Auntie Julia of Balance Behaviour sent us this story. Simply remarkable…in every way…..
“The hardest dogs teach us the most. So many clients come to me at breaking point with their dog’s issues and problems, about to give up. I always tell them they are on the cusp of something wonderful and life-changing. I truly believe this. At the end of the day when we become what our dogs need us to be we change ourselves for the better. Dogs reflect our chaos or calm right back to us. The old adage is usually true – we may not get the dogs we want but we always get the dogs we need.
This is the story of Matias.
When I began looking into rescuing a sighthound it was with the intention of bringing the whole energy of my pack down a notch with an older, lazy dog that would fit below the current energy levels of the sled dogs, give me that happy glow that comes with rescue in all its forms (let’s be honest – rescuing dogs makes us feel good about ourselves so is not an entirely selfless act) and be a non-reactive stooge dog to help me in my work as a behaviourist. As with so many best-laid plans sometimes fate takes over and throws everything up into the air.
My search brought me to the plight of the Spanish Galgo and the horrific neglect and abuse they endure in rural Spain. I found a charity that brings a handful of these dogs to the UK every year to raise awareness of the huge number of Galgos abused and abandoned each year. Matias was scheduled to come to the UK with seven other dogs and we reserved him. He wasn’t the prettiest or the largest but something about him jumped off the page at us – his eyes had a story to tell and we just knew he was our dog. At this point we realised our grand scheme had been modified somewhat – but with our not insubstantial skills and experience with damaged dogs we felt that this was what we wanted to do and waited patiently for Matias to arrive in the UK with the rest of the group from Spain. Visiting him at the quarantine kennels we saw he was very nervous and paced the whole time, he wasn’t as friendly as his kennel companion and flicked his eyes around constantly – clearly very insecure and afraid – uncomfortable in his own skin as well as his situation. We knew he would need all of our patience.
The much anticipated release day arrived and all of the new owners, leads in hand, gathered to receive their precious new additions! Our journey with Matias began.
On bringing Mathias home we discovered he was terrified of other dogs and people, didn’t know what doors or steps were, didn’t understand the television, vacuum cleaner or household scents and noises. He had a partially collapsed trachea from having been hung by the neck, a docked tail and burns across his abdomen and stomach, all common abuses Spanish hunters inflict on a hunting dog that disappoints or is no longer useful at the end of hunting season. The lead was alien to him and he didn’t expect kindness. He was a fearful pessimist of the most extreme type. The only thing that elicited a positive response from him was a plastic bag – I discovered this as I went to clean the yard one day – he heard the crackle and offered a little happy dance – from this we assumed some kind soul had probably fed him from a carrier bag whilst he was living feral in Spain.
He would snap aggressively at all dogs, he had clear signs of PTSD and would wake up from sleep with a huge amount of aggression at times, particularly when startled, snapping at thin air, then show fear, avoidance and extreme submission when he awoke fully, realising what he had done. He would cringe at raised arms and if someone (god forbid) threw a ball for the others, he would fly as far away as he could get as though his life depended on it (which perhaps it had at some point). Loud or unexpected noises sent him into a frenzied panic meaning off lead exercise was a definite danger to him. It was clear he had been through a lot. We began to build up a picture of a dog used for hunting, probably separated from his mum and litter mates far too soon, then hung when he was no longer useful, cut down and left feral for a time before he was finally captured and taken to a Spanish rescue compound with others like him.
He bit me four times in the first week simply because I walked too close to him as he was sleeping. He was afraid of wheelie bins and prams, he would eat stones and faeces and grass (an eating disorder called Pica) as though he didn’t know where his next meal was coming from. He was a real target for other dogs when out and about – he emanated such extreme levels of fight or flight hormones that other dogs would immediately see him as a threat. We had our work cut out for us.
Patiently and confidently we began to immerse Matias into different situations. We conditioned him to wearing a muzzle and then introduced him to as many balanced dogs as possible. Slowly, slowly, at his own pace, he began to trust us in different places and around different dogs and people. We described what was unacceptable without emotion and built his confidence and trust at every opportunity. He learnt recall and the Pica began to lessen as did his bad dreams.
A real breakthrough occurred when we took in a 12-week old sighthound puppy and it was at this point – 18 months after he arrived –Matias played with another dog for the first time. This was beautiful and very touching but came with its own issues as Matias didn’t know how to play appropriately and his play would often slip into predation and back again very quickly. So out came the muzzle once more and we introduced correction to our teaching approach with him when he became over excited during play. Luckily this could be in the form of a mild startle and he continued to learn with the help of the other dogs. We walked with wheelie bins (got some strange looks that day), set up some agility equipment in the garden to work on obedience and work his body, walked for miles and miles and took each day as it came.
Some days we felt he would never adjust while others felt more positive but slowly he began to balance himself and become happy in his body. He became more ‘dog’ and began to use his nose more often. He learned to share and use self-control. He began to greet other dogs more politely. Even so, his instinct to chase and course was still quite apparent.
Next the magic happened… Matias began accompanying us to visit clients and dogs with severe behavioural issues. He would act as a stooge dog at a distance, he demonstrated calm avoidance and was perfect for helping nervous and reactive dogs to relax. Somehow his energy had changed so much that he became a role model rather than a trigger. He became curious about the scent of other dogs and actively wanted to meet them, he had achieved calm acceptance. He trusted us so completely to protect him that he began to relax around other dogs more and more, and in doing so he has helped a great many other dogs to achieve balance.
But the most profound change has been within myself. Matias brought something new to the table: he forced me to reconsider and question my approaches and theory. Also, he forced me to be confident, patient and calm whether I wanted to be or not! I knew in order to help him I must trust him and I must remain calm and in control of every situation. I had to adapt. He changed me forever and has changed the lives of many dogs and owners in the process.
Matias continues to get better. Each foster dog that comes through our home learns from him as they do from all of the dogs. They learn about space and boundaries, they learn that some dogs appreciate space and respect for that space. He teaches them about dogs like him. In return, the foster dogs teach Matias about being secure and about trusting the people around him to keep him safe and protected, that every different type of dog damaged or not can be non-threatening and that he can control his own environment and be respected and trusted by other dogs.
It really is a little bit magical – when we look at the big picture we actually have a ripple that began so many years ago with a single thought in my head; a thought about a nice easy sighthound and all the joy I could bring to him. This single thought made huge waves in my life and Matias’, in the lives of so many other dogs and owners. Who knows the ripples caused by the dogs he helped – ripples that perhaps changed the lives of the owners and of other dogs and people. A huge web of positivity and learning that goes on forever.
So my Valentine this week is Matias. He is now elderly, and struggles a little with arthritis, but has achieved balance. Matias is an example that anything is possible with love, patience, trust and understanding. He is our special snowflake and we love him, he has a place in our hearts, our family, our work and has taught us so much we can pass on to others. The universe has a strange way of giving us challenges that we can handle and the benefits are profound and far reaching when we decide to embrace them.”
Thanks Auntie Julia, we love you! Keep on…..lovin’!