Sunny becomes a MindDog #1

“Sunny, yesterday my life was filled with rain

Sunny, you smiled at me and really eased the pain…”

Humming this to myself as I walked along the beach, I realised I had found the name for my new dog. Even though she was two, ‘Kelsey’ was always going to go, and nothing else had seemed quite right to date. I figured ‘Sunny’ wouldn’t be too much of a stretch from ‘Kelsey. I was right. With the help of some bacon, she was responding to her new name within hours. I could not believe how much joy this dog had brought me in two short days.

As I approached that curiously public milestone that is your 50th birthday, I was feeling pretty disappointed in life. Between jobs, reeling from a relationship with ‘Mr Right’ (I was oh so wrong), and conscious of all the boxes you're supposed to have ticked at mid-life that remained blank, I was feeling like not much in my life was in my control. A wise friend asked, ‘What’s something you really want in your life that you can control?’ I did not hesitate, ‘Another Border Collie’.

I had lost my long term companion, an eccentric Border Collie named Finn in 2015. He was 17-years old. My daughter, 20 when he left us, could not remember life without him. He was a huge personality and in his latter years, as he suffered incontinence, partial blindness, complete deafness and Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (doggie dementia) caring for him became a real labour of love. I realised when he was gone, that I hadn’t slept through the night for three years. He had always slept on my bed, but as his hips and bladder wore out, I had been getting up sometimes two or three times a night to let him out and help him back on to the bed. Towards the end, he would get lost on his way back to the back door and I would find myself wandering around in the dark in all weathers trying to find him, as he crashed into trees, fences and the wheelie bins. I could fill a book with stories of this dog’s adventures and eccentricities. He was loved by many and he left an enormous hole.

Around the same time, I began a new job and met a remarkable young woman at work. We quickly became friends. She had a ‘MindDog’ named Tashi, a feisty little Pomeranian who sat under her desk wearing her yellow MindDog jacket and quietly but firmly ruled the office I had never heard of a MindDog and like many, thought any assistance dog was automatically a Labrador that took years and tens of thousands of dollars to train. I was intrigued as I watched the subtle ways that Tashi helped my friend through her day, and especially when things became stressful and she would ‘lean’ into my friend. Throughout the day there was always some part of Tashi touching my friend, reassuring her that all was OK with the world.

Unlike other service dogs, MindDogs can be any breed. Another key difference is that a MindDog must be trained by their handler. The bond between handler and the dog is the most important aspect of the training, and this bond must be absolute. The dog must be with you at all times, and must sleep with you. MindDogs must be aware of changes in physiology and the able to sense the handlers moods. This cannot be conventionally trained. It’s only possible because of the special bond between dog and handler.

So, the fact that Sunny and I adored each other on sight was a great start. It was quite overwhelming. She was frantic from lack of activity and attention, but she came straight up to me, rolled over on her back, was silent and still and looked deep into my eyes. ‘She’s usually pretty nutty, this one. I’ve never seen her do that before’ remarked the person introducing us. Sunny hadn’t had a great life thus far. She hadn’t been abused, but she’d been shut up in a small suburban backyard with almost no attention. All dogs need to bond with an owner, but anyone who knows much about Border Collies, will know that as a working dog, it is a part of the breed to form a very close bond with their owner.

Somehow, despite her neglect, this beautiful animal was extraordinarily affectionate and full of joy and optimism. Her world had been tiny and there was so much she hadn’t experienced; riding in cars, being inside, stairs (we tried not to laugh at her) birds and walking on a lead, but she took every new thing in her stride. The first day I took her to the beach, is a memory that will stay with me forever. I took her to a quiet part of the beach so that I could let her off the lead. She gazed and the ocean for a minute and then turned, looked at me with wide eyes and spent ten minutes ‘bucking’ with joy like a pony. We’ve been to the beach almost every day since, and her joy has not abated. Such is her optimism, she almost has me believing she's going to catch a kite surfer one day! People remark what a happy dog she is as she runs along the beach playing, tossing sea sponges and sea weed into the air. It’s like she knows she’s been given a second chance and she is grabbing it with both paws. You can see how there wasn’t any choice about her name.

I wanted to train Sunny as an assistance dog straight away, but I’m glad I took MindDog’s advice, which was to wait another 12 months, work on basic obedience and really cement our bond. That bond was instant, but as Sunny relaxed into her new life, it has deepened and it continues to grow day by day. The frantic dog I met a few days before my 50th birthday, who was desperately trying to high five any human in sight for attention, has mostly gone. In a secure and loving environment and as part of a pack, with me, a cat and an overconfident, bossy Maltese X, she is now happy, relaxed and a pleasure to be around.

The first stage of our MindDog training begins today. We have a six week refresher of basic obedience and then Sunny will get her yellow MindDog vest, and we begin 12 months of working towards passing her Public Access Test, after which she will have the same rights as other service dogs. As a certified MindDog, Sunny will be able to accompany me to work, on the train, shopping, anywhere other service dogs can go and more importantly anywhere I need her to go. It's a new adventure, and one I'm sure Sunny will take in her stride. Stay tuned for updates :)

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