Rhu has shown me how truly amazing dogs are and why we need to learn to listen to and effectively communicate with our canine companions, in order to give them the best possible lives. I have experienced first-hand what it is like to own an aggressive dog; the mixed feelings of guilt, sadness, triumph and dismay, along with the occasional threats and abuse that were screamed at me when people saw my dog reacting. I know how hard it is mentally, physically and emotionally.
Rhu and I have been through some very dark days where hope was only a glimmer in the distance ... But we followed that glimmer of hope and we have managed to conquer all the odds and come out the other side triumphant.
Meet my beautiful dog, Rhu. She is the reason why I became involved in dog training and behaviour and she has been the best teacher I have had so far.
I adopted Rhu, from a rescue centre in the spring of 2011. She was just turning three years old and had been taken from a large household of animals. She was advertised on the website as a Rottweiler and my goodness, she looked so cute! After graduating from university and working full time in an office environment, I decided I really did want to look into dog training and behaviour. To do this I would need a dog.
As someone who doesn't do things half-heartedly, I made my mind up that I wanted to adopt a rescue dog, one which had a few behavioural problems so I could practise on - makes sense right? At the time, I didn't have any experience with dogs with behaviour problems and my only experience with dogs was with my family pets and dogs that belonged to my friends - all were very friendly and well-socialised. I was also adamant I wanted a Rottweiler or Doberman as I have always been a huge fan of these breeds. So let's recap, I had no experience with dogs with behaviour problems, I wanted a Rottweiler/Doberman and I wanted to adopt a dog with behaviour problems to practice with ... Boy, was I in for a learning experience!
So after researching a few different rescue centres, I finally came across a photograph of a beautiful, smiling Rottweiler named Roxy. I booked an appointment to go and see her and went along the very next day. I was asked to sit on a bench while the handler went to get Roxy, he had told me to stay sitting and not to worry if Roxy completely ignored me (I look back now and think, uh-oh, those were huge warning signs!). As I was gazing at the birds flying about the trees in the afternoon sunshine, I felt excited and apprehensive all at the same time - what if Roxy didn't like me? What if I didn't like her? Am I doing the right thing? When could I bring her home? I hadn't even met her yet!
After what felt like an age, the gentleman returned with a barrel of a dog. I was expecting to see a full grown Rottweiler, but instead I was looking at a short, stumpy little dog who had all the markings of a Rottweiler but the stockiness of a Staffordshire bull terrier and the gut of a beer drinker. She came straight up to me and asked to be petted; I was amazed as the handler said she would ignore me. Well, that was it I fell completely in love!
We took her to a small garden where she disappeared into the bushes and trees for a fair few minutes. I asked the handler what problems, if any, she had and he heartily replied "Well, she isn't too fond of other dogs and she wets in her kennel. That's about it really" Excellent! I had found the perfect dog to practise on...
Once Roxy had come back to us, the handler popped Roxy back on the lead and handed her to me - wow, now I was mega excited! We made our way across the little garden, through the rescue centre and up a short hill to one of the exercise fields. On the way, the handler told me about how Roxy didn't get on particularly well with other dogs, even though she was one of 13 dogs rescued from one household. Roxy was still on the lead when I spotted another dog and handler coming towards us on the other side of the green area, they were heading back from the exercise field. At that precise moment, Roxy had spotted them too. She erupted into full blown aggressive mode, I clung onto the lead for dear life while this tornado of a dog snarled and lunged, leaving a trail of drool and devastation behind her. "Fantastic! A dog with spirit!" I thought. Completely unfazed, I carried on walking towards the exercise field, the handler apologising for Roxy's behaviour, trying to convince me that what I had just witnessed was the worst Roxy gets. Not a problem, I thought, I know I can hang on to her.
