Boo and I recently had an incident I may never stop thinking about.
It brought me full circle in a circle of the many circles within circles that make up the chain of Raising Boo.
I always believed I knew a lot about dogs.
In the last three and a half years, Boo has taught me that I knew nothing about dogs.
Learning to work sheep at Draxen Farms has brought me closer to Boo than to any dog I have owned.
It is not that I loved Rosie or Sadie less than Boo.
It’s simply that each life has its place.
Everything up to the moment I first locked eyes with Boo has prepared me for work she and I need to complete on this walkabout.
I am determined to not repeat prior mistakes.
Even with all of our good work so far – we continue to seek answers.
Some of those answers came to us this past fall at the Farm. Laurie and I discussed some of Boo’s lingering issues. She asked me questions about specific situations – if Boo and I had experienced any of these when Boo was a puppy and how I – not Boo – reacted to them.
I could read in her face that she knew the answers before I gave them.
Laurie gently imparted the hard truth. Boo was living in fear because I had not demonstrated that I was her leader and protector.
Pulling Boo down the exact path of bad decisions I had in a prior walkabout, I was again responsible for her fears and unable to protect her.
The wind in the Big Field rushed my ears to ricochet in my heart where its nails tore deeply at old wounds not yet healed.
I was sad and crushed.
“I am so sorry, Boo,” I whispered. Boo rolled her ears back and looked straight at me. She knew too. She loved me, though she couldn’t trust me.
As all good teachers will in the moment just prior to the student hitting the ground, Laurie lifted me up and told me that she could help us if we were willing to do the work.
Our rebuild began.
Boo and I worked in earnest.
My husband – always my and Boo’s biggest fan – bought into the program to help with our consistency.
We worked on our muscle memory in the back yard, first in pieces and then putting the process together.
My friend Susie came on board. We worked on our practiced response during walks with her and Boo’s buddy Oaklee in their neighborhood – a place with distraction that we needed but also a place we knew was safe and relatively controlled.
Oak is a great dog and one of Boo’s “Pack,” – she lends her confidence to Boo – it’s really cool to watch them communicate.
As we perfected our moves, around our home we entered new neighborhoods, experienced new situations and worked our way through them.
Little by little, Boo ceased to react to other dogs or situations that previously had proven difficult for her.
We were building trust and our Golden Key of Confidence was hitting big marks on the scale.
Our first test came in our own neighborhood in December when a man running with his dog lost his grip on a retractable lead and the dog charged us from behind.
Boo tucked in behind me as I flicked her lead. I spoke the key words Laurie had given us to Boo – “Don’t – I got this,” – indicating she need not react as I turned to face the incoming dog.
I firmly shouted, “DON’T!” to the dog while pointing my finger at him. He stopped in his tracks. His owner recovered the lead and apologized profusely. He was a puppy with no mal-intent, though Boo would not be able to distinguish that.
I never want my dog and my inability to handle her to be the cause of another dog’s fear.
Boo never reacted. I looked at her and she looked straight back and wagged her tail where she sat.
My heart filled – was there was something new in that look – a new sensation stirred in my soul – could I really be Boo’s hero one day?
I hugged and praised her for her work – she gave herself a big release shake, reset her paws with a little happy dance – tail up, shining eyes saying, “C’mon Mom – let’s finish our walk!”
It felt so good.
Historically this situation would have left us wrecked and anxious, slinking home – wiped out over Boo’s frenzied reaction and wildly frustrated at my inability to control it.
As we continued what we then dubbed our “Hero Homework,” our work at the Farm had begun to improve as well. Even though fun is our game and we haven’t put anything together for real yet, it’s cool and very satisfying to be doing something that resembles real herding work.
Boo was acing her Wagon Wheel exercise so Laurie introduced us to a new exercise we call “The Slice” – more specifically – “The Pizza Slice” because the pattern of the exercise resembles a slice of pizza.
It teaches the handler to put pressure out to the dog via the handler’s movement and energy encouraging the dog to move out and away.
Mike had been working with us for the last several months to help me understand where I needed to be relative to the sheep and Boo for her to complete the task I asked of her in a proper manner. The Wagon Wheel and The Slice are both exercises to aid the handler and the dog in understanding “space.”
In The Slice, a few complacent sheep are driven to a corner, preferably where two fences meet. The handler walks the dog out to an area that is a straight line from the corner where the sheep are and flanks the dog from that point to the corresponding point on the opposite side, lying the dog down.
