Written by Leonie Morris, Pennypaws Rescue Adopter
Marrying a man with three teenage children was not part of my original life plan. But at 37, that is precisely what happened! A previous relationship had ended unexpectedly and altered the direction of my life. When Neil, my now husband came into the picture, the circumstances were far from a fairytale for any of us.
One of the hardest challenges of being in a marriage as a childless or childfree spouse (depending on your perspective), is the feeling of being an outsider to what has originally been created. And whilst over the years, I had managed to develop relationships with all three of my husband’s children, I felt that something was amiss. That nothing that had come into the union was truly mine. My sense of belonging was on shaky ground.
This included Lolita, a beautiful Spanish rescue dog from a village in Andalucia, whom I adopted as my own when she too, came as part of my husband’s package deal! So, sitting on the sofa one early Spring evening, my husband, concerned about the sense of sadness that had embedded in me, looked across and said “Well, do you think you want to have a baby of your own”. I looked back across with complete disbelief and said “No darling….I want another dog obviously!”
Having read about the plight of stray dogs in Romania, I already had my heart set on saving one of these vulnerable pups. Through a local contact, I was put in touch with the inspirational Gill Jenness. The founder of Pennypaws Rescue. It was obvious from the outset, when speaking to Gill, that she operated with the highest level of integrity. Her sole focus was upon the welfare of these mistreated dogs. And we were asked many questions about our motivation to adopt and the preparations we would be making for a new family member arriving into the household.
Eventually, after being sent many images, videos and information about the dogs waiting for a home, we decided upon Annie. Something about her forlorn look and sad eyes just spoke to my heart. Neil, after some period of apprehension about this decision, looked at me and said “Well yes then darling. Let’s go for it. Which part of Cornwall do we have to travel to in order to collect her?” “The Lincolnshire part” was my response!
After driving across the breadth of the country to the kennels where Annie was being temporarily cared for, introducing her carefully to Lolita and then making the long journey back to Cornwall – the real work began.
Initially, Annie was extremely wary and traumatised by her move to us. She would hide in the back of her crate (her safe space), by curling up as small as possible so as to go unnoticed. Lolita was largely very accepting of this new interloper! We ensured the two girls were never left alone together unsupervised. But naturally, Lolita would have the very occasional growl and ‘snap’ at Annie which only served to cause her more anxiety. On top of this, Annie was particularly fearful of Neil’s presence in the home. She would growl deeply if he entered the room sending ‘go away’ signals repeatedly. My own personal reasons for adopting Annie were laden with emotion. This coupled with Annie’s painful experiences of trauma and abuse which resonated, conspired to ensure the first of MANY MISTAKES I have made.
I treated her like a total princess. I showered her with love, affection, cuddles and attention. I felt I needed to compensate for her horrific past. Soon enough Annie developed a close attachment to me (whilst continuing to growl at Neil!). Her eyes would light up when she saw me, she would bang her tail repeatedly out of happiness and roll on her back for tummy rubs. Seeing this transformation, and knowing I was part of that, became quite intoxicating. Unfortunately, as all good caregivers know – if you spare boundaries and consequences, you spoil the child! Or in this case, a rather beautiful, wolfish looking doggy with sharp teeth and claws! Initially in the first few months, my permissive approach to Annie didn’t result in any major consequences. Lolita would occasionally look at me as if to say “You’re spoiling that dog!” But the overwhelming love and affection Annie provided, meant there was no obvious reason to change tactic with her. We were both getting our emotional needs met so why change!
A change in behaviour
Then after the first twelve months, her behaviour started to change. Her little paws were firmly under the table. After initially being on the receiving end of some hostility from Lolita, Annie had grown in her assertiveness and after a couple of ‘spats’ it became very clear that there was a new top dog in town! Or our home to be precise. The changes in her behaviour coincided with Neil taking a work position away from home during the week. Leaving me alone at home to manage the dogs. And this is the point at which matters took a turn for the worse. Suddenly, Annie was behaving as if she ruled the roost. She would expect to sleep on the marital bed with me at night, having never done so before. She would stand guard on the landing, and if Lolita or I tried to pass her, she would nip at our ankles! But worse still, she became very intimidating around food. Bullying me when out on walks and nipping at my coat pockets. After a particularly difficult day, I rang Neil in tears and said I was struggling to cope alone. And Neil spoke the following words that still ring true today “You’ve got to be tougher with her”.
If you are considering adopting or fostering through Pennypaws Rescue, I strongly urge you to reflect upon your own personal motivation and context for a dog coming into your home. I had attached my own personal emotional meaning and significance to Annie, which clouded my judgement around how best to care for her. Without question, these dogs need love and attention. But equally, if not more importantly, there is a need for clear rules and structure from the outset. Because once the genie is out the bottle. It’s hard to put the genie back in! Annie has a survival instinct in-built in a way other dogs lack, because of her Romanian roots. She will act in ways that serve her best survival interest and we see this even now, four years down the line.
The honeymoon period most definitiely ended and a more realistic chapter began. One where I had to reassess my whole approach to Annie’s welfare and care. Whilst I still showed her great tenderness and love, I now employed much tighter ground rules. This is not to say these rules will be needed with your dog. Each dog is unique and will require a totally different strategy. But with Annie we now follow this policy:
- No sleeping on furniture or beds unless designated for dogs only.
- Absolutely zero food treats by hand. The only food Annie receives is at her daily mealtimes where treats are incorporated in her bowl.
- No one area of the home is allowed to be dominated by Annie. She can have short periods in her favourite places to stand guard! But she is asked to respectfully move from them on a regular basis.
- Annie cannot be off the lead with other dogs apart from our own household dogs. Unless we have matched the other dog to her form of play, and the owner is confident that their dog will not be traumatised or become aggressive. Her form of play is intense and can be intimidating. This restricts us to very few play sessions outside of secure dog fields.
Since we have become more aware of Annie’s needs, the household largely runs like clockwork. Stress and arguments between Neil and I (yes, these pups WILL cause tension in relationships much like a new baby I imagine) have reduced to nothing. We are a team and we work together to ensure consistent care. As a result, we enjoy the most beautiful life with Annie. The value she adds to our lives is immense.
We cannot imagine our lives without her
Neil and I have had to make sacrifices and compromises in order to care for and manage Annie within our household. We cannot simply go to the local beach and let her off the lead to play nicely with other dogs. We do have to monitor her behaviour and we do know that if we give her an inch she will take a mile! Without doubt I made matters worse by being too lapse in the first year with her.
That said, I have watched numerous training videos and read multiple articles in relation to dog behaviour. And my belief is now this:
Without doubt, training strategies can be extremely helpful. But as adopters we must be realistic and accepting of the dogs that are placed with us. We may be able to modify and moderate some behaviours, but we can never fully control a dog’s personality and character. And nor should we. We must love our dogs FOR WHO THEY ARE! Just like all of us, they will possess flaws and vulnerabilities. WE CANNOT EXPECT OUR DOGS TO BE PERFECT. This may mean some loss for you. The fantasy dog you had in mind may be very different to the real-life dog you are presented with. But the love, enjoyment and reward we have gained through having Annie in our lives is extraordinary. We cannot imagine our lives without her.
© Leonie Morris 2023