It’s that time of year again – when the puppy industry gears up for the Christmas rush. All over the countries, puppies are being bred to meet the annual ‘cutest gift ever’ demand. Not all of them will be so lucky in the homes they end up in. Many of them won't be in their new homes for very long - 130,000 dogs are abandoned in the UK each year, and the post Christmas period bears the brunt of that. According to the RSPCA, three puppies an hour are abandoned over the Christmas period, just chucked out at a few weeks old (The Guardian's article here).
So before you buy that very cute, very perfect puppy, please consider adopting or even fostering a dog desperately in need of a loving home. I promise you, whatever you give, you will get back tenfold.
20 months ago I decided to foster a dog from a rescue shelter, whilst a home was being sought for them. I had been looking for a while and had contacted one rescue centre about fostering. My application went ignored for over 6 months, but I still kept looking at their website, drawn to the same dog. He was a strange looking dog – a big head on a scrawny, under-nourished body, shar pei, but not completely wrinkly, so possibly with a bit of staffie or Labrador in the mix. With hindsight, a poorly socialised Chinese fighting dog was a ridiculous choice for a novice dog-owner, however I am so grateful I don’t possess hindsight. Caring for him changed both our lives for the better.
From the beginning, Gordon (as he came to be called due to his resemblance to Gordon Ramsey - same wrinkles on his forehead, and at times the same temper) was a challenge in some ways and an angel in others. He was quite reticent around people and very aggressive with other dogs. His eyesight was seriously impaired by cataracts, so even dogs trying to be friendly were greeted with mistrust and fear. Walking him reduced me almost to tears on many occasions. He was incredibly strong and completely untrained on the lead. Other owners were amazingly helpful, considerate and generous with advice and their willingness to take quick detours when we encountered them. I was constantly thanking them and apologising, feeling like the parent of the ASBO child.
There were many pluses. His trust, hard-earned, was complete as was his loyalty. He wasn’t a cuddly dog, but he loved to lean against you whilst you made a fuss of him and when it was just the two of us at home would roll onto his back to have his tummy rubbed – and then proceed to gently chew on my arm, which I hoped was a sign of affection. He was very well house-trained. Although a good guard dog, he never barked unnecessarily. He was good with people and tolerant of children. He would stand patiently and allow them to fuss him, moving away if it became too much. Because he was so well house-trained, he wouldn’t even pee in the garden at first. This worried me, so he was having four or five walks a day, until I calmed down and he always had two long walks a day, with extra walks when the weather was good and I had the time - which was most days. He was very quiet, just happy to be near me and very patient. If he felt he was being ignored for too long, he would destroy one of his toys until he got attention. On one memorable occasion, after I had been sat at the dining room table immersed in completing an OU assignment, I turned around to discover that Gordon had spent the morning very quietly and very thoroughly destroying every toy he possessed. CSI Toybox led to a trip to the charity shop for more cheap cuddly toys and also an investment in some more robust chew toys and balls.
He had been on a dry food diet when he arrived. After taking advice from other dog owners, I tried him on a raw food diet. The change in the condition of his skin, coat and weight was amazing. He went from being a skinny dog with skin problems and a greasy coat to being a very healthy animal with a beautiful coat. He put on 5kg and looked in great condition. He also became quite fussy - when he went back to the rescue centre for a few days for his operation, he turned down dry food! Planning, shopping and preparing his meals became a labour of love for me. He had raw dog-meat from the petshop, raw fish scraps from the good chip shop and liver and marrowbone from the butcher’s. I mixed his food with boiled rice and chopped vegetables. I added yoghurt and cod liver oil to make sure he was getting everything he needed. I even bought a small chest-freezer so that I always had sufficient food for him. I rarely made proper meals for myself, eating cheese or baked beans on toast, pizzas, sandwiches, whatever I could or couldn't be bothered to make, but Gordon's diet was balanced and healthy. When I roasted a chicken, he got more of it than I did, and I didn't add salt to the stock because too much salt was bad for Gordon. In the same way some parents keep an emergency stash of jars of baby food, I had a few packs of good quality prepared dog food – for when we travelled anywhere or when I had forgotten to defrost his food.
We attended puppy training classes, with Gordon looking remarkably out of place, a 22kg dog amongst the tiny puppies. He looked like Buddy in the classroom scenes from the film “Elf”. Gordon didn’t last long in puppy training. He would do what he wanted and no more. One day there was a battle of wills between Gordon and the instructor because Gordon would not lie down. The instructor pressed down on his head, wrestling Gordon to the ground to make him lie down. Gordon went from growling and barking to trembling with fear. I made the instructor stop and we never went back. I didn’t want him to be that afraid of anyone.
A few weeks into fostering him, I realised there was something seriously wrong. He constantly pawed at his right eye and rubbed it on the carpet. I took him to the vet who said it was glaucoma and he needed to see a veterinary ophthalmologist immediately. That explained his reaction to the training instructor pressing down on his head, the pain must have been unbearable. As the rescue charity were responsible for all his veterinary care, I contacted them. It took an extraordinary long time and considerable battling on my part for them to agree to treatment, however eventually it was all arranged. The outcome was not good for Gordon – his right eye had to be removed as soon as possible, and the lens removed from the left eye to stop that eye going the same way.
