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Once I got Lilly out of the car at her first official obedience class, I had a hard time convincing her to get up off the ground. Once I got her off the ground, she didn’t want to go into the building. Once I got her in the building, she hid under my chair and bared her teeth (in fear) at anything that moved. She was about 9 months old, and things looked dismal.
Contrary to popular thought, obedience classes teach people as much or more than the dogs. I wasn’t there to teach Lilly how to be a good girl. I was there to learn how to communicate with my new pal, who was nervous but anxious to please.
Accustomed to my requests being ignored, after 14+ years with a beautiful-but-ornery dalmatian named Penelope Grace, Lilly came as a revelation. She really listens to me.
I quickly learned to give her space from the other pups so that she wouldn’t fixate on them with the classic border collie “eye” used to control sheep. With some personal space and rewards for focusing on me, Lilly shined in class.
She loved training at home each day. And, week after week in class, she worked her heart out. We’d found the key to teamwork.
My favorite moment came in about week six. With all the dogs in down-stays and us across the room, the trainer taunted them with noisy toys as he paced the line. It’s called “proofing.” In other words, will the dogs stay steady amid distraction?
Lilly didn’t budge. Even when the trainer came by with a rubber chicken that made an ungodly noise, my sound-reactive girl held strong.
Then, a large, young yellow lab next to her lost it. He simply couldn’t stay one … more … second. He leapt to his feet and displayed a textbook case of “the zoomies.” That’s when a young, playful dog ricochets around the room. It set off a chain reaction of broken stays, as dogs couldn’t resist the invitation to play.
Lilly calmly took in the scene, never breaking her stay, despite the other pups doing their best impression of popcorn. Pop … golden retriever. Pop … black lab. Pop … sheltie.
Gibraltar in a sea of motion, Lilly stayed – even when the pup that started it all soaked her with sloppy kisses from tip to tail.
I watched my Einstein in a room full of class clowns, and I was proud.
We took a final exam in week 8. Set up like a rally obedience ring, like a car rally, we took turns heeling our dogs through a course. Various stops required different maneuvers – sit, down, standing stay and such. We heeled quickly and slowly. We made right turns and left turns. We stopped and started in unison.
The exam also required long, group sit-stays and down-stays as well as at least one individual trick. The trainer had and ribbons for all that passed, but I knew we had a shot at the top spot.
There was one dog in the room that could have beaten us, a German shepherd, but he fell apart in the ring and blew off several commands from his handler. At that point, I leaned over to my pal Crystal, who came to support me since my hubby was in training all weekend, and said, “We’re going to win.”
I was right (first overall, second in tricks). Lilly was nearly flawless. She scored 196 out of 200, only docked points for lagging a bit, heeling a little wide in a turn, and sniffing the ground.
Canine medical drama stalks me. I’ve spent many thousands of dollars on veterinary care for every dog I’ve ever had. As a pup, Lilly was no different.
Just 24 hours after she arrived at home, doctors admitted Lilly into intensive care. She’d become feverish, lethargic, and all around sick to her stomach. I knew it was parvovirus, a much-dreaded, highly contagious killer of puppies that swept onto the scene in the mid-1970s.
I knew because we’d been through it with our big boy Ginko when he was a pup. Parvo dogs have a certain look to them. And, not to be gross, but they also smell. It’s something you never forget.
I called ahead to warn the 24-hour emergency hospital we were coming. After a parvo quick-test, kind of like a strep test, except you swab the rear, the veterinarian and nurse returned, gowned for serious germ warfare, and took Lilly straight to the isolation ward.
I was right.
They gave Lilly medications to control vomiting and such. They gave her IV fluids and hyper-immune plasma transfusions. They gave her antibiotics to control any secondary bacterial infections that can crop up when a pup’s immune system is under such attack (intestines, bone marrow, lymph nodes).
There is no cure for parvovirus – only supportive care. There is, of course, a vaccination for it. Lilly had been vaccinated at the shelter, but she was likely exposed before that. The virus can live in contaminated environments for a year. Even when symptoms subside, puppies shed the virus for a month.
In 2006, I interviewed a veterinary immunologist for an article on a new distemper vaccine. He explained that dogs either do or don’t survive parvo based on their own strength.
I credited doctors. He credited Lilly.
(He also told me that the parvo scare in the 1970s is what led to what many today consider “over-vaccination.” Essentially, this virus was wiping out puppies in droves. Once a vaccine was found, veterinarians developed aggressive booster protocols … just to be sure.)
After the parvo, however, she caught kennel cough, which she shared with Ginko. Then, she got pneumonia – requiring chest X-rays, tons of antibiotics, etc. It took weeks of treatment, including – I kid you not – prescription cough syrup, to wipe out.
Lest we relax too much, we soon noticed that Ginko’s muzzle, his snout, didn’t look quite right. It seemed lumpy and puffy. Allergies? We wondered. Irritation? We thought.
Our veterinarian was stumped too, until I joked, “Maybe it’s Toxic Lilly Lips … you know, she does kiss and nibble on him.”
Turns out, Lilly accidentally bit Ginko’s face. The injury had healed from the outside, sealing the infection inside. My handsome boy had become overstuffed in the nose area. His snout ultimately swelled to three times its normal size. (Sorry, I don’t have photos of that.)
More antibiotics … plus, we had to scrub his nose twice a day with peroxide to make sure the infection healed from the inside out. And, it did.
