At the platform of a busy station, I click my fingers to get my dog Sherlock’s attention. Then I hold up a finger to get him to sit. A few people look impressed, and one comments on how well-behaved he is. I feel a swell of pride and say, like I have done many times before, “Trust me, he was not always like this.” With my ill health and Sherlock’s suspect background, there were times I thought he’d have to go, but we both stuck with it and I’m glad we did.
I didn’t plan on getting a dog. It was an idea of a friend after I had spent day-after-day indoors, which is unusual for me. I suffer from regular seizures, ranging from ones that look like epilepsy, to ticks and stuttering that can last for days. A few weeks ago I suffered a seizure in a public place, and passers-by mistook me for a drunk because of my slurred speech.
To start with, Sherlock was docile. It was like he didn’t want to be noticed; he’d just curl up on his bed for hours and cower when you went near him
When I first met Sherlock he was a skinny, scared and scarred rescue dog of approximately eight months old. I didn’t realise it at the time, but scars in all the right places suggested he’d been used for dogfighting. My then six-year-old goddaughter was nervous at first, due to his size, but within hours they were best friends. To start with, Sherlock was docile. It was like he didn’t want to be noticed; he’d just curl up on his bed for hours and cower when you went near him. I started to suspect he’d never been inside. He had no concept of how to even walk through an open door (often knocking himself on the frame), nor any idea of how to move one. He was also scared of his food bowl; I had to hand-feed him in the first few weeks to get him to eat anything.
Then one night I woke to what I can only describe as the most heartbreaking, pitiful whimpering sounds I have ever heard. I sat up and saw Sherlock contorting like he was in pain. I called his name, and he awoke with a jump, looked around confused, and then ran up to me and threw his paws over my shoulders. There he stayed for about half an hour, clinging to me, shaking like a leaf, and whimpering as I did my best to comfort him.
Sherlock himself looked distraught and upset afterwards, obviously knowing that he had done wrong
At first, only an odd letter or newspaper was chewed. Then every time I went out something got destroyed. My drum from Africa, not one but two copies of Stephen King’s “The Shining”, and then the bathroom lino. Then the problems with other dogs started completely out of the blue. We were walking around the park with Sherlock happily meeting other dogs. As we neared the end of the walk we met the first two dogs we’d seen before. Suddenly Sherlock snapped, pinning one of the dogs down by the neck and locking his jaw. Thankfully I was able to put my hand in his mouth and work it off. The other dog was unharmed but terrified. Sherlock himself looked distraught and upset afterwards, obviously knowing that he had done wrong. After that things went from bad to worse. Sherlock wasn’t able to walk near another dog without attempting to go for it. I was getting worried about whether I could control him. Then I had to move.
At the new flat the destruction stopped almost overnight. Maybe it was by taking him with me to the new flat, he felt reassured that he wasn’t going to be left behind. In other ways he was starting to calm down too. He would now eat as long as he was alone and had started to respond to basic commands. One incident does stand out from this time. I had decided to get him a new collar as his chainlink one he had come with was tarnished. However, when I tried to put it on him he bucked like a horse and cowered in the corner. I then held it up to my neck in a bid to show him it didn’t hurt but he panicked, running over to me and trying to scratch it from me. It would be over a year before I could get him to wear it. His aggression towards other dogs was getting worse, so I was getting seriously concerned about whether or not I could keep him. I decided to try to find a dog trainer. To cut a long story short none of them worked out long-term. I could never get the hang of clicker training. After the last one, on the train ride home Sherlock and I looked at each other, sharing a silent agreement to work through it alone, but together. I didn’t want to get rid of him, especially since it was not his fault.
I put my arm around him and gave him a hug and just whispered to him to be calm
At this point, Sherlock still didn’t like going for a walk. We started by walking around a very small block several times a day until he was happy, then venturing a little further. I worked out how far a dog needed to be before he got upset. The progress was slow but it made the achievements that much more more valuable. We have grown a relationship together that helps us understand how to let each other know what we want. For example, if Sherlock wants to play he will come and drop a toy at my feet and look at me. If I want him to get something for me, I’ll point in the general direction of where it is, he will pick up objects until he finds the right one and brings it to me. He is now trained in both voice and hand signals for basic commands.
Sherlock learned to trust me too. Only a couple of weeks ago we were at the park and another dog ran up to where he sat. I put my arm around him and gave him a hug and just whispered to him to be calm. I could feel him tensing up slightly, but he did not fight me to get to the other dog. In turn, having Sherlock to focus on helps me focus on things other than my illness. He can be with me 24/7 and I know if I’m out with him, I won’t be getting teased anymore if I seizure when out.
Featured image: stock