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Spy's Story (Part 2)

The tale continues...

Claire Hayes still hasn't worked out what it was she saw in Spike (now Spy) that Friday evening while innocently looking through the Rescue Me pages on Agilitynet. Two years on and she laughs at her naivety when she thinks of the story she wrote about him for Agilitynet. She was certain Spy would be all sorted out as fast as you like. She was so wrong.

Back then his nickname was Wiggy Monster - 'Wiggy' because of his excitable back leg that couldn’t keep still when its owner was being fussed, and 'Monster' because he was. I’ve dropped the ‘Monster’ now. It no longer suits him because, quite simply, he isn’t. He’s lovely - an affectionate, sweet, loving, fun, pet and friend, but it’s not been an easy ride. Bear with us as we follow on with Spy’s story!

My first thought of liking Spy to a spoilt child wasn’t far off. I’ve never owned, trained - or even met - a dog as difficult as him. His defiance had to be seen to be believed. Like a stubborn colt, he would stand his ground, quite literally tossing his muzzle in the air in a silent ‘no!’ when told to do anything he didn’t want. His behaviours were given nicknames such as his ‘My Little Pony’ as he strut around the room, head bobbing and tail held over his back. Around and around he would go, lying down after the umpteenth ‘settle’ before getting up to circle his ‘paddock’ again.

The back garden became another battleground, the reason for which we never did determine. He would refuse to go out, except immediately after meals. He would happily go out the front and would actually run to the front door when I was trying to encourage him out the back. It would come down to physical means to get him outside. Spy wasn’t afraid to use his teeth, if he felt cornered. Late one evening he had hidden himself behind the sofa as soon as he heard the back door opened. I tried to coax him out but to no avail. I stupidly knelt down to pull him out by his collar when he flew out at my face. I instinctively protected my face, and he drew blood through the sleeve of my fleece and jumper. I didn’t react as I was so shocked; I just sat on the floor and stared at my arm.

More behaviour problems
Two days later at agility he repeated this behaviour again in sheer temper. That was ages ago and he's only done it once since, although not in temper and he looked as surprised as I did afterwards. Why? He was on my lap and I was kissing his cheek. The other dogs were watching. He was growling but I thought it was at them. Obviously not! Maybe it’s a dominance thing, maybe nerves, I don’t know. He grew up with children in two of his previous homes so who knows what happened there. I know he has trust issues so maybe he thought I was going to bite him but I’ve kissed him before and he loves the fuss. I’ve worked on it since and although he will start to growl, he stops when I say ‘no!’ and hasn’t made any attempts to bite me since. I think the last time it frightened him more than me!

Separation anxiety was the only behavioural problem I was told about. In fact I was told he had no other issues at all! It was pretty much plain sailing. I felt confident dealing with that and, in no time at all, Spy was coping well with being left. In fact, now I can even go out with one of the others and as long as my Mum is around for him to lean on, he copes fine. He still barks when I leave him in the car at agility or shows to train one of the others, but that’s not anxiety. That’s ‘I don’t want to miss out on the fun!’ You can often see his temper that lives just below the surface in those moments as he bounces on both front feet simultaneously with an angry bark for every bounce!

In the first few months, a year even, Spy quite easily pushed Indy down to Omega position. Fear aggressive and shy, Indy would take the easy way out and avoid him. Spy thought he ruled the roost and only Laddie’s size and ten year age gap kept Spy from top of the pack. I allowed this to happen, feeling it better to let them sort things themselves and accepting that Indy wasn’t interested in second in command. Then a few months ago, I noticed a change and went with it. Actively encouraging Indy to take back his place, things settled and Spy gave in gracefully. I don’t think he was really ready for being so high up and is a happier dog all round for knowing he is firmly on the bottom rung. That goes for his place among the humans, too. I think a lot of Spy’s problems stemmed from not knowing where he was in life. Too much change too soon. Six homes in eight months, no rules or boundaries and so he made up his own. No wonder he was confused.

At agility, Spy was, er, well, hard to describe!
In some ways he showed amazing potential; in others he was scary! Training up a new dog only a year after I had even started agility myself with Indy wasn’t the smartest move. I still had (and have) an awful lot to learn and made several mistakes with him. That included training him for Starters, which is where I was at the time, instead of heeding warnings from others that Indy would soon win me out and Spy would start in novice. Hence, I had a dog that could go on…and on…and on… but turned like a P&O ferry on mud!

At the beginning of 2006, we got off to a good start with a fifth and a third in Starters. Then Indy won me out in style (7 times!) and we had to go into Novice. At some point, I lost Spy’s waits, weaves and contacts at shows. Perfect in training he went a bit wild at shows, sensing my fear and so lack of control. The old Spy came out from nowhere, grabbed the opportunity to take control of things and ran with it. Unfortunately, I had no idea of how to take that control back. I was too inexperienced to work it through so it went from bad to worse. Gradually I lost control of Indy too as he also got mixed messages from me at shows. It wasn’t a great time. In fact, it was terrible. But someone very wise once said that no matter how bad things get, something good always comes from it. They were right. It was an amazing learning curve and all three of us came out stronger from the experience.

And so, we arrive in the present
Spy has grown in a stunning young collie, still entire, with a lovely coat and ruff, lean, extremely fit and well muscled. He is healthy, tough and strong. I wont bore you with the details of how I overcame the behavioural problems I’ve described. Handlers yourselves, you know already the hours of patience and consistency it takes to train a dog, let alone retrain through other people’s mistakes. The important thing is we got there. Time also helped. Spy will be three in June. He is growing up. He understands where his position is in life in relation to the others around him. He has learnt respect for me and me for him.

At agility Spy gets better with each lesson. These days, if it goes wrong, it’s always my fault. I know if he can’t do it it’s because he doesn’t understand, not because he simply doesn’t care. We now have reliable waits, weaves and contacts at shows, and if they go wrong, we try again instead of panic. In 2007 so far, at unaffiliated shows, we’ve had two firsts, two fourths and a sixth! In fact to date, he’s out performed Indy! I’m looking forward to the bigger shows now, confident that even if it goes wrong, I’ll still be taking the winning dog home with me.

Thanks to anyone who has helped us along the way, especially my long-suffering Mum, and our trainer Debbie Mangles who never gave up on us even when I wanted to. Last but not least, thank you to my other dogs, Laddie and Indy for their tolerance and lessons in doggy etiquette, without which Spy wouldn’t be the gentleman he is today.

To read Spy's Story (Part 1) click here

About the author...
Claire Hayes has been doing agility for nearly three years. Prior to that she was an obedience handler, but then agility took over her life! She has three dogs, Laddie (12), Indy (5) and, of course, Spy who will be three in June.

Photos of Spy in Action: Trevor Greenslade

First published 5 May 2007