Wreck is Ralph
Just over two years ago, I had to make the most complex life decision and say goodbye to my best friend, Flash. I rescued him at six months; he passed when he was 13. We were a tiny family and had been through a lot. I was relocating to Brighton, temporarily moving back to my home county of Essex before the move, where we were separated for four months once I slept on my sister's sofa in her flat with a sea view. When we secured a rented property that allowed both Flash and my sister's cats to live with us, we were reunited, and for the next eight years, we were inseparable. He was there in my darkest hour and my lightest, and it was through Flash that I learnt what unconditional love felt like.
Two weeks after he passed, I started the Foundation year at the University of Sussex. At the end of the first year of my degree, I decided I wanted to do a master's that incorporated both Criminology and Psychology, which meant that the Masters's programme Sussex offers were no longer viable.
I’m now halfway through my undergrad in Criminology; once I graduate, my goal is to enrol in a Master's programme at the University of Leicester, which means relocating from East Sussex to Leicestershire.
I had always known I’d get another dog, and I also felt sure I’d know when I was ready to rescue another (after Flash), I had decided that I’d wait until I moved to Leicester as the cost of living is exponentially better in the Midlands than it is in the South.
And almost as soon as I decided that, I changed my mind. I’m a full-time student; I’m already skint. What difference would it make to pay out pet insurance/vet club and so forth? Plus, I know Brighton; why wait until I move to an unknown place to get a dog when we can bond somewhere familiar?
So I started looking into adopting and immediately discovered that things had changed massively in the dog rescue world since the 2000s.
My now ex-fiancé and I had gone to a particular rescue place back then to register with them and show them we were serious about adopting; we went then to write and came home with Flash, and that was it.
I signed up at a local rescue place that put on a talk about adoption to help people understand the process, and this was super useful because off the back of that, I registered to various rescue centres, including Dog’s Trust Basildon (figuring I can pop in and say hello to my family whilst visiting the centre.)
It was on the Dogs Trust website at the Basildon site that I came across Ralph. I wanted a spaniel cross and another working dog (Flash was a collie) because I wanted to bring them when running, so I registered my interest with Ralph and got a call.
In that initial phone call, they briefly summarised Ralph’s history. He was 14 months old at that point, had been surrendered by his first home at eight months due to a medical diagnosis that the owner had received, and then over the next seven months, he had been bounced back to the centre twice – the first time after three days and the second after a month.
Having had a traumatic upbringing (narcissistic dad, coping mum until she had an affair and left us with him. He then left us to fend for ourselves when he started seeing a woman who happened to be as narcissistic as he is.). So all I could think of was how tough Ralph had it.
Given the amount of upheaval and inconsistency he had faced understandable that he came with emotional baggage. I was advised in that initial call and again when I went for the initial visit that he has much anxiety, especially around being handled by humans. His response to this feeling of discomfort starts with subtle body language, and if that doesn’t work, he begins to nip and growl. Both behaviours stop the second the reason for the discomfort stops. For instance, he sometimes feels uncomfortable being stroked, so he’ll lick his lips a lot and yawn to tell us he’s had enough; if that doesn’t work, it escalates. The other thing is resource guarding, mainly down to mistrust. Worried stuff will be taken from him, he defends it.
Now I thought I’d need to do one visit, then decide to adopt him (or not) and organise a date for me to collect. So, the fact that I was looking at the Basildon centre when I’m based in Brighton, and I don’t drive) would have just meant me getting a train to Basildon station, doing the visit and maybe meeting up with my mum whilst I’m there.
I travelled back and forth to Basildon four times over about three weeks, including a visit to my flat to see how he was there. And because the station isn’t close to the centre, my mum ended up helping by ferrying me around each time. It was nice because I spent some time with my mum and brother, but it was rather exhausting.
And finally, after all that, he was dropped off on adoption day. I signed all the papers, made the adoption payment and finally, Ralph was home.
The Dogs Trust Basildon organised a series of weekly phone calls (not a service they usually provide, but because he had been bounced back so many times, this was an additional layer of support.). They also gave me loads of advice during the visits and via email. Having had 12 years of Flash experience, I am confident I will be able to support Ralph through his behavioural issues and get settled in, in no time.
Within an hour of Ralph's arrival, he pulled a book off my bookshelf and began chewing it. Having been shown a few techniques to retrieve stuff from him (due to his resource guarding), I immediately distracted with food, got my book and suddenly thought …. My books aren’t safe. So I cleared the top of a tall chest of drawers and began moving them. Whilst I was distracted, he disappeared into the bedroom and returned with a shoe he began to chew. There I was, cradling several books, trying to distract him with food to get the shoe and wondering where on earth I could put my shoes.
Based on his initial mini visit, I had ‘puppy proofed’ my flat, which included moving loads of things up high or into cupboards. I had not realised that puppy proofing wasn’t enough, but that I needed Ralph proof.
