone is a novice, and amateur, learning as they go. Why are you any different that you can’t push that aside and write it anyway? You’re not. And you can.

Are you waiting for your skills to develop? They can’t do that unless you start exercising them! Let go of the need for perfection and write it anyway. Write the thing and let the thing guide you and teach you. Let it out.

Are you waiting for self-doubt and imposter syndrome to go away? Don’t be silly, they never will! Writers are anxious introverted people. We observe the world and absorb its pain and beauty. You’re going to explode if you keep all that inside of you!

Do you think its silly? Self-indulgent? Selfish? A waste of time? It’s none of those things. It’s there in your head waiting to be set free. It’s there for a reason. What is it doing there? How did it get there? You’ve got an idea, an itch, an inkling. Don’t you dare push it aside and focus on your boring job and household chores. Life is short. We are a long time dead. We will never get this moment, right here, right now, ever again. What are you waiting for?

Are you afraid of failure? Put off by the publishing industry? Made to feel not good enough? Maybe you don’t know how to start. Just start! Just do it! Just write the thing, write the thing down in all its ugly, clumsy, upside down glory and then breathe out in victory because you’ve started the journey and no one can stop you now.

There is something achingly tragic about a writer who never wrote, a human who never told their story, never voiced their fears and dreams, never let the thing run riot from brain to hand to pen to paper. Forget everything else. Forget publishing, forget editing, forget readers, forget sales, forget reviews. None of that matters when there is a thing in your head clawing to get out. Write the thing and leave the rest for now. It is your duty to set it free.

What on earth are you waiting for?

Dear 12 Year-Old Me…

Dear 12 year-old me,

Image by Piyapong Saydaung from Pixabay

I think about you a lot! I see you in my head sometimes. I don’t think you looked that different to how I do now. Same hair, same face. I don’t think my dress sense has even changed that much. I still remember your crippling shyness, how it crept up on you until you couldn’t deny who you were and how the world saw you. That became a heavy burden in your later teens but right now, it’s not a problem at all. I wish I could go back and tell you that one day you find your voice! That one day you run your own company and write and publish your own books!

It was all you wanted back then. Every day you would rush home from awful school, the place that churned up your guts every night in bed, and you’d glue yourself to your notebooks and pens, scribbling away, pen flying over paper, never stopping. You had so much inside of you, I think it surprised you as much as anyone when you wrote an entire book. Until the moment you created Danny and what would eventually become The Boy With The Thorn In His Side series, it had been short, endearing stories about lost animals.

What happened when you turned 12? Everything.

You discovered music. You couldn’t stand the vapid boy bands popular among your classmates in the early 90s, but you found a lyrical friend in Bob Dylan and other musicians from the 60s. You felt so out of place in your own generation, until you discovered grunge and Nirvana! I remember how you’d lie on the floor with your head between the speakers of your hi-fi system, trying to digest and pinpoint every drum beat, every strum of the guitar, amazed and bewildered by what you were hearing and feeling.

You discovered movies. The Lost Boys inspired you to write about monsters, though you made yours the human kind. I still remember that moment, the bit at the end of the movie where they discover that the head vampire is really Sam and Michael’s mother’s boyfriend and you thought what if that happened in real life? What if your mother was dating an absolute monster and no one knew it but you?

You discovered that your parents had already been divorced for a few years – for some bizarre reason, feeling the need to keep up a charade until the truth came out. What you felt more than anything was relief that the arguing would stop and fear about who they might date. After all, monsters really did exist…

You started writing Danny’s story fuelled by your own fears.

You discovered gritty storytelling. Your writing shifted from cutesy animal tales to hard-hitting ones about abuse, drugs, self-harm, and crime and that’s because you fell in love with The Outsiders and SE Hinton became on of your heroes. She published The Outsiders at aged 17, so that meant you could too, right? Reading her books and others like them, moved you away from animal stories and into darker territory.

You discovered Stephen King and his influence would seep into everything you wrote from then on. The exploration of character and back story and motivation, and the every day details we so often miss. For you, the monsters were always human.

You thought you were fat and so many people thought it their duty to convince you this was true. You began to wish you could shrink inside your own skin, or pull it all off and start again. You looked at your skinny older sisters with envy and longing. You didn’t want to be seen in public with a face like that, a body like that. You turned to your writing, to your characters and they became your entire world, your friends, your everything.

They never went away, let me tell you that now. They are all still here. Every night my mind plays out scenes that have happened or not happened, and every night I watch my own little movies in my head just like you did back then.

I wish I could go back and tell you that everything you hated about yourself then is everything I love about myself now.

You were called over-sensitive, grizzly, weak, easy to make cry. You lived on the edges looking in, observing. I can’t tell you how much that shaped you as a writer and how I wouldn’t go back and change a thing. How now I can see who you were and what you were becoming, that pain is good, that silence makes you stronger, that observation builds entire worlds inside you. That you overcome everything and did it anyway. At 12 years old all you wanted was to be a writer and today that is all I am. That is everything. I smile every day because you gave me these stories, these worlds, these words.

