Champion of My Heart is an award-winning dog blog. We've created many important resources that people from all over the world continue to access. Like this post? Get an email alert when new content goes live by subscribing. Plus, look for info on sales and bonus discounts from our affiliates.
The first indications of trouble slid by me. I saw them, but I did not worry. Some I actually found endearing. Rather than stay by my side, she’d run to my coat like she was ready to leave, for example. It wasn’t until later that I realized my little sweetie, who is perfectly smart enough for agility, perfectly athletic enough for agility, might not be emotionally strong enough for the sport that captured my imagination.
It’s certainly possible it’s just not her thing, but the stark contrast between her performance when we’re alone (fantastic) and her performance when we’re not (non-existent), tells me it’s not that she doesn’t like agility. Currently, she just doesn’t like doing it in front of other people (and dogs). I still hope that’s a temporary condition.
Because I did not know better, however, I made mistakes that may have ruined Lilly’s chance at a competitive agility career.
I picked the wrong trainer for us, and I knew it the first day, when I went home in tears with terrible nylon rope burns on both hands. (Dogs were not allowed to be on leash, and the tiny ropes we could use cut like a hot knife any time the dogs moved quickly.)
But, I didn’t know my options, so I stayed put for several months. In that time, she chastised me for praising Lilly too much and later for not making training enough fun. She told me one week that Lilly should focus only on me, and later she got frustrated when Lilly would not work for her. She rarely said anything nice about Lilly, even though my girl was clearly a quick study. And, it took her three months to say one, small positive thing about my handling. Three months without a single word of encouragement.
I was unhappy. Lilly wasn’t running well, so we quit. Later, the animal communicator confirmed what I already knew. Lilly did not like this trainer and did not trust her – not the start we needed.
I accidentally corrected Lilly too much, which wicked away her motivation. I was the paper towel in the happy Kool-Aid stains in Lilly’s life. Every “Nope,” every sigh, every time I dropped my shoulders, telegraphed my disappointment as much (and with the same force as a harsh correction). I might as well have screamed at her.
Thankfully, our next trainer showed me how to stop this bad habit.
I did not understand the signs of her distress. First, she ran slower that usual. Next, she’d run, but then she’d slink off or go into tunnels and not come out. Eventually, she refused to run without Academy Award winning coaxing in my part. And, still, I thought it just a motivation problem.
By the time I finally got the hint (duh, mommy), Lilly refused to get out of the car or cowered the entire class.
As I’ve mentioned before, one particular encounter with another dog and the teeter-totter (before I’d introduced the teeter) may have set this whole agility fear thing into motion. Until that, she was doing pretty well. I suspect there are other triggers, but I’m not sure what they are.
Think of it as doggie post-traumatic stress. The first incident primes the fear pump. Any following scares increase those pathways, and any tiny thing after that triggers a full-blown response. So, seemingly insignificant things can cause a huge emotional cascade.
It makes me sick to think of what could have been, what should have been … if I’d only known better.
Having a shy or fearful dog in public is a lot like walking around with a screaming 2-year-old. “Dog people” and even the general public make the same negative assumptions. Beyond the dirty looks come really mean comments disguised as helpful suggestions. Two, in particular, stand out because they are entirely untrue … and incredibly rude.
The first one is, “Your dog doesn’t trust you.” Ouch! I went home and cried the first time someone at a dog event said this to me. I was in the middle of coaxing Lilly to enter the building and sit quietly for a few moments as part of ongoing socialization work. (Now, I actually like the woman who said it. I think she and her dog are a hoot, but the comment still wounded me and shook my confidence.)
First of all, I spend all day every day with Lilly. And, that’s been the norm since I she came home in October 2004. I think I know my dog better than “you” do (and by “you,” I mean the snotty people who say mean things).
The relationship I have with Lilly is stronger than any I’ve ever had with any other dog. And, that’s saying something. We’ve come a long, long way from where we started, but people don’t see that. All they see is her behavior in the moment. And, baby, do they judge.
The second one, which I’ve heard from two PhD applied animal behaviorists is utterly false, is that comforting really fearful dogs rewards the fear and makes it worse.
