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Charlie and I. The Challenge of a Lifetime.

In the Beginning.

Charlie was around 9 months old and had been with us for only a few short weeks.  I wanted to gradually introduce him to the sights, smells and sounds of our small village town.  It was a short 5 minute walk from where we lived, but we had to cross a fairly busy main road to get there.  I chose a time that was less busy and less likely that we would encounter traffic or people walking their dogs. All was clear as we began crossing the road, but suddenly a truck came around the corner heading towards us. I quickened my pace and asked Charlie to move along quickly with me, but instead he flat on the ground in the middle road and wouldn’t budge! I frantically tried to coax him to get up and come with me so that we could get out of the way, but he just lay there, frozen and terrified.  The truck thankfully stopped and waited patiently as I tried everything I could, finally resorting to picking him up and carrying him to the other side of the road.  My heart was thumping, my back strained at lifting his 20kg rigid body, and the feeling of   embarrassment totally overwhelmed me in that moment.

I was not equipped physically or emotionally to handle him.

Living with a fearful, reactive, hyper-sensitive, easily excitable dog means that daily life is challenging. It’s like being on a non-stop rollercoaster ride.

There are moments of joy and love shared, usually when we are both feeling safe and relaxed in the comfort of our home environment. And then there are all those other moments. The moments of anticipation and anxiety as we enter the outside world, filled with distractions and things that could possibly trigger a reaction in our dogs. We become equally sensitive and hypervigilant, which makes going for walks challenging and often unpleasant.

When an incident occurs that causes our dog to lunge, bark, try to escape or simply shut down, we ourselves are often triggered to react to our dog’s response - often in a way we don’t feel proud of afterwards. These situations can leave us feeling stressed and deflated. Perhaps even frustrated, angry and embarrassed. Sometimes guilt sets in, because we think that we are failing our dogs. We doubt our own capabilities and skills to help them, and wonder if they will ever be able to overcome their fears or reactivity.

These thoughts, feelings and emotions can easily set off a downward spiral.  For me, the harder I tried, the more Charlie and I seemed to struggle.  Each incident filled a space between us that was getting wider and wider. I began to distance myself emotionally from him - a natural protection mechanism I guess. We both lost trust and confidence in each other.   We were both in a lonely and unhappy place in our relationship.

Dashed Expectations

Was this the life I had dreamt of when we adopted Charlie into our family? Not at all. My wish list included a loving companion dog that could go anywhere and do anything with our family: Camping and hiking trips, daily fun walks in nature and possibly my agility partner. 

Instead, our daily walks were better described as frantic and erratic.  Charlie would pull hard on the leash, dragging me behind him with his nose glued to the ground, darting from one ‘pee mail’ to the next, sniffing frantically and totally disconnected from me. Other times he would just freeze and shut down.  

Our walks in the countryside were equally challenging.  He was insanely driven to chase anything that moved, including wildlife, domestic livestock, birds, cats, rabbits, or whatever we encountered along the way.  Oftentimes I was dragged  through hedges, mud, bracken and across streams, as he tirelessly and single-mindedly pursued his hunting and herding goals. A friend, who also had a young, energetic and ‘chasey’ dog, would sometimes accompany us on these walks. Not a good match, as the two dogs would take off together, leaving both my friend and I in a heap on the ground. With a little imagination, I am sure you can picture the scene: two adult women with 2 over-excited dogs, covered in mud, looking like they had been dragged through a bush backwards. Not pretty, but pretty funny! We could either laugh or cry about our predicament, and thankfully we chose to find the humour in it, at least some of the time.

But deep down, I was exhausted, humiliated and frustrated. 

Both my shoulders were inflamed and painful from the constant pulling on the leash, and I could hardly move my neck. The relaxing, enjoyable walks that I had dreamed of, had turned into a nightmare. Family hikes and outings become difficult for all of us. There were so many places we couldn’t take Charlie, and when he did come with us, there was a lot of arguing, and tempers would flare as we all struggled to keep Charlie safe and under control. Then one day, on a particular walk, something happened…Charlie took off and ripped the leash out of my hands, jumped over a stone wall, with a six foot drop on the other side, and began to chase a flock of sheep. I desperately yelled his name and whistled for him to come back. I knew he was not only putting the flock at serious risk, but was putting his life in danger too. I was expecting the farmer to come rushing out, shotgun in hand at any moment! After what felt like ages of panic and pandemonium, I finally managed with super-human strength to get Charlie and I back over the 6 foot wall and marched him back to the car. That was it. I was returning him back to the shelter. I couldn't live like this anymore. In that moment it felt like my life was falling apart, and that Charlie was the cause of it. As I drove home, the shock turned into anger and then into exasperation. Upon arriving home, tears rolling down my cheeks, I went straight to my desk and searched for the number to call the rescue centre where we had got Charlie from.

Was I really ready to give up on him?

That was when I felt a wet nose nudge my hand. I looked down and saw Charlie’s sad, deep, beautiful eyes looking up at me. I knelt down in front of him, and he pushed his head gently into my chest. I wept. I poured out my worries, my disappointment and my fears. In only a few months of having Charlie, my life had been turned completely upside down. I cried until my tears ran dry and the tight feeling in my chest subsided.

