I have learned, wait, no. We have ALL learned, over the past 16 months, what it is to have a Reactive dog. We have learned that Cesar isn't necessarily the guy that holds ALL the magical keys to the workings of a dog's brain. Yes, he seems to have a way. But I have learned that his way isn't really the way I want to work with MY reactive dog. It's been a hard road. A REALLY hard road. A road, I think, not many people would have stayed the course on. I believe, with some hard-earned hindsight, that someone else would have given up on Kili a long time ago. Early on, in fact. Very early.
He came to us with a story, like any dog who started somewhere else would. But we have discovered that his story, his hardship, his course before us, young as he may have been, was already steadily charted for destruction had he not come to live firmly in my heart. I am a mother, after all. I would do everything...EVERYTHING in my power to save him from himself. So much so, that I remember, weeks in, and already crying myself to sleep, knowing full well that I had made a terrible error in judgment by doing what I always do; thinking with my heart and not my head, lying next to my husband and begging him; "If anything happens to me, please, I beg you, please don't send Kili away. Stick with him. I know there's a good boy in there. I know he is salvageable." Charlie of course fetted me with reassuring hugs, beginning his affirmations with; "Stop talking crazy. Nothing is going to happen to you." But something did happen. Something I had no control over. As the days went by and my love for him grew, my resolve became more and more steadfast. I WILL save this boy. I WILL break through his fear. I WILL show him that he has nothing worry about. I WILL win him over with love. And dammit, I will show everyone in this house that I will advocate for him, and him alone, until I win them over too.
We've made amazing progress. As smart as he is, there are just some things that his brain just cannot put aside. Yes, he is a Border Collie, and therefore hardwired for certain things. If you are not the human belonging to a working dog, you may not understand some of these things. I know I didn't fully understand. Just because our Ellie was part BC, she did NOT have these traits that we have come to know in Kili are just "IN" him. It is part of his DNA. His prey-drive is off the charts. He wakes up herding (me, to the bathroom, to the laundry room, to the kitchen, etc.), he falls asleep herding (me, to the bedroom), he spends his days herding (the Frisbees, the balls, the toys, the empty plastic bottles, the lizards, the squirrels, the wind) and he even herds in his dreams. It is entertaining, unending, and exhausting. Add to this mix, a dog who is fear reactive, and you have the makings of a nervous breakdown. Unless you yield. This is where Cesar and I differ.
I have learned that this dominance stuff, at least in our world, is not how to break through to this particular boy. HE can be unyielding. He WILL prevail. He WILL move you where he wants to move you. He is AFRAID. He WILL NOT let you near his home, his car, his person, if he does not know you. If a child were afraid, would you hold him down forcefully, or would you SHOW him that there is nothing to be afraid of? Someone took his trust away. Someone hurt him in ways that scared him. Why is bullying him the way to regain his trust? In the same way I refused to give up on him, I refused to accept that being the bigger bully was the way to work on gaining his trust. With the same passion, I started doing my homework. I reached out, I researched, I read, I gleaned, I listened, I practiced, I cried, I pleaded, but dammit, I learned. I watched my dog. I watched how he behaved. I also watched how people behaved when they watched him. On walks, if Kili reacted to them as they walked by, they glared at me. After all, it was my fault my dog was "out of control" and not well-behaved. It was embarrassing. I cringed. I wilted. I stopped walking my dog.
I had people telling me that I should give up on him, rehome him, that he was too much for me. That he is "dangerous" or "unpredictable". I called bullshit. He was trying, in his way, to tell his story. I stopped listening to "people" and started listening to other parents of reactive dogs. More importantly, I listened to Kili. I listened until I heard him. I still hear him. I advocate for him because I hear him. Now, like Cesar, I DO hear the voice of other dogs. I see when they "act out" in certain ways that they are trying to tell their stories. They just need someone to listen. In this way, I AM grateful to people like Cesar and fosters, and loving rescuers, and other owners of fear reactive dogs who've helped me, held me up when I was a mess, told me to hang in there, told me not to give up. Gave me tips, advice, resources, and told me where to find like-minded folks who knew what I was going through and wouldn't admonish me...or my dog.
I have come to realize, by watching the way he holds his tongue against our soft skin and falls asleep, that he was taken from his mother much too young. He is essentially pacifying himself. He's done this since he first came to us. We all thought it was just a "cute" thing he did. But he was clearly showing us that he STILL needed his mother. This "cute" thing he did has never gone away, he still does it. When he is anxious, he will lie down next to me or Charlie and lay his tongue against some soft skin, preferably an inner arm, between the wrist and elbow, and soon, his eyes are drooping and he is asleep.