In very early 2005, I took Lilly to an agility dog birthday party. She did OK at first, but she freaked out when another dog banged the teeter-totter unexpectedly, and I’ve been screwed ever since. (I now know this incident has scarred her, but at the time I had no idea how far reaching the effects would be. We’re still trying to unravel the damage nearly 18 months later.)
She fled. I coaxed. Several people scolded me. “Just ignore her, they told me.”
And, since I didn’t know better at the time, I tried that strategy, and in ways I’ll enumerate later it only made things worse, which made some think Lilly was “manipulating me.”
It’s true that you can inadvertently “reward” dogs for unwanted behaviors like playing rough, jumping up and such. Ending the game and turning away are good options in these cases.
However, with true fears, a little comfort goes a long way. When Lilly shuts down completely, in fact, the only way I can reach her is through touch.
Her eyes go blank, and it honestly looks like her soul has left her body. With the help of our big-picture, behaviorist-type trainer and the instruction of our holistic veterinarian, I’ve learned ways to soothe Lilly physically when she’s literally out of her mind and cannot be reached with logic or typical training.
My trainer watched her shut down once. Then, showed me how pale Lilly’s gums were. Seriously, they were almost white. All her blood was in her core, like she was in shock. That’s not manipulation. That’s sheer terror.
I’m happy to report that I rarely see this ghostly version of Lilly these days. But, it’s been a long road, and I often feel like I too am earning a PhD in animal behavior to help Lilly conquer her fears and have a happy and successful life.
It’s hard work, and anyone who pretends otherwise is entirely full of beans – especially overly-hyped dog trainers on TV who use old-fashioned, dominance style methods. (People often recommend I use those methods too. Gee, no thanks.)
There’s one other thing people say that bugs me lately. Sometimes when we’re walking on a trail or training in public, clueless people let their dogs approach Lilly without permission. Or, they’re too busy doing whatever (eating, chatting, talking the phone) to pay attention to their unruly dog at the end of a fully extended flexi-leash.
These kinds of dogs scare Lilly. And, if I don’t control the situation, she feels the need to snark at the other dog to warn them off. That can be barking, lunging, and even snapping at times.
Again, through hours and hours and hours of training over many months, she does this less and less because I distract her and shield her if necessary from what she perceives as a marauding dog (even though most times these are just super friendly pooches).
Lilly has an “off trail” command that means step off the path, sit down, and face me. I then block for her as the other dog passes.
Now, my body language could not possibly say any clearer to “go away,” but some people still let their dogs approach Lilly.
So, I’ll say, “She’s afraid of other dogs. She might snap.”
And, they answer, “That’s OK.”
Uh, no it’s not.
The snowflakes came in big and fast. Biscuit Eaters, the agility field where we often train in Boulder, looked like a Hollywood set, with oversized, impossibly fluffy flakes sweeping in. Other than our voices and the chug of panting dogs, the air rang with winter’s silence. I ran the sequence – jump, jump, tire … with a hard left before the tire. Except after I made the turn, I realized Lilly wasn’t with me. Instead, she crouched between jump #2 and the tire. The huge snowflakes stuck to her from head to tail. She looked forlorn, as if God was pelting her with rocks. Our trainer shook her head in dismay and said, “You have a working dog who’s afraid of snow.”
Mind you, we live above 8,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains. Lilly knows snow, plays in it all the time, but something about working and thinking and running a short agility sequence loomed heavy. She simply couldn’t think straight with those big flakes popping her on the nose.
I just laughed. My sensitive, smart working dog.
This is my life with a “soft” dog. That’s dog training lingo for sensitive, shy, fearful dogs.
Yes, wild, out of control dogs make for great reading – a la “Marley & Me,” but having a soft dog generates its own brand of humor. The next weekend as I regaled my friends with the tale of Lilly’s reaction to snow, some said, “I heard.”
So, you know, great [eyeroll] to be famous for training a working dog with flaws.
Word got around. We were somewhat the butt of jokes, but that’s OK with me. The laughter came with sympathy attached — most of the time. [There will always be people who suck and gossip.]
