13 April 2023

They're all the same

After losing our beloved Labrador Beau at the end of last summer at the grand old age of fourteen, I began searching for another rescue dog to join our family. I had already decided that Beau would be my last big dog. Having suffered with sacroiliac joint problems all my life and more recently, a dislocated bicep tendon along with various other 'limb' issues, I’m not as physically capable as I was fifteen years ago. Simple everyday tasks like wiping Beau’s paws had become a total killer – not the bending down so much but rather supporting the weight of a big dog with one hand whilst being bent double – and so the search was on for a small dog. 

However, by December, two things had become apparent: 1) UK rescues were (mostly) full of big dogs, and 2) suitable homes for any available small dogs had to be dog-free. Even Many Tears Animal Rescue, from where we adopted Cindy and a resident dog is a requirement for many adoptions, had no suitable dogs for rehoming in our area.

Then I stumbled across a facebook post about a small, dog-friendly dog in foster in Norfolk. The post didn’t give many details, only that he had been found beside a pile of rubbish. I messaged the rescue only to be told that he had already been adopted, but that they had lots of other dogs looking for homes and suggested that I consider one in particular – named Rhubarb – who was similar in size and looks to the one in Norfolk. So I took a look at his photos and details, and it was then that I realised that the rescue specialised in rehoming Romanian street dogs. I could basically have my pick of dozens of small dogs, all of whom could be rehomed with a resident dog. I hadn’t set out to adopt a Romanian street dog though, and having heard various stories of people handing over money for dogs to what turned out to be fake rescue shelters, I did some research. The rescue organisation seemed legit, had founded a long-standing spay/neuter programme in Romania, and had numerous testimonials from happy adopters on their website and adopters’ facebook group. I also found out that a friend had adopted a dog from them four years ago. Things were looking good. 

My primary concern with adopting any new dog wherever it was from was that it had to be a good match for Cindy who is incredibly gentle and good-natured. She is twelve now and has always and absolutely avoided confrontation. She likes other dogs, is always happy to greet and walk with her doggy pals and will happily share her space with them, but it’s very rare that she will play with another dog – she gets overwhelmed by that kind of social interaction quite quickly, which opens her up to being bullied. I wasn’t fussed about breed, looks, age or sex, only that temperament had to be the right fit. Rhubarb had been found in a public kill shelter but had been in safe rescue at a large farm kennels since December. This is how the rescue operated – taking what it judged to be suitable dogs for rehoming from public kill shelters and placing them in one of two safe rescue locations in Romania – either the farm kennels or a large free-run shelter. There were around 130 available dogs listed on the rescue’s website. After reading all their bios, which (as expected) were very brief due to lack of history, I had a short-list of eight dogs (including Rhubarb) who I thought might be potential good matches for Cindy. Because the bios were so brief though, I then did some more detective work – trawling through the rescue’s social media pages for any other information about these dogs. I found little pieces of video footage of several of the dogs on my short-list and two in particular stood out as not being completely terrified – Rhubarb, and a little female dog named Henna. Both dogs were in rescue at the farm kennels but were in different pens, with each pen housing around a dozen, similarly sized dogs. Both dogs appeared to be super-friendly towards the kennel staff and weren’t at all shy in coming forward for affection. They also showed a lot of active-submissive behaviour both towards people (jumping up, licking, pawing) and the other dogs (licking, nudging) that they were kennelled with. This was good, and meant that both dogs had the potential to quickly adapt to life as pets. Both dogs’ ages had been guessed at between 2 and 3 years, which was also good because I didn’t want a puppy. 

Rhubarb was ginger and fluffy. Henna was fawn-coloured and short-coated. It was hard to choose between them but I eventually decided on Henna, and the rescue confirmed that she too would be a good match for Cindy. Described as ‘sweet-natured and great with other dogs’, she had been at the farm kennels for almost a year, certainly due in part to the suspension of the commercial importation of dogs originating from Eastern Europe between mid-March and the end of October 2022, but possibly due also to her not being as cute and fluffy as some of the other dogs that had been rescued and adopted both prior to and post importation suspension. I filled out a pre-adoption questionnaire and sent video clips of our house and garden to the rescue for our virtual home-check. Our adoption application was accepted! I signed the adoption form on 8th January, paid a deposit, and was given a transport run date of 23rd January. After months of searching, we would finally be welcoming a new dog into the family! As the first week of waiting ticked by, I kept thinking about Rhubarb. Although he’d had quite a bit of interest, he was still available for adoption. I asked if we could adopt him too, and was told yes, we could! It was too late for him to travel with Henna because the DEFRA paperwork wouldn’t be processed in time, and so his transportation date was set for 31st January. Both dogs had already been spayed/neutered and would be double micro-chipped (one to me, one to the rescue), fully vaccinated against rabies, parvovirus, distemper and leptospirosis, worm and flea treated, and with negative tests for Babesia, Brucella, heartworm and the five tick-borne diseases. The transportation runs would take 3-4 days and each dog would be delivered to my doorstep. The adoption process was quick and easy, and I received good communication from the rescue volunteers throughout, including a pre-adoption phone-call, and dedicated transport run chat groups on facebook for each dog. 

