Merlin’s Progress – the story of a dog’s rehabilitation

My first sight of Thunder was when I entered his owners’ house in response to their reques for behavioural advice. he stood as far away as possible from me in the main room, barking loudly. I had been told that he was approximately one year old and was destructive when left alone. He was clearly a handsome young Golden Retriever but I did my best to resist looking at him to help him to stay calm, and so I was unable to get a good impression of him. As the minutes passed he drew closer, still barking, and refusing to accept the titbits that I put onto the floor. The barking finally subsided after about half an hour, when he eventually accepted food from me as long as I remained seated.  During this time his anxious lady owner explained how he became extremely stressed when she was away from him, to the point that he was now tearing up the furniture when left alone. His howling at night meant that she had relented and he slept in her bedroom despite having his own bed downstairs. When he had started on the family’s second replacement sitting room suite they reached the end of their patience and, running out of ideas, came to me for help.

DSC_1098-1Afraid and suspicious, he was obviously an unhappy dog, but there was something about him that attracted me. He was very lean and handsome but taut as a bow string and didn’t know how to behave with me at all. My questioning gave me some valuable background as to his uncertain origins, and a better idea of what had been happening over the past nine months since he had arrived as a young pup, and it was clear that his owners felt they could do no more for him. I have always made a rule that I shouldn’t adopt any clients’ dogs as my house would be overflowing with a multitude of mutts, but when the owners started talking about getting rid of him I strangely found the words ‘I’ll have him!’ coming out of my mouth.

Within a few short days he was delivered to my home. With his owners present he ran happily in the garden and retrieved a favourite toy they had brought with him.

As soon as they left, his tail fell despondently and wedged itself firmly beneath his belly, the whites of his eyes showing as he looked fearfully at me. At my request the previous owners had left a lead on him as he was nervous of me and I’m so glad they did! He wouldn’t approach me at all but would submit and follow if I had hold of the lead. Although he would accept the proximity of my adult children he clearly sensed the authority in my presence and was terrified of me to the extent that I was unable to touch him properly for 10 days. I could have forced him to accept my touch but that wouldn’t have helped him in the long run.


Re christened Merlin almost immediately, our new dog was encouraged into a crate with a tasty bone and there he stayed, alternately chewing and looking around

For the first few days Merlin was quiet overnight and backed away to the rear of the crate when I entered the room in the mornings. He would follow meekly when I picked up his lead to take him outside but crept along behind me, not sniffing the ground or engaging with my other dogs at all. He allowed my sons and daughter to touch him briefly, talking gently and comforting him, but I decided to wait for him to come to me. Merlin needed to learn to deal with the world he had found himself in and not to repeat his cycle of dependence. I changed his diet to healthy, species appropriate raw food and meaty bones and every meal he had was given to him in his crate. Initially he was reluctant to go in there but he soon learned to love it as his safe den where food always awaited him and I could relax in the knowledge that he couldn’t damage my home if left alone.

After 3 days Merlin started to calm a little and decided it was time to assert himself. At bedtime that evening he obediently went into his crate but after 10 minutes or so he began to bark. This went on for 10 minutes or so and then there was silence until 3 am when he started again for about 30 minutes. This was not a dog howling in anguish. He was demanding my attention. I could hear the command ’Let me out!’ in his voice, so he was left to consider his position.

The following day as he stood up he managed to twist the lead around his leg and so I had to lean into the crate to untangle him. The poor dog whimpered in fear, pressing himself to the back of the crate. Such mental confusion.

I walked him with the other dogs and he relaxed a little but didn’t like the noise of passing cars, jumping and backing away as they shot past. That evening he was silent overnight and I felt we were getting somewhere.

The following afternoon he was playing well with Arthur (my Westie) in the enclosed garden and I foolishly let go of his lead. The tail immediately raised to horizontal, he sniffed round and dashed about with Arthur. I glanced away and he’d disappeared. He can run fast! He’d leapt straight over the garden fence and shot away into the village. It took my daughter Georgie and me over an hour to track him and bring him home. We found him in a dead end pathway near a house where he was so terrified he snarled at me as he dashed past and then hid in a corner of someone’s garden. Fortunately for him and us, his lead finally snagged in the fence and a BT Open Reach engineer leaned over and grabbed it from the other side. People were so helpful, stopping their cars to tell me they’d seen him and one kind lady gave me a lift to pursue him, her dogs drooling down the back of my neck in her car. Merlin walked home calmly enough but jumpy, with Georgie, but kept away from me.

I gave him a bone in his crate on our return and he settled after a short while. During the evening he paced and whined for several hours and finally lay down to sleep in the sitting room. Both my son and daughter stroked and praised him and just before bedtime he approached me and licked my hand.

Over the following days he continued to be worried at my approach but started to build a dependence on my presence nonetheless, following me at a distance when he could and getting excited when I came into a room, although still keeping away from me. His excitement at Georgie’s approach became extreme, as if she had been away from him for hours when she had only left the room for a few minutes so I advised her to ignore him completely.

Despite being fearful of my touch Merlin responded to simple obedience training and successfully learned a few commands. If asked to sit he would do so near me but wouldn’t approach otherwise. His recall was non existent of course so I kept him on a long line when outside and a short lead in the house.