I’m happy to say since then Lilly has been the picture of health (knock on wood), but in fall of 2004 my dreams of a new laptop faded as the money went instead to veterinary care … just as it had when Ginko blew out both knees and needed massive knee surgery.
I took this soon after Lilly came to live with us. We call the round, green beds “Lilly pads.” ha ha
The harvest moon rises as a young border collie follows a scent through a field, recently picked clean of its haul. Thinking, sniffing, poking along … she makes her way over the furrows, not realizing how far she’s wandered from home. As darkness settles, a growing chill shakes her focus. She can’t see or hear anything familiar. She spends a long, cold night alone and waits.
The events that unfold next and in the coming days do little to assuage her fears. Strange man. Truck. Cage. Concrete floors. Barking dogs. Too much noise. Then, strange house. Nice people. Long car ride. Another strange place. Doctors, shots, surgery.
And, then she met me. I named her Lilly.
I honestly don’t know much about Lilly’s life before we adopted her from the shelter. I’ve imagined this scenario based on what I was told by shelter staff and on what I now know about how Lilly perceives her world – much like an autistic child, easily overwhelmed by noise, movement, and new situations.
Lilly spent time in an old-fashioned, dog-pound-type shelter in rural, Eastern Colorado. She also lived with a foster family in the local border collie rescue network for a bit. (I have them to thank for her impeccable housetraining.) Through a transfer, she ended up at a modern humane society near me.
She passed her evaluations, got spayed, then I adopted her the very next day.
People often ask why Lilly is so shy, so fearful. It’s easy to assume it had something to do with her life before us.
She’s absolutely terrified of paper rustling. The first time I tore a page from a notepad, I thought she would jump out of her skin. Did someone swat her with a newspaper for piddling on the carpet?
She hates to be pursued and picked up, cowering and shuffling along the ground like a little black-and-white hovercraft. Does that mean she was beaten?
Such skittishness is frowned upon in true working dogs. Was she cast aside, unwanted?
She can jump higher than my head without even trying. Is she merely an accomplished escape artist who gets bored?
Honestly, I do not know.
Then, again, what do we really know about the dogs in our lives? People with well-bred and pampered border collies joke about their dogs’ random fears – scotch tape, newspaper ads with animals on them, umbrellas … you name it.
Tell certain folks you live with a border collie, and be prepared for mock sympathy: “I’m so sorry.” People who know them know they can be a touch past crazy.
So, maybe Lilly simply is as she is.
An animal communicator talked to Lilly a while back. She asked about Lilly’s life pre-me. Her take was that perhaps Lilly’s first home included a young boy, who loved her but was not allowed to keep her.
The transcript of the session goes on to say: “Lilly has found her home, and rather than looking back, she looks to the future. She holds no grudge, no bad feelings. It appears she was happy in the shelter (to a point) and always knew that you would pick her up!”
And: “Your energy is good for her. She feels as though she has found her place … She really knows her role and embraces it fully. She feels that it will lead to greater messages for others along the way. Do not be surprised when she brings new things your way.”
Living with a brilliant, fearful dog brings life itself to a new level. There is the story and the story. Lilly is both. That, in part, is why I still hold a glimmer of hope about what’s possible. Surely, Lilly isn’t here to teach me about failure. I get plenty of that in my life as a writer.
When we adopted Lilly from the Humane Society of Boulder Valley in October 2004, I harbored no visions of canine championships of any sort. Honestly, I didn’t know such options existed for dogs other than “show dogs.” I joke that before Lilly my dog training experience was of the Petsmart variety. No offense.
On the advice of one of the humane society’s volunteers, who also works with Rocky Mountain Border Collie Rescue, we looked into formal obedience training and then agility training for Lilly. Such a high-energy girl, even at 6 months old, needed an outlet for all that brain power and pent up speed.
Lilly thrived in her classes. She learned. She mastered. She worked hard.
I met great people, amazing dogs, and learned about the competitive options open to dogs of all kinds – in obedience, in rally, in agility, and other areas. And, I bought into the dream.
There’s even a Yahoo group for people who do agility (the doggie obstacle course sport) with issue-prone rescued dogs. Titles, titles … everywhere.
I’ll admit that I mist up as I watch friends and their dogs earn championship titles. It’s an emotional moment … the crowd goes dead quiet as the handler-dog team step to the start line on what could be their final run to earn the championship title. Everyone holds their breath as the dog speeds over jumps, through tunnels, and across teeter-totters. Waiting. Hoping for perfection (because at that level zero mistakes allowed). The goal? Clean run.
We watch the dog, but we also watch the judge, hoping her hands don’t fly into the air signaling a mistake.
It’s over in less than a minute.
Often the final obstacle is a jump with PVC bars, marking the height. As the dog clears that final bar, without knocking it down, the crowd erupts in cheers. Then, the handler grabs the final bar (often painted gold for the occasion) and turns to run a victory lap around the course with dog flying high.
Typically dogs go straight to their leashes after an agility run, so they get this funny, confused look on their faces when mommy or daddy turns and runs the other way back onto the course. But, they love the sport so much that they happily oblige with an encore.
In tales I will soon share, I’ll explain why I’ve (nearly) accepted that Lilly and I may never experience such victory, despite her early promise in training. Ultimately, I hope to deliver a bigger story of redemption, of a literal underdog who makes good, but only time (and hard work) will tell.
Until then, I’ve bestowed Lilly with the title CHOMH (champion of my heart).
Next up … From whence she came.