For Mum and Dad, both keen dog lovers,
I think of you often.
For my wife and children, I love you all dearly.
1 ROXY (The Diva Dog)
2 MAX (Maximus – Gladiator)
3 KIERA (Our Beautiful Lady)
4 LOUIE (Sweet and Gentle)
5 SAXON (The Big Guy)
6 MONTY (My Old Soldier)
7 ROMAN & TROY (The Brothers)
8 BIG MAX (The Big Softie)
9 BOLT (White Lightning)
10 COTTO (The Wrestler)
11 ALEX (My Best Friend)
ILLUSTRATIONS by Ben Robson
1The river crossing
2The camp fire
4Making a Bolt for it
Jo, my dear wife, for enduring all the insane ventures I have exposed you to, and for believing in me and for always being by my side. Also, for always smiling at that joke I have cracked countless times when people remark to me “I think you love those dogs more than your wife” and I reply “It’s not true, I love them all the same”.
Gill Collins for nagging me time and time again to write a book, you just don’t quit do you, I like that. It’s because of you that this whole thing found feet.
Chris Beeley for taking on the daunting task of first edit at a difficult time. For educating me and guiding me through this literary minefield.
Julia Hobson for subsequent edits and for adding a little colour to the whole project, and of course your efforts towards publishing, your assistance was timely indeed.
Richard Evans for your time and expertise in designing the book cover.
Inspector Annie Reavley of Nottinghamshire police for being so accommodating, allowing me access to trainings days for the purposes of book research.
Kay Greenwood for providing comfort at an emotional time.
Jon Coupe for looking after my dogs like your own, you are an amazing vet.
Tom and Elaine Edgar for being there, trusting me, and for being ready to drop everything if help was needed.
Thanks to those who have contributed to this book, Julia Hobson, Mark Robson, Ricky Wright, Chris and Vicky Burch, and Emzy Bryan.
Mech, L David & Boitani, Luigi - “Wolves: Behaviour, Ecology, and Conservation”, February 2007, published by the University of Chicago Press, ISBN 978-0226516974
I would like to make special mention of all the people I have met in rescue that have inspired and educated me. There are dozens of names here that I fear to document should I inadvertently leave one out.
TAILS of SHEPHERDS
This is a story of a growing relationship between humans and dogs, that is, my wife Jo, and me, and our pack of rescue German Shepherds, which at the time of writing has numbered ten over six years. This is a story of discovery, commitment, joy and sadness all bound together with a very special kind of love. It has proved a steep learning curve, and there is still such a long way to go as I find myself becoming totally immersed in the amazing character of the majestic, noble, intelligent and often totally daft German Shepherd Dog (GSD).
I had not had a dog since I was a child, a black Labrador called Alex and he was my best friend by a long way. Alex was one of a kind, as indeed they all are, and we had a very special relationship. Alex left this world while I was in my mid-teens, and since then I have wandered in that dogless wilderness of life. I forgot many things. I forgot about that very special bond that can form between man and dog; this bond can often be found in young men when they go to war. You may fall out from time to time, you may get upset with each other now and again, but when the time comes you will stand shoulder to shoulder, prepared to die for each other. Now that may sound a little extreme to feel that way about a dog, but trust me, that is where I am with my dogs, and I have seen many others in the same place. Certainly I have met many dog owners that have not found this connection, they care little for their canine “companions”. If every dog owner found this special connection then there would be no dogs in rescue. If you are thinking “But it’s only a dog” then, please, read on with an open mind and an open heart. Come with me on this journey and be prepared to learn.
I want to state early on that I am no dog expert, I have no qualifications in dog training, dog behaviour, diet, etc. I have been asked for advice many times and I always make this clear. I tell people what I think, and often suggest professional advice. So the things you may read about here are a product of the aforementioned learning curve. There may be parts of this story that you don't agree with or that don't chime with your own experiences. If I could go back to the beginning I would change quite a few things, especially in the early days and definitely on the diet front. In some cases we may need to agree to disagree, so please don’t judge me, just read and enjoy. Along the way I hope to make you smile, perhaps shed the odd tear, maybe learn something, and possibly be inspired.
If you are inspired to rescue dogs then don’t do anything rash. There are many ways you can help with a rescue organisation, but acquiring a pack is one of the hardest things you can do. It will bring many rewards but be under no illusion… it’s hard. If you want a pack of dogs make sure you will still be feeling that way in 12 years or so from now. Understand it will be a massive money sink, your house will be covered in dust and you will constantly be picking up fur balls, blowing slowly like tumble weed across your living room floor. You will have little time to yourself and sitting on the toilet on your own will become a thing of the past. My passport has expired and I don’t need another one; we take the dogs camping now. If, after all this, you decide to rescue dogs, then fantastic! Start with one and take it from there.
