Thursday 8 December 2016

Thinking of rescuing a dog? Here's why you should...

Andrea Smith already had six dogs, and definitely didn't need another. But when she heard the horrific story of German Shepherd Noah, she just had to take him in

Published 29/12/2015 | 02:30

Andrea Smith pictured with two year old rescue dog, Noah. Picture: Frank McGrath
Andrea Smith pictured with two year old rescue dog, Noah. Picture: Frank McGrath
Andrea Smith and Noah the rescue dog. Photo: Frank McGrath
Andrea Smith pictured with two year old rescue dog, Noah. Picture: Frank McGrath
Andrea Smith pictured with two year old rescue dog, Noah. Picture: Frank McGrath
Noah the rescue dog

As the doting owner of six rescue dogs, I hadn't planned to take on another one for fear of ending up on one of those animal hoarding programmes on TLC.

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Then I read the story of an emaciated and terrified two-year-old white German Shepherd called Noah, who had been found wandering in a country lane in Galway in July.

Too afraid to look at the kind staff of Galway SPCA (www.galway-spca.com) and unable to keep food down initially because he had been so starved, my heart broke in two looking at his skeletal frame, mange-covered body and sad, confused eyes.

My own German Shepherd Layla passed away two years ago, and was the most intelligent, loving and gentle dog I have ever met, despite being horribly treated by previous owners. I was haunted by Noah, who had clearly also suffered unimaginable cruelty.

"I suspect Noah was kept chained in a shed," says Emma O'Brien, manager of Galway SPCA's sanctuary at Heathlawn.

"He found it difficult to walk because his nails were so overgrown and he was in pain and had a lot of muscle wastage. We fed him four small meals per day initially, as he had been starved for so long, he found it hard to keep food down."

Noah the rescue dog
Noah the rescue dog

I followed Noah's progress on Facebook, and was delighted to see him begin to heal under Emma's loving care. He began to put on weight and his painful skin condition and sundry wounds healed up, but best of all, he started taking an interest in life and building trust in humans again.

After three months, Emma decided he was well enough to go to a permanent home, because he needed more than the sanctuary had to offer.

While they are amazing at Healthlawn, the reality is that there are 60 dogs and 45 cats there looking for permanent homes. It's the same situation all over the country. With tight funding, Emma has a team of amazing volunteers who feed and walk the dogs twice daily and clean out the kennels.

Even so, the reality of life for any dog in a rescue centre is that they are cooped up in their little pens for up to 23 hours per day.

"They are so grateful for food and warmth and kindness initially," says Emma, "but as they recover, they get stressed as they long for more freedom and a home of their own."

As his body healed, Noah was beginning to get restless and stressed in his kennel, so Emma posted on their Facebook page in October that the time had come for him to find a forever home. I was straight on to apply to be his new owner, because from the moment I saw those haunted eyes back in July, he had already taken up residence in my heart.

A lovely lady called Marese came out to my house to do a home check - I was cleaning for the week before she arrived. It was a great fit as Emma wanted Noah to go into a pack situation, and I am very experienced with dogs.

Marese met my dogs and asked me loads of questions to make sure I was prepared for what was involved. They were looking for somewhere where the owner was home most of the day, which was perfect as I work from home and my dogs are indoor dogs. I can't abide people who leave their dogs out in the back all day and think it's the height of cruelty.

Andrea Smith pictured with two year old rescue dog, Noah. Picture: Frank McGrath
Andrea Smith pictured with two year old rescue dog, Noah. Picture: Frank McGrath

Marese was happy with what she saw, so the following October bank holiday Monday, I headed to Galway with my mother to bring Noah on his new journey. After completing the paperwork and paying €150 to cover expenses like micro-chipping and neutering, my beautiful Noah left the sanctuary in my car, waved off to his new life by Emma and her volunteers.

They were clearly emotional saying goodbye to him, but also delighted he was going off to a happy new life.

Noah settled in brilliantly, and was thrilled having a cosy sofa to lie on and a set of little brothers and sisters to play with. Poppy, Toby, Tatty, Lenny, Tiny and Rosie weren't as enamoured with him at first, as he was so jumpy and excitable he kept landing on top of them with his big paws, but they put him in his place and they're all the best of friends now.

Two months later, he's a big, goofy ball of fun, so sweet and loving, and really well-behaved and gentle. He loves his walks, and his favourite place to sleep is with his head on my feet.

He loves being petted, but if I wrap my arms around him, he sometimes panics and backs away, which I presume is a legacy of being roughly handled in the past. I saw it when I had to hold him firmly to examine a small cyst I had spotted on his back, and he got such a fright, he wee'd on the floor.

