Rita – the dog that adopted her dad

8th Dec, 2023

Written by David Hollingworth

Professional photography by Nat Gold ZA  

I thought I knew all about dogs and their ways. I’ve had many dogs in the past, including Weimeraners when I was still living in the UK. I’ve always been passionate about dogs and avidly watched TV dog-training personalities use simple techniques to transform the lives of dogs and owners alike.

This story begins with the lifting of the Covid restrictions in August 2020…

From bushland to seaside

Back in 2011, I qualified as a Field Guide in Kruger National Park as part of a year-long sabbatical from my corporate job with its base in the UK. I ended up – through connections and serendipity – living in the African bush amongst dangerous game for the next nine years.

During my time in the bush, I’d get two weeks off after every six weeks on duty, and as I’d usually head down to Cape Town for a change of pace and to socialise, I eventually bought a small apartment in the bustling suburb of Sea Point. It was a bolt hole for those two weeks and not meant as a permanent home, since it was tiny compared to what I’d been used to in the UK. It was especially hard to adjust to apartment living after being in the open African bush!

Covid arrived in March 2020 along with the associated restrictions, which changed all our lives... lodges closed, and I eventually made my way to Sea Point to wait things out in August 2020, when restrictions on travelling and moving around in general had been lifted.

This is where the story of Rita and David really begins...

Dogs on the promenade

I was intending to return to my home in Kruger once the lodges reopened fully and started operating again, so my Sea Point home was a temporary solution – or so I thought! It was during this time that I was walking on the famous Sea Point promenade one weekend and came across a container, surrounded by about thirty dogs... all secured to “islands” with leads, or on the container itself.

The dogs were all shapes, sizes and ages! These dogs were all up for adoption through an inspirational organisation called the Woof project (https://www.facebook.com/oscarsarcsa). I was intrigued. It turned out that you could take these dogs for short walks to give them a bit of exercise – and help them to relax.

So, I took out Tom Ford, a handsome, russet-coloured confident boy, just larger than a beagle, for a sniff around. He didn’t really engage with me – why should he? But of course, I got a dog fix! I was hooked. On returning Tom, I took another one out – then another. That was my first encounter with the Woof project – little did I know at the time how much of an impact on my life those first few walks would have!

Winning for all

Inevitably, the following weekend saw me walking down to the promenade, and repeating the experience but with different dogs. I learnt that this wasn’t just a normal “homeless dog rescue/adopt mission” – but a more sustainable solution for creating space in rescue organisations across the province, allowing the rescue organisations to rescue more! In the meantime, the Woof project would solely focus on adoptions – getting the right dogs into the right homes, and ensuring that all adopted dogs were microchipped, vaccinated for their first year and, of course, sterilised. I learnt that once the adoption had taken place, a proportion of the adoption fee would be returned to the original shelter. It’s a win, win, win, win model.

The shelters win by having space created so that they can rescue more dogs; they also benefit financially by funds returned to them once the Woof project has engineered a suitable adoption. As an NPO, the Woof project becomes sustainable through adoption fees and donations and can keep operating, and the most important win of all – the dogs are adopted into suitable homes to hopefully live more healthy, happy and long lives!

I loved the unique approach of this model, and my enthusiasm for the project grew every time I went there. I began to spend all weekends walking different dogs. I felt that I was doing something worthwhile and that I was making a positive contribution to facilitating, in some small way, in getting homeless dogs adopted.

Christmas 2020 came, the pop-up took a short break, and I really missed walking the dogs. I happily went walking down to the promenade on the first weekend of the new year – only to be shocked by the disappearance of the container! All that was left was a yellow patch of grass! Horrified – what had happened? A quick consultation with Google showed me that the container had subsequently moved to the Waterfront, a bustling tourist hotspot, which was really important in generating much-needed donations from the many tourists visiting the area and attracted to the project.

