She died on June 18th, 2013, late one stormy night. We’d had her for nine years; Shiva, my first dog, and whether or not she was also my last remains to be seen. They were nine years of contrasts; we had amazing but also terrible times with her – it was a real rollercoaster of a ride.
January 2004 – the beginning
We were grieving, my boys and I. One of those senseless twists you get in life had changed everything; they were left fatherless and I was left attempting the impossible, to be both parents to two pre-teenagers. A dog seemed like a good idea. Our budget wasn’t huge so I called the vet for advice – we’d been good customers over the years with our procession of guinea pigs, rabbits and budgies, and he didn’t let us down now. A quick phone call, and just a day or two later we drove to the next village and met Shiva.
She was almost four months old, and was staying with M, a woman who worked parallel to the Swiss version of the RSPCA, looking after rescued dogs until they were rehomed. Both Shiva and her brother Chicco had been taken from their first owner. We walked into the garden that day and it was love at first sight – Shiva had such a sweet face, and she allowed us to pat her and play with her. For a few weeks we visited almost daily, going for walks with M and the fifteen other dogs, learning How to be a Dog Owner, then, on the 14th of March, we brought Shiva home.
And life improved immediately. We had a dog to cuddle; we had great fun going for walks together, and after the bad change we now had a good change. We went to puppy-school, the same one Chicco went to, and while we noticed that the pair of them were the most introverted dogs there, we didn’t think anything of it. They were puppies and they had good families now. They would learn to trust people again.
Shiva certainly trusted us. She was a Border Collie/Appenzeller cross. Border Collies are known for their intelligence (hmm…), and Appenzellers are known for being good farm dogs and also for their… enthusiastic barking. Little did we know back then that all these traits would cause us so many problems. What we did know was that we had a wacky, lovable new family member. Things were looking up.
Barking mad didn’t come into it…
The first thing we noticed after bringing Shiva home was: the house smelled different.
‘Is she house-trained?’ I asked M when we picked her up that day.
‘Um, nearly,’ she said. ‘Don’t worry, she’ll soon get the hang of it.’
And she did soon get the hang of it, unfortunately with a very big BUT. More of that later.
The second thing we noticed was that all of a sudden, we were doing lots more things together, me and my boys. We went for walks, we raced around the park and along the lake path, we chased balls and next-door’s cat in the garden. After losing my husband so suddenly, this was exactly what I’d wanted for our brave new little family. And it was fun – we laughed such a lot at our wacky puppy and she laughed right back. We cuddled up on the sofa and ate biscuits and we had new mealtime routines and bedtime rituals. Perfect.
The third thing we noticed was that she barked a lot.
‘Appenzellers bark, you know,’ everyone said.
Shiva was half Appenzeller and half Border Collie, but she looked more Appenzeller and she acted like one too – they’re excellent guard dogs.
So off we went to dog school to learn to stop barking on command, and a few other things too.
The other things were easy-peasy to the intelligent Border Collie half of our dog. Sit, wait, stop, come, high-five – she learned it all. But she didn’t learn not to bark when we told her. And it wasn’t just Woof Woof; Shiva could bark for hours on end. Barking mad didn’t come into it…
After graduating from dog school, I hunted round for someone to help with this and found an animal psychologist who gave summer-holiday classes – for kids and their dogs. So we enrolled Shiva and the boys. Shiva learned a lot there. She lost her fear of water and she learned some more ‘over/under/round about’ tricks too. The three of them did courses for two summers and it was time well spent, but – she didn’t stop barking at people.
Back to the first big BUT. There we were with a lovable, funny, intelligent (barky) rescue dog. She was nervous about new things and new people. But in a house with two young lads there was a constant stream of new people coming and going. And now we had a dog who reacted to this by peeing and pooing all over the place – I was glad we had a brown carpet in the living room at that time.
But it didn’t take long before the carpet was Just. Too. Smelly.
And there was still the problem of the non-stop barking.
Fortunately, help was just around the corner.
How to be Top Dog…
‘The problem is,’ said S, the lady from the School for Problem Dogs, ‘Shiva thinks she’s Top Dog in this house.’
Three years into our canine adventure, my boys and I had become used to living in a one-parent family. We missed their father, but you don’t grieve forever and we had found the joy in life again, not least of all because of the smoochy young dog who loved us to bits.
