I’ve written this so many times in my head over the last few weeks, as something that might never happen. Yet today, in the dark hours before the dawn, it turns out to be real after all. Yet still, the story can’t escape the same numbing ending. It’s not the easiest thing to do, to tell Louis’ story as he curls at my feet. My shallow tears, his deep breathing.
Ominously, I find myself writing Louis’ story as the wind outside pokes and prods every crack in this old house, hailstones pummel the pathway and rain overfills the pool. A Pooh sort of morning. An exquisitely wintery Melbourne, the last throes of the season playing out under a steel stark sky, seemingly hurling everything she has left to blot out a promise of spring.
Louis’ story is still young and for me at least, began when he was known as Luigi, a then barely 3-year-old Lagotto. I had been invited over to help solve his problem behaviours. Turned out that Louis’ behaviours weren’t really problems at all, more a cry for help, a reaching out for someone, anyone, that might understand him. His was an inevitable response to a situation that clearly wasn’t working for anybody.
Louis lived in a young family, with two children under eight. In a scrawny, ageing worker’s cottage soon, I was told, to be demolished to make way for a modern dream, a double storey architectural construction. Louis was thought to be too naughty to be allowed into the house, everywhere strewn with kids’ toys, yesterday’s clothes and the messy detritus of family; so he found himself confined to a patch of broken concrete just outside the kitchen door in what passed as a back yard; and to a busy, chaotic with life and cooking, five-metre square kitchen when the family was home. Which for 5-6 days a week was rarely. So Louis spent 8-10 hours each and every weekday on his concrete outside square, a blanket to lie on (he had chewed two beds in the years preceding), discarded rubbish, dead plant pots and broken bricks for his outlook.
Now as any dog behaviourist or trainer will tell you, it’s much easier to modify a dog’s environment, together with the expectations and behaviours of its owners, than it is to focus solely on the dog. And in any case, working on the former so often makes the latter just about unnecessary. But the very large assumption in this is that the owners have the recognition and resolve, to fix themselves before the dog.
To be fair, Paul and Narelle (not their real names) were (are) a lovely couple. Well-meaning, friendly and wanting to help Louis become ‘a better dog’. But (and this is the crux) they just didn’t have the time—both professionals with professional lifestyles, a small cramped household and with young children demanding every inch of their busy lives. Louis just didn’t figure.
What was wrong with Louis you might ask. Well, he was guarding the only door from the kitchen to the backyard, desperately not wanting to be put outside, just at those urgent times when everyone was leaving for work or school. Or somewhere. He was lunging at young friends when over to play, from behind the baby-gate baring his way back into the house. And he had bitten both Narelle and her mum at different times, once after escaping his confines. Her mum’s hand pretty badly by all accounts. The last straw seems to have been when they had taken Louis to a friend’s barbecue, alongside lots of other young, fun families, and Louis, tied to a post at the back of the garden, began to growl and bark when youngsters ventured near.
For Louis, life wasn’t turning out as it should. He was crying out as a three year young, energetic and excitable dog, for engagement and cuddles; regular exercise, mental stimulation and firm boundaries; and for the warmth and safety as a member of the family. Just as all dogs need. I couched these thoughts as diplomatically as any trainer might and demonstrated some strategies to help with Louis’ immediate issues, his ‘guarding’, aggression and ‘counter surfing’—which was the easy part.
I stressed a new routine: a minimum of 60-90 mins energetic exercise each day, preferably very early morning; and a 30-40 mins exploratory ’sniff walk’ each evening. To counter the stasis and boredom of the rest of the day. And if family funds could be stretched, a professional dog walker at midday, 2-3 days a week. Or maybe a doggy day care for 1-2 days (although I’m not a huge fan of these). Plus a change of diet, with a soft recreational bone daily, separate to his main meal.
I returned on a number of occasions, a month or so apart, each time taking Louis out for a few hours to assess him away from his surroundings. Only to find not much had changed. Louis was still being left alone for large swathes of his week, wasn’t allowed into the house unless tethered to a chair leg (he had eaten a few stray socks in the past, resulting in expensive visits to the vet), rarely included in family outings (unpredictable with young children); and now didn’t even go to Narelle’s mothers’ home when they paid her weekend visits, I guess for obvious reasons. And maybe most unfortunately, exercise was still an optional extra rather than a daily rite, despite best intentions.
