Last week a story on the ABC about the number of maremma dogs needing re-homing, caught my eye. Apparently demand for the dogs increased after the success of the film Oddball, a movie about a Maremma used to protect penguins. This story highlights one of my pet concerns, that is people taking on dogs that are completely unsuited to their lifestyle. Rescues are inundated with dogs that have been surrendered by owners who could not manage or cope with their behaviour, usually breeds like the maremma who are totally unsuited to urban life in confined spaces with little to do. Working dog breeds are wonderful dogs but they are not for everyone or every lifestyle. I love border collies but I have neither the space or the time to give a border what it needs. I have to confess that I have a marked preference for the larger working breeds but I am painfully aware that I do not have the lifestyle for those dogs and Ada our own dog has really bought it home to me that she will probably be my last big active dog. Ada is more dog than I expected and my daughter jokes that I accidentally acquired the African equivalent of a border collie, she certainly has the energy level of a border and needs a similar amount of exercise.
I thought it might be worth sharing our current experience as I am sure it is not uncommon for people to find themselves with more dog than they can cope with. When we took Ada we were told that she was a Staffy German shepherd cross, the kind of cross I have owned before and I grew up with Shepherds and working border collies and blue heelers. I have never owned a Rhodesian ridgeback before, but I feel like I might own one now! I have reason to suspect Ada is a mix of shepherd, staffy and ridgeback and the ridgeback seems to be the dominant breed. My experience of shepherds is they are extremely trainable and a relatively easy going dog in terms of their exercise needs, (they still need a lot exercise). Staffys are without question the biggest sooks of the dog world who love their owners and can never do enough to please them. Ridgebacks I have discovered are a whole different ball game, with some behavioural characteristics that can make them a bit of a challenge. It is the behavioral characteristics of the ridgeback that I am finding so prominent in Ada.
Ada has proven herself very trainable, she has also proven she is a complete lunatic at the dog park! We have had no trouble in teaching basic commands and when out in public and on lead her behaviour is exemplary, but go to the off-leash dog park and a supercharged gremlin emerges. Recall is totally ignored or at best grudgingly acknowledged if there is something in it for Ada like a high value treat. Her efforts to chase and take down every other dog she meets makes the hound of the Baskervilles look like a lap dog. When off lead she has a strong prey drive and a single-minded focus. There is no aggression, and no fear motivation in her behaviour it is pure hunting play behaviour, a love of the chase combined with extreme energy. I have seen her outrun and exhaust a border collie, chase and takedown another ridgeback cross. Grab the harness on a neo mastiff and attempt to drag him around the park. Harnesses and collars are her favourite things, they make for convenient handles, something she can grab onto and proceed to either drag her prey to the ground or proceed to drag them around the park. Most people are amused by the behaviour but I have to confess we don’t find it amusing. I think I would be less concerned if she would leave on command which at the moment she does not.
Ada plays hard, and at the moment seems oblivious to the fact that many dogs are smaller or less robust than she is, so we are working on getting her to leave and time out when she gets rough. There is no aggression in her behaviour, she always approaches dogs respectfully and submissively to begin with, but then the game starts. I have had other owners with ridgeback crosses or other large breeds apologise for the rough play of their dogs, to which I respond with gratitude that Ada has someone to play with that can take the rough play. In fact, I seek out dogs with a similar energy level and robustness for her to play with. Few dogs are as rough and as active as the ridgeback, playing hard seems to be a breed characteristic. I am aware that while there is no aggression and she will back off if she thinks she has hurt another dog, it can be a frightening sight to see this athletic lunatic take down another dog and stand over them with her jaws around their throat.
When I watch Ada in the dog park in full flight it is a truly beautiful sight, she is a born athlete, a work of nature’s art in motion. The only other dog that can match her energy level and need to run are the border collies, sometimes she can get one to play chase with her, often the borders are ball obsessed and only focused on retrieving their ball but will let Ada run with them as long as she does not get in their way. I am grateful for every opportunity she gets to run. A few years ago when I was still involved with horses Ada would have been the perfect trail riding companion but my life is more sedentary these days and my need to find ways to give this athletic hound the exercise she needs has really bought that home. Looks like I might be grudgingly taking up jogging.
You might think a ball might be the solution and yes we do use a ball to give her some exercise but she does have a habit of getting bored with such retrieval games pretty quickly, she does not have the single-minded focus the border collies display. She loves to stalk and chase other dogs and that in itself is okay but when her target is half her size and the subject of an Ada tackle it is concerning and when the game continues with a violent wrestling match it is concerning enough that we have decided to restrict her freedom in the dog park. She is only being allowed off-leash if she has another similar dog to play with and if she fails to leave when told or to come when called she goes back on the lead and stays there. The other option we are trialling is putting her on a long lead, actually an old lunging rein I had in the shed. On the long rein, she can still play but I have enough control to put a stop to anything too rough and to work intensively on recall, when we have perfect recall she will again be allowed to run free, which will be a relief for all of us since Ada really needs to run.
Ada is highly trainable but also fiercely independent, she is a high energy athlete but also a naughty puppy, I expect she will settle down into a lovely gentle dog, but she will always be high energy and if that energy is not directed it could become problematic. I have read the work of Stanley Coren with interest, aside from his excellent books on dogs he writes a regular column in Psychology Today called Canine Corner and a while back I read this interesting column on how strongly canine behavior is linked to breed genetics. Watching and working with Ada I have started to wonder how strongly her breed genetics are influencing her personality, I did some research on Rhodesian ridgebacks and she certainly seems to be displaying many of the breed characteristics; independence and stubbornness, not to mention the rough and wild play . As part of that research I stumbled across these excellent videos on youtube: Are Rhodesian Ridgebacks Easy to Train? Check them out, they are amazing and Will’s blog: https://markingourterritory.com/ Will has provided some amazing insight and reassurance in regards to my own gremlin and I am extremely grateful for that, I am also in awe of the beautiful videos he has uploaded like this one:How My Rhodesian Ridgebacks Make Me Better One thing that Will makes obvious is that these active independent dogs are not for everyone.
Oh and if I am honest I had a suspicion that Ada was going to be an active fair-sized dog from the moment we meet her and I was secretly pleased that G was so drawn to her. I did very specifically ask the RSPCA at the time about her breeding and what they knew, she is certainly more dog than I was lead to believe I had and that is okay, I guess I just want to share our experience so readers can know how important it is to be ready to give your dog the kind of structure and support it needs, cause if you don’t you are just setting yourself and the dog up to fail and before you know it they will be back at the shelter. Knowing something about breed characteristics is a good idea when choosing a dog. Some breeds are more work than you might be able give, I know G had one afternoon at the park where he felt ready to send Ada back, (he never would, it was just a particularly naughty day). Slowly we are getting improvements in off leash recall at the dog park and we are getting better at leaving and just calming down the play but I suspect we may always be a bit too boisterous for many of the other dogs at the park. We work hard with Ada because we know that this good-natured gremlin is going to mature into a valued friend and member of the family and that is worth all the hard work, and to be honest I really enjoy again having an animal partnership that is demanding a lot from me. I love the challenge of working as a team with a dog or a horse, there is something magical in that teamwork, it is worth the moments of frustration.