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Waking up from my Dream Dog
Sometimes, what you get is better than what you wished for
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Dream Dog

I didn’t want a border collie. in fact, i wasn’t convinced that I wanted a dog of any kind. I’d had two wonderful Australian Shepherds who filled my days with all the joys of walking, working and playing with them. Not to mention with the worries and frustrations of their injuries and misbehaviors. Once they were gone, I was ready to try a dog-free life.

Or so I thought.

Instead, every morning I woke up with a profound sense of loss. I didn’t know how to take a walk without a four-legged companion. My hands kept reaching for an absent furry head and damp nose. My husband said I seemed lost. But I resisted. Because I didn’t want just another dog; I wanted a certain kind of dog: one with all the benefits of a herder (intelligence, connection, focus, trainability) and none of the drawbacks (intensity, hyperactivity, aggression).

I fostered a few candidates. This one was too dim, that one, too unpredictable. Then I saw an adorable Border Collie mix on a rescue site and wondered if she might be the one. I wrote a candid letter saying that I honestly didn’t think the dog I wanted existed. The woman at the rescue group said the dog pictured didn’t fit my ideal, but sometimes — rarely — the type I described did appear. She said I would have to be patient.

But, as it turned out, not for very long. Soon enough, she called and asked me to come see and, she hoped, foster a dog who had been found living under the porch of an abandoned hunting camp; the dog was floundering in rescue, overwhelmed by the general Border Collie insanity that surrounded her.

It was a fairy-tale meeting. She threw herself directly into my husband’s lap. Though she was gimpy from what we later discovered was a broken leg that had healed without being set, half-blind and full of birdshot, she was also sweet, self-contained, thoughtful, calm, smart. It took 48 hours for fostering to turn into adopting. We named her Ainsley, Scottish for a hermitage in the woods.

She had perfect off-leash manners, was obedient but not obsequious, enjoyed learning new things and was deferential to our cat and other dogs we met on walks. She learned the great pleasures of rawhides, bones and toys, and that getting toweled off was perfect compensation for a walk in the rain. When unleashed, she returned to our front doorstep like a homing pigeon.

Well, at least for the first couple of years. Then she started the “Sorry I disappeared into the woods while you cried and called for me, but the chipmunks needed organizing” stuff. Along with “Other dogs are evil and must be chased away” and “Cars, trains, joggers, bikers and any other moving object must be pursued.” At first, I was kind of, sort of, pleased with her newfound confidence, thinking that this behavior was the result of delayed-onset adolescence and would soon fade away. But as her self-assertiveness turned into explosive moving object/dog aggression, I became confused, embarrassed, flummoxed and overwhelmed. Where had my Border Collie Lite gone? And who was this snarling, barking creature lunging at the end of my leash?

Even more important, what was I to do?

I spent hours reading articles and books and watching videos on aggression. I worked with trainers and behaviorists who prescribed everything from hard corrections with prong collars or tying her to a post and walking away to operantand counterconditioning combined with a head collar and clicker training. I contacted the rescue group and begged for insight and advice. I took her to the vet for a blood workup and complete physical. I changed my walk schedule and locations to avoid other living or moving things. In my darkest hours, I even considered returning her to rescue, as though she were a piece of merchandise that had not performed as advertised. I lost my temper, I cried, I wrung my hands. I looked into my dog’s eyes and asked what was wrong.

Eventually, I realized the truth: nothing was wrong. Ainsley was just being a whole lot more of Ainsley. As one trainer explained, after months or even years, some rescue dogs come out of depression or repression and “blossom.” As my husband more succinctly said, “She’s just being a dog.” And Ainsley’s behavior told me, “I’m having a blast.” She was still sweet and soft, affectionate and trainable — she was just a whole lot of other things as well.

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Submitted by Kerry Nikutta | August 31 2012 |

I wanted to thank Laurel Saville for her article, “Waking Up from My Dream Dog.” I could relate to almost everything she said. My partner and I had the sweetest Australian Shepherd on earth for a very long time, but we had to put him to sleep about a year ago. We, too, felt lost without a dog, and wanted another Aussie. The rescue dog we eventually chose looked like a mini Aussie, but we now think he has a lot of Border Collie traits too.

We had the same experience with his increased reactivity to other dogs (and squirrels, bikes, trucks, etc.). He was great around other dogs for about five months, then started lunging, growling and barking whenever a dog was within 50 feet. We are working with a trainer and he is slowly getting better, but sometimes it feels like this problem will never go away.

I experienced a similar range of emotions, and from time to time, felt like it had been a mistake to adopt this guy. (We tended to compare him to our first dream dog, which didn’t help matters.) It was comforting to know that Saville—and probably many others—have gone through the same experience. We now realize that we need to accept him as he is. He has a lot of great things going for him, and we have grown to love him, so we will carry on and hope for the best!

Submitted by Laurel Saville | November 2 2012 |

Thank you for your letter - I am so glad the essay made you feel less alone!

Submitted by Melissa Shapiro | August 31 2012 |

The process by which Laurel Saville came to accept her new dog’s “imperfections” is so familiar that I felt like I was reading my own story. I am a veterinarian, and my vet- school dog was a beautiful white Collie mix, a once-in-a-lifetime dog. She had been a research dog, purchased from a Detroit pound and then made diabetic in a lab, so she needed insulin twice a day. But she was perfect in all ways. She went everywhere with me, and I worked in many different jobs in a number of states. She’s been gone more than 18 years, and my life now is very different than it was. I have three teenagers and have had quite a few dogs since she died in 1993. It took me four dogs to finally realize that I would never have that perfect dog again, that I would have to work to keep my dogs safe and happy, and that I could be crazy about my dogs even though they weren’t that perfect special one.

