Where it all began twenty five years ago.
Big T’s story
My Rotti, Thomson loved playing bally and
going on adventures in the car.
To say that he didn’t have the luckiest start in life would be an understatement. At the age of two, he’d been rehomed and returned three times to the RSPCA rescue home in Bath. Each time he came back, he was harder to handle than before and the staff were sceptical that he could ever be rehomed. Most treated him waril
y (with some justification), though one had managed to build up a rapport. He wasn’t a people-pleaser, Big T. He had the hard-eyed glare of a dog that expects nothing good from life.
It took three weeks of daily visits, sitting with him, taking him out for walks and playing bally before the RSPCA felt confident enough to give him a last chance for a home. And he became my mission, though what it was about him that made me do it even now I’d find hard to explain. He was aggressive and angry with people and apoplectic with other dogs. With a mass of anxieties, virtually any contact with the new could pitch him into a frenzy.
Over the months (and the years), I tried all kinds of training approaches to help him overcome his fears. And, yes, it was hard and sometimes deeply frustrating. Dealing with a troubled dog is not a five minute fix. It may not even be a five month fix. It’s a very, very slow process. The journey with him was littered with disappointments when he just failed to respond in the way that many of the training methods said that he should. It felt as if he was the exception, too far gone, taken too many knocks, to be willing to play the game with me.
But the truth is that nothing is unsurmountable if you take it little by little. You can’t be sure how far you will get with a deeply fearful dog but every step closer to safety for them is a stride worth celebrating. Over time, it became obvious that notions of packs, and dominant dogs, weren’t working for us and they certainly didn’t have any basis in behaviour science as I was to discover. He didn’t think of me as a dog – pack leader or otherwise. I didn’t look like one, smell like one, or act like one and there was no point in trying to pretend. He wasn’t stupid, after all, just scared. Once I stopped worrying about who was ‘leader’ and focused on the things that would change his emotional response to the world and ultimately his behaviour too, then an awful lot that had seemed inconceivable suddenly became possible. As he started to get less anxious about the world and everything in it, when every aspect of training didn’t become about a clash of wills, the whole process gathered momentum.
And the way to his trust lay in simple things. Letting him know that good things were on offer. A good game of bally was definitely the way to his heart and he was never inclined to turn down a tasty morsel or two.
There’s no question that there were some anxious times for both of us along the way, but I managed to teach Big T that life could be pretty cool, really. And he taught me what? That a relationship with any dog, not just a troubled one, isn’t about a battle for mastery, a constant game of one-up-manship. It’s a process of non-verbal trade and negotiation and mutual respect and kindness.
And as things slowly improved, we had help from some great people in the local dog walking circuit – people who when they heard Big T’s story were prepared to trust that I was in control and let us walk behind in the same direction while making those all important positive connections, then slowly build up over weeks and months until with dogs he knew, he could walk along-side.
Any close human contact had to be managed in the same way. A slow process of building familiarity and trust – no big greetings, no pats on the head, just calmness and gradually building positive associations using food and , of course, his favourite ball. He worked his way, in his own time, to the confidence to say a shy ‘hello’. Clearly, he wasn’t ever going to be a dog who coped with casual acquaintances. But he could, with real patience, have friends.
So how did things work out for Thomson, the un-homeable Rottweiler, who was ready to take on the world in combat and couldn’t come within 40 paces of another dog without kicking off?
Well, he found that other dogs could be chums – well, some of them, anyway. He’d often be found lying on his back and showing his belly, leaning up against the sofa where his mate, Woody, Cocker Spaniel and all-round busy body would be having a snooze. Which is much, much more than, in bleaker days, I could have ever expected or hoped for.
Now in truth, it didn’t end up as a Disney movie so I’m not going to over-egg this. He stayed wary about strangers for the whole of his life. If you met us out on a walk, he’d always wear a muzzle, just to be ultra safe, because he was never overly keen on people he didn’t know trying to give him a fuss. And, occasionally, he’d meet a dog who made him nervous and he’d have a bark and a grouse.
But he got more comfortable with the new and he loved an adventure. We went on holidays by the sea. He even posed for a bunch of tourists in Oxford who wanted a picture with the Big, Big, English Dog. In his younger days, they couldn’t have got within the range of a long lens.
The time came, more than fifteen years ago now, when he got ill and died, aged 10. The vets did their best and he put up a good fight – in the right sense of the phrase. For all the tough times we went through, the memories he left me are sharp and sweet and I still miss him. It was a long road, but when you think about where we started, we did OK, Big T and me.