Ocean was growing into the most gorgeous dog I could have imagined. Actually, I didn’t know what to imagine. She was the only ‘mostly white’ one in her litter, the rest were black and white like the Border Collie mom, or blue merle like the Australian Shepherd dad. She was changing, and I loved waking up to see her new look each morning. Sleek, deep chest, snow white, prick ears, her caramel colored eyes, and her ‘pirate patch’.
She would come out of her crate in the morning and jump on the bed for some snuggle time. Nose to nose was her favorite with me, and I counted on this time each day, the perfect way to wake up. I will be honest, she was and still is the best smelling dog I have ever known. I could breath in her scent all day, it’s honey sweet and intoxicating. That is of course when she isn’t rolling in shit. Which is often.
What was interesting to me at the time was the fact that here was this young, athletic, gorgeous dog, who had unique markings that attracted people, and an incredible scent that was attractive to people and apparently dogs, and everyone, human and dog alike, wanted to meet her, be around her, and get into her space. But she was the ONE dog in my house at the time who would have preferred to evaporate from the planet. Everything about her attracted attention, and she wanted none of it, and went out of her way to avoid it.
If there was anything to roll in, elk scat, horse manure, fox urine, ground fish fertilizer, she did it with gusto. She seemed to always be looking for a disguise in some way, a way to hide herself in plain sight. A way to keep people away for sure. And because approaching people were a problem when she was younger, I let her wear her ‘new scents’ freely. It was a non confrontational way to allow other people to make good choices, and give us a wider berth. This was truly living the ‘path of least resistance’, and truth be told, no sober person is going to reach in to pet Miss Shit Face.
My husband decided to take another six month contract down in Antarctica. I felt that I had plenty to keep me busy and focused at the time. Franny was trying to leave at any given chance to explore the world, and I was trying to convince her that we were a great option for her. Ocean was trying to make the outside world go away, and was pointing out every possible boogie man behind every corner or piece of furniture. And my two young children, were counting on me for everything. Now to find a balance, a meeting point.
We had a lovely ‘at home’ veterinarian who Ocean liked. She didn’t have an office at the time so she referred us to another veterinarian to have Ocean spay. I of course chose Christmas Eve day to have this done, because I somehow thought, ‘with my husband gone, this will be great, the kids and I will be at home all day in the family room, a great time, no other commitments!’ What I didn’t count on, was that this veterinarian stressed Ocean, gave her a drug she had an adverse reaction too, and handled her roughly. I picked her up four hours after her surgery and she was throwing herself into the side of the kennel wall, she had ripped her stitches out, so they had to put in HUGE external sutures. She was so visibly in distress, yet no person was caring for her. Her eyes were so wide open, and her little heart was racing. As I was carrying Ocean out, the veterinarian grabbed Oceans mouth hard and said, ‘next time be nice, Merry Christmas Everyone!’ Ocean growled hard, and I’m pretty sure I did too. That was the last we ever saw of that veterinary office.
Every introduction I had made up until that point, every effort for Ocean to feel safe around a person, I felt melt away in that moment. I felt like I had betrayed her. And in a way I had. I didn’t understand at the time that veterinarians don’t have a background in behavior, and don’t necessarily understand the causes of behavior, and the few that do have a title of Veterinary Behaviorist.
You see, what people saw in Ocean back then was growling and avoidance. Those were just the symptoms, not the cause, and that is a super important distinction. Because it is the cause that needs to have the focus, and the cause was an unstable temperament that was cautious and fearful. And with cautious and fearful, creating a safe environment is imperative. Period.
So, our winter continued.
I would bundle my kids up in their snow suits and winter gear, and we would head to our local agility club barn. The inside of the barn was the same temperature as outside, just no wind, which to me was paradise. My kids would play in the wood chips and sand with their toys and figurines while I would work and play with Ocean and Franny on the agility equipment. My kids learned how to throw balls and discs at a young age so we could all play together in a purposeful way. And this turned out to be another turning point for Ocean with children. They were becoming her access to the things she loved most, balls and discs.
We also spent a great deal of time hiking, in fact, five out of seven mornings each week. Snow suites, a sled, skis, kids, dogs, blankets, leashes, and we were off. I stuck to logging roads mostly as they were wider and not so busy. I also fashioned myself a pulling harness, that I attached to a long rope and the kids sled. My kids were hardy for their ages, but that sled was handy when they wanted a break, or a nap. I pulled them all through the Bang Tails, Bridgers, and Gallatin ranges, singing, telling stories, and enjoying this time. And all the while, I was working Ocean and Franny. Recalls, stay close, get in the sled, remote downs, and fetch, etc. I believe these morning hikes on logging roads were good for all of us. Fresh air, movement, nature, and working together. And this was our ‘meeting point’. These outings met everyone’s needs. No stress, no social pressure, no big unknowns, just us.