I did finally get another white dog. She’s a lethal white Aussie with profound hearing and vision issues, and I love her to pieces. Her white coat is familiar and comforting, as is the shape of her face, head and body, which are all very similar to my original white dog’s. But that’s where the similarities end. She has various issues and has been a great challenge, but I couldn’t love a dog more. There is a part of her that is sensitive and devoted, and I have a feeling it will continue to expand as she gets older. She’s the one who taught me that I don’t have to have a perfect dog, as much as I thought I did.

Recently, we decided to become a multi-dog family. We added a third rescue dog in October, and then a fourth in March. Our dogs are the center of our household. We somehow ended up choosing dogs who love each other, and that gives us great joy. We work with them, hug them and watch them like we would a television (no TV for me).

Submitted by Laurel Saville | November 2 2012 |

HA! We don't watch TV either! Thank you so much for your letter!

Submitted by Anonymous | January 18 2013 |

She's a double-merle, or bred merle to merle, or homogeneous merle, but not LETHAL. "Lethal white" is a condition in horses that results in death within hours of birth. I wouldn't want to scare a potential adopter away from a double-merle Aussie by using that term. Thank you for adopting.

Submitted by Kathy | August 31 2012 |

I totally connected with Laurel Seville’s story! It was a pleasure to see it articulated so beautifully. I, too, have a reactive dog, a red, bi-Aussie mix named Nike. He is the greatest gift in the world. I have met so many wonderful people and have a bond with him that I never could have imagined.

When I was told to euthanize Nike at seven months, I looked into his eyes and just could not give up on him that easily. I read numerous books and begged to be included in dog classes. But as you know, any sign of aggression is a big X for us. After reading Pam Dennison’s book, I begged her to help me save myself and my dog. I travel more than an hour and a half to see her.

She took a chance on us, and my boy and I are living quite happily with our 50-foot leather leash, our bag of treats and our high-pitched “yesses!” Let’s hope that people can and will realize that dogs are different, just as people are. They have different personalities, but one thing remains the same: they all deserve the love they give us each day. Dennison always says that anyone can train a dog, but it takes someone special to train a reactive/aggressive dog. I’m glad Saville didn’t give up.

Submitted by Laurel Saville | November 2 2012 |

NIKE! Love seeing him on FB! Thank you for writing me and again here.

Submitted by Cathrine | September 1 2012 |

The only difference between our situation and yours is that we never had a dog before. Now we have two! Rescued from abuse abroad, hugely reactive, the female aggressive, the male terrified, they are the joy and bane of my existence. I can relate to every single word you have written.

We are working with a behaviourist balancing SSRIs and intensive positive training. Slowly, so slowly, it IS making a difference. It touches me deeply to watch the female vibrate with her repressed desire to attack, Attack, ATTACK! as she sits looking to me for that treat and that click that tells her that, yes, it IS possible to live in the same world as other dogs, skateboarders, joggers, buses, strangers who look at you funny....

He can barely stand to be in the street if there is another human within sight, but he'll do it: he'll do it for me, although he'll try to look in all directions at once and has a sitting crab walk that breaks my heart.

Once inside, they are happy, loving, giving dogs, and even jump for joy to see their trainer. Inside, they learn quickly and love to do their 'tricks'. Inside, you'd never know what they have been through, or what it did to them.

And, know what? Even if they never get any better, even if she can never walk without a sturdy muzzle, even if he never goes more than a block from the house, I will love them from now until the heat death of the universe.

They might not be everyone's idea of a good dog, but they are the best dogs EVER: they are my dogs.

Submitted by Anonymous | October 19 2012 |

After 4 years and multiple attempts with various trainers (who were all very good), I've decided that there are some things about my little guy that can never be changed (likewise, there are things about me that a therapist could never change)! I've come to the conclusion that I was put on this earth for a reason, and this just might be it--to have spared this little furry from a lifetime of abuse and neglect.
I'm very grateful for having come across this article. It's comforting and reassuring for me to know that I'm not alone.

Submitted by Laurel Saville | November 2 2012 |

Thank you for your lovely comments. Indeed, I see continual improvement, but I accept that I will never have a dog park dog and can't let friends visit with their dogs anymore. All the more time for me and Ainsley to have fun just the two of us!

Submitted by Amy @ True Dog | December 27 2012 |

Not an uncommon story with those super sensitive herding dogs.
I've written many stories about the struggles I've had with my "dream dog, but not a reality!"
http://truedogblog.blogspot.com/2011/12/dream-dog-but-not-reality.html?m=1

Submitted by donatosmama | January 17 2013 |

I have one of those! exactly. Got her at 5 months, didn't want a puppy (?). At first, our biggest problem, so I thought, was that she didn't connect with me as all my 6 other dogs had. Six historically, not all at once. And she was funny if not exasperating. When she didn't want to do something, she pulled a passive resistance lie down. And that was that. We have video of me carrying her back to the car, her big puppy paws flopping over my back and her tongue lolling and expression quite satisfied. Not a hint of embarrassment.
Then one day she pinned a dog at doggy day care, overreacted they said. Next, she punctured and got expelled. Then she attacked a dog. Then another. Then the neighbor - by now I recognized her warning signals and knew she didn't like him. He reached to pet her....
Only recently, have I fully accepted that, as you say, I have to give up on the dog I wish I had, and accept the dog I DO have. I love her. She's a challenge and adorable and a challenge. I've done all you describe and our walks our as you describe. She's trying. I've come to accept that she's here to teach me more than a 'good' dog would. thanks for this article. I feel such relief now. At least ONE other person fully understands. And she's a border collie/shepherd mix. Relinquished to animal rescue because she was too much to handle.

for the record, donato is my other bc mix. A totally different series of nutty characteristics.

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