The story of a reluctant agility dog...
Holly was three years old when Clive Bayliss adopted her from The Border Collie Trust in August 2010. He only had limited information about her early years, except that she had spent her first two years on a farm in Wales, and was presumably a failed working farm dog. She was rehomed and then rehomed again seven months later. It was clear from the start that this little lass had a few issues. With the help of the trainers at Dog Learning Zone and a lot of patience, Clive has helped to progress Holly towards a happier doggie life.
There was a six month 'honeymoon period' while Holly settled in. Then her true personality began to appear but that's not surprising in a rescue dog. During those first few months, I picked up on signs that Holly had not have been treated very well during her early life. I can remember once when I got her a tennis ball launcher as part of my attempts to get her to play. The moment she saw it, she cowered as if she expected to be hit. The launcher has not been out of the cupboard since. She also used to wake up squealing from what I can only assume were nightmares. I am very pleased to say that this does not happen anymore!
After that first incident, Holly was even less willing to go for walks. She would lie down at the end of the drive as soon as she realised we were going out for a walk and not for a ride in the car. Both her dog sitter and I had some success by carrying her for a little way and then putting her down to get her started. She would then pull on her lead all the way round her walk in order to end the ordeal as soon as possible.
Early on, I also noticed that Holly did really not engage with people. Initially she liked meeting them but, as soon as she recognised them as authority figures, she became more reserved and stand-offish. After six months, I realised that she was spending more and more time on her own. Any attempt to work with her on any training exercise was way too stressful for her, and she would either shut down or leave the room. Just occasionally I would catch glimpses of a fun loving dog that wanted to play. Then she would remember herself and the defences would go back up.
It became all too obvious that Holly was not getting the best out of her life and so, I contacted Elaine Brown at Dog Learning Zone (DLZ) to see what - if anything - could be done. Dogs don't get the biggest allotment of life so all the more important to make it a fun filled, full life.
Along with a change of diet, we tried a few different training / desensitisation techniques with her including TTouch. Unfortunately the peace and calm of our first session at the Redgrave training field was shattered by the sound of nearby shotgun fire. Holly would not get out of the car! Eventually I did get to learn some TTouch techniques that have proved helpful which I still use to this day.
Typically after about 15 minutes of the session, however, Holly would decide she had had enough. Her tail would go between her legs and it would be difficult - if not impossible - to get her to re-engage. On some occasions, we went home rather than to pressure her into continuing, Later on, we realised that we had effectively let her control the pace of the lesson.
Despite it being hard work, it was clear that Holly was getting something from the agility. She just loved the tunnels and quite enjoyed the jumps as well. Sometimes she even forgot herself and allowed her tail to wag! We did have to remember not to have her jumping towards the exit as she would invariably end up camped by the door and would have to be carried back into the arena. We had no success at all with any of the contact equipment even at very low heights. She would just freeze up. It was just too scary! We persevered for six months and did make progress, although not with the contact equipment.
The purpose of TACT is to de-sensitive dogs and provide them with coping techniques. It also teaches their owners how to recognise when the dog is stressed and act accordingly. One of the big things I took away from this course was dog body language. I would say this is essential for every responsible dog owner, and I believe it is now one of the earliest - and most important - lessons taught at the Dog Learning Zone.
The course is designed to go at a certain pace but it quickly became evident that you could not rush Holly. When she decided it was enough, you could not get any useful work from her without a rest period. The penny finally dropped. Holly would only go at her pace! The training was interspersed with periods of de-stressing using non-training based activity, either relaxing in her travel crate or by giving her big rewards, For Holly the biggest reward was running through an agility tunnel and tackling a couple of low jumps!
The TACT course was very successful in a number of ways. For example, one of Holly's 'safe' places was in the built-in wardrobe in my bedroom. She would spend much of her day in there and very little time with me. As a result of the TACT course, we managed to get her out of the cupboard and into a more appropriate dog crate which could also be used as a safe place when travelling and training. More significant was the fact that she now chose to spend much more time with me and less time on her own - a great outcome.
We finally re-started agility early in January 2013. It was apparent that Holly was much happier in this quieter class. She was not being wound up by other dogs, and she really started to progress quite well though still no contacts despite best efforts.
After much perseverance, we did get her to do little bits of the dog walk using the ramps and a low table. She did also occasionally go over the A-frame with it propped up at a very low level (around 50 centimetres to the apex). Very occasionally we could coax her over the full dog walk albeit set to around 40 centimetres in height, but she still did not like it. It really was a case of two steps forwards and one step back. Holly would not be rushed.
A lot of this work required the contact equipment being set up to one side just for Holly to practice on. This was not practical every week which meant that every now and again she would be tried on various pieces of contact equipment at working height. We kept on resolutely trying the contact equipment, sometimes set especially low and sometimes at a normal height, never forcing her and going at her pace once again).
What had changed was that Holly was really enjoying the whole session. No longer did she want to go home after 15 minutes. She loved bounding around while all the equipment was being set up. After a few months, the focus of the training had switched from basic activities intended to minimise Holly's stress levels to much more complex training work that would previously have caused her to panic and close down. We were achieving results that we simply never thought possible when we started down the agility path. Given that the motivation was to help Holly have a bit of fun, bless her. It really did not matter that the contact equipment was too much for her. From time to time, her tail still goes between her legs but much less often these days. She is generally a much happier dog both when training and at home.
Early in March of 2014 we had an equipment set-up which had the dog walk up on trestles at half full working height and, as usual, we gave Holly a quick try on it to see if she had changed her mind about how scary it was. Much to everyone's amazement, she trotted over the walk, tail wagging all the way. She went over it a further two times after which we decided not to push our luck. The very next week, exactly the same thing happened with the A-frame. This was definitely a different, much more confident dog compared to the one that started agility back in 2011!
Bringing things up to date...
The plan is to stick with agility. Over the next few months hopefully I will be able to get her doing more exercise to bring her weight down and her fitness levels up. She is still not keen on walks but you can't have everything!
Working with Holly has been difficult at times but always very rewarding. Because of her lack of confidence, I've had to break a number of what would normally be regarded as 'golden rules' with her training. It was too hard gaining confidence to take any risks with and, if that means letting her get away with a little jumping up when she greets people, so be it. She remains, of course, loved to bits and spoilt rotten!
I don’t think Holly and I could have achieved anything like as much success without the tireless help, support and ideas of Sue and Elaine at the Dog Learning Zone for which they have my grateful thanks - Holly's too I'm sure. Aunties Elaine and Sue are certainly now honorary members of her pack!
Insight / hindsight
Smart dogs can be amongst the most difficult to train as they definitely have minds of their own and they know how to use them. The question who is training whom often arises. With effort, however, what you can achieve is amazing and it is vital for a smart dog that it receives a good diet of mental as well as physical stimulation.
In summary, for any dog either smart or scatter brained, agility is just plain good fun. With time and patience, it will help even the most nervous or shy dog to come out of their shell. I can certainly recommend it from my own experience with Holly.
About the author...
He had spent much of his formative years on farms where there were Border Collies so the Border Collie Trust was his first port of call. When he went there, he met and fell in love with Holly. She just tugged on his heart strings, so she went home with him.
In November last year, he had a transplant. Both he and Holly are appreciating his newfound energy levels. Doing agility with Holly has proved a great way for him to de-stress from his job as an engineer in Aerospace. His company provides safety critical equipment to most of the major manufacturers, so if you have travelled by air, at some point you have had your life in the hands of equipment they supply.
Clive is currently debating about getting a friend for Holly from BCT (outgoing young male) but with her insecurity, she still doesnt know what is for the best.
First published 5 November 2014