There have been articles in the media about animal rescue charities being concerned that some people are rushing to adopt a dog during the pandemic. Many are working from home and so feel it’s a good time to get a four-legged companion, without thinking through the implications of perhaps being required to return to the workplace, or for not realising just how much time and energy is needed to settle an adult dog into a new home. Especially a dog that might have issues from being in rescue. In the light of this, here is a story I’d like to share with you about a dog we adopted from Battersea Cats & Dogs Home in 2003.
A Dog Called Donut – Part I
I will never get over my down-to-earth, completely unsentimental husband telling me in all seriousness that he’d had a one-to-one conversation with a mutt called Donut. Donut had begged, “Please take me home,” and George had promised that we would. It’s the kind of thing I would admit to, but not George
It was me who desperately wanted a rescue dog and he wasn’t really sold on the idea, so we’d agreed that he would choose. Okay, I said, let’s consider Donut. It looks like there’s German Shepherd and Collie in there, among other breeds, he’s the right size, though a bit skinny, and the poor boy has a torn and bloodied nose because he’s rubbed it raw on the bars of his kennel. He’s certainly handsome and, oh, and he has the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen. Soulful, compelling eyes, rimmed with black like carefully applied kohl, the pupils surrounded by irises flecked with gold.
We went to the desk and were taken to a private room where we were thoroughly and rightly grilled about our dog knowledge and experience, the suitability of our home and lifestyle. At the end of it, though, we were firmly rejected as suitable adopters of Donut because he had “issues”. He’d proved himself a problem dog with previous owners, and Battersea were adamant that he had to go to experienced people. Sadly, we were considered to be pitifully underqualified for him. Not having the heart to go round the kennels again we went home dejected and dogless.
One Saturday, about three weeks after our disappointment, we were at Battersea again, and as we did the round of the kennels, we were stopped in our tracks by a German Shepherd/Collie/Something Else mongrel with golden eyes. It was Donut! He was back!
Still skinny, nose once again skinned bloodied, he retreated to his kennel and turned his back on us. How could we blame him? We’d promised to take him home, and he’d been taken by someone else. Clearly that hadn’t worked out for him, so what now? He looked so downcast we knew we just had to try again.
This time, we were prepared for the interview and we said we wanted Donut. It was explained that he’d been brought back because he was so destructive and hated to be left home alone, how did we think we could handle him? We insisted we would do whatever was necessary. He was brought to the interview room so we could meet him, but it was easy to see he didn’t trust us, and easy to understand why. When he looked at us I’m sure he was thinking, “You will be my fourth home since I was born, how can I be sure you’ll be my forever home and not reject me as I’ve been rejected before?”
We promised that we would immediately enrol on a training class, get whatever extra professional help was needed, and it was Donut or no dog for us. This time, we won the day.
While he was taken for a bath, we rushed to the shop and excitedly bought all the bits: collar and lead, water and food dishes, food, chews, treats, toys, bed, more toys. Then we sat in the car park discussing a new name, because such a handsome boy could not possibly be called Donut! Battersea may have marked him down as, quote, “not the sharpest tool in the box”, but we’d seen real intelligence in those extraordinary eyes.
At last he was brought outside, slightly damp and smelling of apple shampoo. We put on his new collar and told him that henceforth he would be known as Darcy, a lovely, proud name for what would be, we hoped, a lovely, proud dog!
We took Darcy home.
He went on a wrecking spree.
Battersea had been perfectly frank with us about his problem behaviour. At the tender age of around 18 months to two years (his age wasn’t certain as he’d originally been picked up as a stray), he’d been in and out of homes and kennels. He’d been with the last people who’d adopted him less than a week! Although we knew all this, it soon became apparent that we really did have our work cut out if we were to turn Darcy from a destructive, stressed animal to the happy boy we so wanted him to be. It was fortunate for Darcy and for us that we hadn’t an inkling that it would take eighteen months to sort out his issues, as we might not have been so keen to take him on.
We began by signing up to a 6-week dog training programme that started about two months after Darcy came home with us.
It was a stressful eight weeks. Left alone for more than five minutes, he howled and chewed whatever he could get his teeth into. We’d find holes in carpets and chunks taken out of door frames and furniture. Sleep? No way. He whined all night and scratched at the door. If we left him in the garden he excavated the flower beds, he destroyed the water feature, upended the recycling bin so papers were strewn all over the place. My favourite rocker/recliner chair was chewed so badly it had to be thrown out. We bought a large dog crate, hoping it would make a secure retreat for him, but he hated it, absolutely panicking if we closed the door when he was inside it.
At training he proved himself a quick learner and was quite the star, blotting his copybook only when he took a dislike to a perfectly amiable Boxer and turned the ‘sit and stay’ practice session into a tangle of barking dogs. The trainer asked to take Darcy outside to work with him for a while. When he brought him back he said it was clear he’d had no training before and so had no idea how to behave, but he showed every sign of being very smart. We just needed to hold our nerve and keep going, and he would help us. Not only did Darcy pick things up super-fast, we also learned a great deal about our responsibilities towards him, and life became a little easier.
The one problem that lingered was his separation anxiety. So, if he hated being left at home so much, could we take him out and leave him for short periods in the car? Well, yes, as long as we didn’t object to him breaking through the guard, gouging teeth marks into the handbrake, the indicator stick and wing mirror control knob. Oh, surely we didn’t need two functioning rear seatbelts? And all in my not-even-a-year-old Corsa!
The cost of property damage was mounting up and the stress levels, both canine and human, remained high. But we weren’t quitters. No way was this dog going back, yet again, to a rescue centre because, despite all the problems we were having, we knew there was an adorable dog lurking in there somewhere, just desperate to show himself.
It was clear that we needed professional help of a special kind, and I found an animal behaviourist willing make a two hour round-trip to come and help us. He came to our house, studied the dynamics of us and Darcy together, then worked his magic. I don’t know how he did it, and at the end I asked him if he’d someone managed to swap our Darcy for a lookalike! But the how didn’t matter, because from then on Darcy seemed to understand that being left alone meant he could take the time to rest, to sleep, and we always come back.
He swiftly filled out and his fur, which had fallen out in clumps due to stress, grew thick and glossy, and his sore nose healed completely. He understood all the commands and his destructive behaviour stopped. He slept peacefully through the night outside our closed bedroom door, usually curled up in his bed in a crescent shape or comically upside down with his back legs up the wall.
What we could never know about him was his beginnings. He started out in Manchester, and had been abandoned there, so how did he end up in Battersea Old Windsor? What had been done to him that he was in such a state?
So, the big question is, was it all worth it? That’s a resounding yes! Thanks to training, a little doggy psychoanalysis and our love, patience, tolerance and persistence, we had the most wonderful, loving companion for twelve years. Everyone who met Darcy adored him. And, very importantly, Darcy taught us that a loving animal/human companionship is based on mutual trust. We are not and should not try to be their masters.
At the age of fourteen, Darcy became ill with cancer, and so began the saddest part of having a companion animal. But, as with all my stories, there is a psychic twist to this one. Click here to read Part II.
J Merrill Forrest, December 2020