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!!