“Imagine a woman in her late thirties,” said Martin, “who has never mixed with human beings ever in her whole life. Now imagine she’s walking down the street and she sees another human but they shout at her. The next one she sees ignores her. Another one shouts. One tries to hit her. Imagine how her life is…”
It’s a horrible thought experiment.
“And that’s how it is for Stella,” he said.
Stella is our dog. We adopted her from an animal shelter last November. We don’t know her past. We don’t know her previous owner. We don’t even know how old she is – maybe somewhere between four and six.
We do know – now – that she’s very, very damaged.
We were naïve. I’ll hold my hand up, right now, and say that if I knew then what I know now, I would not have taken this infuriating, problematic, neurotic dog on. She’s changed our lives.
But honestly? She’s taught us so much that I couldn’t bear to give her up now.
The shelter simply said: “she’s fine with people but not so good with other dogs. She can be socialised. Bring her back for some training.”
So I did. The trainer at the shelter was optimistic. “She’ll soon learn.” When she saw another dog, she would pull hard, barking and snarling to get to them.
The trainer dragged her back. “Get a half-choke collar,” he instructed, “and snap the lead to correct her. If she’s really going for it, get some lemon juice and squeeze it into her mouth. She won’t like the taste, but it will do her no harm.”
Not like electric collars, not like prong collars – lemon juice will do no harm. Or so he said.
I knew I didn’t want to use physical force on the dog. I think most people agree that’s not productive. Did lemon juice count as physical force?
I soon learned that it did.
I was walking her in a deserted car park, practising our heelwork. Heel. Back. Round. Wait. Sit. Stay. Good girl. Then a man walked past with a terrier, and she hurled herself towards him. I was mortified. Once more, I had become “that” dog owner. You know the one – you’ve seen me, or those like me, struggling to hold a dog back as it foams at the mouth and tries to attack another dog. Stella is half Labrador and half Rottweiler. She looks intimidating.
I tried the lemon juice.
She hit the deck, throwing herself to the floor, cowering away from me, terrified.
Terrified of me.
“Stella, Stella, it’s okay, come here girl, come on.”
Of course she wouldn’t.
I didn’t go back to that trainer, and the lemon juice got used up on pancakes. Instead, I turned to the internet, and soon discovered that there are a hundred different “methods” of dog training, and each has its vocal and passionate adherents. And my goodness, but they cannot agree on what is “right.”
I threw the half-choke collar out, and bought a headcollar. I looked at all the training advice, and one stood out: a website called “CARE for reactive dogs.”
By now I knew that Stella’s reaction could be caused by fear. We can’t always judge on what we see. You might see a dog barking and snarling – yet it might not mean anger. In many dogs, their instinct when faced with something scary, is to make that scary thing go away.
Therefore, the website argued, the trigger – such as the sight of another dog – needs to be paired with something delightful, and for most dogs, this means food. Specifically, amazing treats that they don’t usually get.
The progress, they warn, will be slow. You have to work at the dog’s pace, and that might be infinitesimally slow. Your dog might explode when it sees another dog four hundred metres away. You can close that distance metre by metre over the weeks. A friend sent me a message to reassure me … and to tell me that her dog had taken nearly a year to become settled.
I found another trainer, Martin, who worked with rescue dogs. His patience and his hope lent me strength, as day after day I’d come home from a walk in tears, both my stress level and Stella’s up through the roof. He believed in me, and more importantly, he believed in Stella.
She can’t tell me why she reacts to other dogs. We can guess but we’ll never know for sure. Working with Martin has led us to the uncomfortable discovery that, in her case, she’s not reacting as much out of fear-aggression as other forms, more intractable forms: interest-specific aggression, for example. She doesn’t want to make the other dog go away. She wants to kill it. She may have been bred for fighting; she may have been abused in other ways.
As we will never know, all we can do is work on today. He’s referred us to a behaviourist. Now we have to find £1000, and we will, somehow, because none of this is Stella’s fault.
Triggering. It’s a powerful thing. Stella doesn’t enjoy lunging at other dogs. She doesn’t do it for fun. Her adrenaline spikes, she stares, she shakes, she pants; we have learned how to help her to calm down. I mimic dog body language. I sit on the floor and I yawn: I send her “calming signals” and I might look stupid, but it works. We know this will take months to cure, maybe longer, and it will never fully be gone. And for the moment, my husband takes her on the evening walk, and endures the stares of the general public, who mutter about dangerous dogs and wonder why she is muzzled. I take her for hours in the morning on the moors, miles from anyone, and she is finally able to be the dog that she ought to be.
And I think about people. Us. Our emotions. Those visceral reactions to things half-seen and barely remembered. How a smell or a sound can take us to the brink of chaos and we don’t know why. And our reaction might not look like fear, but it often is.
And I think about how other may judge us for it. “She’s neurotic,” they might say, and “he’s attention seeking, so just ignore him.” They think that all we need is a half-choke collar and a good squirt of lemon juice.
So we’d hit the deck, and cower down, and they’d think that their methods had worked.
Stella was the inspiration for the dog Kali in my cozy mystery stories, Some Very English Murders. I know I’m writing from a wish-fulfilment angle. If only Stella has made the progress in real life that Kali has made in fiction! They are light, traditional cozies with an idealised and fluffy tone.
Book One, Small Town Shock (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00VGQXDWE), is 99c/99p or free to those with Kindle Unlimited. Book Two, Small Town Secrets (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00W5RIJTK), is also available. You can check out my website, and see more pictures of Stella, here: http://issybrooke.com