But she was a blessing and a curse combined, was Shiva. We had expected problems. After all, she was a rescue dog and she’d been rescued for a reason. What we hadn’t reckoned on was that the two biggest problems just didn’t go away.
We’d done all the regular dog school courses in the area; we’d taken advice from so many people we were dizzy trying to follow it all; we’d done everything we could think of – but our darling dog just Wouldn’t. Stop. Barking. At people. And when she got upset – which she always did when a stranger (ie everybody who wasn’t me, the boys, and M the RSPCA lady) invaded her personal space, it was diarrhoea all over the place.
The last straw came when a friend arrived for coffee one afternoon. I hadn’t seen her for a while and was looking forward to a good gossip. Shiva, however, had other ideas. N was a tall lady and she was wearing a red top. My dog took one look at her and started to bark, and it wasn’t just polite woofs. It was blood-curling yowls with bared teeth, and nothing I did could stop her. Shut into the kitchen, she attacked the door so violently I was afraid she’d hurt herself. After 40 minutes of this we gave up, N went home and I sat down at the computer. I’d seen the ad for S’s School for Problem Dogs a couple of weeks back, but I’d hesitated because it was expensive. Now it seemed we had no choice.
‘Okay,’ I said, when S had informed us what the problem was. I could see that a dog who was scared of her own shadow might not cope well trying to be Top Dog…
‘So how do we teach her she’s not?’
‘You don’t,’ she said. ‘All you do is behave like Top Dogs yourselves. Do it consistently and Shiva’ll accept the new family-ranking and calm down, because she’ll know that you’re in charge and you’ll look after her. We’ll set up house rules for you, and you’ll all do lead-training too. Ten weeks hard work’ll make a big difference.’
I was happy to believe her. The first few lessons would be private, just Shiva and the boys and I in and around our home. After that we’d do lead-training on an 8m lunge lead with one or two other Problem Dogs and their owners.
So, for anyone who might be interested, here are (just some of) the rules and instructions for being Top Dog:
(I should maybe say that these rules can be relaxed again when the dog realises who IS Top Dog..)
No dogs on the furniture.
No dogs under the furniture.
No dogs in the room when humans are eating.
Humans eat first.
Dogs are fed at a different time each day.
Humans pretend to eat dogs’ food before leaving it in a different place every time for dogs to ‘finish’.
When dogs bark inappropriately, humans throw pieces of chain on the floor to stop them.
Dogs stay on the lunge lead outside for the entire 10 weeks training.
Going up/down stairs, steps, and through narrow spaces – humans first, dogs last.
Humans do not walk round dogs in the home. They walk straight ‘through’ and the dog gives way.
Humans do not sit absently stroking dogs.
If dogs stare at humans, humans stare back or walk ‘through’ dogs.
Play starts and stops when humans want to start and stop.
And there was an even longer list of lead exercises too. And you know what?
It worked. Ten weeks later we had a much happier, much more relaxed dog.
The dog days…
I almost couldn’t believe it. After nearly four years of mopping up stress-poo and being deafened by scaredy-dog barking 24/7, my sons and I found ourselves with a dog who was still a bit barky, sure (‘Appenzellers bark, you know…’), but otherwise more or less normal. Our 10 week course with S. and her Problem Dog programme had worked like a charm.
All of a sudden we could do ordinary things like go for walks with friends, have people to stay without supplying them with ear plugs, and leave Shiva alone at home while we did the weekly shop – it all felt quite luxurious.
Of course, there was the time when our dog found it necessary to eat two whole Zopfs my older son had made. That little interlude led to an overnight family-bonding session as we coped with the resulting tummy-ache.
And there was the time when she went out for a walk with my sister-in-law, dived under a parked car and refused to come out…
And the time when she was chasing a (flying) duck at the harbour, and ran right off the edge…
Not to mention the time when my younger son took her for a quick walk last thing, and met a friend doing the same. So the boys stood there chatting while the dogs had a wonderful time gamboling around the freshly manured field down the lane. Not really Shiva’s fault, of course.
‘Didn’t you notice the manure??’ I shrieked when they came home.
‘It was dark,’ he said. Oh, well.
But on the whole, life was good for the next few years. Those were the dog days, and we loved it all. Then, one evening when I was home alone with Shiva, I went out to the kitchen for something and returned to find a huge dog-pee right where I’d been sitting on our (almost new) sofa. And she did the same thing just a day or two later.