I’m not new to settling in rescue dogs, but because the overwhelming speel from those involved in rehoming overseas street dogs is that they are ‘different’ to UK dogs, I followed the rescue’s advice to the letter. I did everything that I could to prepare for their arrival. I set up two pens in the conservatory so that each dog had a safe, quiet space to retreat to that was away from foot-traffic, but close to the garden for ease of house-training and near enough to the rest of the house for them to get used to the sounds of kitchen appliances, the TV and doorbell. I bought collars, slip-leads, beds, bowls, and stocked up on chicken and rice. Thinking (as I always do) about each dog’s individual psychological needs, I made a cardboard kennel and filled it with straw for Henna. Straw as bedding was all that she had known for the past year, and I hoped that by giving her a little piece of the familiar, it would help her to feel more settled, more quickly. 

Henna arrived at 9.30pm on 25th January. I gave her slip-lead to the transport driver, then she (along with her paperwork) was placed directly into my arms and our photo taken for the rescue as proof of her arrival. As I carried her down our driveway, she licked my face and her tail was wagging – she was clearly bewildered, but wanting to appease rather than break free. I took her inside the house and into her pen, put her collar on, gave her some food which she ate with gusto and a waggy tail, and then sat on the floor with her while she buried herself into my lap. She then had the choice of a comfy cushiony crate bed or the straw box bed, and bless her, she chose the straw. 

With only a week to go until Rhubarb’s arrival, the pressure was on to settle Henna in as quickly and smoothly as possible whilst still doing everything at her pace and keeping her world small to prevent emotional overwhelm (or trigger stacking as dog trainers now call it). Routine is so important during the early days of settling in any dog – if they can predict what will happen in their day, they naturally develop their own sense of security as the days go by.

By morning, she had decided that the cushiony crate bed was more comfortable than straw, but I’m convinced that providing her with the straw to start with lessened the shock for her of being plunged into an alien environment with unfamiliar people, and allowed her to feel safe during her first few crucial hours with us. Outwardly, she didn’t appear to be too stressed by her sudden life-change. She showed nothing but friendliness and lots of active-submissive behaviour towards myself and my husband, however, her behaviour towards Cindy was the polar opposite to this. I did exactly as the rescue advised and used barriers (pen and stairgates) to keep them separate and to enable slow introductions. I have integrated many newcomers with resident dogs over the years. 
Normally it would be the resident dog that had a hard time accepting the newcomer, although I had never experienced this myself. With Henna, it was the other way around. She turned into a dog possessed every time Cindy appeared – hackles up, growling, screaming, barking and charging at the pen bars – and Cindy didn’t even have to be near her, merely in sight of her. Out of all the potential issues that could have arisen, a ‘sweet-natured and great with other dogs’ dog not accepting gentle little old Cindy was not something that I had anticipated, nor had it been suggested by the rescue organisation that this scenario was likely to happen (which I now know from hearing other adopters' stories, it's a pretty common occurrence). Forewarned would have been forearmed and would have lessened my stress knowing that this was a common issue and things would get better, but it would seem that on the whole, rescue organisations don't tell adopters that their new arrival may lose it at the sight of the resident dog. If they did, they would probably have fewer applications. 

The week or so that followed was incredibly stressful. I barely slept. I lost 4lbs in weight. To make things worse I had sustained a bite on the finger from a green-fanged tube web spider that had caused a severe reaction and was immensely swollen and painful (no superpowers unfortunately), which I’m sure was addling my brain and ability to think rationally. I contacted the rescue out of desperation and to make sure, given that everyone harps on about these dogs being ‘different’ to UK dogs, that a) I was doing everything right, and b) to ask if there was anything ‘Romanian rescue dog specific’ that I could be doing to help things along. From professional experience, the worst fights – sometimes to the death – occur between spayed female dogs, and whilst ‘giving them time’ is all very well, when one dog is old and frail and the other, young and strong, the potential for the oldie to get seriously hurt is very real even after a considerable amount of time has passed. It was possible that the active-submission that Henna had shown towards the other dogs that she was housed with at the farm kennels was a numbers thing – that within a large group of dogs she appeases and pacifies (sweet and great with other dogs) because anything else might get her injured or killed, but when faced with only one small dog, she chooses to compete aggressively for attention and resources. Had I made a bad judgement about her appeasement behaviour in the farm kennels? What if I couldn't resolve this? With the prospect of Cindy's last few years being made miserable through daily dealings with a dog in the home that wouldn't accept her, and Henna's life becoming one of permanent barriers and competitive stress, I prepared myself emotionally for potential defeat and having Henna as a foster placement until a more suitable home could be found for her.