A gentle approach makes the difference

I tracked them down eventually, and that’s when I saw a stunning Lurcher (Greyhound mix) named Reece. I had a real soft spot for these dogs, having owned one in the past; in the UK, they’re very common and often one of the major types of dogs found in rescue centres. They’re gentle, athletic and elegant dogs, and Reece was a prime example.

She was nervous. I coaxed her away from all the noise and sat with her but didn’t fuss her. I wanted her to come to me on her terms, not the other way around. I also knew that the best way to give nervous or emotionally scarred dogs confidence is not to shower them with too much affection, which many of them perceive as weakness. What often gives them confidence is leadership – consistency, confident handling and no sudden gestures. You don’t need to constantly talk to a dog for it to understand your intentions. They’re astute – like all “predators” they’re experts at reading nuances of body language and intention, even facial expression. I never stare directly at a dog, especially if it doesn’t know me.

I NEVER put my hand in front of a dog’s face to “sniff” me – imagine having people doing that to you the whole day! Their sense of smell is so refined that they’re already familiar with your smell when you are metres away from them! I merely stand next to them, with no eye contact, stay calm, and see if they sniff me – curious – at which point I crouch down and keep my side or back to them to see what they’ll do. If they engage then I’ll give them a gentle stroke on their chin, and quietly clip a lead to their harness and move away without saying anything. Such was the case with Reece.

She made all the moves. She starting walking more freely and I loved it – to see a dog relax and change is incredibly rewarding. The following day was a Sunday and I made a beeline for the container. There was Reece – our eyes met – and I liked to think that there was some recognition. There was.

She wagged her tail and off we went – her more confident this time. And so, it continued for the next few weeks. She was beautiful. Then one morning I was running a bit late, but received a phone call from the Woof manager to say that Reece had been adopted and if I wanted to see her before she left then I must get there immediately! I broke the speed barrier getting there – heart pounding – why was I like this? I ran to the container – she saw me – I met the new adopter – and asked if I could sit with Reece for five minutes. Reece and I walked a short way; I sat down and she crawled into my lap! I felt my tears building, but I couldn’t adopt a dog as I was living in a small apartment, with no outside space at all, and would be heading back to Kruger soon, where I couldn’t take a dog with me.

I’d succumbed to the common trap of getting attached in an impossible situation – I’d never let that happen again. Ahem... easier said than done!

Working with Woof

Typically, the dogs that the Woof project work with to get adopted are mixed breeds, many of an Africanis “type” – average-looking dogs, often cream or tan, some tricolour (black, tan and white) with white paws or chests, and usually with short coats. Many of the dogs are streetwise, especially if they’re ex-strays. However, dogs are amazingly resilient, and usually take each day as it comes. I tend to not focus on their pasts – wanting to “evaluate” how they are in the present, sparing affection, but giving them consistent, kind and steady leadership.

I have two rules when I walk any dog. Always walk on the left and they’re never allowed to go in front of me unless I “release” them with a command. In this way they see me as a leader, and it then gives them confidence as pack animals knowing that I seem to have a plan on the walk – they can’t dictate where we’ll go. This seems to work very well, and I’ve personally seen some amazing transformations using these techniques.

With my Reece experience behind me, I tried to remain as detached as possible so that I wasn’t a hindrance to potential adopters – which could be the case if the dogs became too attached to me! When I first arrive at the container, I’m naturally curious to check out any new dogs (I don’t get involved with the puppies as they tend to be easier to adopt out). When I walk a new dog, I give feedback to the staff about anything that I may think is pertinent for a potential adopter – any triggers, child-friendly, reactive to anything or any type of person, walks easily on the lead, energy level, food motivated, etcetera. The Woof project wants to be as transparent as possible with all the potential adopters so that we can try and reduce the chances of the dog not settling for whatever reason and then being returned. All new dogs are also given new Woof names – normally themed – actors, actresses, countries, films, etc.