I guess working dog and dogs at work kinda similar in that way.
It’s not just snow that shuts Lilly down. Planes or geese flying overhead cause her to glaze over too. Dry leaves rustling in the wind, whining dogs on the sidelines, big trucks or buses rumbling set her on edge.
When we began learning the chute (a collapsed fabric tunnel the dog must push through), I learned quickly that the command “chute” caused her to slink off course.
It sounded like “shoot,” which Lilly knows as a cuss word. I didn’t realize how much I “shoot” my way through a typical day of writing until Lilly pointed out this flaw. Since she practically lives in the knee hole of my desk while I write, she’s learned “shoot” means something bad. (I realize it’s also tone of voice, but with her vocab, I’m pretty sure she recognizes the word too.)
So, for us, the chute is called “Push,” as in push-push-push your way through – not a simple task for a shy dog.
It’s not all bad, though. Some fears subside.
Lilly no longer cowers under the bed when I vacuum. She no longer flees in terror if I accidentally squeak the Styrofoam egg carton when I’m putting it back in the fridge. She’s stopped giving me stink eye, when I ride my mountain bike on the stationary trainer. At first, the zzz-zzz-zzz of my wheels made her crabby.
Yet, other things don’t faze her at all. We did early obedience proofing at the fire station up the road, and the noise fire trucks did not bother her. She thinks nothing of the motorcycle noise, when my husband rides in the pasture. In fact, they’ve devised a game, where he rides very slowly and lets her herd him.
Heck, neighbors saw Lilly jump on a coyote’s back and ride it out of the creek bed (with our big dog Ginko, chasing from behind). And, I once had a huge elk buck running straight for me, with Lilly hot on his tail.
A thousand-pound elk? No problem.
A stack of papers falling off my desk … holy terror.
My rotator cuff hurts. Shooting pains when I work out. Razor-thin stabs when I sleep. I blamed a mistake during a workout, until the real cause crept to mind. My shoulder hurts because I play so much fetch with Lilly. And, here’s the thing … As a pup, Lilly hated fetching. So, it’s entirely my fault.
At first, she simply didn’t understand the game.
With the disdain only a smart dog can muster, Lilly looked at me like I was a complete idiot. I swear she thought, “I just brought that back. Why did you throw it again?”
When our first obedience trainer recommended fetch as the perfect way to burn off an active dog’s excess energy, he conceded that some of us quietly thought, “Great. My dog won’t play fetch.”
Add in a few expletives, and that’s pretty much defines my inner dialogue that day.
His solution? Play fetch with food. No, the dog doesn’t actually bring back the food. But throwing it sets up the pattern of running back and forth. Over time, you introduce the ball (or whatever) and trade it for food on the return.
The process, he reminded us, also introduced the chance to train several commands:
– Drop it
It worked. So, if your dog won’t fetch, I highly recommend it.
Granted, the category of item Lilly deigns to fetch is limited to a very special foam-filled ball, certain stuffed toys, and (I kid you not) sticks, including kindling she steals from the wood pile.
My girl, who once turned her small black nose sneered at even the idea of fetch, now simply won’t stop. She’s relentless in ways beyond enumeration.
I’m lucky in one respect. While she waits me out, staring intently in hopes I might throw the toy, she is mostly silent. (Like right now, she’s quietly fixated on my every move.) My husband, however, isn’t so fortunate. She’s figured out how to bark until Daddy gives in. And, he always does.
He’s Captain Chaos to her General Disarray (full credit to “South Park” for those hilarious puns).
But, I too throw the ball. I throw, and throw, and throw.
We even play fetch with snowballs sometimes.
Lilly drove me to applied math theory to our fetching efforts. Using fetch to tame Lilly’s bottomless energy requires intricate calculations:
12 tosses x hilly terrain = 1 hour of peace
25 tosses x flat pasture = 1, maybe 2, hours of quiet
50 tosses x any surface = an evening off
Now … if only I could teach her to throw the ball herself. (My shoulder needs a rest.) The person who invented flyball must have had the same thought about making crazy fetching dogs happier.