Someone robbed him of the closeness and comfort of his mother when he wasn't ready. Someone who wanted to sell a full-breed dog of high intellect and value. Someone who didn't care about the emotional well-being of the puppy as much as the well-being of their bank account. This was the beginning of Kili's spiral.
Someone bought this dog. On the internet. From a picture. This picture:
Who wouldn't fall in love? He's adorable. Who would know, from looking at this picture, that they would make a mistake by buying this beautiful puppy. A mistake that would set a difficult course for everyone involved. An innocent gesture of good intent that would go wrong. A common mistake often made by well-meaning people who see this breed on commercials and in movies and want that smart dog. People who don't realize how much work is involved. People who live in apartments and condos who don't know that these dogs need lots and lots of running room. People who really have no idea that buying this gorgeous puppy from a "ranch" in Louisiana where his parents are both working and herding, having him put into a crate, loaded into the cargo hold of a plane, and discovering upon arrival, that he'd chewed his already broken tail into a boney, bloody mess, would quickly turn into a three-day panic attack of rehome or dog pound questions. Who in their right mind would know? Obviously, someone not in their right mind. They, like me, fell in love at first sight. They, unlike me, lasted less than a week. So changed our lives.
We have learned that when he rests, he is not to be bothered. He has worked hard all day, herding everything, and has therefore earned his well-deserved rest. He doesn't react well to be woken up. It doesn't matter if you want to give him a loving caress, he doesn't want to be f'ed with when he's down for the count.
We have learned that you cannot make eye-contact with him. Border Collies use their eyes intently. Their stare is how they watch sheep and herd them. Their eyes are tools. You will not win a staredown with a BC.
We have learned that he understands English better than most humans and has an amazingly large vocabulary. He prefers if you speak to him in complete sentences as opposed to one word cues. He can identify and bring you every toy he owns; "Bring the BLUE Frisbee, bring the RED ball, bring the tugger, bring the _____, please go to your bed, lie down on the bricks, walk with me to the laundry, ready for daycare?", and so much, much more. We have learned that he loves his family and will tolerate everyone OUTSIDE of his home. Away from home, he has no issue with you. However, if you don't already live here and you come to his house, he is cautious and will bark at you. Crazily bark at you. He is frightening when this happens because he is unrelenting and is nearly impossible to calm down until he is removed from the situation.
We have learned that he does NOT walk or work well on leash no matter how much we train. He wants to run. He wants to herd. We have learned that these things are okay. It is what he does. It is his job. We have learned to work with it. Most people will say we have caved. We're not disciplining him properly. Most people are not this dog's people. We are.
He hates bikes, motorcycles, loud noises, wind. He has learned, because we live 12 miles from Disneyland and hear the nightly fireworks, to deal with it. The use of Counter Conditioning and Positive Reinforcement has brought us, slowly, to a place where he barely notices the pyrotechnics at the House of Mouse anymore. Same with lightening and thunder. It may seem like a small thing, but for us, it is a huge victory.
I have learned how to counter his need, even at 16 months, for the comfort of his absent mother, by using a DAP (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) collar and diffuser. This is the pheromone that the mother dog emits while nursing her puppies. It calms them. It has worked wonders with Kili. He is calmer, less anxious, less reactive. I would not have known to find this product if I didn't pay attention to his "tongue pacifying" quirk.
We have learned that he doesn't do well with people wearing glasses or hats. He especially hates Caris' glasses, and Bryson's beanies. Of course, we can't all go around without our glasses, but we've all made the conscious effort to take them off if we're greeting him. He appreciates that. We're all very much of the opinion that somewhere between his eventful flight from his Louisiana birthplace to his former owner, to us, someone with glasses and a hat hurt him. We think it was probably at an airport here or there. Can you picture yourself a tiny, weeks old puppy, in a crate, on a tarmac, getting jostled around, pushed here and there, and shoved into a plane, then jostled OFF the plane. You've seen the way those luggage handlers treat your luggage. Do you think they think a crate is any less of a piece of luggage to them? When he came to us, even after a few ill-fated days with his former owner, his tail was still a mess. His first dad said; "It was actually worse. His crate was a mess inside when I picked him up at the airport. I took him straight to the vet." Hmmm...let me think...what hell did this poor guy go through? And even then, to be moved, yet again after only a few days, because he was more than someone could handle. In a short time, this poor puppy acquired a lifetime of angst and anxiety. Something that revealed itself little by little as he tried to figure out if we were "okay" and we tried to figure out what made him tick.