Thank you for doing it. Thank you for dedicating so many hours in your bedroom to writing and creating characters. None of it was wasted. None of it was in vain. It was all worth it in the end.

Thank you for being you.

With love,

44 Year-Old me.

Still Lost In My Own Little World

Me, aged twelve – thinking about my story at school, staring out of the window, barely listening to the teacher, barely aware of the world around me, filling my rough book with ideas and pieces of dialogue because my characters think the school day is a perfectly appropriate time to start talking to me. Rushing home, backpack bouncing against my shoulders, breathlessly running through the door to complete my chores before the rest of the day is mine. Me, in my room, music on first. Guns ‘N’ Roses at that age, thumping out from my hi-fi music system on the floor. My desk, an old coffee table, me on my knees, hunched over reams of scruffy A4 lined notepaper. A whole folder of one boy’s story, one boy’s scary world which would over time morph into an entire universe of my making.

Me, feeling excited to the point of explosion. Fixating entirely and completely on the story growing before my eyes under the frantic movement of my powerful biro. Pouring out the ideas and scenes that have bombarded me all day at school. Not a part of me is wondering what else I might have missed, from teachers, friends or society itself. Because I am removed and detached from all of that. That’s the background, the white noise, the distraction and this – this is real.

There were always other stories too, a constant stream of words and action. Sometimes I would sit at the breakfast bar in the kitchen with an old transistor radio to keep me company. I’d be lost in there, utterly gone. A ghost in this world but the puppet master of my own. I’d come back when I had to, with drowsy reluctance. What was there for me in this world? Terrible school, awful people, tedious chores and pointless homework. My parents rowing, doors slamming, people leaving, accusations flying, money draining away. I didn’t want any of that. I did not, in the words of Tom Waits, wanna grow up.

So, I didn’t. I broke free. I bucked the trend. Broke the rules. Did what all of them told me not to. I became a writer. And not much has changed. I have a foot in each world but most of my thoughts and dreams happen in my own one. As a child people used to say I was in my own little world and I guess they thought that one day I would grow out of it. Nah. I became a writer.

And it’s just the same now, as I hurtle back from the dreaded school run, a day off stretching ahead of me, dogs to walk, ideas to hold onto. I get to the laptop, get to my stories, to my own little world as fast I can. The world is bigger now – it’s a universe! I have sixteen published titles and eleven of those occur in the same universe. The Boy With The Thorn In His Side was my obsession as a child and a teenager. That story, those characters guided me through my youth and gave me a much needed escape route from reality. No wonder they mean so much to me. No wonder I am reluctant to let go. The Boy With The Thorn In His Side, the Holds End trilogy, The Mess of Me, Elliot Pie’s Guide To Human Nature and Bird People and Other Stories have all grown out of my obsessive writing as a twelve year old. I’d love to go back and tell her! And at the moment, the same universe continues to expand with three more books I am working on side by side. Again, I think twelve year old me would be amazed!

At the moment I am working on the fourth draft of At Night We Played In The Road which is a spin-off book from The Boy With The Thorn In His Side series. Two characters are introduced in book five of the series and I loved them so much I decided to give them their own book. A while back I penned a start to a sequel to The Mess Of Me, which was my debut novel in 2013. I finally finished it recently and as both these new books happen in The Boy With The Thorn In His Side universe, writing them inevitably led me to one final story. A crossover story, which I am currently on the second draft of. This book, The Dark Finds You, brings Danny from The Boy With The Thorn In His Side series, Leon from The Mess Of Me, Bill from the Holds End trilogy and Elliot from Elliot Pies Guide To Human Nature together in one story about a missing boy. It happened naturally and inevitably, I feel, because storylines that run through all those books have tangled my characters up together in the same dark criminal world where youngsters are lured into running drugs for older, criminal gangs and all of this comes to a head in the crossover book. It really finishes off Danny’s story too – from the boy I created aged twelve, to the man he is now – this last story ties everything up with no loose ends left hanging. Once these next three books are released, it really will be the end for that universe.

I will be both happy and sad but other worlds are calling! Plus, I don’t want to drag it out forever! This last book really will tie everything up perfectly and it’s been a very satisfying one to write. I think it is the fastest and easiest book I’ve ever written. It took just six weeks to complete the first draft and it just sort of wrote itself!

So, I’d like to pay homage to my obsessive twelve year old self. Thank goodness you didn’t give up. That goodness that drive to write was there every single day, upon opening your eyes! You didn’t know then what it would lead to but you did know you were addicted!

And I’m extremely happy and grateful to still be lost inside that world of my own making. It’s the best place to be.