Each rescue volunteer had their own idea of how to handle the situation. One pushed pack theory and that ‘scraps are normal’. One suggested removing Henna from the room when she kicked off so that she learnt her place. One offered a stream of '3-3-3' memes and to continue doing what I was already doing, which was to keep them apart and feed them separately, but to also reinforce Cindy’s position above Henna (i.e. always feed/give Cindy treats before Henna, etc). However, given that forcing a social hierarchy or letting dogs ‘sort it out themselves’ can in many instances increase competitiveness, I wasn’t seeing much change in Henna’s behaviour by doing this, and Cindy was starting to show signs of stress at Henna’s outbursts. I did try removing Henna when she kicked off (once only and to follow different suggested advice) but as expected for a dog that tends towards active-submission she kicked off even more and got barrier frustration. Quite clearly this was not the way to handle the issue. I even wondered whether Cindy’s pricked ears were part of the problem – that to Henna, Cindy looked like she was threatening her all the time. I contacted the rescue again – again asking if there was anything ‘Romanian rescue dog specific’ that I could be doing. This time I was met with 'time to think about getting a behaviourist in' but also ‘they’re all the same’. Wait … what? Romanian dogs are not different to UK dogs? 

This was somewhat of a game-changer because it gave me the freedom to handle things my way and how I would have advised a client with a similar issueI started doing short sessions of positive association training with them   throwing Henna a food treat every time Cindy appeared, and with Henna in her pen or separated from Cindy by a stairgate, doing alternate name/treat training with them both. As well as Henna learning her name, this helped to highlight what the issue had been all along – that Henna clearly saw Cindy as competition for me and my attention and she wanted her to f*** off – and so with the freedom of ‘they’re all the same’ and the focus on decreasing competitive behaviour, I began sitting on the floor next to the stairgate on Henna’s side rather than Cindy's side for our positive association training sessions. She would do her best to climb over me and wriggle herself between me and the stairgate to block Cindy, but I gently pushed her off each time and continued to do so until she stayed sitting or lying on the other side of my legs, and then I reinforced both her physical position and calm behaviour with food. If there is one thing I know for absolute certainly with dogs that tend towards active-submissive behaviour, it’s that removal of attention creates frustration and anxiety. Additionally, any physical handling or restraint must be done confidently but gently and calmly for the best chance of encouraging voluntary, pro-social behaviour. Even though we had only known one another for a little over a week, Henna was already learning that certain behaviours weren't going to get her what she wanted, whilst at the same time remaining desperate to not lose my attention and therefore stay receptive to learning what she could do instead. This was human-canine bond formation and balancing in action, and finally we began to make some progress. 

She became less hackly towards Cindy. She would still stiffen up when she saw her, but she had stopped shouting at her. I decided to move things on a step and with Henna on-lead and Cindy free to roam, I took them into the garden together and scattered some food titbits around for them to snuffle out together 
– sniffing being a calming behaviour that dogs often use to avoid confrontation. By this time, Rhubarb, now renamed Banjo, had arrived, and so poor Henna had yet another dog to compete against. Her chosen tactic with him was to try and control his movements and actively and aggressively defend doorways, toys and beds, but by this time she was responding to tone of voice and so I was able to nip this behaviour in the bud quite quickly.

Having Banjo around worked in our favour too because him and Cindy hit it off straight away and were hanging out together within view of Henna, which allowed her to observe how I interacted with them and what they needed to do in order to secure my attention. Like Henna, Banjo tends towards active-submission, but without the shouty aggressiveness towards Cindy when competing for fuss, and so although he was bit of a handful initially, his behaviour wasn’t potentially injurious to Cindy and therefore comparatively easier to manage.

A couple more weeks passed by. Exhausting weeks.

Henna was doing well with her lead-training and so I started taking her for short walks, which she really enjoyed and showed none of the ‘reactive’ behaviour towards people and dogs that adopters of Romanian street dogs so frequently report. I did daily ‘treat snuffling’ sessions in the garden with all three dogs – Henna on lead still, and Cindy and Banjo free to roam. 

By the end of the third week of February, Henna had softened towards Cindy outside enough for me to try her off lead in the garden.
I also worked on integrating her with Cindy in the house with the use of a short house-lead. Some sessions went well, others ended up with Henna growling at Cindy – once when Cindy was asleep in her bed and so as unthreatening as she possibly could have been as far as being competition for my attention goes – and so these sessions were swiftly ended without any fuss by removing Henna to her pen, but importantly, not socially excluding her completely.

