We got Zoe from a farm in Wales in 2019. We kept her in the house until she had all her vaccinations done. She was a happy puppy from day one, playful and very smart. So smart that at the age of 6-7 months she could predict (so she thought) all our steps on a walk in the local park and would go quickly to the spots where we would throw the ball for her and wait for us eye-ing the ball (typical Border Collie). Nothing wrong with that except we ended up having to take the same route every time when out even though we had other plans. We managed to change that behaviour and it wasn't hard actually, we just had to stop being so predictable. That was the moment we should have noticed her obsession for the ball, but we didn't. We kept throwing the ball on every walk we took, anywhere we went because she was doing something that was making her happy. So happy that she would pull my arm off on our way to the park, to the point where she would choke herself just to get there quicker, even though the nearest entrance to the park is literally just 5 mintes away from where we live.
She grew up like this, focused only on getting there, to the next spot to chase the ball, oblivious to her surroundings, dogs, people, environments. It was only when we took the ball out of the equation that we realised that she's never had proper socialisation because of this obsession for the ball. It was when I took her out with me for a run that it hit me. We had to run on a road for a small section of the course, and it was bin collection day. It was like she was seeing them for the first time and the bins were that terrifying that she would throw herself in front of a passing car just to get away from the bin (that wasn't even moving). The more I didn't include the ball in whatever activity we were doing the more of her lack of socialisation was showing, to the point where just the usual 5 minute walk to the park was becoming extremely stressful for her. I quickly understood that no other training would be successful until we have addressed this issue. So I designed a re-socialisation programme for Zoe, simple and easy to follow by each member of the family if she was going out with either of us.
The programme included daily walks, just with her, in places where she looked worried or showed fear of something. There was a long list of objects and environments that Zoe wasn’t comfortable with or in: traffic signs, traffic lights, advert boards, bins, telecomm boxes, tall posts, cars, busses, horses, dogs, sheep, narrow trails (I know!), people wearing hats and/or backpacks, pretty much anything you could think of. It looked like we had a lot of work to do. The ball disappeared from her life and all the walks in our local park were focused on just exploring. It took Zoe about 3 months to finally relax on a walk and just sniff around, completely forgetting about the ball or the areas contaminated by the thoughts of the ball. At the same time she learned to walk nicely on the lead and just walk – pretty hard for a dog who’s always on a mission J The bin came to live in our garden, stayed there for a long time, we moved it around the garden every few days and we started feeding her near the bin, every day for about 6 months. On bin day we went out for walks and slowed down the pace near the bins, used treats every time she looked at the bin and more and more treats when she got closer and closer. The thing about desensitizing dogs to whatever worries them is that if you can change the emotional response to a trigger the dog can generalise to other triggers. Obviously I did not have traffic lights, signs and telecomm boxes to keep in the garden and feed her near them but the approach towards her triggers when we were out as well as everything else we did helped Zoe relax in the first instance so that she could see that she was safe after all. When she felt safe she stopped being worried about objects and soon ignored them. She still finds people wearing hats or backpacks weird looking and looks at them in a funny way but she has learned that by keeping her distance from them she is safe. When a dog feels safe it is relaxed and can learn. That was the state I was looking to achieve in her so we can start canicross training. Easier said than done. We encountered another problem – loose dogs everywhere, and Zoe being in harness, meaning without a way to escape these rude dogs, she wasn’t feeling safe anymore and therefore couldn’t learn. I looked for canicross classes and found someone sort of nearby and my goal for these classes was just to expose Zoe to this environment where other dogs are in harness (not loose) and no other dog would be able to get her or near her so that she can relax, feel safe again and learn canicross with me. This was important for her to understand because a race site is very similar to the class environment and Zoe being Super-Zoe she generalised quickly. She’s super smart and I’m very proud of her. She has grown into a confident canicross dog, she’s amazing with my son, very good with other dogs in class, 1:2:1’s I do with clients and social runs but she would not be what she is today without my programme and patience to help her get over her worries and fears. My Super Zoe!
Work with your dog to overcome fears, worries and anything else that can be a source of stress for your dog first and then you can start training your dog to canicross. You want your dog to be relaxed first so that it can learn and with training then the passion for any sport can grow. Learning cannot happen in a stressed dog.
Love your dog and work with your dog ;)