As with any dog you take on, there were a few little things that needed to be addressed, including toilet training. Noah suffered with separation anxiety initially and chewed a few cushions, but I am well used to that kind of thing so it didn't bother me. If you are the kind of person who wouldn't be bothered by that either and are looking for a dog, why not consider getting a rescue in the new year?

I guarantee that every type of puppy, dog and cat you could possibly imagine is currently languishing in rescue centres all over the country. Thousands of puppies were bred by unscrupulous, unregulated breeders prior to Christmas, and already the ones who didn't sell are flooding into the rescue centres. They're the lucky ones, as many will be killed or dumped out in remote areas to die. Last week, four Springer pups with mange were dumped in Galway, and are now safe at Healthlawn.

According to the Department of the Environment, a total of 14,559 dogs came into the pound system in 2014. While 6,238 were saved by rescue groups, a shocking 2,896 dogs were put to sleep. The pounds directly re-homed 3,129 dogs while 62 died from natural causes. The remainder were reclaimed by their owners.

One of the most shocking things that Emma has experienced is people calling wanting to offload their dogs to her before Christmas, usually for completely spurious reasons. The reality, she believes, is that they are getting rid of the old dog to make way for the Christmas festivities or the arrival of a shiny new puppy.

Some owners treat their dog like a toy or dress-up doll, but the problem with fashion is that it's fickle and disposable. A dog is a 10 to 15-year commitment with needs of its own, but it's quite astonishing how many people are ill-prepared for that commitment, and how easily they will get rid of the dog once they grow bored or disillusioned with it.

If you are considering getting a dog, rescue or otherwise, and are houseproud - forget about it. You won't deal well when the pet moults all over the house, or leaves muddy paw prints on floors and sofas. It can take ages to toilet train both puppies or rescue dogs who were never trained, and their "teething" phase can last for two years. If you think the dog can be left out the back all day, or you are not home a lot, also forget about it. Dogs are pack animals and need company, and a lot of problems arise through insufficient exercise and stimulation.

The great thing about rescue dogs is that is one to suit every type of committed person. This may be a five-year-old gentle labrador who is happy with a walk in the evening and will snooze for most of the day, or a lively husky who will be thrilled to accompany you on your mountain trek. Consider the oldies and the greyhounds and lurchers, as they are always overlooked and make fabulous pets.

The reward we get from owning dogs far outweighs any investment we'll ever have to make, but sadly people often don't make enough of an effort in advance to understand what they are taking on. Dogs are loving, loyal, eager to please and great fun, and there are very few behaviours in them that don't stem from something that a human has gotten wrong.

We need to educate ourselves before making the commitment, and people not treating the dog as a fashion accessory would undoubtedly help the situation immensely... as would rescuing instead of buying.

As a veteran dog owner, Andrea has some advice for newcomers

If you leave things like shoes, phone chargers and TV remotes in a room with a bored dog, there's every danger you'll come back to find them chewed up. This is entirely your own fault so don't blame the dog and take it out on them. Equally, don't give them an old slipper to chew on and expect them to know the difference between chomping on it and the Louboutins you carelessly kicked off after you rolled in the night before.

Unless you catch your dog in the act of doing something naughty, there's no point in scolding them. A frustrated owner who suddenly finds a puddle or chewed piece of furniture may be tempted to yell at the dog in anger, but it's cruel and upsetting to do that as your pet genuinely hasn't got a clue as to why you're mad. Studies clearly demonstrate that dogs don't feel or display guilt or contrition, but have learned to show appeasement-like behaviour in the hope of calming an angry owner down. They will never in a million years understand that your annoyed reaction relates to the shoe they chewed up an hour earlier.

Positive training based on a reward system for good behaviour and ignoring bad behaviour works far better than training through the fear-based methods of old. While I'm sure my neighbours think I'm mad when they overhear my fulsome praise for any dog who pees in the back garden, mine respond brilliantly to praise and petting and loving embraces. Every dog wants to please its owner and will respond well to positive reinforcement.

When Noah first arrived, he kept jumping up on me, and I would calmly grasp his front paws and place them on the floor again. Then I happened to meet dog trainer Nanci Creedon at The Today Show in Cork, and she explained that the best way to handle that situation is to turn your back as he jumps up and say nothing, because even a negative reaction is a "reward." I tried it and the jumping up stopped within two days.

Similarly, I don't do the big 'meet and greet' as I arrive in the door or I'd be literally bowled over by seven excited dogs.

Once the initial hysteria is over and they've been let out to do their business, I sit on the sofa, greeting each one in turn and giving them all a cuddle. They know the routine by now and it makes for a much calmer and more manageable greeting.

Remember we have all sorts of things going on in our lives but they only have us. We're the centre of their world, so don't let them down by not giving them the time and attention they deserve.

To learn more about rescuing an animal, see ispca.ie

Irish Independent

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