This is a blog about animals and behaviour, but it is also very personal in many ways. I’m determined to keep a balance between the ‘weightier’, more academic content and maintaining a more intimate touch. In this vein, here is the story of a very sweet dog and the extraordinary man who adopted her. Hopefully it will serve as both a small tribute and memorial to both, and provide some inspiration for those who work so hard in the voluntary sector.
In the year 2000 the ARI ran a rehabilitation project at a shelter in Hout Bay, Cape Town. We had built a unit with 6 kenneled runs, and had volunteers on duty all day, every day. The dogs we chose were those that we believed were capable of rehabilitation, but needed some kind of educated intervention before being adopted. They were the shelter’s ‘hard to place’ dogs, according to our assessment. So we fed, walked, trained and played with them every day, and worked hard to address whatever behavioural anomaly had either landed them there, or was their biggest obstacle to getting out of the shelter. Many of these dogs managed to carve some kind of special niche in our hearts, and different animals had different admirers. But Rosy was loved by everyone – she was the ‘darling’ of the unit – and we were determined to find her the best possible home, and ensure that appropriate backup was always available so that she never found herself returned to the shelter again.
Rosy was a relinquishee; her last adoption had failed after she attacked and almost killed the Maltese she lived with. It was a complicated story of uninformed guardianship: blatant favouritism, being repeatedly hit with a hat whilst in the presence of the other dog (quickly making the other dog an associative cue for punishment) and an anxious, under-socialised dog with a very timid temperament. On first arrival back at the shelter, she was placed in the boarding section because she was so reactive to other dogs. Almost immediately, she proceeded to dig a deep hollow under the kennel (small timber Wendy-house) and refused to emerge at all. Her food was placed in the run and left overnight, and she would only emerge to eat it when it was dark. So things continued for over two weeks until ARI were approached and Karin Landsberg managed to eventually coax her out. She was immediately transferred to the newly established ARI unit.
Fear of the other
Rosy’s biggest problem was other dogs; not all other dogs, just ones that frightened her. In fact, during her stay at the unit she shared with a delinquent adolescent male called Johnny, and they seemed to get on just fine, even though he was often boisterous – he just wasn’t in any way threatening or defensive (despite having almost been scalped by other dogs whilst in the shelter). But every other dog was an unknown entity with Rosy, and her reactions could be extremely aggressive and this was entirely unpredictable. It really was a case-by-case scenario with her – even when out walking her – and this made her a very tricky adoption prospect.
So we worked on her reactivity thresholds, and provided safe remedial social contact with dogs she liked. We engaged in months of confidence building exercises, and providing her with a bit more environmental control through motivational training. We built tolerance buffers and taught her alternative strategies for those situations she felt threatened by. It was hard graft, but everyone at ARI would have done just about anything for Rosy because she was a very special dog.
But like all dogs in long term kennel confinement, she was beginning to show symptoms of kennel-stress and so we needed a quick adoption. Because of her unpredictability, a home where she could be monitored easily was preferable, to allow me to be able to intervene quickly if needed. So I approached my brother Steve and my niece Alexandra, and they were thrilled at the idea.
Steve and Alex
So Rosy went to live with Steve and Alex, and following the copious amounts of advice they had been given with diligence, Rosy soon became an inextricable part of the household, and the family unit. She shared the smallholding with (at various stages), birds, chickens, horses, cats and even, for a brief time, another dog. Never again did she aggress in any way, other than on a couple of occasions when she learned to break through the front hedge and chased a couple of Rottweilers away when they were being walked past the house. But there was no contact, and it was swiftly dealt with. Years later she moved with Steve and Alex to Gauteng, and experienced a brief taste of life in Mid-Vaal.
‘Big Steve’ Wood was the oldest of four brothers, a profoundly intelligent, articulate and generous man. But one who also trusted a touch too readily, and maintained a quixotic streak that only made his life ever more complicated. As a youngster he was gifted with a photographic memory, and retained a near encyclopedic knowledge of a baffling array of subjects throughout his life. People were constantly astounded at the detailed information he could dredge up from his mind’s furthest recesses at a moments notice, or his intricate memory of past events. People just loved Steve, and everywhere he went, everyone he met, ended up not just knowing him, but fully experiencing him, and there were lifelong bonds.
He was multi-talented and gregarious.. and his life mirrored his personality: extraordinary and enigmatic. Defense Force Heavyweight Boxing Champion as a twenty year old; renowned radio DJ and personality in Cape Town in his 40’s (Initially with Radio Good Hope, and later with Radio KFM) with every shade in between. There were musical productions he starred in, like the local theatrical sensation ‘Station 70’, the endless functions and parties he DJ’d for as well as copious amounts of advertising and promotional projects. ‘Big Steve’ was a brand, and one he used well in his drug-awareness charitable work that so aptly defined him.
At the centre of Steve’s life was his daughter, Alexandra, whom I know was the primary driver throughout his later life. Even in the most disillusioning period of his life, Alex kept him going despite his chronic health problems, and its associated consequences. She was always the most important person Steve knew, and this in a life of countless acquaintances, friendships and loving attachments. Alex defined Steve.
So this is a very cursory tribute to a timid dog that demonstrated the power of rejuvenation, and who finally got to experience the security and understanding she always needed from an incomparable man who left an indelible mark on the lives of everyone who knew him, and his deeply intuitive daughter. All of us at the Animal Rehabilitation Initiative wish to offer our sincerest appreciation to Alex for the part she played in this success, and our deepest condolences for her loss.
- Rosy was humanely euthanised due to systemic cancer in 2007,
- Stephen Alexander Wood passed away from congestive heart failure on 20th November 2010.
A more detailed tribute to my brother will be posted on my personal blog once it is up and running.
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