My special dog and I hide behind trees
He had beautiful eyes and a stomach bug and I fell in love.
Four years ago I had the first encounter with Dante in a beautiful rescue center in Connemara, thinking back at it it was actually quite romantic. We had walks together on stunning Irish mornings and he was new there. I was asked to name him and given I am quite emotional and romantic I decided he was the one. Before taking him home he spent a month in the rescue center, while I was moving house and during that time the staff had observed his reactions towards other dogs. I was told he may not be the dog for me and that the behaviour he was displaying could have been too much to handle. At the time I had zero knowledge in dog behaviour, but I felt I did, given I always had dogs in my life. So I decided to adopt him.
Dante arrived at home, the first thing he did was lifting his back leg on a box of music records, the second thing he did was changing my life entirely.
The first walks on the Salthill prom were intense, at the sight of every dog he would start barking, lunging and making other sounds that I have never been able to describe, they were probably something between a turkey gobble and a blender. Until one day, after seeing two dogs passing beside him, he redirected his frustration and nipped a gentleman passing by and since then he then delivered several bites.
I decided to get help, I started doing some sessions with a dog trainer until a day I figured I could try and start working towards becoming a dog trainer myself and so I did. I embarked in a beautiful journey with a wonderful school called AniEd who helped me gaining a great knowledge in dog behaviour and opened my mind to this wonderful world. During my course Dante and started working with a wonderful dog behaviourist at AniEd, who helped us and still help us greatly.
But this is not a post about my education in dog training, nor it's a guide on how to put in place behaviour modification programme for a special dog (for that I would advise to contact a good certified dog trainer/behaviourist in your area to start an appropriate journey) this wants to be more of a storytelling for all those people who have gone through or are going through what Dante and I are, to let them know they are not alone, and to offer them our experience as a gift.
Before carrying on telling my story I wish to say that I do not like the terms 'reactive' or 'agressive' or 'problematic' as I do not think that they are fair terms to describe a being and their personality as a whole. So from now on I am just going to use the word special, because everyone is special :)
I have devoted the last four years of my life to Dante. I love him to the moon and back, I love him more than he loves food, I loved the path we've taken together, but I'm not going to lie, it has been extremely tough and it still is. I've adapted my entire life to him. My relationship, my social life, my career and my mental health they all suffered from the limitations I've put in place to manage Dante's life at the best of my abilities.
One of the hardest things to deal with when living with a special dog is the immense sense of isolation you perceive. You’re cut out from every social event, would it be a walk or even getting a drink on a terrace on a nice summer evening. You focus on the fact that your dog is home and you need to go back to him because he can’t be included in your everyday life. In the last four years I haven’t travelled much, I had to turn down many invites, I had to hide behind countless cars and trees and bushes and I had to rush home from work or a day out to get back to Dante.
I had to hear many people telling me I was exaggerating, some other suggesting me to rehome the dog, or even worse some said to my face I should put him to sleep. Then if you are a dog trainer, people are even harder on you, saying you've done a terrible job and that you are never going to succeed in your career because your dog is such a bad example of your work. All that gets stuck in your mind and it starts to create a sense of detachment and refusal towards your dog.
That is the worse thing as it hinders you from experiencing this journey with acceptance, serenity and goodwill. If you decided to take such a journey it's fundamental to take care of your mental health as you need it to be able to help your dog. It's very hard to detach ourselves from that feeling of disappointment, which is fuelled by how society reacts to special dogs. Since we are kids the world instructs us that two things exist: good and bad, but in reality this distinction is not appropriate to describe behaviour and beings.
Behaviour is the consequence of many things including environment, past experiences and genetics. The behaviour displayed by a dog or a human in a certain situation is much more complex than the simple connotation of good and bad. Think of every time you felt stressed or frustrated and maybe reacted in a manner you weren't proud of, it can happen but it doesn't determine who you are in every aspect of your life. Nonetheless, according to the rules of society when a dog displays a certain behaviour he's immediately deemed as bad and we carry that label with us.
It took a long time for me to modify that feeling of fear, disappointment and frustration each time Dante would react on someone or something. But in the moment you are able to focus on the big picture, on the life of your dog outside the object of frustration, fear, excitement and you tell yourself that it's just behaviour, that there is no bad connotation in that, you are able to relax, to guide your dog towards a better path and to help him to learn how to cope with situations that might make him feel anxious, fearful or frustrated.
1. Find a certified behaviourist
The first thing to do is to start helping your dog to learn how to respond to their lives' challenges in a stress-free and more relaxed manner. To do so it's fundamental to put in place a behaviour modification programme with a GOOD certified dog trainer/behaviourist. Ideally a dog behaviourist would be the best option, but if you find a good responsible dog trainer, they will refer you onto a behaviourist if deemed necessary. As dog owners, when we are looking for a dog trainer/behaviourist, we are usually swamped with names of professionals out there and at the start we are unable to decide which one to choose. Make sure to check what methods to they use, you should be on the lookout for the following terms: positive reinforcement, force-free, reward based, humane methods. Check their background and continuing education. You can ask to go observe a class if you are in doubt and want to see how they work. Working with a good dog trainer/behaviourist will not only help your dog it will also help you to get into an healthy mind frame.
2. Patience and Exercise
So how can you start changing your mindset? Patience and exercise. Every time there's a situation in which your dog reacts, or behaves in such a manner that makes you feel disheartened, anxious or stressed, take a deep breath, and repeat yourself over and over 'It's just behaviour', ''it's just the way my dog is answering to this challenge in this moment' 'this doesn't define who my dog is and who I am'. Don't let yourself down when there's a situation in which your dogs reacts, it can happen, we can't control everything. See every tough situation as an opportunity to apply what you've learnt and to learn each time something more.
3. Focus on the good times, small victories and love
Try to focus on all the good things you enjoy in the relationship with your dog. Remember to do things that your dog enjoys, possibly in a safe and managed environment, things that make you experience small victories and that can strengthen the relationship with your dog and give you good memories to look back at. Watch your dog sniffing the spring breeze with eyes closed, or cuddling beside you at the end of a tough day, enjoy that looks he gives you in uncertain times and the happiness he shows in moving stones under water on a cold, windy, rainy winter afternoon while you wait freezing on shore, wait that's maybe too specific to my dog, but you get the idea :)
4. Make it a game and smile at the awkward times
Think of all the places you've discovered while avoiding other dogs, new walks, new bushes, new times of the day you didn't know existed, after hiding countless time behind cars you can even come to the realisation that actually so many of them have scratches and you're not the only clumsy one while parking, again that's very specific but it's just to make an example of how to find things that make you smile even in situation when you think you couldn't.
5. Remember you are not the only one
And this was the whole point of writing this blog. YOU ARE NOT ALONE. There are countless people out there who are going through what you are, we are just all hiding either at home or behind a tree or a car at normal walks time but we are there. If you happen to know someone else who shared their lives with a special dog, talk to them, rant together about the tough times and rejoice together of the victorious ones. If you don't know anyone, feel free to write to me and don't worry I'll be more than happy to hear about every bush you've hidden into.
6. Take care of yourself
Last but not least, Remember to take care of yourself and of your needs. Don't put yourself in second place or you'll risk to fuel a feeling of resentment towards your dog which will hinder you from keep on the right path during this journey. Cry the times you need to cry, rejoice by shouting, jumping or dancing the Macarena the times you feel to rejoice, behind the trees nobody will see you anyway ;) but do it, you are important and you are doing a good job, so you deserve rewards too. Also, dancing the Macarena it's just behaviour anyway.