Back in the summer, we left our little dog, Callum, at home while we visited friends for the afternoon in London. Two and a half years ago, this would have been absolutely impossible, for our dog suffers from separation anxiety and in his distress would’ve chewed up anything that smelled of us and barked continuously. This is the tale of his redemption.
Returning from living in Japan and moving into our own house, I decided we should have a dog. We went along to the local rescue home and returned with Sophie, who settled in within a couple of weeks. A few months later, we decided to get another one and we came home with Larry. He also settled in really easily and we loved their company.
Fourteen years later, we’d moved up to Milton Keynes and now had two young sons. Larry passed away from kidney failure in 2005 and Sophie was 15, half blind, deaf, suffering from vestibular syndrome, arthritic and beginning to become confused. Knowing that her time was coming to an end, we started looking around for another dog to adopt. After a great deal of searching, we found Callum, a 4 month old puppy, in a rescue home in Norfolk. We rang the home to reserve him and arranged to visit the following day.
Once we had arrived at the kennels, we were all introduced. Callum was delighted to be out of the kennel and greeted us excitedly. I could see that he had a lovely friendly temperament and would be great with the boys. I watched Sophie’s reaction to him carefully; she sniffed him and then ignored his attempts to play with her. Much as I expected really; by the time a dog is that old, they just want to be left alone in peace. We took him for a walk around the grounds and decided to adopt him. As I completed the paperwork, I asked about his background and learnt that he’d been taken away from a home with too many dogs, so had been suffering from neglect rather than abuse. Once we’d had a home check done, I would be free to collect him.
I thought it would just be a formality, as I’d stressed to the home that I was an experienced dog owner, so I was unprepared for the barrage of questions and the length of time the home visit took – nearly two hours! We discussed feeding, toilet training, sleeping arrangements, walking, training classes, vets and pet insurance and I had my garden checked to make sure it was secure. I tried to be patient while we discussed all of this but felt slightly offended that they just didn’t trust me to get on with it. In fairness, they have a job to do and need to be thorough, so they don’t have animals returned. Finally, I was given the all clear and arranged when to collect Callum.
I made the long drive over by myself, as the boys were in school. Not long after arriving, I was back on the road, with Callum sitting in his crate, looking scared and not uttering a sound. I talked to him kindly, trying to reassure him that everything would be fine. When we got back, I put a bed for him in the corner, which he lay down on. So far, so good.
The real problems started that evening and I was totally unprepared for what happened. It was time for bed and I wanted Callum to sleep in the kitchen, because he wasn’t house trained, rather than in our bedroom, like Sophie. I put him in his crate and we went upstairs. He instantly started whining and after a few minutes that turned into loud, upset barking, accompanied by the sound of him turning round and round in the crate, scratching at the bottom trying to get out. I went down every few minutes and told him to be quiet in a firm voice; he’d stop barking for a while and then it would start again and got more and more frantic. Eventually, I let him out of his crate but left him in the kitchen, thinking he might settle down on his bed. It didn’t help at all. He carried on barking and started banging and scratching at the door, trying to get out. By this time it was 1.00 a.m. and he’d woken up the kids, so I gave up and let him out of the kitchen. It was a Thursday and my poor husband had to get up at 6.00 a.m. to go to his job in London and the boys had school, so we were all desperate for sleep. I coaxed him upstairs and he went sniffing around the whole room and then promptly peed on the floor. I didn’t shout at him but told him “no” in a firm voice and took him out into the garden and waited until he’d peed again before letting him back in. I made him lie down next to us but he kept jumping into our bed. Eventually, my husband put a firm hand on him to stop him moving and he gave up and went to sleep. Little did I know that this was to be the start of months of stress and anxiety, which contributed to my bout of depression last year.
Everything was fine if I was with Callum. We enjoyed going out for walks, even though he was quite a handful and didn’t respond to any commands yet. He would sit near me when I was in the house, chilling on his bed or the sofa and never pestered us for food when we were eating. House training him was easy and he had it sussed within three weeks. The trouble started when I tried to leave him on his own. He would be besides himself with anxiety and fear; I could hear him barking and howling as soon as I left. Many people, including me, have thought that having another dog in the house would help but no, what a dog wants is his owner above all else. He would always find something to chew up, slippers, trainers, soft toys, the TV remote, the washing basket, the watering can, the bin, a lead, a harness, a doormat, his Kong. It’s an endless list!
