BeingHead over heart – Rescuing Romeo
On 25th November 2014 I rescued Romeo, a 3 year old English staffy from the local RSCPA. Being a Dog Trainer on the Sunshine Coast I was lucky enough to get good access to Romeo on the day and was even allowed to take him for half a day to assess him. Head over heart when rescuing Romeo was the key.
From what I understand I was to be Romeo’s fourth home in three years. Scary!! Funnily enough my knowledge and experience did not even prepare me for what was to come. Despite testing him in many different situations and circumstances Romeo was too shut down for any behavioural problems to be evident on the day of his adoption. At this point I was still baffled as to why this little guy had been surrendered so many times.
Rescuing Romeo has taught me a lot
Romeo is the first dog I’ve adopted from a pound and what he has taught me so far is invaluable. I would like to share my story with you in hope that it raises awareness on what to look for and expect from a dog that has had no human leadership in his life.
People ask me, was he abused? I really don’t think so. I honestly believe he was loved to death and humanised and this is why he is in this position. Humans did wrong in the way of not providing leadership, creating rules, boundaries and teaching limitation. Unfortunately, this is so often the case.
First impressions of Romeo
On inspection of Romeo at the RSPCA, he was not interested in me whatsoever. In fact he didn’t make eye contact with me for a good few days after the adoption. Being a dog trainer, I was very different to most people that attend a pound to rescue a dog. I wasn’t after affection and I wasn’t giving affection.
I was trying to start a connection with Romeo based on leadership alone. I needed him to see me differently to every other human that had been involved with him. My energy and what I projected was going to be the key to saving this boy’s life. Based on what I saw there it was evident I clearly had a lot of work to do if I was going to get this boy to trust and respect me.
What I knew about Romeo was that he had had a fight in the previous home and there was a sign up at the pound saying “No Dogs”, yet he was in a pen with another dog. What I discovered over the first few weeks was that he was lead reactive, not aggressive.
Romeo’s behavioural problems
Below is a list of behavioural problems that Romeo presented in the first 3 weeks of bringing him home:
- Over excitement (his main issue) – this created several problem for him
- No understanding of boundaries (if I turned my back he was over the fence in a flash)
- Lead reactivity
- No mental focus at all
- No obedience at all
- Would not come AT ALL when called (totally disrespectful of humans)
- No social etiquette
- Pulling on lead
- He would wee and poo in the pool
These were some of the main things we were dealing with but there were more. So, it was a matter of chipping away at all the issues.
It was clear that Romeo’s excitement issues were creating so many problems for him. Everything he had learned in his first 3 years I had to slowly undo and recondition him. I started by teaching him how to be calm & relaxed.
One way was to shut him down every time his excitement levels went above 3 on a scale of 10. So you can image how often I had to get involved. It took a good 6 months for Romeo to start understanding limitations and the off/drop command but he can now switch off in a matter of seconds.
Everything I was doing was helping his mind focus, at every stage of the day he was working in one way or another.
I started his obedience training too. He had a lot of rules to follow and he challenged them in every way possible. There were times in that first 3 weeks were he would just bark in an aggressive manner directly at me. He would come in to my space with about a 30cm distance as if he was going to bite and then back off. I knew it was all bluff but someone that misread the situation could have felt he was going to bite/attack.
I couldn’t get close to him as he would run away every time. Sometimes it took up to 20 minutes (not a long time in the scheme of things), just following him around the property until he got the message that I wasn’t going to give up until he surrendered.
I wasn’t angry, I just meant business and he needed to know that this human wasn’t like any other he had come across. He stopped all that behaviour quickly as he realised it wasn’t going to work. He never runs from me now!
The jumping of the fences was the hardest thing to get on top of. I knew it wasn’t a separation anxiety problem, he wasn’t bored or seeking attention, it was just because he could. He liked to just wander around, but would always come back.
If a ball rolled through the fence he would just jump it and get the ball and then jump back. I have fences dividing the front and back yards, he would just jump them if he wanted to follow me to the front area.