Tonnes of things got shoved in the ample cupboard, and whilst I was distracted, Ralph started chewing the rug.
The one good thing about my flat is I don’t have nice things. I have handmedown/cheap/second-hand items, so any chewing he did wasn’t on anything I felt precious about, and anything I felt special about, such as books and books, I could move out of reach. He then destroyed the repurposed box that held all his toys, his bed and another rug.
I immediately felt overwhelmed because I didn’t want to try to stop him from doing it. After all, if it were anxiety, I’d be making it worse, and I was conscious of how crappy his experiences with humans had already been that I didn’t want to make it worse.
I had experienced separation anxiety with Flash when I first rescued him, so I knew what to do, but this wasn’t that. Ralph is excellent when left alone. The destruction only ever happened when I was there.
I work as well as study, and 90% of my research and 100% of work is done from home, sometimes I’d be in the middle of live lectures or meetings, presenting and said meetings meaning I was stuck because if he started to destroy during those times, I couldn’t leave what I was doing. Of course, I didn’t want him to feel unsafe here, and if it was the anxiety, I was worried I’d only make it work.
In other words, I was overwhelmed.
And then he started on the sofa.
By the end of the first day, I wondered if he would ever settle down and if I could ever get to sleep that night. I tried to get into bed, and he started pulling at the covers, close to tears at this point; I grabbed some treats, threw them for him to find and quickly got into bed – having no idea if this would even work.
To my surprise, it did; he jumped onto the bed, saw that I was lying in it, then curled up on the opposite and, within minutes, was snoring. I thought, ok, at least nighttimes aren’t mental.
By the end of the first week, the sofa was practically destroyed, as were two rugs, and he had started to pull at the already thread-bare carpet (big up the quality of privately renting). I had had a couple of tearful meltdowns, sitting in the shower room (a Ralph-free zone) wondering what I had got myself into.
The first call I had with Dogs Trust gave me some confidence in what I was doing; they were also dumbstruck at the destruction because this was behaviour they had never experienced with Ralph, nor had any of the previous owners said anything about it. This was the thing with it, I was prepared for all the other stuff but not the destruction, and it left me bewildered and panicked about my deposit (the destruction was on things as opposed to the flat itself, but I still worried.)
One of the other significant issues was that he was super nervous about everything, so it was advised to take him on short walks around the block to build his confidence, but this meant he wasn’t getting much exercise. It was tricky because he jumped at everything and everyone in those first couple of weeks, so it was either take him for longer walks and stress him out but burn energy or short walks to small dose the stress and deal with the consequences. I chose the latter.
Three weeks in, the sofa was dead; not only that, but the sponge from it was everywhere, everything was everywhere, and it brought me down. I had also pulled up the already loose thread-bare carpet in the hallway and stored it in a cupboard as a precaution, but that, of course, just made everywhere in my flat look terrible, and I had nowhere but my half-chewed work chair to sit. He would also nip/mouth at me out of boredom, and sometimes I could only retreat to my shower room.
I’d been documenting my journey with Ralph on social media. I had posted a picture of my living room, and my friend, in response, had ordered a bone for him (he did already have many toys, and I was swapping out toys for my ankle/wrist whenever he would start to nip, but he didn’t seem bothered with any of the toys he had. My furniture and I were more interesting to chew. I messaged my friend when I got it, told her what had been going on, and she told me off, reminding me that I’m the boss and I need to be strict, and I know what I’m doing because I had Flash for years. Tough love, and I love her for it because I immediately thought, ‘you’re right; what am I doing?’
By this point as, well, the bond between Ralph and I had been growing, slowly but surely, he was beginning to trust me more, and this came out in various ways; one of the things that helped was that had started to take him with me on my runs (short runs of course), he got the hang of it right away, and as soon as I started to become stricter something began to click into place, she has a 2-year-old springer poodle cross, so we organised a doggy date. They met at the park, and they hit it off right away, another dog joined in, and their owner mentioned a proper fenced-in puppy park half a mile away that is great for socialising dogs. I knew about this park but had forgotten about it; when Ralph got home after that play with Lenny, he was relaxed, pottered about the flat, playing with his toys and on the walk in the evening, he was super chilled.
So the next day, I took him to the puppy park, let him off the lead inside the fenced-in garden, and he loved it. He began playing with various dogs and returned every time I called him. We got home, and he was relaxed; this was the key.
To some, it probably seems obvious that this was what was needed, but this isn’t something I couldn’t have done with him until we built his confidence up. Remember, he was highly nervous and jumpy about everything during those first few weeks; had I taken him straight away, the entire experience would have been overwhelming.
We needed to build a strong foundation of trust.
We’ve been in partnership for six weeks, and it’s brilliant. Despite all the destitution, all the tears, and all the stolen socks, I wouldn’t change him for the world and have never regretted my decision. It’s a shame he and Flash would never meet, as I reckon they would have made one hell of a duo.