I tried to take him with me when I went out but even that didn’t work very well. I could take him to the gate of the school but not into the playground, so I was forced to tie him up outside and listen to him barking. People either complained about the noise, or made a fuss of him; I just felt stressed either way. One time I needed to go to a chiropractic appointment and decided to leave him in the car while I went in. It was a cold March day and wasn’t for a long time, even so I left a window open for him. When I was finished, I was asked if that was my dog in the car by another patient. I told her it was and she promptly told me off, saying she wouldn’t dream of leaving her dog in the car and that he was too hot. I tried to explain that actually he was stressed because he didn’t like to be alone but she wouldn’t listen to me. Mortified, I returned to the car, to find that Callum had chewed up the seat belt and the integral sun blind. I just wanted to cry. Another time, we went into town and tried leaving him in the garden. Huge mistake! We returned to find that he’d badly scratched the back door frames, dug up the gravel on the edge of the patio and damaged the gate trying to escape. I’ve no doubt that he whined and barked too.
A month in, the situation had reached a stalemate. I didn’t want to go out because I dreaded what I would return to and Callum didn’t like me going out either because of my reaction when I returned. I was struggling not to get cross and shout at him, even though I knew that wouldn’t help. Sophie was also starting to become incontinent by this time, so I had the added stress of dealing with that too.
I decided to ask for some professional help and settled on a dog trainer nearby who seemed to have good results. We had a long chat and I was given a plan of action. I was to crate train Callum. The idea was to leave him in there for just 5 minutes at first and then increase this slowly over time, so that he would be happy in there when I was out. Every time he barked, I was to squirt water in his face but not let him out; a kind of aversion therapy. It was a complete and utter failure. He was more stressed than ever; you could tell by his body language and by the fact that he destroyed the bottom of the crate trying to escape. His cortisol levels must have been sky high, poor dog. It was back to square one.
One day, returning from a walk, I picked up a soft muzzle that someone had lost, an idea forming in my head. Next time I went out, I put the muzzle on Callum. I felt mean doing it but I was tired of him destroying my stuff. What a relief it was to return and find nothing had been damaged! Did it stress him out? Yes but by this time I felt like I had no choice and I certainly wasn’t going to return him to the home because that would have made his problem worse in the long term. I just had to be careful not to be out for long because he couldn’t drink with it on. It certainly didn’t feel as bad as the trainer’s method. I think it was around this time that Callum began to calm down and mature into an adult dog and I’m sure it was because my stress levels weren’t sky high anymore.
There were times when we forgot to muzzle him, especially in the rush to get to school in the mornings and occasionally he didn’t chew anything. I heaped praise on him and began to think that there might be hope for him after all. Very gradually, we tried leaving the muzzle off when we went out. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not but we tried above all to be kind and patient, realizing that the trainer’s method, which was pure domination, was totally the wrong approach. If our stuff got chewed, so be it. We tried to be sensible and move certain things before we went out. Our relationship with Callum improved immeasurably; a trust finally developing between us and people began commenting how much he’d calmed down from the crazy puppy he’d been before.
And now? I can finally go out and know that Callum isn’t going to chew something up while he’s alone. That isn’t to say he’s happy being on his own; I’ve realized he never will be, for dogs are descended from pack animals, they haven’t evolved to be solitary like cats, which is why they are so good at living with humans. I also have to lock him out of the kitchen, otherwise he’ll still knock the bin over and chew up the contents.
I make no apology for handling Callum’s problem the way I did and if some of you are offended or upset by it, then so be it. In all honesty, I think he was lucky to be adopted by us, because there aren’t many people who would have put up with his behaviour for two years, as we did and he would have been returned to the rescue, perhaps more than once. He is a gorgeous dog, who adores meeting people and still wants to play with every dog he meets. He is much loved member of our family and we wouldn’t be without him.