We would all come home sated. My kids would curl up on the couch by the fire and look through books. Franny and Ocean would sometimes curl up with them, or lay on the floor chewing on their bones. I would start cooking for the day, and making plans for furthering ‘my families’ education.
All five of us moved together as a single pod that lasted way beyond that winter. We would drive to Helena, 90 miles away, for herding lessons on Friday mornings, and drive to Butte, 80 miles away, for agility fun matches. In these environments, Ocean was thriving. These people were her kind of people, they said hi and ignored her, and the other dogs were focused on working.
My kids knew how to set jump bars and gate steward at an agility fun match before they were five years old. They were in more barns across Montana than I could have ever imagined. Ocean finally made friends with two dogs. Henry, a border collie at the sheep farm, and Huckleberry, a hound we saw at agility practice and trials. She never played with them, but loved to say hi, and she loved knowing they were there.
I think it’s important to note here, she has never played with any other dog than Franny, ever, in 11.5 years. She never sniffed another dogs genitals, or was interested in a dog sniffing hers. She had Ahti, a Golden mix, that we would visit on the way to the park. They would greet thru her fence, and then off we would go. For Ocean this was a big deal, she just didn’t really care to meet other dogs. In fact if she was the only dog on the planet, she would be so very happy!
She did have what we called ‘work buddies’. Because for Ocean, safety was equal to work and focus while working. We had a pocket park in our neighborhood, and in the late evening we would all go down there. Oscar and Larry, two dogs that would always be waiting for us by a pine tree. Oscar was some type of cattle dog mix, and would share a disc with Ocean. I would throw it, she would go get it at the speed of lightening, drop it at Oscars feet, and he would run around with it in celebration. When he would drop it, I would throw it again, and it would play out this way all evening. Larry was more of a cheerleader, and just laid there next to Franny, who didn’t mind at all.
When Ocean was a young adult, we started competing in tricks competitions, agility trials, and stock dog trials. And it’s also when she became super reactive. She was stepping into a developmental phase where a young dog can get pushy, see where they fit int he world, a bit blustery, and sow their oats so to speak. But for a young dog who had an unstable temperament from the get go, was cautious and fearful, this was more like the Mr. Toads Wild Ride of behavior. While she tried hard to avoid people and dogs in the past, now she was lunging, barking, and trying hard to MAKE them go away. People called her aggressive, a lunatic, dangerous, obnoxious, etc. What I learned was that asking a dog with an unstable temperament to make choices in an arousing environment is NEVER the right choice.
At herding trials she was breath taking, smooth, and so much fun to work. This was her environment. This is where she felt peace and safety. Both of us could relax, work, smile, breathe, and know everything was as it should be. But we weren’t buying a farm anytime soon, so I also had to be realistic.
We got into trouble a couple of times at agility trials with other dogs. But I learned how to see the environment and situations differently so that would not happen again. I learned to give her the space she needed, so she could turn off in her crate and really relax. And I learned that she was a freaking phenomenal athlete. She started collecting ribbons and titles from the start, and it just kept going. When she was in motion, it was magical, ‘better than sex’ as the agility gypsy’s say. It was when the motion stopped, and she was aroused and jacked on adrenalin, that things could go very wrong.
So I chose to give her me. Whether it was at an agility trial, a park, or hiking. If something in the environment was causing to much pressure for her, or she needed a solid stable place to be with no questions, it was going to be me. So I spent a weekend teaching her HOW to jump up and into my arms, an aerial catch. We practice stationary, running at me from across the yard, from the right side, or the left side, and how to read my arm position so she knew when to take off and leap.
Those two scars on my arm? Ocean had just finished an agility run, nearly 8 yards per second, flying, and truly jaw dropping. She had spent every ounce of energy on that course, and when she ran at me to jump up, she almost couldn’t, but grabbed onto my forearm with her dew claws and made it happen. My skin, as you would imagine, melted like butter under her grip. But she did it, she found her safety after laying it all out on the course. And it was in that moment that I truly felt we were becoming a solid Team.
I was taking care of safety choices, and her reactivity started to slowly fade. For awhile anyway.
Ocean and I kept going at everything, tried everything, and we became a unit that traveled from Montana, across the US, Mexico, and Canada. We were competing, sharing our story, visiting, and getting out into the world, the part of the world that worked best for us.