Three years ago, my husband and I decided to adopt a rescue dog. At the time, I had some crazy notion about possibly adopting two little mongrel terriers. Small dogs that would keep each other company during the day. A pair of little scamps that would trot along after me as I jogged in the park and then curl up on our laps in front of the TV at night.
I had no notion of adopting a dog from the Restricted Breed List – our vision did not include a Rottweiler with pretty serious handling issues, a severe vet phobia and a terror of motor vehicles!
But that’s exactly what we did.
My husband and I are two professionals in our 40’s. We do not have children and as we sat in the waiting area of Dogs Trust filling out the adoption forms, the predicament of rescue centres was revealed to us in stark relief. The room was filled with families; parents with small children looking to adopt an adorable puppy.
Dogs Trust and other similar rehoming centres around the country have an abundance of older, more challenging dogs, unsuitable for families with young children, and still desperately in need of loving care.
They took us at our word!
Rosco was what Dog’s Trust refer to as a “Sticky Dog”. He had been through a couple of failed rehomings. Bessy, the pregnant bitch that he had been surrendered with, had found a home early on but he had been left behind. His Canine Carer, Julie, got so excited when she saw his name on the list of possible dogs for us to adopt, we simply had to meet him.
I don’t want to get all corny about “love at first sight” but suffice to say, we both fell for the big guy right out of the traps.
Rosco was already touching our lives and teaching us important lessons that would impact us in unimaginable ways. We were soon to realise that this small act of compassion – making space for this dog in our lives and hearts – would change our lives and our experience of living irrevocably.
We have come to refer to these little insights as “The Tao of Rosco”!
Rottweilers are on the restricted breed list in Ireland, so we had to learn to muzzle and harness Rosco before we could take him home. Catherine, our Training & Behaviour Advisor (TBA) equipped us with treat bags and showed us tips and techniques for muzzle training the big man.
But the toughest lesson and the most important one for us to learn was in building his trust.
He was a troubled dog who had good cause to be nervous and appear aggressive in the face of new and uncertain situations. His background was sketchy and it was clear that he had been subjected to some level of abuse and poor socialisation as a puppy. Once we understood that, it enlightened the approach we took, it informed our manner and elevated our capacity for patience. We learned fast and were soon making good progress applying positive reinforcement techniques to do the basics of muzzling, harnessing and handling.
I am not sure when the deeper realisation struck home for me, though. I think it filtered in from observing his TBA and Canine Carers at work. I gradually internalised the reality of the situation – that this process was going to take a long time and more importantly, that I needed to build personal skills to help him get there. He was nervous and troubled. I couldn’t fix that with a band aid but what I could do was offer him a safe, gentle, patient pair of hands.
It took a long time to get to the point where Rosco could get into the car and come home with us (8 weeks from first meeting!). Our friends were baffled as to why it was taking so long but we understood what was at stake.
I think Rosco has really shown me the truth behind this old saying:
“Hate is not the first enemy of love. Fear is. It destroys your ability to trust”. Anonymous
I soon came to realise that fear was at the root of Rosco’s problems.
A dog cannot talk, they cannot tell you what is bothering them. Once I recognised how fearful the world of strangers and unpredictable environments was for Rosco, I began to see how I could adjust my behaviour to create a safe space, to introduce calm and thereby begin to help allay some of those fears.
He has made me acutely conscious of the part that fear plays in our human relationships every day. A dog will raise their hackles, snap or growl out of fear. That is how they express themselves but we humans display and encounter fearful behaviours on a daily basis too.
We bully, interrupt rudely and employ passive aggressive tactics. We undermine and threaten, and so often this is an expression of our own personal fears.
Fear of failure.
Fear of being found out.
Fear of being singled out.
Fear of being bullied, cornered and otherwise exposed to the world in a negative light.
Rosco provides me with daily reminders of how fear can impede our happiness and hold us back from meeting our potential. As he has grown in confidence and learned to trust us, I have observed him expand his horizons; as his fear has diminished the size of his universe has broadened and the quality of his interactions has improved dramatically.
The best life lessons start at home. We jokingly and somewhat ironically refer to Rosco as the “Fearsome Beast”. On the exterior he is a large, imposing creature. When muzzled, he can look quite scary to the uninitiated.
The truth of the matter is that he is actually a “Fearful Beast”. He has given me tremendous insight into the nature of fear. As a result, I have become more sensitive to the impact of fearlful behaviour in the world around me, both in my personal and professional life.
I share this experience here because I believe there is an insight in this for us all. When faced with intimidating behaviour in others, it can be powerful to examine the part that fear may be playing in that person’s approach. By re-evaluating the behaviour in the context of fear as a driver – can we change our own approach and response to defuse, short circuit or otherwise change the outcome?
Like Rosco, does a fearsome exterior belie a fearful or anxious interior?
Like Rosco, can you create a safe more compassionate space where the fear can subside and different outcomes emerge?
Rosco has been with us three years now and I am happy to say that the trust building is ongoing and he grows in confidence every day. With our help and patience, he continues to delight and surprise us. Rosco had a bad start in life and there are some knot’s that we will never be able to fully unravel but I am hopeful that over time we can gradually iron out a few more of the wrinkles. His story, as it unfolds before us, is a constant reminder of what can be achieved when you truly engage your empathy and try to see life from another’s perspective – even if that “other” is a rather large, cheeky Rottweiler!