People stop me all the time to ask what kind of dog Lilly is. Some have guessed Canaan dog. Others think Kelpie. Both of which are not common at all. Those without a guess usually say, “What kind of dog is that? She looks like a fox.” And, when I say, she’s a smooth coat border collie, countless people (including those who work in pet businesses) say “border collie mix”? or “Really?” … like I’m making it up.
While border collies with smooth coats, rather than rough ones, are not as common nor as familiar, they are well known in border collie circles. They simply have smoother coats and more angular features.
And, here’s a shocker, not all smooth coat border collies are black and white. Some are even tri-colored.
Yes, Lilly came from a shelter without any pedigree papers. However, thanks to the AKC’s ILP (indefinite listing privilege) program — now called PAL (purebred alternative listing), she’s recognized as a purebred smooth coat border collie. That means she can compete in AKC events like agility or herding, but not conformation. That’s the formal name of what regular folks call a “dog show.”
To receive an ILP, I had to prove she is spayed. I also completed a detailed application that included information about her height at the withers, her weight, her build, and her instincts to show how she met the breed standard. I sent photos, and I included a letter of recommendation from the Rocky Mountain Border Collie Rescue volunteer who evaluated Lilly before she was put up for adoption. She essentially wrote … “Yep, that’s a border collie.” And, Lilly was approved.
Now, it honestly doesn’t matter to me if my dogs are pure-bred or mixed breeds. The only reason it’s important for Lilly to have this designation is so that she can compete in AKC agility events when (if ever) she’s ready. There are other agility venues who allow dogs of all breeds and mixes, but in Colorado there is a preponderance of AKC events. So, if you want to do this a lot (and not have to travel out of state), there you go.
So, to recap my answers to the most common questions:
Yes, she’s a border collie.
No, she’s not particularly small. She’s dead-on the breed standard for size.
No, they are not all this shy, but (as I’ve mentioned before) they each have their own brand of crazy.
Yes, she’s very smart and very active.
Yes, she really can jump (as high as my head) and does it all the time when she’s happy. In fact, if I don’t see it coming, she’s given me bloody noses, a fat lip, and broken sunglasses.
Thank you. Yes, she’s the Champion of my Heart.
Canine medical drama stalks me, including having a parvo puppy. 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 our parvo puppy 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 each parvo puppy either does or does not 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.
The harvest moon rises as a young border collie — a shy dog — 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.
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. This musing comes from an imagined scenario based on what the shelter staff told me and what I now know about how Lilly perceives her world – a shy dog 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.
Lilly passed her evaluations, got spayed, then I adopted her the very next day.
People often ask why Lilly is a shy dog, 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?
Lilly 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?
Lilly 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 dog training. Other than “show dogs.” I joke that before Lilly my dog training experience was of the Petsmart variety. No offense.
On the advice of a shelter volunteer, who also works with a local border collie rescue, we looked into formal obedience training. Then we added 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 (ha ha … remember those?) 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. People know it 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). The pair then 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 dog training championship title CHOMH (champion of my heart).
Next up … From whence she came.
It’s Friday, April 13, perhaps not the most auspicious day to launch a dog blog, to start a new venture. Then again, trusting the power of passion works for me, and today, I felt exponentially compelled (after months of pondering) to begin telling the tale of my life with the beautiful, brilliant, and always challenging Lilly Elizabeth, a rescued border collie with whom I share every minute (since I’m a writer who works at home).
Lest you think my life overly dog-centric, I’ll add that my lively little family includes my darling husband Tom and his amazingly sweet lab/greyhound mix Ginko Cornelius. That is how it works here at 8,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains — 2 boys (Tom & Ginko), 2 girls (Rox & Lilly). The end.
We live in a high mountain valley in Colorado and joke that it’s a gated community since many folks lock their cattle gates. It’s scenic and quiet, and to brag just a bit, I cannot see a single man-made thing from my office window.
My intention is not so much to diary-style dog blog as it is to play with the personal essay as storytelling vehicle, where the is the story … and THE story.
We will see how it goes.
Next up — why I called it Champion of My Heart.