How could I ever send him back to the shelter? This beautiful, spirited, loving animal, who was a victim of traumatic events in his early formative months, needed my understanding, support and guidance. How else was he to learn the necessary skills and develop the resilience he needed to be able to cope with this busy and challenging world. There and then, I made a new promise to Charlie. I promised him that I would never give up on him, or us. I promised him that he would always have a loving home with our family, and that I would do everything I could to help us through our struggles. Together, we would find a way. I sought help from private trainers and attended our local dog classes. Charlie is super-smart, and took to clicker training like a whiz. He earned his junior and adult Good Companion Certificates, and knew a handful of fun tricks. But despite all that, outside his home environment or the training facility, he was still a hot mess. He completely ignored me, and all the training that we had done, seemed to be of no use to us out there.

I tried harder, I trained more and I reached out for help again.

I set off on a journey to learn everything I could about behaviour and training because I wanted to understand what made Charlie tick.

Why couldn’t he trust me and look to me for guidance in situations that made him anxious? Why did he disconnect from me the moment we were outdoors?

Why was he so driven to chase everything, carelessly putting himself and others in danger?

And, most of all I wanted to heal our broken relationship, which was wearing me down and gnawing at my confidence. I doubted myself and wasn’t sure that I had what it takes to give this challenging dog all that he needed.

Over time we gradually made some progress. It took a lot of management on my part, and although life seemed to be more settled, it certainly wasn’t anything like the dream life I had imagined for us.

A few years later we moved home and relocated to Austria, and much to my dismay the nightmare started all over again. The move was stressful, as it is for most families and their animals. But, the stress was more than Charlie could deal with. Again, I dreaded walks in the new neighbourhood. Walks in the beautiful forest just behind our home were also impossible, due to the many deer and wild animals that lived there. I found my frustration and disappointment returning and our relationship was being challenged on a daily basis.

So, once again I went searching for answers and support.

This is when I discovered Kathy Kawalec’s Dancing Hearts Academy. Her holistic approach and partnership based coaching methodology really resonated with me. It was refreshingly different from the common training approach which is usually only focused on changing the undesirable behaviours. I was curious and inspired to learn more. I spent the next 4 years in the academy learning, being personally coached and mentored by Kathy and became one of a small group of certified coaches for the Dancing Hearts Partnership Lifestyle Method™. This experience completely transformed my life and the way I live with my dogs, as well as how I teach and coach my clients and their dogs.

Today, Charlie and I, together with my other dog Leila and our family, live the life I always dreamed of!

Camping and hiking adventures.

Daily, relaxed, off leash walks in nature.

Charlie stays close and is attentive and responsive.

We can go anywhere and do anything together.

We enjoy a soul-deep, loving partnership.

Over and above that, Charlie is now my number one assistant. He accompanies me on many of my private training and coaching sessions with clients, role modelling a calmly confident, focused and happy demeanor for young exuberant dogs, and helps fearful and anxious dogs to feel comfortable with his newfound, bright and cheerful self-confidence.

I never believed that such transformation could be possible - for both of us. And yet, here we are living a life in flow and harmony - all due to Charlie, whose behavioural challenges kick-started this lifetime adventure.  

What partnership offers is not a quick fix solution for our dog’s challenging and often difficult-to-live-with behaviour.  It’s much more than that.  It is a framework for living life with our dogs in an intentional way. Coming from a place of empathy and understanding, we take responsibility for our decisions and actions which lead to choices that support trust and cooperation between us and our dogs. We learn to communicate in a language we both understand, which mitigates conflict and increases meaningful engagement. Through creating habits that encourage balanced and holistic wellbeing, and meeting the core needs for both ourselves and our dogs, we open the space for more joyful living and build resilience to meet and overcome life’s challenges. It allows both us and our dogs to reach our full potential and experience a fulfilling heart-connected relationship.   

Did his behaviour problems resolve?

Yes. Part of the magic about living in this intentional, holistic way, means that many of the challenges simply resolve themselves with little or no intervention. Other behavioural challenges, more deeply rooted in trauma, can also be slowly disentangled with knowledge, understanding, patience and science-based approaches that our now thankfully available to us as dog parents This includes a trauma-informed approach and an understanding of neuroscience & neurobiology, and applications of these sciences such as the Polyvagal Theory - all of which I include in my work with dog guardians now.

Is Charlie still a sensitive dog?

Yes he is, and always will be. You see, just because his behaviour changed over the years for the better, doesn't mean his sensitive nature did. He has simply learnt new coping strategies, built resilience to stress and grown in confidence and trust in life. He has developed new social skills and emotional intelligence. He has learnt to regulate his emotions and how to express his needs in a healthy way. He has matured and settled into himself. But, he still has a sensitive spirit. He still needs a little more time than most dogs to feel safe in new environments. He is still sensitive to the emotions and feelings of others around him. He still gets scared of fireworks. The difference is, I am better at knowing how to support him, and he is better at getting through the event and back to grounded and balanced a lot quicker and easier.

What I hope you will take away from our story.

Our story is not nearly finished. In fact this is only the start. And, I will share the next chapters in another blog. For now, my wish is that you take inspiration from our story. That you realise you are not alone if you are struggling with your own sensitive dog. That there is always hope for change, and that through your struggles together you will both learn and grow. You will experience the meaning of a true, unbreakable bond that runs deeper than you ever imagined. Hang on tight, the ride can be bumpy, but if you open your heart and take on the challenge, you will have the adventure of a lifetime!



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