A few months after my last visit, I received an email—is there any chance I could have Louis for two weeks whilst they, the rest of the family, went on a summer’s camping holiday to Lake Eildon. I thought, as you probably are right now, if there was ever a type of holiday designed for a dog, it was a camping one. Especially one on the shores of a lake. But Louis wasn’t to go. So I said yes, of course. I had a large barely used 17m pool, a grass-rich back garden and when the pool wasn’t enough, we’d make our own visits to summer beaches at Brighton and Ricketts Point so Louis could have his own personalised holiday. Shared with my dogs Rupert (a slightly older Lagotto from the same breeder) and Hermione, my black, wilful, Mini Schnauzer. And that’s what happened. Only then I got another email saying, what whilst away Paul and Narelle and their children, had decided they no longer wanted Louis and wondered if I could use my ‘doggy network’ to help find a new home for him. I said he could stay with me until I did.
Now don’t get me wrong. There is no blame in any of this. Just a mismatch between dog and owners. It happens.
Anyhow, that was in January. We are now working our way towards the end of August. Eight months makes him part of a family. My family. He rarely leaves my side, sleeps within touching distance of Susie, my wife and has found an odd mentor in Hermione, our fearless and forever controlling Schnauzer. On walks, he’ll follow her lead, go where she goes and play when she plays. In turn, Hermione checks on him when necessary, nips at his neck and legs when he wanders too far, which he does, distracted by a water bird or just water, whether stream, river or ocean. And generally keeps him in line.
In all this time I’ve worked a little on his behaviour and a lot on his trust. Allowing him to make his own decisions, no forcing, taking his cues from Rupert and Hermione, giving him the attention he needs but not only when he wants it, creating a curtain of calm around him, allowing freedom yet giving boundaries, providing a routine, walking off leash 2 hours plus each day. And a raw and richly varied, real food diet. With bones, lots of bones.
Yet now, after some eight months and a chance wintery beach meeting at Ricketts Point, Louis is to leave my side and make a new life in Bicheno, on the east coast of Tasmania. With a loving, retired, very active couple who live less than 50 metres from the sea. No kids, lots of sun (did you know Bicheno is the second sunniest town in Australia? I didn’t), a promise of 10 kms of beach walking and sea swimming every day, the run of a four-bedroom house, a large green garden to explore and a warm, inside-the-house bed to retire to. Whenever he wants.
Louis will leave me with a few scars from his early days, when biting was still getting the better of his anxieties. And with plenty of odd and beautiful memories. Especially the almost nightly dreams, where he stretches his head and neck vertically to release a slow guttural howling, as you might imagine a wolf doing, only to drop back, still fast asleep. He’ll leave me with a vision of his old man slouch, slumping to one side, one back leg folded under. His poo’ing technique where both hind legs are off the ground at once, tucked into his body (how does he do that?). I’m smiling now at his vertical, from standing, all four legs off the ground at once, jump when playing. And his nose to the ground as he picks up my scent, zig-zagging his way back after wandering too far.
But most of all I’ll picture his head on my chest, as it was yesterday and every day before, looking up to my face, leaning into me with one paw on my leg as if to say, ‘This guy is mine. I’m home. I’m safe’.
Yet today is Louis’ last day, with me and Rupert and Hermione. For the moment only I know this. So life goes on as normal, a soon to be had morning walk and a run along sodden grass, raw goats’ ribs at 11 am (Louis will let me know when its time for his snack), a few hours down time and then our usual daily off-leash walk at about 2 pm. Where all three will run, bark, play and explore every smell and investigate every turn of our Yarra Bend Park bush walk, as they have almost every day for the last eight months.
From here things will take on a new hue. And to be really honest, I don’t know how the last part of the day will exactly play out, when I take him and his things, a bowl, a leash, a bed, a blanket, to be with his new owners before he boards his first ever flight, in the early hours of tomorrow, the flight that will see him spirited away to a new beginning.
I have to say, I’m a bit of a mess just writing this in the black, pre-dawn hours of his very last day. Whilst I know he has a huge and safe, fun-loved life ahead of him, I never really thought he’d go anywhere again. And even just a week ago, I never really saw this day coming.
Only it has, it’s today. And I’m not sure how I can bring myself to say goodbye.