The Road Less Travelled
I do love a 'jeu de mots' for my blog posts, but this one is particularly apt, given that the book by the same name deals with acceptance, responsibility, honesty, love, and taking no short cuts.
I rescued Megan back in October. It was a beautiful day; quite warm in the sun; and I was online looking for a last minute getaway. With such great weather and time on my hands, I popped to my local rescue centre to walk a couple of dogs. With the crisp blue skies and sun on my face, I was already imagining myself poolside; pina colada in hand. Yes, I definitely deserved a break. I would go home, book the holiday, enjoy myself, and then think about another dog after Christmas. Good plan.
Walking finished, I was about to leave the rescue centre, when a super sweet and shy little face was watching me intently from behind another walker's legs. She'd already been walked, and was about to go back in her kennel; but I was asked if I'd like to walk her again, seeing as there was still time before closing.
I did, and I was definitely not prepared for what happened next. I still don't know what happened next, but there was an instant connection, and something said 'take this dog home'. So I did. The holiday; never booked.
The day I met Megan.
Megan's previous life remains a mystery, but a number of factors indicate that she was perhaps, shall we say, the 'outdoorsy' type, having never lived in a warm and loving home.
As can often be the case with many rescue dogs, we enjoyed a brief 'honeymoon period' before Megan felt comfortable enough to tell me how she really felt about the world, and it turned out that she was deeply fearful of almost everything. Not just the typical things that we imagine dogs to be afraid of, like traffic, bicycles, vacuum cleaners, or other dogs (although she was afraid of those things too); I'm talking tennis balls, tape measures, seagulls, towels, and anything that smelled of rubber or plastic. The radio, the television, talking on the telephone. Running a shower, spritzing hairspray, sneezing. The list goes on, but you get the picture, it was (and still is in some areas) quite tough. The toughest bit of all; her fear of people.
I do not profess to be the only one out there living with a reactive dog. I know that there are many
committed owners managing something similar; and it's good to know that you're not alone, right?; so if you're one of these wonderful people, here are some tips that I hope will help you on your journey.
You're In For The Long Haul
We humans are an impatient bunch. We all want to get to our end destination as quickly and as easily as possible. How many of us cuss 'slow' broadband speeds or the driver in front of us; walk or run on escalators; hang up the phone if our call is in a queue; or buy pre-chopped vegetables and salad? I know that I'm certainly guilty of some of these things; but there's no quick, easy, hassle free shortcut when it comes to modifying a dog's behaviour. It takes dedication, patience, sacrifice, empathy, love, and potentially... a lot of time. Some dogs overcome their difficulties in a matter of months, for but for others, it may take years. Acceptance of this fact is hard, really hard, but if you can do it, it's already a big step forward. You might not get to Costa Coffee or Costa Brava next week, or even next month, but you will get there one day.
Don't Travel Alone
Living with a fearful dog can be an incredibly isolating and stressful experience, especially if like Megan, your dog is afraid of people. Life just goes on hold. In the early days I spent many a week home alone; unable to go for a walk, visit my family and friends, invite family and friends to visit me, stop to talk to my neighbours, or even go out to work. It had, and still has, a very big impact on my life both personally and professionally; but I'm pleased to say that things are improving all the time, and this is because of the same wonderfully supportive family and friends who are just as understanding, dedicated, and patient as me. Share behaviour modification plans with family, friends, neighbours, your fellow dog walkers, and let them know how they can support you - whatever challenges you and your dog are facing. Join a Facebook group; many of them offer message and video chat services, or even local meet ups. Building a support network is invaluable.
Plan Your Journey Accordingly
If like me, you have a long list of challenges, it's easy to feel overwhelmed and not know where to start. It's true that Rome wasn't built in a day, and you won't be able to tackle everything at once; so make a list, prioritise the important challenges, and devise a sustainable plan of action. Build a daily schedule that enables you walk, feed, and train your dog at roughly the same times every day, and stick to it. Routine and predictability makes dogs feel safe, and making your dog feel safe is critical to any behaviour modification plan. A daily schedule is easy to implement, even if you work, and will go a long way to helping your dog settle. For me, the priority was getting in the car. Megan needed to visit the vet, and getting her in the car also meant that I could take her to lots of different places to socialise her (and get myself out of the house!) Vacuuming is overrated, so that one can wait.
