This article was published in “The Dog Trainer” in 2010. If you have ever lived with a dog who is difficult and challenging read it, it is the story of my beloved Jake, my ‘difficult’ dog and the reason I am a dog trainer.
Last year (2009) I lost the most important and special dog I will ever own. He was at times, also, probably the most difficult dog I will ever own, but he is the very reason I am a dog trainer and behaviourist. This is a tribute to Jake but also an acknowledgement of the trials and tribulations of living with a problem dog and the gratitude for all that has taught me.
I got Jake as a puppy in 1998, from a Kennel Club registered breeder. I’d lived with dogs all my life and thought I understood them. I was in for a shock, Border Collies were something else. I had the best intentions, read all the books, attended classes and was committed to giving him a job such as agility or obedience. Unfortunately I made a lot of unintentional mistakes, got a fair amount of bad advice and there were two early unfortunate instances which also contributed to what would become long term problems. Firstly he was attacked by a pack of dogs shortly after finishing his vaccinations, an event which traumatised him and had long reaching effects on his future interactions with other dogs. The second was sadly that the vets when doing his microchip, did it very badly, had to try three times and each time they did he squealed in pain. The consequence of this was a long term fear of strangers touching his neck, especially vets, to the point where all vaccinations had to be in his bottom!
I eventually had to seek the help of a dog trainer/behaviourist, in particular to gain help with his increasingly aggressive response to other dogs and his occasional growling at people and touch sensitivity. Sadly a lot of the techniques which were suggested to me, I would not now employ, it was very much pack theory and dominance methods. Jake was described as a dominant dog and I was given the expected ways to deal with this. As I felt way out of my depth at the time and knew nothing about dog behaviour I took on board what I was told although in my heart it didn’t feel right.
In a desire to understand Jake better, I then volunteered at my local dog club. I spent a lot of time observing dogs and how they interact, I started studying dog psychology and learning about dog body language and communication. Clicker training came next, and what I found to be a wonderful new way to train and interact with my dogs. I rejected the methods I had been shown previously and started to understand Jake and learnt to work with his problems rather than fight against them. Acceptance of the dog he was, was a major part of progressing with him. Realistically he was never going to be the perfect dog, I was never going to have purely relaxing walks with him, I would never be able to relax with him when he was around children or strangers and he was never going to like the vet. Meg my working sheepdog came into our lives, she taught Jake how to play with another dog and to have companionship. He taught her to pay close attention to dog body language and to back off when told to!! In fact he trained her to be my stooge dog much more effectively than I could have done on my own.
Every day of Jake’s life I had to manage him, it was a huge and continuous responsibility and one I would never change. I would gladly do that for ever if I could have him here with me now. I don’t regret a minute of it. Through Jake I learned the subtleties of reading dog body language, how to manage problem situations, how to build trust with a very nervous or anxious dog, when to step away and say that’s enough for today. How to work through some problems and around others. To accept that not all problems in dogs can be fully solved and to have patience and acceptance.
Through living with Jake, I am also able to help and understand the difficulties, disappointments and heartache of owners who are also living with difficult dogs. I fully understand the stress of living with a dog who has problems and the difficulties which can arise in managing some situations and the commitment which is required to do this on a daily basis. I am also able to communicate the responsibilities that owners of these dogs have. Not only to keep other people and dogs safe from possible incidents but also their duty to their own dog, to keep him or her safe and protected from getting into trouble.
Jake’s issues became very manageable and over the years he mellowed and through help from numerous people along the way, he was a delightful dog to own, affectionate, totally loyal, playful and the most wonderful companion. He enjoyed agility, although never really competed but was happiest just being with me, chasing a ball, or playing with Meg.
I am grateful that Jake’s illness (cancer) was a short one and he didn’t suffer. He was eleven and a half when he died and I know I gave him a wonderful life. I did my duty and kept him safe until the end. I have so much to be grateful to him for, all he has taught me. His legacy is the work I do and it will continue every day through the dogs and owners I train and help.
Thank you Jake. You will never be forgotten and always loved and missed.
(PS I wrote this last year (2009) shortly after losing Jake, it has taken me until recently to be able to read it again. I still miss him every single day and wish he was still with me. That will never change).