You have all most likely been introduced to Sir Ian McKellen, the dog. Usually called Ian-dog in case newbies to my blog get confused and wonder why my boyfriend seems to be obsessed with squeaky toys & squirrels, and why I would take my dog to see a movie. But you have never heard the journey of Sir Ian McKellen. It’s a rough story to tell because it does not put me in the best light. I wanted to write it to let others know that pet owning isn’t always cuddles & treats. Sometimes it is hard work, and that it is totally worth it.
In the Beginning
Back in 2009 shortly after my father died. I decided I needed to get a dog. Boyfriend had just moved in with me at the time and he was very wary about this decision. ‘Remember Loren, you’re supposed to wait 6 months after a big loss to make any life changing decisions.’ He didn’t say ‘no’ though.
So approximately 8 months later (which is totally more than six months) I adopted my friends wire-haired mix. She was threatening to take him to the pound because she was in college and living with her parents and just couldn’t take care of him anymore now that he wasn’t an adorable puppy.
So we drove over to her house, and after playing with this 11-month-old pup for about 3 minutes I was ready to take him home & love him forever. I’d read LOADS of websites about dogs, talked to the ladies at the pet store about what he should eat, bought him a crate to sleep in so that we could crate train. He was cute & cuddly & the best thing ever. And me? I was totally & completely 100% prepared. Does this feel ominous to anyone? Because this is where the story takes a turn for the worse.
He was awful. He barked constantly at anyone who walked past our door, he destroyed random things in the apartment any time we left, he whined all night long, he hated being crated. He ripped up rugs & books & shoes & anything he could get his little teeth around, he jumped on everyone & everything, he nipped at everyone’s hands. He was virtually UN-WALKABLE. Constantly pulling and lunging at anything that crossed our path. Please picture grainy ‘recreation’ videos zooming in slowly on a torn book, and slowly panning across a black & white photo of a gouges he carved in the bedroom door.
But it was ok, I was prepared, dogs are hard work. I would do everything right and he would be a good boy.
Except that takes so much longer than you think. Eight months in I was ready to quit, he still destroyed everything in the house. He still jerked me around on walks, he still tormented the cat.
Just Can’t Take it Anymore
I read online about a no-kill shelter in our town, you pay them, they keep your dog for 3 months, if he doesn’t get adopted they call you and ask if you’d like him back. It sounded perfect, and I was tired & frustrated and just couldn’t take it anymore. I made Kent take us down there (he was a kind of heart-broken & loved Ian to pieces at that point I could tell). We took him in for the ‘personality test’. I knew he would pass, he’s one of the happiest friendliest dogs I’ve ever met.
And the damn dog… he growled, right at the volunteer’s face. I’ve only heard Ian growl one other time, before or since, right after we got him at our friend wearing a Harvey-Birdman mask on Halloween. I think somehow… he knew…
So Ian didn’t pass the test, we took him home, we kept working with him. There was crying & yelling & throwing things occasionally. There were battles of will & wits & strength.
We finally stopped crating him, because while I think it’s great way to train dogs, I read even more websites that said it doesn’t always work. Especially for dogs who spent a good portion of their early lives cooped up in a cage (ie Ian). So we kept at it. We nixed the crate & let him sleep at the foot of our bed (not on the bed that is our den). Removing anything even remotely ‘chewable’ out of ‘short dog reach’. We taught him tricks, we made him work for his food.
And he slowly kept getting better, he cut back on pulling during walks, he sat when he was told to sit, he left the cat alone. I remember the day I thought ‘This is the turning point’. Kitty & I were hanging out on the couch, we each were sitting on the crack between cushions, so there was no free cushion on the couch. Ian walked up, looked at kitty, looked at me. Then instead of trying to push his way onto the couch he flopped down on the floor to sleep at my feet.
He doesn’t nip us anymore, he almost never jumps (except sometimes on strangers, we’re working on that). He is good enough at ‘heel’ and loose leash walking that he is allowed to be off leash in the backyard & alley. The other day he spotted a bird, and was halfway across the yard before I could yell ‘No! Ian! Come!’ He did a 180 and returned right to my arms. He no longer destroys things out of fear & worry when he is alone. Not even during the very scary thunderstorms the other night when we were out seeing a Zombie play.
How Being Alpha Calms Your Dog
Imagine your dog, a creature that you feel responsible for, that you love & care for. Think if he freely left the house & wandered around for hours without you having knowledge of where he was or what he was doing. And when he came home he smelled weird. It would make you crazy! You’d be distressed & worried all day long because you see yourself as the pack leader. A dog that doesn’t know his place in the household feels those emotions when you leave the house, because he seems himself as the alpha dog. He worries that you are gone all day, that he can’t protect you. Only the pack leader should be allowed to come & go as they please.
Ian is much more relaxed these days, now that he knows his place at the ‘bottom’ of the totem pole and we come as go a we please. It’s hard, to be ‘mean’ to a dog. To put them in their place. To put yourself before them when leaving a room, or on a walk. It seems petty to insist he wait for permission before eating or leaving the house. But just like your dog is the most important creature in your life, the dog should see you as the most important creature in his life. You should be his ‘pack leader’, his ‘alpha dog’. If it helps, don’t think of it as ‘going first’ think of it as leading. You are not forcing the dog to do a trick, you are letting him work for his food & giving him a purpose in life.
The return is so great. A dog that knows he is not in charge knows that he doesn’t need to worry when you leave him alone or protect you from strangers in the house. Well trained dogs do not bolt from the house when the door is opened and if they do escape down the back steps without permission, they come running back when you call their name. Dogs don’t just love their alphas, they respect them and learn from them. Ian’s favorite place to be in the house is at my feet. If I lay down on the couch Ian’s ‘spot’ is curled up in the crook of my legs, his head resting on my knees. When we wake up Ian follows us to the bathroom and naps there while we shower, brush our teeth & get ready while he waits for his morning walk. His tail still wags when we come home, he still presents me with a random toy, or treat, or one of Kent’s socks when we walk though the door. He still brings us a toy & asks to play.
Sure there are days when he tests us. He occasionally pesters the cat, runs out the door without permission, lunges after a squirrel that ran up a tree, or steals our food when we leave the room, he still whines when he is put in timeout for jumping on visitors. But there is no more strain in his eyes, he knows he is safe & cozy, and doesn’t need to worry about when he will eat again or where we are. He still romps around the yard with the other dogs in our apartment building, and loves to have his belly rubbed. A calm dog is a happy dog.