SO WHY EXACTLY AM I WRITING A BOOK?
Well, I was bullied into it! We got our third dog Kiera from a German Shepherd Rescue, which is where we acquired most of our dogs. Early on, Jo and I became involved with the rescue as volunteers. It’s been an interesting experience and we have met some amazing people along the way. I have often posted about my dogs on the rescue social page on Facebook and, it seemed people enjoyed what I wrote, so I have been nagged by a number of people, especially Gill Collins to get this book done.
Although my Facebook posts were very popular, this is my first time putting together a whole book. I'm writing this book in the hope that I can reach more people and provide a more satisfying narrative through all of the trials and tribulations Jo and I experienced putting together our pack. Writing this book has really helped me to think through some important issues relating to GSDs and, I hope, has made me a better dog owner (which means a better human being!). Sales of the book will raise money for dog rescues nationwide and enable them to help more dogs.
I DON’T HAVE ANY ALSATIANS
This is a commonly asked question I get, “what is the difference between an Alsatian and a German Shepherd” I have also heard many times “Sorry, but my dog is afraid of Alsatians because he was attacked by one”. I think to myself “Well… that’s OK, because I don’t have any”. So we can clear this up before we start.
The German Shepherd’s popularity was greatly due to the soldiers of WW1 recognising the dog's agility, power, intelligence and trainability as used by the military, (on the German side, where the dogs belonged), although the dogs were present and bred outside of Germany as well. However, towards the end of the war and for a few years after, especially leading up to WW2, there was a universal rise in anti-German sentiment. In the UK It was felt that the word 'German' in the dog's name could damage the breed's popularity. So, the breed was renamed Alsatian, after the French-German border city of Alsace-Lorraine. This was immediately towards the end of the First World War.
Around 1925 or so, the Alsace club, reinstated the old name, German Shepherd Dog. However, the Kennel Club of UK retained 'Alsatian' as the primary breed name, with 'German Shepherd' in brackets. This was reversed in 1977, when the breed became German Shepherd Dog (Alsatian). Finally, in 2010, the name 'Alsatian' was completely eliminated.
The breed is now simply "German Shepherd" throughout the world.
All the usual stuff- names and places have been changed to protect the innocent, and the not so innocent. If I do use a real name and you recognise yourself it’s because I have your permission… remember? Outside of that, don’t even think about suing me or I will come and visit you and bring Saxon with me and tell him to eat you. On a more serious note, sometimes relationships change. For most of the time of writing Jo and I were part of a rescue organisation that we have since chosen to detach ourselves from. I will refer to that rescue simply as “the rescue”. We now help with another rescue which although smaller, we find more suitable.
(The Diva Dog)
My wife Jo and I had often talked of getting a dog. We had been married for one year, and living in a four bedroom Victorian semi, with a very large garden, we had plenty of room. Jo has two girls from a previous marriage with shared contact and I have four children from two previous marriages. I was hoping Jo was to be my third time lucky, and so far so good.
My children were all grown up, apart from Ben, who was fourteen. Ben spent three days a week with me, he is autistic and was absolutely TERRIFIED of dogs. This was problem number one. Our second problem was our working hours, which are quite long. Jo and I own and run a full time Martial Arts School; we have between 250 to 300 students at any time from age four up. The school is open six days a week, we start work at midday and get home about 9:30 pm. Not great for a dog. The final problem was I didn’t like walking. I keep fit, admittedly, but I was the kind of guy that would happily get in the car to visit our next door neighbour.
Having said all that, I've always believed that if you want something badly enough, you will find a way. The working hours were easily overcome- we would simply take the dog to work with us. Our school is only a ten minute walk from home so if we were worried about how the dog behaved around young children, I could easily pop the dog home for a bit. We had two full time staff and a few part timers so I didn't have to be there all the time. As for me walking, well I would just have to suck it up. If we had a dog, then I would be walking every day come-what-may. But… what to do about Ben? Well, we thought we would visit the local RSPCA shelter with Ben and see how things went. Ben did not react well to the visit, and we thought maybe this wasn’t going to work out so the idea was put on a back burner for a while.
Some months later, Ben's Mum bought a cat and it appeared Ben had grown to really like it. This was promising because he was also afraid of cats. I mentioned to Jo that maybe we should pop back to the shelter and have another look. I remember Jo looking at me and saying “If we are going, we are getting a dog today”. I guess she got her hopes built up last time and ended up being disappointed. A feeling of “Oh shit, today we will be making a commitment” washed over me as we walked to the car. We took Ben and Leigh (Jo’s eldest daughter) along with us.