Towards the end of the fourth week of February, I started walking both girls together, and by the beginning of March, I felt that I could trust Henna enough to be off lead around Cindy in the conservatory, kitchen and my office. The living room was still off-limits though as far as roaming free went unless under close supervision. By the 4th of March, Banjo had been with us for four weeks, and Henna, five and a half weeks. Until now, they had been in their pens in the conservatory during the evenings to give everyone a break from one another and the day’s continuous stream of social interaction, but as Henna had continued to soften towards Cindy in the house and become less concerned about competing against her for my attention – even seemingly being genuinely happy to see her on a couple of occasions first thing in the morning – I decided to give having them all in the living room for a couple of hours in the evening a try. 
And that’s pretty much how it’s been since. Henna and Banjo still go into their pens at certain times of the day – at mealtimes, when visitors first come into the house, and to sleep at night. It wasn’t my plan to keep the pens up long-term, but they hold such importance as the dogs’ safe spaces that it’s too early to think about removing them just yet. I can’t stress enough how valuable they have been with regards to making the settling in period, establishing a routine, enabling independence support and social down-time, integrating Henna with Cindy, managing the little space that we have in our two-bedroom bungalow and ensuring that everyone sleeps soundly and deeply at night, easier. It does mean that I have lost my art room and so a garage conversion is now on the cards to replace it, but that’s a small price to pay for contented and astonishingly well-adjusted dogs in such a short space of time. 

Above all though, no one gets special treatment beyond their individual needs. All dogs are equal in our house. There is no hierarchy between them – pack theory is well and truly dead. Instead, I use their natural willingness to defer to me along with their tendency to compete with one another and ‘fear of missing out’ to shape the behaviours that I want to see, in a ‘whoever’s bum hits the floor first gets the first treat’ kind of way. This has transferred nicely to beyond the house on walks, with all three dogs either generally ignoring or showing a normal level of interest in what could so easily spark reactive behaviour, such as other on-lead dogs barking and lunging, cats, birds and cyclists.

In the house, we have two rules – 1) no biting, and 2) no fighting. I let them jump up and lick my face. They are allowed to sit in my lap and lay on the sofa. It gives me enormous pleasure to watch Henna and Banjo zoom about the living room using the furniture as a parkour course. From the streets of Romania, to kill shelter, to safe rescue in farm kennels with 800 other ‘nobody’s dogs’, to life in a home in the UK as the pets that they always should have been, their life has changed beyond all recognition in the space of two months. With walking three dogs I am of course now getting the obligatory ‘you’ve got your hands full there!’ line, but also ‘gosh, they’re well-behaved aren’t they!’ and ‘oh what happy little dogs!’. 

Yes. Yes they are.

There is of course an awful lot more that has gone on, and is still going on, behind the scenes. I initially had to heavily referee Henna and Banjo's play. They both play very roughly, and it took a while before Henna relaxed enough to enjoy playing with him. She needed to learn that she could rely on me to step in when things got too much for her rather than having to sort it out herself, and Banjo needed to learn some impulse control. Their play is pretty equal now as far as 'who wins' and has become highly ritualised. Play is an aspect of their behaviour that may be different from that of many UK dogs. It's 'more' – more noisy, more fast, more frantic – but that could also be due to them both tending towards C-type temperament traits when under pressure. They both have a high prey drive, but no higher than my previous Irish rescue dog, Tilly. Henna developed separation distress from me within the first couple of days. This was to be expected as any rescue dog no matter what country it's from has the potential to bond very quickly with its new owner. She showed her distress by barking, howling and fighting the bars of her pen, which is typical of C-type temperament separation distress behaviour. We overcame this fairly quickly though with carefully planned departures and dedicated training, and as she naturally grew more secure in herself and her new home. Banjo came with his own set of issues – he was skin and bone, had an unwell tummy due to the heaviest worm burden I have ever seen in a dog, an umbilical hernia, and a terribly matted coat – but he's in much better physical condition now thanks to several doses of Panacur, lots of nutritious food, and learning to love being groomed.

Getting two rescue dogs at the same time has been incredibly hard work, but that's not because they are 'Rommies'. And it has in many ways made things easier. Being around the same age and size, they can entertain themselves quite happily when I need to be getting on with other things. Cindy can be as involved as she wants to be, and on the whole she does want to be, which is lovely to see especially after the initial worry that Henna's anti-social behaviour towards her caused. Importantly, they all walk together each day 
and, taking into consideration Cindy's age and that she's considerably more delicate that Henna and Banjo, I make sure that I provide other things that they can all do together, even if that's just ripping up some paper ...

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