Back we went to the School for Problem Dogs, where we joined the new monthly Problem Dog Walk and booked a couple of home lessons too. ‘Stick to all your rules again for a week or two,’ advised S. ‘And make sure you have as many people as possible in and out the house, all ignoring Shiva completely. That way, she’ll remember she’s not Top Dog and be reassured that you’re in charge.’
Our neighbours, a young couple with two children, entered into this new regime with enthusiasm worthy of a better cause, and for a few weeks our house was action-packed with people ignoring Shiva. And again, it worked. Although I did have to buy a new sofa…
A month or two later we were back to being a regular one-parent family with a cute, lovable, (barky) dog who enjoyed nothing better than playing with friends in her beloved garden.
Life was good again.
The end of the story…
Nine years into our canine adventure, life with our damaged dog had more or less settled down. The barking was bearable, we no longer had to cope with stress-poo all over the place, and Shiva had made a few friends outside the immediate family. We still went on the Problem Dog Walk once a month to get the benefit of S’s advice, but all in all, we were just a family with a dog, and it was fun.
Shiva’s friendships with people fascinated me. There was her inner circle – me, my two sons, now young men, and M, the Swiss-RSPCA lady. We were the ones Shiva loved, her family. She spent several weeks a year with M and her host of other dogs. I suppose it was a bit like going to school camp.
Then there was the middle circle. This very select group of about ten people were the only others Shiva allowed to touch her… on a good day… if they were careful. Some were family and friends, of course, but I never did find out why she liked the frozen food delivery man so much… Also in this circle was one of the nine children belonging to our three immediate neighbours. What made this child different to all the others is another unexplained mystery.
The outer circle was larger. These people were tolerated by Shiva; they were allowed to enter the house without being barked at for more than a minute – but they weren’t allowed to touch her. She either snapped, or ran away. This group also included friends and family.
Everyone Else on the Planet was nasty, vicious, and To Be Avoided At All Costs, according to our dog. And yes, there were friends and family in this circle too.
Shiva was middle-aged now, but she still behaved like a pup most days and it was easy to forget that in dog years she was the oldest in the family. Life was busy; I had decided to sell the house. The garden was just too large, and we really didn’t need all the rooms. As well as this, I was working on my first novel with my publisher.
Then one day, Shiva developed a cough, and when it didn’t go away we took her to the vet. I think in our hearts we knew it was serious; we all went along. The vet examined Shiva (with difficulty; he belonged to the Everyone Else on the Planet Circle) and turned to us, blank astonishment on his face.
‘I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do.’
It was a heart condition, he explained, it had probably been developing for a while and the cough had exacerbated it. I decided against taking her to the animal hospital in Zürich for a second opinion. The journey and the hospital stay would have been just too stressful. We agreed it was better to make sure her remaining days were happy. The vet gave us medication, and a day or two later Shiva had improved enough to chase next-door’s cat from the garden, and we relaxed a bit.
Our last week in the house arrived. It was a very odd feeling. When my husband died I promised the boys that we’d stay until they’d finished school at least, and now that day had come. We were busy packing, organising, and moving things to the new temporary flat. (The permanent one will be finished in spring 2015.)
The last Tuesday in the house dawned, a terribly hot June day. Shiva was a slow girl now, but so were a lot of others in that heat. She wasn’t eating well, which worried me, but she seemed happy enough and at lunchtime even stole some bread from my younger son. Late that afternoon M arrived to take Shiva to hers for a week, to let us move house more easily.
That night there was a terrible storm. Thunder, lightning, gales, hailstones – you name it. The phone rang, and somehow it wasn’t unexpected. ‘Shiva’s very poorly. Meet you at the vet’s,’ said M, and hung up.
And you know, in a way it was a really good way to go for our dog. She’d had a stroke, but she recognised us, she was happy to see us – and then she slept away. In all her life she’d only loved four people, and we were all there around her as she took her last breath. My boys and I looked at each other. Our barky dog was gone. We got into the car and drove back to a house that was silent and empty.
And just thirty-six hours later we were in the car again, driving behind the removal vans; away from the house where the boys had had a father, away from Shiva’s beloved garden, away and into a new life.
But we took the memories with us.