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How a nightmare became a dream

Louise Downing fell in love with Belgian Shepherds when she first saw them at Crufts about seven years ago. In subsequent visits, she would search out at least one wonderful BSD owner who would spend time talking to her about the breed, their qualities, their quirks, and their requirements, until she finally decided that it definitely was the breed for her.

I wanted to re-home an adult dog, as I work during the day, and to leave a puppy alone for four hours or so at a time would be totally unfair. Through Jane Curzon of Belgian Shepherd Rescue, I finally found out about a three year old red bitch with a black mask, who was living in Cornwall and needed a new home.

Due to her severe problems, I had to really convince Jane that I was up for the job of offering this beautiful girl a new start and a good home. Eventually she relented, and the details of her foster mum were sent to me, so off we went, Steve, my wonderful supportive partner and me, on an 800 mile round trip, to see if this Terv would like us.

Meeting Shannan
We first met Shannan running free with her foster brother Snoop, an English Bull Terrier in a beautiful coastal park. Armed with pockets of treats, I nervously held my hand out to her, my heart was pounding with the fear that she would not take to me. I need not have worried. The bond was instant. I avoided direct eye contact with her and called her name, and up she came straight to me and leant against my leg. I looked down into the most beautiful brown eyes that I had ever seen. I gave her head a gentle stroke, put my hand in my pocket and handed her a treat, she took it, and stood looking at me expectantly for another.

Her foster Mum, Sue, was amazed 'She is so nervous of strangers, I can't believe she came straight to you like that, I think you two are going to get on very well together.'

We carried on walking for a bit, and Sue filled us in on Shannan's history. When Sue had taken her off her neighbour a couple of months earlier, the dog had been in a terrible state, both physically and mentally. Her coat was very thin and wispy. She had been left outside in the back yard for at least the last six months of her life, apparently due to her 'destructive abilities.' She was terrified of any sudden movements and noises, and was basically a nervous wreck.

All I wanted to do was to bring her home, and try to convince her that not all humans were bad! We had arranged to stay for the weekend, to ensure that Shannan got to know us a little bit before the long car ride to her new home. It was Steve's birthday, and so we had originally thought it would be nice to have a quiet meal for two in a sea-side restaurant, until Sue suggested that we might like to take Shannan out by ourselves. We jumped at the opportunity, and decided to make our way into the sea-side town to get some fish and chips.

It was my first glimpse of how desperately fearful this beautiful creature was of everyone and everything. The lead was the first object of terror. Her eyes rolled and she nearly collapsed when I first attached it to her collar. We stood quietly and allowed her to gain her confidence, slowly left the house and made our way down the street. She 'wall-walked' all the way. By this I mean she pulled away from the lead, pressing herself against the walls and fences down the street, as if she wanted them to swallow her up. Realising how frightened she was, we returned to the car and opened the rear door. She jumped in gladly.

A chance encounter
We drove to the harbour and I decided to risk bringing her out again for the short walk to the fish and chip shop nearby. While we were waiting outside for Steve, a woman came up to us and said 'Is that Shannan?' assuming she was a friend of Sue's.

I replied, 'Yes'

'Why have you got her?' she asked

'We are her new owners. We are taking her home tomorrow,' I replied.

'New owners? Where are you from?'


'Birmingham? that's miles away!' She responded.

The next words she spoke chilled my heart 'She hasn't changed a bit - always had her tail tucked between her legs when I brought her out myself'

I looked down, and was horrified to see that this woman was right. Shannan's tail was curled right under her. Up until this meeting, despite her nervous state, she had not done this with her tail before. Shannan looked up at me and stepped backwards. I then knew with absolute certainty that this woman was Shannan's original owner. I felt sick. What if she changed her mind and decided that we could not have her. Luckily she left, but I was in a terrible state when Steve finally came out of the shop.

To see how my dog cringed before this woman in such a fearful state was just stomach churning. We sat and ate our meal in silence on the harbour wall. Shan sitting quietly beside us. We returned to Sue's and told her what had happened, and she promised that she would not let her neighbour take her back. She had already signed a note to give up her ownership, and Sue was not going to allow Shannan to go back to her former life.

