Love the dog you’ve got, not the one you imagined you’d have!

I had JJ’s life planned out before he was born. I had decided to continue my boy Jack’s line by having a litter of puppies. Jack was such a wonderful dog, amazing temperament, a beautiful traditional black and white collie and easy to train, so I had high expectations of his potential offspring.

When the 3 little puppies arrived I knew straight away which one was Jack Junior (JJ) and how he would make our little family complete and be a wonderful dog just like his father.

As a tiny puppy at home with his mum, dad, brother and sister, JJ was confident, he was my little explorer puppy. Once he was old enough to go out into the big wide world his confidence left him, he barked at everything and nothing. I just didn’t understand, I tried to reassure him and take him out with his dad as well as on his own to build his confidence, but for the first 6 months of his life JJ heard JJ-No! more than his name. We used to joke that ‘We kept the naughty one of the litter’.

The high expectations and the dreams I had that JJ would be just like his dad, were not fair on this little puppy who found the world a scary place. I wanted him to go everywhere with me and be happy and friendly when faced with new people, dogs and places, but JJ barked and lunged when he was scared.

At puppy class he did everything that was asked of him, but cowered if people came near and barked if dogs looked at him for too long. At puppy class they squirted him with water if he barked, so we did this at home too if he barked at the neighbours, because the experts know best, right?

I read book after book, and any of you that have found yourselves in similar situations will know how much conflicting information is out there.

By the time JJ was 6 months old and had had a couple of altercations with dogs and lunged at a couple of people on the street, I enrolled on a degree in animal behaviour and welfare. I started it just so I could understand my puppy, but it took me on a journey of discovery into animal behaviour that I never expected to be continuing nearly 7 years later!

Alongside my degree, I started to take the time to really watch JJ and listen to what he was trying to tell me. While his dad Jack, was my one in a million dog, who will always have my heart, he didn’t teach me anything other then unconditional love (what more could I ask for!). JJ though has taught me more than any amount of book reading and web surfing could. He is an intelligent boy who many people see as very obedient when they see us out and about. He is so responsive and eager to learn, but he is also sensitive and unsure of the unexpected which can cause him to bark first, think later.

JJ also got me into the sport of Canicross because it is something reactive dogs like him can excel at. We regularly went on runs of up to 8 miles. I loved the company and motivation it gave me on my runs and he was more confident around people and dogs when he was in his running harness. I thought we had found our niche.

However, at 4 years old, after JJ was castrated, he was diagnosed with Scoliosis. The castration had aggravated the condition that is likely to have been there since birth. The scans showed he already had arthritis on his spine and I was informed this was likely to get worse. An operation would cost thousands and was not guaranteed to fix the problem, it would also mean weeks of crate rest afterwards in order to recover. For a young border collie that would be hell. We went with the management route of pain medication and hydrotherapy. Our days of running 8 miles at a time were over, much to my disappointment. Another dream dashed.

Now I know some of his barking and lunging is likely to have been linked to a painful spinal condition that he ignored in order to do all that I asked of him, I only wish I had known earlier (I cried tears of guilt when I saw his scans). JJ had been checked by vets and behaviourists in his early years, numerous blood tests run and despite being incredibly skinny and reactive I was told he was a healthy dog, just nervous. I wish someone had suggested he could be in pain. Now when I speak to clients about their dog’s behavioural problems, pain is always something I consider. Research by the university of Lincoln found that more than 80% of the behaviour cases they see have an underlying pain factor.

So the dog I dreamed of that would go everywhere with me and love everyone, was lost when Jack died a 14.5 years old. And the dog I thought would run as far and as fast as my legs would carry me was semi-retired at only 4 years old.

Did I ever think of giving JJ away? Not once! Hand on heart, the thought never entered my head. I loved him for his differences, for his sensitivity and for the changes I have seen in him as I have learnt more and more and made a life for us that he can be happy in. As a result he is a cuddly loving dog, just like his dad was. His trust in me wasn’t immediate like it was with Jack and its taken years for him to completely trust that everything I do is to help him, so now I am his safe place and that is a dream fulfilled. I want him to turn to me when he sees something he is unsure of, I want him to find his way to me if he gets a thorn in his paw, both things his dad used to do and I didn’t realise how important that was to me until JJ started doing it too.

The dog you have may not be the one you dreamt of, but they can be better, they can teach you things and show you new experiences. The bond you build with a ‘difficult’ dog is so strong because you have been through the difficulties together and learnt more about each other.

If you do have a dog with behavioural problems, please don’t give up on them, speak to a qualified behaviourist first and ask your vet to check them for signs of pain. That difficult dog might end up being the best thing that ever happened to you.

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