The idea is that the dog’s path forms a curved bottom in the shape of a triangle – more specifically – the shape of a slice of pizza – without cutting in on the handler’s space.
While the dog is running the flanking command – in essence an outrun – the handler walks a parallel straight line with the dog within The Slice.
If the dog cuts in, the handler is to take no more than two steps toward the dog with an “out” command – putting pressure on the dog to move back and out from the handler’s space.
Boo aced it the first time – Mike cheered from behind the fence where he was working another team and Laurie was practically jumping up and down.
I got the feeling we were onto something good.
The second time on the come-bye, Boo began to cut in – Laurie stopped the game to talk about what was happening.
Laurie set the imaginary parallel line and showed me when and how to claim my space, put pressure on Boo and move her back.
Boo and I set up for our next try and when she cut in I claimed my space and used my pressure to send Boo to the next county in a Coyote Red Dog Liam-esque outrun.
Cheers from Mike and Laurie went up again.
Laurie advised we not overdo the exercise so we ended our day learning a new fetching exercise to mix in with The Slice. This would help to keep Boo from getting anxious with repetition as well as allow her to have her sheepie reward if she did what was asked of her.
If she stayed behind the sheep during the fetching exercise she would receive the reward of a small gather each time we changed direction. On ending, she could take them to the pens for a real feel of a job well done where that’ll do meant that’ll do.
In the explanation of the fetching exercise Laurie performed the part of Boo and Mike the handler, both of them narrating what they had observed with regard to Boo’s movements.
The re-enactment had us all laughing and Boo and I left the Farm in really high spirits – with no idea that in less than 48 hours our new knowledge of pressure would be put to task.
The incident remains in my head as a series of flash cards.
Unraveling in seconds – it was the result of an ordinary decision to share a walk on a glorious Florida winter afternoon.
As we strolled down the sidewalk, I caught movement from across the secondary road we live off of.
It came into focus as a large and powerful dog very rapidly bearing down on us.
I put my hands up to traffic to warn them of the dog and everyone stood on the binders – one truck just missing the dog – and creating a clear path to Boo and me.
My heart rate ramped as our training fell into go-time mode – I reached for my mace and assured Boo, “I got this.” She fell into her safe place behind me as the dog reached us and began to circle me to get to Boo.
Blocking his access to Boo, I gave it everything I had verbally, stance and energy-wise – stepping into the dog, claiming its territory and never taking my eyes off his.
It felt like seconds and hours at the same time as suddenly the dog broke back across the street where it marked a pole and turned to challenge us again. I took two more steps forward, finger at his face shouting, “DON’T!”
Our eyes locked – and the assessment of Boo and me as prey drained from his eyes, his muscles and energy loosening. He was giving me a new look – one of reluctant concession.
He lowered his head, turned and looked back one more time – I took one more step forward. He whirled around and trotted off down the long driveway and did not look back again.
Traffic resumed and I dropped down to Boo – who had locked in position with me with such synchronicity that I never gave a thought as to where she was. I knew exactly where she was. I could feel her.
The dog’s eyes also told me.
One of the first things Mike taught me at the Farm was that your dog will tell you where the sheep are and the sheep will tell you where your dog is.
Laurie and Mike’s tutoring combined with that long first summer walking behind sheep in the Big Field had possibly just kept us from being horribly injured or worse.
Boo nailed her energy level at zero while I was escalated at ten. She gave the dog nothing and became a part of me. Boo trusted me to take care of the situation and did her part.
I sat on the sidewalk like a ten-year-old as Boo shook off the pressure and sank into me, nuzzling her head in my chest. Our paradigm shifted. I held her and breathed in the clean scent of her soft fur as we leveled out to our respective fives.
When she looked into my eyes and kissed me I felt like a super hero.
It was one of the most frightening and amazing moments of my life.
I realize not every dog owner has the desire to perform work with a dog or participate in a dog sport of some sort where teamwork is built. And although this post relates to Boo and my personal journey, my main objective for sharing this incident is to encourage anyone who has a dog they enjoy walking or being outdoor with to seek out defensive training instruction for yourself and your dog.
It’s just a good thing to know.
We live in a world where people are increasingly less and less responsible for themselves. In turn, they are less and less responsible for their dogs.
I am so grateful to Mike, Laurie and our other trainers and friends who have lent to our journey and helped Boo and me grow and keep us safe.
It only takes one second for a situation to escalate. Having the proper and effective equipment in your toolbox and understanding how to use it gives you and your dog a fighting chance resulting in more than you being your dog’s hero – it may also allow you to have your Slice of Life and live to eat it, too.