Going home
After a very fretful night at the hotel and an early breakfast, we arrived at Sue's at 8am in the morning, just in case! All was well, and Shannan leapt straight into the back of the car. It was a tearful goodbye for Sue - and for me - but we soon started on the long drive home. We stopped off at various moorland and woodland sites to let Shannan stretch her legs, and finally arrived home at about 3.00pm.

My poor cat Amy ran straight up a tree on first sight of her new house mate, totally unimpressed. We knew that Shannan was used to living with cats, so Amy would be alright once she had got over the initial shock. They happily tolerate each other now!

We let Shannan settle in to her new surroundings at her own pace as she was so nervous. On her third day with us, though, I saw a completely new side to her! I had just put her food down in the kitchen, which she was eating, when I accidentally brushed against her. In a flash she spun round - jumped up and pinned me against the wall, paws on my shoulders, teeth only centimetres from my face. She was really growling and her eyes were filled with rage! For what seemed like an eternity she held me there, and then left me to resume eating. I still did not move. My mind was racing, I knew I should show her who was boss and remove her food, but I also knew that she had been half starved and tormented with food in her former life. There had to be another way.

I scoured my behavioural books and the internet, and I found what I was looking for! With dogs as aggressive over food as Shannan was, the worst thing I could have done was to remove her food, as all her worst fears would have been confirmed. Instead, for every subsequent meal I stood near her bowl and put in a handful of food, waited for her to finish it - then added some more - and continued like this until her whole meal had been served. I did this for about two weeks! She now associates me near her when she is eating as possibly providing more food, so I am no longer a threat. Steve followed my lead and did the same thing. She has never  reacted to anyone in such a manner since!

Every day brought new challenges
When she first arrived she had chewed and scratched her stomach and legs until they were raw and bleeding. The vet initially suggested grass allergy, but she did not respond at all to the treatment prescribed. Once more the internet gave the answers, intolerance to additives etc. in dog food. She is now on a BARF diet of bones and raw food, carefully supplemented and she has never looked back.

Because of her incarceration in the backyard, she had very little muscle tone, so we started taking her swimming at our local indoor dog pool at Hopwood. She was apprehensive at first, but now she adores swimming. We built her health and physical being up slowly, with good food, and careful exercise until at last she started to resemble the true beauty of her breed. She put on weight, gained good muscle tone, and her coat which started to grow has now become thick and a true rich colour.

She even started to wag her tail! The first time she did this she actually looked round at it in surprise, because I don't think she realised that it could do this!

Her previous owner and her 12 year old son had obviously not been very loving, and treated her very badly. She was terrified of any kind of flame, flickering light, reflection, movement or noise. We built her nerves up just as gradually as we did with her fitness, and I spent many, many, many hours sitting outside the house, supermarkets, shops, and markets just getting her used to traffic, people and every day objects such as pushchairs etc. At first she used to panic and try to pull away at the merest sight of anything she deemed as frightening (everything!!) but by introducing her to things slowly, and without making a fuss about them, she now accepts most everyday things without fear. She does not even leave the room when we vacuum now - when she arrived, even the sight of the hoover turned off would send her diving for cover in a different room!

So all was going well until I had her spayed! To this day I have still not found out what went on at the vet's surgery. All I know is that my beautiful girl nearly died shortly afterwards. We brought her home after her operation and, as expected, she was very quiet and subdued. She was like this for a couple of days and refused to eat. In less than a week, she lost over 2 kilos in weight. I voiced my concerns with the vet, and they had a quick check over her and told me there was nothing wrong! On the fourth night I heard her moving around the kitchen and came downstairs to find diarrhoea and blood all over the kitchen floor. I just sat on the floor and cried.

Shan had not eaten for several days and just lay in her bed looking as though she had literally lost the will to live. After everything we had been through, I could not believe I was going to lose her like this. She would get up as though she was in agony and would potter across the floor, every step as though the floor was on fire, and still the vet denied there was a problem!!

My friend, Wendy, is a veterinary nurse (from a different practice), and she took my desperate call at 4.00am in the morning. She told me if the blood was bright red, this was not as dangerous as if it was thick and black - at last a tiny glimmer of hope! She came over with her partner Gary at 7.00am and had a good look at Shan. She thought that she had hurt her back, possibly from struggling when being anaesthetised, or falling off the operating table, which can sometimes happen! The vets must have known about this. Why did they not tell me the truth? They still deny anything happened. I have since changed vets!