When we arrived at the shelter, the noise of barking was overwhelming, dogs were bouncing around in cages, and it was all a bit frantic. A Labrador caught my eye, this could be a possible. My childhood dog had been a Labrador and I had very fond memories of him. Jo and Leigh however, were focused on a Rottweiler/GSD cross. She was the only dog not barking, she just leaned against her cage with a mournful look on her face. At first I was not keen, she looked a bit weird, her head seemed too large for her body, and I was still hankering after the Labrador. We talked to the shelter staff about the two dogs and it seemed the Labrador was a stray and it was not known how he was with children. This would be a problem if we were to take the dog to work. The Rottweiler/GSD cross called Roxy had some history and they suggested for our needs this would be a better choice. That was it then, it was done. Roxy was to be ours and life was going to take a significant change… forever. Arrangements were made, we were told we would have to have a home check but Roxy would be set aside for us on successful completion of the check.
Ben was much better this time, he was still a bit nervous and when I asked him about Roxy coming to live with us he said “Errm that’s OK, the lady will look after her”. So he was still not won over on the idea but we had made progress. I was sure this would work out. Later Ben and Roxy would become very good friends and she really helped him overcome his fear.
A few days later I went back to the shelter to visit Roxy on my own. I fell madly in love with her, and it seems the feeling was mutual. It turned out that the reason Roxy's head was apparently too big for her body was because she was considerably underweight. We were told she came into rescue because she was destructive in the house (which gave us pause for thought!) but aside from that, no known problems. One thing I did notice was her focus and attention, very much like my son Ben's. It almost seemed like she was autistic. This was due to the way she interacted and the way she would be drawn to one thing and be mesmerised by it to the exclusion of all else. She did seem very interested in the small animals around the shelter. The pictures don’t capture it but things were a bit odd here. No matter, she was going to be ours and we would work through whatever issues we found.
Prior to our home check, Jo and I could be found happily perusing the wares of various pet shops, buying all kinds of things- beds, dog food (I will come back to that shortly), toys and a massive three foot long rawhide bone. We were as excited as a young couple expecting their first child and shopping in Mothercare. We bought all kinds of crap that we didn’t need and Roxy wouldn’t want, but we had fun.
The home check went well. The garden was secure and they were happy with the condition of our two pet rabbits. The rabbits were the result of a request from our children- they desperately wanted a pet… and yes of course, they would care for it forever. I am sure you know where the story goes from there. The promises didn’t last long, leaving me to feed said rabbits and muck them out for the rest of their lives. They lived in a play shed with a secure balcony that was elevated off the floor on three foot stilts. It was quite the little bunny palace! The home check lady suggested that maybe we should give the rabbits free run of the garden more often than we did. I wasn’t keen as the foxes around here have balls the size of melons, they are not as afraid of humans as you imagine they should be, and they range through city gardens during the day. Already one of our rabbits had been rendered headless by one. The fox didn’t eat the rabbit, it just wanted to kill it. However, the foxes would soon be striking our garden off their list of territories. All said and done though, the home check was a pass. FANTASTIC!! We were on the phone straight away.
OHH YES... I SAID I WOULD GET BACK TO YOU ABOUT DOG FOOD
This is my view which is based on research I have done. Remember I am not a canine dietician. We started feeding Roxy on an expensive well known kibble, the stuff written on the packaging suggested that the contents were the elixir of the gods, which is why I bought it. It was all bullshit I am afraid. In fact, had it been bullshit it may have been more nutritious! I got my hands on an independent report written on this kibble and the report ended with the statement “unfit for canine consumption”. So, what should I feed my sweet princess on then? I did a lot of research to find that basically nearly all commercial food was roughly the same, including wet food. You can understand from a commercial point of view they are in this for the profit, of course. So cheap, and in many cases, unnecessary ingredients are used to bulk out the food and keep production costs down. Chemicals are added to increase shelf life, thereby increasing profits. It all makes sense. These companies have to make a profit, and then your dog dies in your arms of cancer. I am sure there is commercial food out there that is good, I just haven’t found it, and since the regulations surrounding package labelling for dog food leaves a lot of room for creativity, I decided to go raw, feeding them with human grade food. Wolves don’t eat kibble (or, as I like to call it, kill-ble), and I wanted to feed my dogs pretty much what wolves eat. I would know exactly what was in their food and there would be no chemicals. They would be on what is known as a prey model diet. There is loads of information on-line about this diet, it’s very worthwhile reading up on it. A good resource I have used is. It will take up a lot more of your time, both sourcing and preparing the food but it’s no more expensive than kill-ble. “I don’t have time for that” I hear you cry. In which case I suggest you make time. Find a way. Having said all that, the police kennels I do volunteer work for, and many rescue organisations do use kibble. Often rescues get it donated so there is no choice really, kibble is better than starving to death. People gamble with their own health all the time by smoking etc. and that’s fine, it’s your gamble and it’s your health. However, as a dog owner I for one will not gamble with my dog’s health. I may get it wrong from time to time, I may make mistakes here and there but to the best of my knowledge, which I am constantly expanding, I am doing my very best.