Slowly, over time, we have come to accept some of his quirks. Charlie and I don't WANT him to stop barking when people approach the house. It's his job. He needs a job. He needs to know he is helpful. Everyone needs to feel like they matter. We try to curb superfluous barking. Barking that has to merit. Itʻs hard to teach him the difference, but heʻs learning. We have figured out that itʻs OKAY to remove him when people visit. We tell people about him, we ask them to call from their car when they arrive so that we can put Kili safely in the back of the house and keep him calm. There is less anxiety when we go out to greet guests and let them in. He gets less worked up and that is good for all of us.
Itʻs easier these days to identify "off" behaviors. Now that we know some of his quirks and why he has them, I can almost divert a problem situation before it becomes an issue. Today, for example, we were having a lot of wind. I could instantly see that Kili was very much on edge and uncomfortable in his own skin. I instantly gave him homeopathic calming drops (ginger), closed all the blinds so he couldnʻt "see" the wind, and closed the windows so he couldnʻt hear it. Unfortunately, I didnʻt think about how the wind carries sound, especially on a clear day, and our close proximity to the airport. When I took him out for a quick potty run, a jet flew over and it sounded like it was right on top of us. Poor guy bolted, ears back and tail down, and nearly knocked himself out when he butted the French doors in our dining room trying to get back in and find a hiding place. Iʻd never seen him react that profoundly to the sound of a plane. And then it occurred to me what heʻd been through as a cargo pup. Of course. Why wouldnʻt that scare the holy bajeebers out of him?
I have come to accept the responsibility that he is a dog that absolutely requires two to three outings a day. Each of them at least 30 to 45 minutes long and including lots and lots of Frisbee tosses. In between those outings, at least 30 to 40 ball tosses, and a good few rounds of tugger when Charlie gets home. We realized, to our dismay, there will be no more sleeping in ever again. He is up before the sun rises. Itʻs okay. Itʻs hard, but itʻs okay.
We donʻt entertain like we used to. Which is difficult for us, because we LOVE to entertain. Itʻs just too hard now. But itʻs okay. Itʻs for now, but not forever. We make the same commitment to this new "child" of ours that weʻve made to parenthood. No, this is not how most people with dogs are living. Yes, some people in our lives think weʻre crazy. But Iʻm not one of those people who can give up on a dog that needs me. This boy needs me. I canʻt give up. I wonʻt give up.
Iʻve learned to carry training treats in my pockets at all times. I have treats in the car, treats in my purse, treats all over the house in little dishes and jars. Iʻve learned to divert his attention when I know heʻs about to react. A well-placed Frisbee works wonders to move his brain to a happier place.
Weʻve also learned there must be boundaries. Iʻve always lived in a house with pets. I donʻt know a time in my life that I havenʻt had a dog. All of our dogs have always had run of the house, are welcomed on the furtniture, and sleep on our beds. This guy doesnʻt have that luxury. He can, and will, abuse his place in the hierarchy. If he is eye-level, he thinks he is king, so we keep him at floor level. He is allowed to lie on the foot of our bed until we are ready to sleep, and then he must go to his bed in the dining room. He is only allowed into bedrooms if he is invited. He is not allowed in the same room where we are eating. Because we teach with treats, he will always assume that what we eat is also his, so we keep him apart from us when we have meals. He seems to understand. He doesnʻt always like it, and he tells us so, but his protests are few and his acquiescence swift. Heʻs smart that way.
Daily life is still a challenge. He is a slave to routine. He cannot waiver or it throws his whole, regimented life off-kilter. What weʻre talking about here is basically a dog with severe OCD. But again, weʻre working through it. Heʻs still a puppy. There arenʻt as many tears as there used to be. I donʻt have that overwhelming feeling that Iʻve made the biggest mistake of my life. Itʻs still hard sometimes, and there are some days that I just donʻt want to do those outings. But I canʻt miss, and I know it isnʻt an option. I took this on, I owe it to him to keep moving forward. He canʻt speak for himself, and so I speak for him.
For all the trouble he is, no one loves me the way this dog loves me. As I type this, he lies peaceful and content, all 65 pounds of him, on top of my feet. He watches me, he moves with me, he is always with me, stuck to me like glue when I am home. I cannot move a muscle without him knowing. I do not visit the bathroom alone, I am escorted. I do not walk around the house alone, he walks with me. He is my shadow, my guard, my guardian. He takes his job very seriously. He also seriously the task of always letting me know what I mean to him. His morning cuddles when Charlie lets him into our room when we wake up overwhelm me. He cannot give enough kisses, enough headbutts, or enough bellyflops. We, in turn, cannot administer enough tummy rubs.
This beautiful, stunning, broken creature is exasperating, tiresome, overwhelming, exhausting, and entirely loved. As much as I would love a good, long, uninterrupted sleep and a day without worrying if he got enough exercise, I don't want a life without him in it. He's mine and we deserve each other.