It took him a while to recover from the eye removal operation, but he was so incredibly brave. The first day he came home he was clearly in pain, but he just lay down next to me, occasionally whimpering softly. The other eye needed three different eye drops, three times a day. At first any eye or ear drops were difficult to administer, he wasn’t keen on medication. However, he soon associated eye drops with treats and would patiently sit and keep his eye wide open whilst I put the drops in. Eventually he was so conditioned to getting treats, he started drooling when I picked up a bottle of eye drops. He had one of each drop last thing at night at ten minute intervals, so I would put them all on the side table. When I went out, I would come home to find plants moved around and tell-tale signs of drool on the table where Gordon had checked out no treats had been left behind.
|After his eye operation|
As his health improved, his wound healed and his behaviour on the lead became more manageable, we started to go further afield, on the train, by bus and sometimes in the car. Gordon was never keen on the car, but loved the train and the bus. He always got lots of attention, even with only one eye, he was still beautiful. Once at Victoria station, there was such a large crowd of people gathered around him, we had to leave the station to get away from them. Every single one of them said goodbye to Gordon. I didn’t even merit a wave! One very well spoken man on the train to Faversham paid Gordon so much attention and showered him with so many compliments, I was on the verge of leaving the two of them alone with a bottle of wine and a few candles. On our walks, people would always ask about him and fuss him. The local drunks adored him - I took Gordon to the post office once, and tethered him outside. When I came out, one of his inebriated friends was sat on the ground by him, cuddling him, with Gordon bearing the attention with dignity. If I went out in the evening, I always walked him when I got home, no matter what time. I was never afraid, I wasn’t sure Gordon’s eyesight was up to protecting us – but to some he looked scary enough that nobody was going to chance it. He loved the snow and went gambolling around in it, as far as his flexi-lead would allow. He hated puddles and wet grass though. When we walked in the early morning, he looked at me reproachfully if I tried to get him to walk on the grass, he was a real sugar paws.
|Not looking at all scary|
At Christmas he had an advent calendar – one of the felt ones with pockets for treats. By 3 December, he was sitting patiently staring at the wall where the calendar was hanging. By the 5th, he didn’t need me guiding him towards a treat, he just wolfed down as many as he could reach. The advent calendar stayed up until the 6 January and the pockets of treats were regularly replenished. On Christmas Day I worked on reception as a volunteer at a local hospice. I had got permission for Gordon to come with me for the day. I tethered his lead to the heaviest chair in reception and left him for one minute when I had to walk down to the ward. Whilst I was talking to the ward sister, we heard a strange noise – it was Gordon and the chair, dragging behind him. All the staff and guests made a fuss of him, the kitchen staff brought out far too many treats for him and one family asked if he would come and see their sick relative who missed their shar pei.
I took him to France in March – we got stuck on the motorway in Operation Stack for 7 hours. Gordon was an angel. Sometimes he would refuse to get in a car, I had once spent 20 minutes bribing and cajoling him to get in, then a friend had to build a ramp to get him out, ,but on that day when I walked him up and down the motorway, in the thick snow and we had to dash back to the car as traffic was moving, he obligingly jumped straight in.
Sadly, Gordon could never go off lead. He was too aggressive with other dogs. I tried introducing him gradually to familiar dogs, but he had no close-up vision, and seemed to think he was always about to be attacked, which is understandable. He might seem friendly, but up close they disappeared from his vision and he became wary and aggressive. So we kept apart from other dogs, with Gordon always straining to join in, which made me sad for him. He also wanted to join in when we saw groups of young boys playing football. Once he pulled so hard on the lead, he yanked it out of my hand and he was off, running up to two boys playing. They froze in terror, with Gordon stood between them, wagging his tail. I presume his first owners must have had young children of that age. I taught him to play fetch in the garden and he would race up and down after tennis balls. I took balls to the park, but there was too much there for him to be interested in fetch.
Every 3 months we went to the eye specialist, and I was always pleased when Gordon got a clean bill of health. After about a year, his behaviour changed drastically. He started becoming really aggressive towards runners going past us, and occasionally randomly lunging at people on the street, even biting another dog owner who went to fuss him. He had to be muzzled most of the time, which he hated, but I couldn’t take the chance. Eventually last month, Gordon went completely blind. He had a detached retina. This meant more drops and more trips to the veterinary ophthalmologist. His behaviour became much worse and he could no longer go on trips with me, we practised getting on and off trains and going up and down steps, but sometimes he would refuse to move. I was worried the train doors would close on us – with him on the train and me on the platform. He also became much more aggressive to strangers and there was no pattern to his attacks. We started creeping round different routes to go on walks, where I could be sure we would never be in close proximity to another dog, weren’t going past any schools and at times when there were less likely to be runners out. At home, he was as lovable as ever, in his reticent, restrained way. However friends with small children no longer visited, we couldn’t get about as much and the few friends who I had felt able to ask the odd favour of walking him occasionally no longer felt comfortable walking him, which I could completely understand.
