Everything I know about rescue dogs

When it comes to dogs, I am a foolish person.

I have been a cat owner all my adult life. I got my first kitten just two months into my first job, when I was all of 22, and decades later I still have cats. I know how they work, I know how to make them happy, I know how they make me happy.

But dogs. Well – there I am a novice.

We got our first dog in a well-meaning but ill-thought-out “get a pet for the kid” move. He was a lab cross, about three months old and acquired from the SPCA. But Indiana was never a gentle and biddable lab. He was a nervous, edgy, protective bundle of energy. We could not give him enough exercise, and we had no real idea how to be the boss of a dog. And he chased the cats, mercilessly and constantly.

When Indiana died, our son Jack was distraught. But we said we would wait to get another dog.

We waited a year or two, and then I saw on Facebook that a former colleague was moving to the United States and needed a home for their dog. She was, they said, good with cats. And she looked lovely.

Lovely she was – but she had been a rescue puppy too and was always nervous of men (also anyone on a bicycle or a skateboard). She would flinch if a man raised a hand to give her a juicy bit of boerewors, for instance. She also had no real idea of how to play with other dogs. But she had been well-trained by the good people we had her from and we could walk her in the park and take her to the pub.

Shiloh died about two years after she came to live with us, too soon, of a dreadful cancer.

This time, I was distraught. We’ll get another dog, Jack said. I don’t want another dog, I want Shiloh I said.

And then, trying to pacify an outraged cat in a box while foolishly sitting in the corner of the vet where all the notices about animals needing homes are, I saw a picture of a dog. With ears just like Shiloh’s. We went and checked him out, and brought him home. (He too is good with cats.)

Cat and dog on a couch

Worcester and Sponge the cat ponder the mysteries of life.

Worcester is the most extreme rescue case we have had. He was found starving by the side of the highway, with old scars on his legs and a wound in his head. He is terrified of other dogs and can only be walked at times of the day when he won’t meet another canine. He is scared of rain on the roof, of any new object on the floor (a shoe out of place will do it), he is scared of walking on grass, he is scared of men, he is scared of loud noises. In short, he is scared of almost everything. He suffers, we say to each other, from PTSD. But he wanders round the house with a toy in his mouth and is endearingly clumsy and loves a good scratch behind the ears. He is so cute, we also say.

All of this is not to signal our virtue. It is instead an attempt to write my way to answer to a question posed by a friend recently.

We were having Sunday lunch watching our friend’s Bedlington terrier play with our hostess’s newly acquired (from a proper breeder) poodle/border collie cross. The two dogs were delightful and I mused aloud how nice it would be able to bring our Worcester along so that he too could be part of the game. Our friend, never one to shy away from pertinent questions, said: “But what is it with getting rescue dogs anyway? Why do you do it?”

At the time I had no proper answer for her, but I have been mulling over the question a lot.

The answer I think comes down to three things:

1. I am a cat person who turned into a cat-and dog-person. I do in fact like having a dog in the house. They bring boundless hope and joy in everything they do, and they are endlessly funny. When I don’t have that around, I feel that life is a little empty.

2. Given that I now like dogs, what kind of dog should I get? Much as I think it would be lovely to get a puppy that is a breed, with known characteristics, that I could train properly from the outset, I just can’t help thinking that there is something indulgent about that. There is so much human need everywhere that pets are an indulgence anyway. And spending money on a pet that could so easily be homed just feels wrong to me. (Our cats were rescue kittens too).

3. Ridiculously, I am a sucker for a pretty picture of a dog that needs help, and I let my emotions get the better of me. There is no other explanation for rushing in where angels fear to tread and taking on as badly scarred (emotionally and physically) a dog as Worcester.

So here I am, still on a steep learning curve in the Way of the Dog -and additionally getting used to the Way of the Rescue Dog. For those on the same path as me, these are some of the things I’ve learned:

1. Find one trainer/guru/expert and do what they say. Mine is Nigel Reed, the dog guardian. He is a British dog whisperer whose methods have always worked for me. I recommend starting with his video series on Dante the rescue dog.

2. The positive reinforcement of good behaviour theory of dog training is good, but limited. You have to find ways of dealing with “bad” behaviour that don’t involve rewards. An example: Worcester barks fiercely at any new person entering the house (he is, of course, frightened, but the visitor doesn’t know that). The first dog trainer I tried suggested letting him bark and then rewarding him with a treat when he stopped. We spent an hour together in which Worcester would bark, and then stop, and then get a treat. So then he would bark again. And again, and again. Instead, Nigel Reed suggests putting the dog in time-out when they start barking. So Worcester goes straight in the bathroom behind a closed door when he barks at a visitor. We have largely eradicated this behaviour now.

3. Accept that you are a big softie really, but figure out your not-negotiables. Mine one condition is that the rescue dog must be good with cats. If not, I can’t take that dog.

4. Lastly, accept your dog the way he/she/they is. Whatever your fantasies were when you brought the dog home, you are going to learn over weeks and months and years that there are some things you may never be able to fix.

Of course – this applies to human relationships too, dear reader. And in the end that may be why I keep taking in rescue dogs: in their confused furry way, they have a lesson to teach me about acceptance and patience. And also the importance of an abundance of soft toys.

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Main picture: Worcester the dog in his favourite position – lolling on the couch.

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