As his confidence increased, his demands began to as well. He would bark and bark overnight and continue when I entered the room. I would leave and wait for silence before returning but it became clear that he didn’t feel secure enough to stop when alone so I put on a pair of ear defenders (thanks Harry!) and settled at the table next to him, his muzzle about 12 inches from my face, yelling at me. The first day I did this he barked for nearly 3 hours but finally lay down and relaxed, when I opened the crate door to see him scuttle away across the room. Over time he barked less and less overnight, waiting until the mornings to start and learned to relax soon after I came into the kitchen, to be let out.

During the day he was content in the kitchen with the other dogs and, apart from stealing any object in a polythene bag on the work surfaces, he never damaged anything, preferring his stuff toy or a bone to chew. I slowly increased the time I left him alone from a few seconds to several minutes. It was impossible to do this in a structured way because sometimes I had to go out to visit clients and do other work so at these times he would be in his crate initially and then left with the others in the kitchen. He was so excited at my return that I had to stand still for 10 minutes or so to avoid interaction with him, despite him still being cautious about physical contact. It took him about 10 days to welcome my touch and since then he has loved his morning cuddles and stroking.

He then passed through a phase during which he would bark constantly when I was out of the house, so I used different doors sometimes and varied the times I was away. I would sneak up to the door of the kitchen to open it and praise him if and when he took a break from barking. This helped but didn’t cure him completely. One day I returned to hear the frantic and increasingly frenzied barking that indicated that he had heard me coming. In a moment of irritation I opened the kitchen door, told him to be quiet and shut it again. It worked! But sadly, not for long. The other 2 dogs slunk away into their beds because they are not used to me raising my voice and so I went into the room, called them to comfort them and let them out. Merlin, of course, started barking again and I stayed in the kitchen ignoring him until he settled down.

As he had clearly decided that I was the centre of his world, through the food and discipline I gave him, Merlin wouldn’t settle even if my son or daughter was home, unless I was there. Much to their frustration, even their presence, which he’d craved when he first arrived, didn’t settle him down. Over time he has learned to accept his environment as safe and his security levels have risen to the extent that he accepts being left alone without a problem now, even if he has nothing to chew on and no other dogs with him.

He has learned to be quiet when left alone and to contain his excitement in the mornings and when I come home. I don’t think he will ever be able to resist getting excited at the first moment of seeing me but he soon relaxes.

Merlin came for walks with me on his own for the first few months of his stay. It was clear soon after he arrived that he had had very little exercise in his previous home. His hind quarters were very skinny and the muscles underdeveloped, and he couldn’t run for more than a few minutes at a time, getting very tired on long walks. He has always walked to heel beautifully, partly because he was nervous of me to begin with and didn’t dare pull forwards, which I praised. Using a long line and frequent practice, his recall is now pretty solid.

By the beginning of August Merlin had changed beyond all recognition and I had learned some valuable lessons. He no longer barks overnight, will dig a little in his bedding when I come into the kitchen and then settles down to wait for me to release him. When the crate is opened he waits for me to call him, rushes to me and sits down for his cuddle. After that he skips around for a few minutes until I call him to the door.

One happy dog

He walks beautifully on the lead, his recall is excellent and he’s loving and bouncy. He still gets over excited when I first enter the room, even if I’ve only been gone a few minutes but he’s learning to sit for a treat, which defuses the excitement well. He’s also learning to do this for visitors. He was always more nervous of men but this is disappearing as well.

I now realise that he was not really suffering from separation anxiety at all. Of all my dogs he is the one least likely to seek out my company when I am at home, being happy to chew a bone in the garden or lie on his favourite mat in the hall. I believe that his problems stemmed largely from lack of exercise and insufficient stimulation combined with insecurity, part of which may be inherent in his character. I think he couldn’t find an appropriate outlet for his energy when his owners were at home because they would punish him if he chewed things so he waited until they were out to release his frustration on the furniture. When they returned, of course they would punish him more, so he became even more stressed and confused. He was very destructive but never soiled the house when they were away, an indication that his distress was not as extreme as in many separation anxiety cases.

Apart from stealing polythene bags from the work surfaces in the hope of finding food in them, he has not been destructive at all since I have had him. The crate obviously helps but he no longer stays in it except overnight. He is happily occupied with chew toys and bones, gets plenty of exercise and now understands what is and isn’t acceptable. It’s good to see his strength returning. He can run like the wind and I’m beginning to think he’s part mountain goat as he can scale a 7 foot wall with ease!

What Merlin needed most was security, exercise and to understand his place in the world. He needs good quality exercise, things to entertain him when at home, clear instructions in a language he can understand as to how he should behave, and firm gentle leadership. Just like any dog really!

Raising ones voice can still send him into a panic and has never been necessary or helpful. He’s very much a young dog and won’t mature fully until he’s about 3 years old and he is learning all the time. He loves to play with other dogs and is always keen to make new friends. Since that first week when he was so afraid he has shown no aggression whatsoever and has become loving and obedient. We’re still working on his manners when people visit and being calm when meeting other dogs but in the six months he’s been here he has done so well, I’m so pleased with him and he’s a pleasure to own.