So I had my Easter weekend all planned out. And you know what they say about best-laid schemes.
This last month I have been focusing on training with Archie, my working lab, and noticing, and recording, my own emotions as I progress. This is part of the research I am working on. A friend was helping me launch my first ever Facebook live video, to promote my work on dogs and emotions (you can watch it here). I planned to visit my parents for a long Easter weekend and I had scheduled a 2 hour gun-dog training session, with a positive gun dog trainer I have been working with. I was pleased with myself. It all felt good and productive.
Then on Monday everything changed.
Another friend had been tirelessly helping me with some basics in dog training. On Saturday we were chatting before starting our training, sharing dog ideas, training, feelings, how we affect our dogs, 'Should we choose the blue or the red pill' and other interesting thoughts! Our four dogs were chilling, Archie was gnawing a big knuckle bone outside.
Normally I make sure that I closely supervise Archie's bone chewing because he can be a bit over-enthusiastic. What other dogs consider a bone well past it’s chewing potential (Jack my hamiltonstövare, had already done this one to death), Archie seems to still consider a meaningful opportunity. But this was an enormous knuckle bone, he wouldn’t be able to damage himself with that.
Oh, the benefits of hindsight.
That day we completed what, for me, was a successful training session. I felt I had made huge advances in understanding what I consider to be my training 'puzzle'. When I had failed to get the response I wanted from Archie, instead of continually repeating what I was doing I had tried other approaches. Normally, when my friend suggested an approach I would follow as instructed. This time, if her suggestion in the moment didn't make sense to me, I had gained confidence to follow my own instinct and then share my reasons. I also got a feel for when it was time to take a break.
This will probably all sound like standard practice to skilled dog trainers. I’m sure I’ve read similar advice in countless books and probably heard it at countless training courses. But it was the first time I’d really ‘felt’ it myself. I think it can be said that on that Saturday, ‘I had got out of my own way’. I was looking forward to my scheduled gun-dog training session, to be able to demonstrate the progress we had made.
Training session finished, we went on a relaxing walk in the woods, enjoying being out in the fresh air and energised by knowing that the days were getting longer, lighter and warmer and we could look forward to more of the same. All was good.
The following day was quiet. I worked in the garden while the dogs lay about. Archie was chilled I was pleased to see. Could it be that one of the numerous approaches we were taking to help him relax was working (homeopathic remedies, training, a hormonal implant....)?
In the early evening he came inside and threw up all over the carpet at the front door. Grrrr. What is wrong with doing that in the garden?! Nevertheless I was relieved. I had been slightly alarmed when I noticed how much he had reduced the knuckle bone to the previous day. It's not uncommon for my dogs to bring up bits of bone that they can't digest. In my view this was a healthy way to sort it out. All seemed ok.
He was sick a couple of times more. I was keeping a watchful eye on him. If things didn’t clear up I would ring the vets.
The following morning, considering the schedule I had for Easter, I decided to make an appointment to see my vet. Archie seemed ok, but I would rather be safe than sorry. Glenbrae Veterinary Practice offers holistic as well as traditional vet care. They were very responsive and I got an appointment that morning. Archie seemed perky and active, he didn’t seem to have any discomfort as the vet felt his abdomen. We decided to x-ray just in case. I would be contacted in a couple of hours with the results. Yes, I agreed for him to be sedated. It would of course be more expensive, but was more likely to give me a definitive answer.
And it did!
Within 2 hours I was contacted by Wendy, our vet. The X-ray has shown some alarming needle sharp pieces of bone in the gut. It was strongly advised to operate, there was a risk of perforation to the intestine and subsequent peritonitis. In fact it was unclear if there had been any damage already. There was no question, of course, please go ahead.
I phoned my friend to tell her our next training session would not be happening and tried to stop her from worrying about it being anything to do with her. I had left my dog unsupervised with a bone, what was I thinking, I KNOW not to do that.
The operation went well. I accepted my friend's offer to take me to pick him up. It was a long way out of her way and I was very grateful for the moral as well as practical support. Cara, the vet that who had performed the operation was reassuring and helpful, with advice and answering the numerous questions. She explained what she had done during the operation, what they had found and how to look after him for the best recovery. Archie was still recovering from the drugs and was pretty spaced out. I felt so anxious when I saw him I had difficulty listening to the instructions for after care. I was so stressed about not making any more mistakes.
Two weeks on he is making a good recovery. In another few days he will be able to go off lead walking and we can get back to some form of normality. As always I have been taking the opportunity to reflect. What was I being shown?
I had felt numb. I had been an irresponsible dog owner.
The thought that I might lose him preyed on my mind. That was very much a worse case scenario, but it made me realise how much I relied on his tireless energy, always being there. I did my best to acknowledge that scary feeling, rather than push it away. I know resistance to feelings is not healthy!
This is an experience I'm sure that any dog owner worries about. For me, my the experience highlighted in stark relief how much I worry about people and animals in my care getting hurt. This is one of those things that I have known about myself for a while. Reflection on this event with Archie helped me see how much it is an undercurrent to how I live my life. in everything I do
I can trace the source of this fear back to an incident in my childhood when I had been asked to keep an eye on my little brother while my mother was in the kitchen. Happily colouring and only half paying attention, I know I said to him - 'don't climb on that chair, you might fall down' as he clambered over the furniture. My two year-old brother ignored the 'don't', climbed up on the chair and fell out a window, landing on his head. Luckily there was no lasting physical damage to him (well not that has come to light so far). But that early experience had left its mark on me.
Being able to connect my difficult feelings from Archie's misadventure to my earlier life trauma is a wonderful example of what my work is all about. It is my personal experience that once I allow myself to become aware of a feeling that I am trying to suppress things change. You start to notice connections. You might notice how it has been holding you back in something you have been trying to achieve. You might notice how it has been affecting how you live your life in general: what choices you make; why you do the things you do; why you avoid the things you don't do. Well that's how it works for me.
I was left with the experience of managing a 'full-on' labrador in recovery. We had already been working on calm, loose-lead walking. It had been an area that I hadn't really bothered about. Being calm and grounded has now become imperative for both of us to allow Archie to heal. It also made me realise how difficult that is for me, to sit still and just be. Not for the first time am I wondering where the real problem to Archie's hyperactivity comes from!
Last but not least is the subject of vet support. I have fed a raw diet for 9 years to all my dogs. I went through all the research and read the books after being introduced to it by a friend. Chewing raw meaty bones is part of the diet that I follow. It does feel a little scary going against what mainstream are telling you to do. I had to be able to stand up for my own principles even when others I would normally follow suggested I was wrong. When I moved to my present address I was determined to find a vet who would match my own holistic approach to health. If my vet practice had not been a raw feeding supporter it would have been much more stressful for me to ask for help. Their support for me has been invaluable.
Soon Archie, Jack and I will be able to get back to regular life. I have experienced one of my worst nightmares and learnt a little bit more. I feel a little bit wiser and a lot more resilient.
In 1786 Robbie Burns wrote in his poem 'To a Mouse'
"The best laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft a-gley, [often go awry]
An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain,
For promised joy."
He was right! And it applies to women and dogs too!