I took Shannan to Paula Yates, an animal chiropractor, and she confirmed Wendy's diagnosis! Shan's shoulders were out of line. Her left hip was an inch higher than her right, and she had several trauma sites along her neck and her back, some of which could be attributed to her former abuse, but which could have been severely aggravated from her trip to the vets.

Even after our first visit to Paula, a huge improvement could be seen. Shannan lost the wild, agonised look in her eyes and started to take pilchards from my hand! In four weeks my dog was back. She had regained her weight and once more loved life!

Enter agility
After we had Shannan for about a year, we booked some private lessons. It took a VERY long time to introduce her to every bit of equipment safely. If it had not been for the extreme patience and support of Ian Smith, I know I would never have taught Shannan that agility would be fun. At the time, she would never have coped in a class environment, so we spent about six months of private lessons, alongside Gary and Widget, his little white collie, teaching her the basics. Now she is a member of both Barkaway Agility Club and Bromsgrove Agility Club and she LOVES it!

Unfortunately, after the spaying incident, another problem occurred. Shan became very nervous of other dogs. The thought of ever doing competitions with her was just a dream, as the worry of her running out of the ring after another dog was so great.

I have studied the methods to ensure that Shan sees me as pack leader without any force or confrontation, and I am glad to say that these have worked to the point that we can now compete safely because she is so focused on me. We won our first place in an agility competition at Dogs in Need last year - 15th place (and first clear round of the day!) She has gained several clear rounds at other shows we have attended! She will never be the fastest dog off the block, due to her physical limitations, but she is generally accurate and rarely misses her contacts or knocks a pole!

Unfortunately after an accident involving a spread jump, Shannan was out of training for about five months, but we are now starting to work again, mostly at two foot, as full height is still a bit of a struggle. Thanks once again to Paula Stokes for putting her back together.

As you can see, the last two and a half years of owning Shannan have been a real roller coaster ride, and she has tested me to the absolute limits on many occasions. She has, however, taught me more than all the books and reference material I have read, although they have been very useful in pointing me in the right direction with her. 

There have been times where I thought I would never be able to cope. It felt like we would solve one issue, only to be confronted with another... and another ... and another! It was times like this that I realised that I would never have been able to get where I have today with her without the continuous care and support I have received from family, friends and professionals alike, including Steve, my Mum, Gary and Wendy, Jacqui - our daily dog-sitter, Helen, Ian Smith, Paula Stokes and Jan Fennell. Thank you all!

I hate to see handlers smack their dog hard across the muzzle for growling or lunging at another dog! I have never hit  Shannan for growling, she had too much of that in her former life. If she growls, I heed her warning and move her away to a safe distance. We have reached an understanding. I do not put her in a situation which she feels threatened, and she need not be fearful of another dog. At Dogs in Need, there were over two thousand dogs, and we did not have a single incident over the course of the five days, because I was very careful with her, and she trusts my judgement.

She has also gained the Kennel Club Good Citizen Awards, Bronze , Silver and Gold! Not bad going for a three year old that had no understanding of general training and who was terrified of her collar and lead. Now she jumps up and grabs the lead in excitement when I pick it up. This could be considered by some as a bad habit which should not be encouraged, but I see it as a mile stone in how far she has come in 2 1/2 years - an article which caused her to hit the floor in panic is now viewed with great excitement, because she knows it means we are off to do something together!

She will be six in June 2005, and I know that the first three years of her life have damaged her greatly, it takes very little to destroy a dog's confidence, and it can take a life-time to try and put it right! She is the light of my life, and I love to see her bounding through the woods near our home, or charging round an agility course, because these are the things she loves, and these moments make all the tears and heart-break we have been through - worth it!

Of course, I must not forget the courage and intelligence that Shannan has displayed throughout our time together.  I have been there to help her, but at the end of the day it is she alone who has accepted the adjustments in her life, and allowed me to show her that life can be fun, if she would just learn to trust in me, which I honestly believe she does now!

In the last couple of shows we has attended Shannan has won third, two fourths and a seventh place in Elementary events. I am so very, very proud of her achievements!

Hope I have not bored you to tears with her life story! But thanks for reading!

About the author...
Lousie Downing has now been able to pass her knowledge and experiences to other people who have similar problems with their dogs, and helps to run Wyndsend DTC with Gary Chetwynd. 


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