Once in the field, I let Roxy off her lead and watched as she gallivanted about the place, completely uninterested in myself or the handler. The handler turned to me and said he was going to leave us to get to know each other and he would be back in 20 minutes or so; with that, he made a quick exit and left. I was now alone with a dog I didn't know and had just witnessed her explode on the end of the lead. Surprisingly, I felt very much at ease, albeit a tad disappointed as this dog wasn't paying me any attention. The handler had told me that Roxy hadn't had much of a life and her contact with strangers had been very limited until she was rescued, he also told me that Roxy didn't know what a toy was and had no idea how to play. I found this terribly sad as all dogs should know how to have a good time with toys! After a few minutes of Roxy completely ignoring me, I watched as she disappeared into a little shed; I started walking over to the shed when Roxy re-emerged with a toy in her mouth! She ran straight towards me with a glorious expression on her face and tried to induce play - I was astounded! Not only had this dog made friends with me straight away, she was now also instigating play - that was it, the deal was sealed, Roxy was coming home with me.
Before I took Roxy home, I had to see her a couple more times at the centre, introduce my family to her and have a home check. Everything went perfectly, although my mother was certainly a little apprehensive. My mum wasn't exactly a Rottweiler fan and seeing this stocky, little barrel waddle out with her head low, Roxy didn't give a great first impression on appearance. Anyway, I finally brought her home and I couldn't have been more chuffed!
Looking back, I still can't quite believe how naïve I was and how easily I was allowed to take this dog, who quite obviously had behaviour problems, home with me. I wanted a rescue Rottweiler with behaviour problems - not normally something you hear someone say - and I certainly got what I wished for! After a couple of weeks we decided 'Roxy' didn't suit her and so she was renamed 'Rhu'.
Rhu was a very sad dog. She never wagged her stump (she had been illegally docked), her ears were always pinned backwards and she always showed the whites of her eyes. I was desperate to give this dog the best life I possibly could and wanted her to be as happy as possible. I took her everywhere with me, on the bus into town, on the train to see my friends, to the park to run with other dogs, it seemed to be going ok. Rhu would growl at visitors to the house and lunge at their feet, we shrugged it off and put her out of the way. She would lunge at people when she was on her lead and I would apologise, excusing my dog's behaviour by saying "She's a rescue".
Rhu had not been spayed at the rescue centre as she came into season while she was there and then I adopted her. The day before she was due to have her operation, she came into season again (three months after I took her home). This was a turning point as her behaviour went from bad to worse. She became very intolerant of other dogs, snapping and snarling at them, she began lunging more at passers by and snapping at peoples heels. I started becoming worried about her behaviour, but I was in denial. I kept hearing "Oh, she'll be alright" over and over again from other people who wouldn't listen to me and thought they knew best. The truth was, they didn't know best and at the time, neither did I.
Rhu finally had her spay and that was it, we hit rock bottom. Rhu's behaviour became unmanageable. I felt sick every time I went to take her out for a walk and I would avoid taking her out if I could get away with it. It had gotten to the stage where she reacted at absolutely everything: people, dogs, cats, bicycles,moving vehicles especially if they had trailers, the list was endless. The only time I enjoyed our walks together was when it was wet (preferably still raining) and dull, as no one tended to be around then. It was awful.
In the space of six months, Rhu had gone from a depressed, introverted soul who barely coped with life, to an extremely reactive, frightened dog who was always in a very high state of arousal each time we left the house. I couldn't believe it, I felt terrible. I had let this dog down.
At this time, I had started my Puppy School training and my eyes were properly opened up to the world of dog training and behaviour. It had begun to dawn on me where I had gone wrong with Rhu and I was desperate to rectify it. I decided to start going out with my mother to try out some new techniques I had read about - counter conditioning and desensitisation. We would go out with Rhu on a harness and a bucket full of tasty food pieces. I had all the knowledge there but I was missing the crucial point - I was trying to push Rhu too quickly and I kept accidentally flooding her.
One hideous day, my mother, Rhu and I went out for a walk and a spot of 'training'. Rhu had been doing alright, despite my severe lack of experience and understanding. We were walking along the main road and came across a lady, a stranger. She stepped to one side to let us pass and Rhu stopped to sniff her hand. The lady started talking to Rhu and began waving her hands about, this startled Rhu and she nipped the lady's leg. I was mortified. The lady gave me such a telling off and asked me where I had adopted Rhu from. I'm not convinced she left a mark on the lady's leg, but that is absolutely not the point. I was beside myself with worry. I swallowed my pride and contacted a friend of mine who was a Certified Clinical Animal Behaviourist (CCAB), I needed all the help I could get. Then the dreaded phone call came ... The rescue centre called me about the incident. I had told them how sorry I was and that I had contacted a behaviourist to help me. I was in completely over my head and I felt like I was drowning. Everything seemed to be falling apart. Here I was with a dog that I wanted to love, nurture and make happy, when instead I had turned her into a frightened, highly reactive, nervous wreck; now an image of myself.
