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Over My Husband’s “Dead Body”!
By Katherine Dattoma
It was time. That little itch had grown into something bigger and more persistent. The guilty pleasure I had secretly been indulging in, of sneaking peeks at internet photos of beautiful Border Collies in need of homes, was morphing into a serious search. It was time to add another dog to our household, albeit once again over my husband’s “dead body”!
Oreo, my first rescued Border Collie was enjoying a full agility competition schedule, but I began to discern subtle signs of trouble before he had even reached the age of six. My eye, uneducated in correct canine conformation, but knowledgeable in evaluating the equine, could see that Oreo’s hind end structure was somewhat, well, odd. All the other wonderful Border Collie quirks and attributes possessed in abundance by Oreo had compensated up to this point, and enabled us to enjoy some small successes undreamed of since my first bumbling attempts at agility. However, I knew my dog’s normal, if somewhat funny way of traveling, and something was off. At that time, the cause of his intermittent, subtle hitch in stride remained undiagnosed, though many opinions and treatments were offered. Sadly, I had to admit that Oreo’s agility career would most likely be cut short.
To the uninitiated it may have seemed like an obsession, but to an ever growing dog sport fraternity, agility is a healthy, wonderful passion. My addiction needed to be fed. I needed another agility dog. Because Oreo had also instilled in me a passion for the Border Collie breed, and our whole family, daughter included, had been formed through adoption, there was never any question as to where I would be looking. References were solicited, home photos taken, and adoption applications sent.
Glen Highland Farm’s Sweet Border Collie Rescue in Morris, New York rehomes a huge number of abandoned and abused dogs each year, and Lillie Goodrich seems to have a knack for placement. On a sunny morning in March of 2008 that glittered with excitement and a late winter frosting of snow, I loaded up husband, the kid and dogs for a visit to the farm. Upon arrival, Lillie took special note of my daughter’s bossy terrier mix bitch, Kimmy, and her controlling antics with long suffering Oreo. She immediately dashed my hopes of meeting a particular handsome young male that had gazed soulfully out of my computer screen. Our little Kimmy was destined to be the limiting factor. Instead, the first dog brought out was a one year old classic black and white female, friendly, agile and altogether lovely in every way. Whoa…. she’d make a great family and agility dog was my first thought, my mind immediately entertaining a fantasy of fame and international events…. Then, presented to me was a red and white, four month old bundle of fur, dangling limply from the assistant’s arms, blinking fearfully at the world. This ragdoll of a pup stole my heart.
The trip home did not auger well for my new choice of a future agility prospect. How was I to successfully integrate a petrified, puking pup into my little agility travel team? What happened to one of my basic requirements, dutifully checked off on the application form, “must ride well in car”? Being lax in my criteria could explain something about those agility bloopers with Oreo. My Sweet Ginger Snap was looking less and less likely to fulfill my agility dreams as the full extent of her fears was soon revealed. Ginger was a textbook case demonstrating that missed social opportunities during the first few months could have a lifelong impact on behavior. Ginger’s reactions to ordinary things fed our imaginations in building a picture of what her first four months on the Maryland puppy mill farm may have been like. And was it genetics, or something far worse that caused her skull to appear misshapen and her face crooked? Men, men with hats obscuring their faces, men carrying objects on their shoulders, people suddenly “appearing” all triggered intense fear reactions. Ginger constantly alternated between leaping away from and attempting to appease human feet with incessant licking, a trait that earned her the first of many nicknames, “Miss Lick”. Any object that moved or looked different from when first observed by Ginger provoked a reaction. A pillow falling off the couch could send her flying out of the room, and she would peer out the upstairs window, barking hysterically every time a package was left on our neighbor’s porch across the street. One of our neighbors inadvertently frightened her as a pup, and because of her fear reaction towards him, he referred to her thereafter as “The Wolf”.
I needed an agility training plan very different from the trial and error path taken with bold, confident Oreo. My training methods had always been positive reinforcement based, and I knew any attempt to force a behavior with Ginger would be unsuccessful. Clicker training and shaping were a natural fit, both for my ideals as a trainer and for persuading a fearful pup that my goals were really her choices. Because her startle reflex was so easily triggered, Ginger needed to become less sensitive to noise and movement if I ever hoped to get her on agility equipment. She needed to be able to come towards her source of fear to investigate instead of running away. One of the training games I played involved my other two dogs to help motivate Ginger to join the fun. In my basement training area, I set up a tower of tin cans and metal cooking pots. On a push cue, Oreo and Kimmy would happily tip over the clanking pile for a reward. Barking, laughter, treats and curiosity finally drew Ginger from upstairs to the middle stair landing where I would toss a treat. Using the principles of incremental training, I waited for Ginger to choose to dart closer and closer to the action. It was a moment of triumph when Ginger finally offered a nose touch to the offending pile of noisy objects! These early lessons were something I was able to build upon, and today Ginger will often offer an automatic nose touch to an object that initially frightens her.
Surprisingly, at home and in class, Ginger’s agility training progressed very rapidly. She flew through the foundation exercises and fought for her turn when the clicker came out, signaling a training session. On both the plus and minus side, Ginger never forgot anything. Her education on the agility equipment began to follow a pattern of fits and starts, plateauing while we worked on overcoming a fear, and leaps forward evidenced by a desire to correctly repeat any action or obstacle with which she had grown comfortable. She grew rapidly as well… and grew and grew…. Was this the embodiment of having BIG agility dreams? Meanwhile, those long legs just kept getting longer. In spite of too straight shoulders and hindquarters, Ginger outgrew her awkward stage to become an elegant and effortless jumper, who as described by my daughter, ran like a cheetah when streaking across fields in play.
My redheaded fur rag was also growing into a striking, comical teenage drama queen. To the family, “The Wolf” was more of a red headed “Lucy”. The slightest knock had her exaggerating a limp until something else caught her attention, and she would get the sillies each morning, yipping and talking up a storm as she rolled herself in the bed blankets and pillows. She became a master at slinking off with cardboard boxes to shred in private, and would repeatedly catch and bring through the dog door a firefly to play with until she had to, ah….replace it. She could look majestic while burping loudly in our faces, and took over the job of household security by making the rounds checking all the doors, windows and rooms each night before settling . Best of all, Ginger fit seamlessly into our little dog pack, becoming wicked Kimmy’s partner in crime. I brought her everywhere dogs were allowed…into the bank, pet stores and a local book store. While competing with Oreo, I spent countless hours introducing Ginger to all the sights and sounds of agility trials, and frequently introduced her to many fellow agility competitors in an effort to reduce her general fear of humans.
In the early summer of 2009, Ginger was age eligible to enter agility events. The perfect opportunity for an agility debut arrived. The trial was local, held at a site she had visited several times before as a spectator. I sent in the entry, though unsure if Ginger was ready to enter the ring and make her public appearance as an agility competitor. She enjoyed playing agility at home with me, was extremely consistent in her execution of the obstacles, even showing some typical border collie abandon, but remained shy and uncertain in public. It was with nervous anticipation, that I waited for the big day to arrive.