Now THAT’S a dog’s dinner.
Right… I am done with the soapbox, I will put that away for now.
22nd OCTOBER 2010
With our home check successfully out of the way, Jo and I jumped in the car to get our Roxy. We arrived at the shelter to be told that she had just come into season and if we wanted we could leave her at the shelter and collect her when her season had finished. Err… NO…- have you seen all that crap we have just bought for her, we will take her now thanks if that’s OK? We borrowed a blanket to keep the back seat of the car clean and we were off home, to introduce our beautiful Roxy to her new life. Jo and I were grinning like Cheshire cats feeling very happy about our new arrival.
We got Roxy home, took her inside and unclipped the lead. BOOM! She was everywhere at once, she ran upstairs and I yelled “Roxy, NO, we are not allowed up there, we need to talk about some rules.” Roxy wasn’t listening, we would discuss rules with her later after she calmed down a bit. She was like a whirling dervish. I opened the back door and she raced into the garden. She was sniffing everything then she found the bunny stilt palace, and… stillness. She spent the next three months staring at the rabbits. Every time we let her out into the garden she would make a beeline for the stilt house and just sit, and stare, and wait, and not move. Her dog version of autism just kept her transfixed.
In the first picture are the two rabbits that held Roxy’s attention. In the second picture is the pose Roxy struck and held for three months whenever she was out in the garden.
Roxy’s first night was spent on her bed placed in the living room, which is where she spent most of the evening with us. When we went to bed we made sure she had been to the toilet and we shut the living room door to restrict her access to the rest of the house during the night. In the morning there was dog poop everywhere. Not a problem, we were kind of expecting this. Bless her, she must have been very stressed in a strange place with strange people where she couldn’t get away. It quickly became apparent that Roxy did not trust or really even like humans. This would manifest itself by her running away every chance she got. On day two she cleared our "secure" fence and got into a neighbour's garden. What a panic we had when we discovered she was not on guard duty outside bunny stilt house. Soon it was time for me to have a discussion with her about house rules, I was determined to be a strict but fair pack leader to her. What I say goes and all that.
RULE 1 Thou shall not lie on a human bed.
RULE 2 Thou shall not even venture upstairs.
RULE 3 Thou shall not settle upon human chairs or sofas
...and so the rules went on and on. Roxy looked really interested. You can see from the pictures what an impact this discussion had on her. But how could you deny her these things, just look at that face? Before long Roxy had me really well trained, she had me right in the pads of her paw. Nothing much has changed to be honest, I would do anything for my girl. I love her to bits.
It soon became apparent from Roxy’s walks and just generally observing her, what had gone on in the 20 months of her life before we got her. It was very clear she had not been walked, hence her destructive nature. Everything she saw outside was a wonder to her, she just had no experience of anything. If I raised my hand too quickly to open a kitchen cupboard or something, or if there was a sudden loud noise she would cower away. She remains this way today. So I think someone bought her as a puppy, thinking “Oh, what a little cutie” because, looking at her now, she must have been. Then she got big, she wasn’t walked, and with nowhere to channel her energy she became destructive. She is a powerful girl and capable of real damage for sure, then she was beaten for chewing the house up. I have no proof of this but that’s my theory. Well, that was all to change.
Ben and Roxy became very close. They played a game that Ben dubbed “fighting and biting” a scary name for a scary game. Well… it looked scary. Ben would put his arm in Roxy’s mouth and Roxy would soft mouth him while they rolled around wrestling. I had to discourage this eventually as I didn’t want Roxy soft mouthing people, but I would never have imagined Ben playing with such a large dog in this way months ago. Roxy proved to be really good for him in many ways and it was truly heartwarming to see this relationship develop. It was almost as if she knew that Ben was a little different.