On his last visit to the eye specialist, the news was bad. He needed emergency surgery to remove the left eye. On the way home from the vet, he heard another dog bark and went complete berserk, dragging us both into the road and then trying to attack a man who walked past between us and the barking dog. For 2 days I did nothing but think about a solution for his future. I knew I couldn’t keep him anymore. The area I live in is too built up and Gordon was too unpredictable. Finally, I called the vet and spoke with her for over an hour. I said I was trying to rehome him, and she said this would not be fair on Gordon who would feel abandoned, nor on a new owner who would not have that level of trust with a blind and incredibly strong dog who may turn at any time. She also said that Gordon’s quality of life was now dependent on me not having any quality of life, not working, not going out, not seeing friends or family.
Gordon was put to sleep a few weeks ago. I made the decision rather than put him through another eye operation and then resign him to a life in kennels. I discussed it with the manager of the rescue centre, Gordon's vet, my family, my friends, the other dog owners. I tried to think of alternatives, but the decision was mine and mine alone. It was heart-breaking to make and horrendous to go through. He was showing signs of arthritis, was completely blind and extremely anti-social. I nearly halted the euthanasia just before they started, but knew I couldn’t manage him for much longer, creeping round the neighbourhood, with me tense and him wary because of his lack of socialisation. I also couldn't bear for him to hurt another dog or a small child out of fear or confusion resulting from his blindness. After he was gone, I couldn’t talk for days. The pain was almost unbearable. I knew I would be upset, but I had not realised how much it would hurt. Along with the pain is a mountain of guilt. He had been such a loving and loyal friend, and I feel that in return I had betrayed him because I made the decision and I held him whilst he was put down.
For a novice dog owner, Gordon had been a significant challenge. He was also rewarding, loving and great company, he kept me from going mad with the boredom and depression of long-term unemployment. When I walked home from the vet after he was put down, my grief was like a leaden weight inside me. But the instant I put my key in the front door, I still looked through the glass – expecting to see him there, wagging his tail. The next morning, I stayed upstairs for 3 hours after I got up, because I couldn’t bear to walk downstairs, knowing he wasn’t there. Whenever I am out, I keep on looking at the time, wanting to say ‘I have to go now, Gordon is at home’. When I cook, I keep turning round, expecting to see him sitting on the step by the dining room door, hoping for scraps. I cut the grass last week and ended up sitting in the middle of the garden, sobbing, because normally he would have been walking up and down the garden in front of the mower, making me go slower and slower.
I didn’t mean this blog to be this sad. I wanted to make it clear how adopting Gordon changed me and changed my life, how rewarding it can be to take on an adult dog who may not be as perfect as you might think you wish, but can be perfect for you. Every tiny step of progress was a huge triumph. The first time he played fetch, the destroyed toys, the first train journey, each successful check up at the ophthalmologist. Gordon had 20 months of a loving home that he wouldn’t have had, he also had the medical attention he so desperately needed. I had so much more. I couldn’t take my time making the decision, because he had to have that operation, and it seemed so needlessly cruel to put him through it, get him recovered then have him put to sleep anyway. I just wanted to take him home, spend more time with him, try everything possible to make his life better, but the risk to others was too great.
Before I got Gordon, I had thought about getting a dog – maybe a Norfolk terrier. I had even contacted a reputable breeder. I only fostered a dog to see if owning a dog was right for me and I could take on the required commitment. Once I got him, I couldn’t give him up, even with all the issues that came with him. I had never envisaged owning a one-eyed, untrained, poorly socialised shar pei. With all his problems, none of his own making, Gordon brought so much happiness to me. He was loved by everyone, my family, friends and neighbours sent him get well cards and gifts, Christmas cards, treats, toys. Everyone wanted to meet him (nobody ever wanted to walk him though!).
This Christmas when I get out my decorations, I know he will be the first thing I think of. At the very top of the box are his advent calendar, his ‘Santa paws’ Christmas stocking and a tree decoration ‘love me, love my dog’ that my cousins bought for me. I will donate money to a dog’s charity instead of buying him presents, but his tree decoration will still be hung up. Gordon was the best present I could have had, I wish he could have been with me for longer. If I could turn back time, I would go back to October 2011 and insist that I fostered him from them rather than wait until March. I would get him all the medical treatment he needed from the start and, maybe, if everything had been caught earlier, he wouldn’t have become so completely blind or so anti-social. Possibly it would make no difference. I might still be here alone, in this much pain. But the pain of losing him is a small price for the gift of having him in my life.
Even a dog as challenging as Gordon can bring so much love and happiness, possibly more so because every forward step brings so much triumph and pride at their achievements. There are so many abandoned puppies and adult dogs in need of a loving home, and the changes in them over time are all the gratitude you could want. If I or anyone else had taken Gordon on earlier, he may have had many more years. All I am saying, as John Lennon really should have said, is give rescue dogs a chance.