My friend came and I put Rhu out in the kitchen behind a stairgate. She stayed out there during the entire two hour consultation, barking, growling, pacing, whining, panting - it was horrible to witness. We talked about Rhu's behaviour, her history (as much as we knew), what techniques I had tried with her, muzzle training... My friend was excellent with us, although she did give us a few home truths, like the fact that it was extremely unlikely Rhu was going to be the sociable companion I wanted; still, she left us with a little glimmer of hope.
After my friend had left, Rhu came into the living room, sniffed about and then settled her head on my knee. I gazed into her beautiful brown eyes and an overwhelming feeling of love and affection swept through me. I was going to help this frightened, sad and desperate dog grow in confidence and live a happy, healthy life.
The first piece of training equipment I bought was a muzzle. I felt bad for putting it on Rhu but I knew that for now, it was the best thing to do. Muzzles prevent bites and therefore allow the handler to relax, consequently encouraging the dog to relax. The second piece was a double-ended lead to attach to Rhu's harness and collar - maximum control - and the third was a longline. I asked anotherfriend to be a 'stooge' for my training sessions and I got completely stuck into behaviour modification.
Now, it was hardly plane sailing, Rhu would react at people she spotted nearly an entire football pitch length away. I lived in the middle of a town and a lot of the training sessions needed to be carried out in the middle of a vast, uninhabited area (such as a field), easy if we had a car to drive to the ideal location, not so easy when you don't have a car - which we didn't. We had good days and bad days, more bad days in the beginning. I nearly gave up a few times and more often than not, I would have close friends and family members say things to me like "I wouldn't have a dog like that. Why do you put yourself through it?" and "You aren't tough enough with her. With those sorts of breeds you need to teach them who's boss!" Not helpful in the slightest. I really must give my mother the full praise and acknowledgement she deserves. There were many times where my disability stopped me from carrying out the training I wanted to do with Rhu, but my mum, being the amazing and strong woman she is, took it upon herself to take Rhu out every morning for a 20 minute walk at the local park. She has done this consistently since my behaviourist friend came to visit. My mum, who once said to me "Why don't you try doing the same thing as that dog man on the TV?" was now going out with an aggressive dog, by herself, armed with treats and a smile. Through this patience and consistency, Rhu has made some doggy-friends and some human ones too, something that at one point, I never thought we would be able t We have worked extremely hard with Rhu. All of Rhu's training and behaviour modification has been through reward-based and positive learning. We have never, ever physically punished our dog and we never will. Through patience, understanding and consistency, Rhu is at the stage where she hardly reacts at people passing by, choosing to move away instead; she doesn't 'lock on' when she sees a trigger any more, although she will occasionally sit on her bottom when she spots a cat and will watch it until she's asked to move away. At home, she is the perfect family dog who looks after the home and protects her family. Rhu and my daughter, Greta, are exceptional friends and they both become extremely excited at the prospect of seeing each other.
The sad dog that once was, is no longer. It is a rare occasion now to see her ears pinned back and we never see the whites of her eyes. Rhu is one outstanding dog. She is an inspiration and a true fighter. I wouldn't change her for the world!
Since beginning this journey with one of my dearest friends (Rhu), I have attended many seminars in dog behaviour and training, been taught by some of the leading canine behaviourists in the world and run my own dog training and behaviour consultancy. Working alongside rescue centres and veterinarians, I have helped countless dogs and their owners overcome behavioural problems and prevent them from occurring in the first place.
A huge personal thank you goes to Rhu, as without you, I would not be where I am today. You are a true star and living proof that reward-based learning doesn't only work, but is the only humane way forward.
Rhu passed away on 14th January 2020. It was peaceful and devastating. Rhu had her family around her and died with her head in my lap. Rest in peace sweet girl, we miss you dreadfully.