11 January 2018 Home
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 warily (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’s not even 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 theories 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 if you take it little by little most things are surmountable. Over time, it became obvious that theories about packs, and dominant dogs, wasn’t working for us. 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 stroppy. Once I stopped worrying about who was ‘leader’ and focused on the things that would change his behaviour, using a positive approach for a positive result, 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. I was discovering what really governs behaviour and he was learning that life could be pretty cool really.
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) as well as teaching him that unacceptable behaviour wasn’t met with force, but understanding and careful management.
There’s no question that there were some anxious times for both of us along the way. Thomson taught me that a relationship with any dog, not just a troubled one, isn’t about a battle for mastery, a constant game of one upmanship it’s a process of non-verbal trade and negotiation and informed understanding.
I learned that dealing with a fearful dog isn’t about insisting he changes his ways, but persuading him, slowly, that it’s safe and worthwhile to do so.
So how did things work out for Thomson, the un-homeable Rottweiler, who was ready to take on the world in jaw-to-arm 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 that 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 and long walks in the woods. He even posed for a bunch of Japanese 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.
About three years ago he got ill. The vets did their best and he put up a good fight – in the right sense of the phrase – but he died, aged 10. For all the tough times we went through, the memories he left me with 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.