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October 23, 2007

I realized recently that maybe I haven’t given you enough detail on what exactly I mean when I say that Lilly shuts down. So, here, in full glory — using the best literary devices I know — is a description of a true and total shut down.

I once took a comparative religion class, where we read primary texts to uncover what God is. I vividly remember one section of the Koran that essentially went on and on and on about what Allah isn’t. And, buried inside the pages of text was one sentence that said what Allah is.

To help you understand all that is Lilly, I’ll switch that strategy.

When Lilly shuts down, she is simply gone. Her eyes are empty. It’s as if her soul ran away. I cannot reach her with word, or deed, or toy, or food.

She does not get the zoomies. She does not get the sniffies. She might well run off course, but it’s a total panicked run. It’s a full-blown flee … not like “Hey, what’s over there?”

She looks for a place to hide and stays there, cowering, shaking, gums pale (like she’s in shock and all her blood has gone to her core).

Keep in mind that I’m a green handler, so when it first started happening about 6-9 months into our agility training, I had no idea what to do. I got all kinds of input from people, including that Lilly was being manipulative and that I was making things worse by trying to help her relax.

Clearly, my goal in life is to keep Lilly from getting to this point. She now offers (or maybe I now see) earlier and more subtle signs that trouble is brewing. She’ll move slower. She’ll pause, standing. She’ll lay down in a very specific way as if to say “no further.”

That lay down, in particular, is interesting. She folds one arm underneath her and lowers her head over it. I could swear I read something in one of Patricia McConnell’s books about this body position having a name, but for the life of me, I can’t find it.

So, I honor these signs (most of the time) and give Lilly a break before trying again. There have been many times that the ONLY solution is to leave class and go home. She recovers quickly once she’s removed.

This is where the mat training and relaxation training from “Control Unleashed” might be helpful. Lilly naturally wants a safe place. I just have to make it a happy, safe place … rather than the hiding place.

Sometimes, I do push her past a pause by coaxing her to run. I chant to her “The faster we move, the braver we are” as we run, and it’s true. Sometimes, she needs to just run through a threshold (real or from fear) and come out the other side.

Often, once she’s faced the “scary” thing or place, she’ll leap as high as my head, like she’s really excited. I call that “jumping her jitters out,” and there is a song for that too … like those Wiggles songs for kids. Then, after she’s jumped which I see as a confident action, I’ll ask her to work a little — usually something easy, like a trick.

If she’ll do tricks and take treats, then she’s working within her boundaries. If not, then I’d best pay attention because a total shut down may be coming.

Finding places in public (with other dogs and people) where Lilly can work (even if it’s not agility) is key. That’s why we take the Sunday drop-in pet obedience class so much. Lilly is a total ringer when it comes to doing that kind of work, but the fact that she will work AT ALL in front of other dogs is good.

Yes, we work hard to keep other dogs out of her face. Yes, she leaves the yard when it’s time for a play break.

But, at least she’s there and happy and working. Trust me, there have been many times early on when she wasn’t, and all I could do was come home.

About the Author Roxanne Hawn

Trained as a traditional journalist and based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA, I'm a full-time freelance writer for magazines, websites, and private clients. My areas of specialty include everything in the lifestyles arena, including health and home, personal finance and other consumer interests, relationships and trends, people and business profiles ... and, of course, all things pet related.

I don't just love dogs. I need them in my life. Seriously.

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