Relaxing in the boot of the car.
Take Regular Breaks
Whilst it's important to socialise/desensitise/train regularly, it's also important to take regular breaks. Build downtime into your daily schedule, and have at least one complete rest day a week, where your dog does nothing apart from relax and have fun.
Track Your Progress
Every extra step down the road, second of noise from the vacuum cleaner, or inch towards a person's hand is progress, but it is so easy to miss or forget about, especially when the going is tough. Jotting down a few words a day, no matter how brief, is a good way to track what's going well, what isn't, and what you can do differently next time around. It feels good to look back and see just how far you've come.
Wrong Turns And Road Blocks
There will absolutely be days when you take a wrong turn or your dog simply says 'no thanks'. Don't be disheartened by this. It can often feel like one step forward and two steps back, and this is perfectly 'normal'. If something isn't working, take a break, and then see if you can tackle it differently. Perhaps an impromptu rest day is needed, or environmental factors are making it difficult to concentrate. Perhaps review communication style, or see if the task you're working on can be broken down into smaller steps. The worry, stress, and frustration of behaviour modification can be exhausting for even the most stoic amongst us, so if neither of you are in the mood that day, don't worry about it; just put your feet up, enjoy a rest, and start afresh tomorrow.
Remember The Positives
This is easier said than done, I know, but there are always positives. It's easy to say that our dogs are afraid of 'everything' when we feel overwhelmed, but is it really everything? When you're making a list about the challenges you face, be sure to make a list the good things about your dog, and remind yourself of these things every day. Despite not being about to blow dry my hair, use an electric beard trimmer (my husband, not me!), listen to the radio (unfamiliar voices), talk on the telephone (more unfamiliar voices) put the vacuum cleaner on, or use my printer, Megan has never objected to the sound of our electric toothbrushes or the washing machine (so at least we're clean). She plays gently in the house, has never chewed anything, doesn't beg for food, sleeps in her own bed, is happy to wear a harness, and I can clip her nails with ease. Chewed furniture, overgrown nails, eating a meal in peace, and daily battles with harnesses are problems for many other people. Your dog will always have positives.
Celebrate The Wins
Achievements feel good, so celebrate them, no matter how small. I've celebrated desensitisation to a tennis ball, drying Megan with a towel, walking calmly past a duck, toileting away from home, getting over the threshold of my parents' front door (and promptly leaving again), talking on the telephone to people I know (now familiar voices), and spraying kitchen worktop cleaner. These are such small achievements for me, but massive achievements for Megan. When daily life is in this much turmoil, you absolutely need to celebrate the wins. Our own mental health is also important!
Better Late Than Never
It's impossible to say how long it'll take any of us to complete our journey, but it's likely we'll arrive later than we planned. This doesn't mean that we should try and speed things up though; it's absolutely better to be late arriving than never get there are all. 'Slow to go'. 'More haste less speed'. 'Slow and steady wins the race'. They are all true. Encouraging our dogs before they're ready and trying to push them through it will only slow our journeys down.
Ask For Directions
If you're lost, ask for help!
You Will Get There
It's easy to wonder if things will ever get any better, but they do, so hang on in there. Megan still faces some challenges, but we've made an incredible amount of progress in the last five months, and it's still early days. Five months is no time at all in the scheme of things, even though it has certainly felt like it at times. We're not quite on the Spanish Costas, but we have made it to a coffee shop, and now have lots of doggy friends.
It is absolutely a journey worth making, so please, if you're travelling, don't give up, you will soon get to The Bright Side Of the Road.
Sunday morning coffee. We're sitting outside, but this is still progress. Last time we tried, Megan wouldn't even leave the car.