I took Roxy to have her spayed which was part of the agreement with the rescue. We had to use a specific vet for this operation as the rescue were paying for it. As Jo and I left her to be sedated you should have seen her reaction and the look in her eyes, it was a mix of sheer panic and utter helplessness, and she could not believe we were leaving her. Driving home I had a lump in my throat. However, with that episode out of the way, in the months to come, Roxy flourished. She learned to trust and so stopped trying to run away, she learned basic commands and became very obedient with an excellent recall. We could take her anywhere and do anything. Roxy came to work with us every day, the kids loved her and she enjoyed the attention, she was never alone. She started to put on weight and her exercise routine made her very strong. The walk plan was, and remains to this day, for me to walk a minimum of 100 miles every month, Roxy was off lead almost all of the time so God only knows what mileage she was doing. It would be at least three times the distance I covered. Come rain, snow, shine, or storm we would walk, every single day. Roxy has never been destructive in the house- she will skin the odd tennis ball now and again but that’s it. Life was good, life was easy. Roxy was the perfect dog.
Christmas came and went. Our princess enjoyed a massive steak for her first Christmas dinner and got loads of presents. Roxy has more dog collars than Jo has shoes. Mind you, all those high heels have been swapped for walking shoes and wellies now. Jo and I were also experiencing a massive and very positive life change. Roxy became a very happy and contented dog, her life had made a U-turn for sure. Yet that fear and her timid nature was always there, just under the surface. The experiences she endured from a puppy would live with her forever, there was nothing we could do for her to change that. When she knew she was safe and secure, either in the car or on lead, she could project a real image of power and confidence, but off-lead and with nothing between her and another dog she was like a mouse. I recall on one occasion when out for a walk two miniature Jack Russell’s approached her barking, and she was terrified- bless her. Her ears came back and that look in her eyes, her demeanour just didn’t match her size and obvious power. Roxy has improved so much since then, being in a pack has been a huge help, but the fear, I think, will never leave her.
11 JANUARY 2011
Happy birthday sweetheart, our foxy Roxy is two today. We planned to do the thing Roxy loves more than anything else, we headed out to the Peaks for a whole day of walking. The weather was kind to us and we all had a great day, marred only slightly by the snotty attitude of the jobsworth waitress at the pub we stopped off at on the way home. Jo and I ordered food and I asked if I could have just a plate of sausages on their own for Roxy. The said waitress considered my request, while staring at the ceiling, and then simply replied with a blunt “Erm…no” without even looking at me and then walked off. No sorry, no explanation, nothing. It was one of those occasions when afterwards you think to yourself “I wish I had said that” as a clever and cutting reply comes to you five minutes too late. Never mind, I ate some of my food and Roxy had the rest. We had many lovely walks in the Peaks in the months to come. We used a long retractable lead quite a lot, as the risk of coming across sheep is always there. I really don’t like retractable leads they are dangerous and if you have more than one dog, they can be a risk to the dogs as well. For that reason, and because I like my dogs to be off lead, as our pack expanded over the years, we would not return to the Peaks.
SO… WHAT'S THIS CAMPING THING ALL ABOUT THEN?
Resigning myself to the fact I will probably never set foot in an airport again, we bought ourselves a tent. Jo was still able to jet off now and again with her daughters but I wasn’t going to put my princess behind bars ever again. That haunted look on her face while locked in that cage when we first met will never leave me. The tent we bought was a five man Vango, it was adequate for our needs and budget wise it was a good starting point for virgin campers. In my military career I have spent plenty of time under the stars on survival exercises all over the world, from Arctic to jungle, sometimes with a hunter force hot on my heels with the intention of capturing me and interrogating me for hours on end. What fun! But camping with a tent, a dog and a wife was new to me.
We found this lovely farm in the middle of Wales with a field for campers and a very clean toilet block. Our hosts were lovely, they did explain to us that a couple they had staying with them the week before had a dog that killed one of their lambs, so could we be careful with Roxy? After an incident like that, it was good of them to allow Roxy at all, but yes, we would be very careful. Roxy had shown an interest in sheep before, when we had her on a long lead she would attempt to chase but if the sheep stood its ground, Roxy’s timid nature would kick in and she would shy away. That said, just chasing a sheep is enough to cause it injury and therefore gives a farmer licence to shoot your dog, so we would take no risks at all on this holiday.
Roxy really took well to camping, we had a fantastic time and went on some stunning walks. In the second picture I left Roxy with Jo while I walked on a little to get a very close look at a waterfall. Roxy was very concerned she could not come with me, you can see that on her face. On another occasion we reached the summit of a high peak, and as we were coming down we crossed a ridge line and this amazing panoramic view just presented itself to us. Roxy stopped dead in her tracks and just stared in wonder, as if to say “Wow, this world is much bigger than I thought when I was with the other people I loved”. I am sure she did love her first owners, despite the neglect, because that’s what our beautiful dogs do.