Sometimes, I was in the garden and turn around and he was gone. My fences aren’t very high but I wasn’t about to change the height either, as providing a physical barrier was not dealing with any potential behavioural problems.
The fence jumping was improving each day, the first week I think he took off about 30 times. We got to the point that he knew not to jump any fences and was doing really well when I was home but we still had the occasional jumping when I was not home.
We have since put in an electric fence. I didn’t put it in straight away as to me that would have been a band aid solution. I needed to make sure the electric fence wasn’t going to suppress any other behavioural problems. The fence went in around the 7-8 month mark. He tried it once and got over, the second time was enough for him to never try again.
He now understands that any fence is a physical boundary and even though he can jump it, he is not allowed to. No other problems surfaced once he couldn’t get out which confirmed he just liked to wander because he could.
Walking on lead
Romeo’s walking on lead was terrible, pulling everywhere and reacting to every dog on a walk. His reactivity was excitement based but he was also lacking confidence and his ability to read other dogs was poor. We can now walk anywhere without a problem. He will still be reactive if another dog has a go but that is also improving. We are continually working on this.
Off lead at the beach
His first trip to the beach with me was a disaster. I was taking a risk letting him off lead but I needed to see what would happen. He ran away, chasing and barking at other dogs, wouldn’t come to me …. NIGHTMARE!! Today we can go to the beach, play and interact with other dogs and he comes 100% of the time.
As I’m not a fan of doggy parks and beaches, I only take him to the dog beach that allows by passing, we are not just standing around chatting to other dog owners. Our trips to the beach are structured and there are still rules in place.
Problems at the pool
His weeing and pooing in the pool has stopped too. This was caused by him simply not being able to contain his excitement in and around the water. We still have a lot of work to do when kids are playing in the pool, he does still get extremely excited, but haven’t worked on that during the winter months for obvious reasons.
In saying that we did test him the other day and he was at about 85%, which is pretty awesome considering what he was like just twelve short months ago. Effectively, all the other work we have done has helped with the pool issue indirectly. That is why I never focus on one problem, everything is related.
Bad skin condition and infected ears
Romeo also came with a bad skin condition, dermatitis, and terribly dirty/infected ears. One look at this boy and I knew his skin problem was due to the stress and anxiety of his life.
Within 3 weeks of being on a new holistic food and change in lifestyle his skin cleared up and has never been a problem since.
Initially Romeo’s ears had to be cleaned every few days, they showed me how to do it at the RSPCA Vet, and poor Romeo was so distressed by this. His lack of trust for people made the experience of having his ears done so traumatic for him.
In the first few months he would shake and would not want to come near me when I had to clean them, but now whilst he still doesn’t enjoy it he trusts me enough to do it. He no longer shakes and stays for a cuddle afterwards.
One year on from rescuing Romeo
So, 1 year on from his adoption I feel so lucky to have this boy. I love him so much and the bond we have is strong and getting stronger by the day. We are by no means done as it is a continual job developing him and getting him ready to be able to assist with other dogs in the future.
Based on what we have achieved in just twelve months, I’m excited to see what the next year brings. He is amazing in so many ways but his underlying excitement can still creep in so easily. The hardest part for many is getting others to understand how bad excitement is in a dog.
Rescuing Romeo was hard work!
The last year since rescuing Romeo has been hard work, and this is my job! Generally the job is harder if you go into the rescue process feeling sorry for the dog.
So my message to you is, THINK very carefully about how prepared you are to take on a rescue. If you think cuddles on the lounge is going to save the dog you are WRONG!! If you are going to rescue a dog you have to be prepared to work hard every day for the rest of its life. Taking a dog out of a rescue/shelter and putting a roof over its head doesn’t mean you’ve rescued a dog!!!
Head Behavioural Trainer – Kat’s 4 Dogs Sunshine Coast QLD
Give me a call on 0488 908 048 to find out more about Kat’s 4 Dogs dog training classes in Doonan and Maroochydore on the Sunshine Coast.