New place, new dogs

February came and with it a new dog intake. All average-looking, and it was to be our last weekend in the Waterfront before moving to a leafy and affluent suburb called Constantia to try and boost our adoptions, which always go well there. Amongst them was a lively tricolour Africanis – Bill of Rights – I named her Rita for short. She walked nicely – nothing remarkable – and when I went to secure her after the walk I moved on to the next dog. What I hadn’t noticed at that time was the way Rita watched me...

And so, the Woof project “pop-up” moved to Constantia – my first time in that location as a volunteer. Lots of options for walking on green spaces and we could separate the dogs nicely – it worked well. We set up and started unloading the dogs from the trailer – and I immediately took out a large, Husky-type dog for evaluation.

By the time I returned to the container, all the dogs were unloaded and settled in place. Often the first hour is spent walking the dogs constantly to make sure that they have toilet breaks and to bring their energies down to facilitate calming them down for potential adopters.

As Rita was barking at everything and going generally crazy, I decided to take her out – and set off for a local park. I was impressed with how well she walked – to heel, no commands needed, responsive... she was one of the easier dogs to walk. Out of curiosity I tried her on a children’s jungle gym – which she absolutely loved... running up the ramps, over the tyres, etcetera. It was a new challenge and she excelled at it.

Watching like a hawk

I returned her to the container, then took another dog out. As I approached the container to return this dog, I saw that Rita was totally focused on me. It was almost unnerving. I took another dog out, and as I left, I heard Rita barking madly – I assumed that she was just excited at seeing dogs go out – she wanted to go too! I followed a circuit which included a stretch of heel walking across a car park, then into a green park area, followed by walking through a small precinct with a few coffee shops. On the way back to the container, you walk down a long pathway at the end of which is a pedestrian crossing leading directly to the container.

I noticed immediately that there were eyes watching me like a hawk – Rita. As I got closer, she started barking, setting off all the other dogs! I tried to ignore it, but it was difficult, and I gave in and took her out again – all the dogs settled, as did she, and we enjoyed some time together.

This pattern continued. She became increasingly alert to my whereabouts, and when I went to lunch, I could sometimes hear her barking. Other volunteers were able to take her out at this stage. Over the next few weekends, we realised that she was becoming fixated on me. For peace and sanity, I’d started taking her to a small café for lunch with me to keep all the other dogs calm. She was the perfect companion. She never begged for food – and never has – she relaxed at my feet and slept... totally relaxed. The other café patrons often remarked that it looked as though she was my dog. If other volunteers were walking her and she saw me, she’d literally pull towards me and scream – it really was obsession.

However, I was going back to Kruger, and my flat was totally not ideal for any dog. It wasn’t officially a pet-friendly block, and one trustee was very anti-animals.

In March 2021, my long-awaited application for permanent residency came through. Another life change, as this was awarded dependent on retirement and I wasn’t allowed to work in South Africa. I’d been living on an income from my rental property in the UK for some time and had done the calculations – I didn’t need much but just wanted to find a legitimate way of staying in this beautiful country, now to be my home!

We continued to look for a home for Rita. There were no applications – she’d become very reluctant to walk with strangers, which didn’t help her case! If I walked with them, she was fine, but the moment I stepped away – no – she was going with me and not them.

Fire!

Another significant event happened in April 2021 – a huge fire ripping through parts of Table Mountain and destroying irreplaceable parts of the University. Suddenly, the centre where the dogs were housed during the week was filling up with smoke as it was very close to where the fire was raging, and the fire was yet to be brought under proper control.

An emergency call was sent to the army of volunteers to foster any dogs possible to get them safely out of the centre.

Naturally, I immediately got hold of the “friendly” trustee and asked if I could take a dog for three days in this emergency. No problem, was the answer! So, I went to fetch Rita... she just jumped into my car and settled into my apartment like a dream – no attempt to jump on the bed; we went out several times a day in case she wasn’t house-trained. But she was.

We spent some quality time together. However, the moment I tried to leave her in the apartment, she started to bark – separation anxiety – which I couldn’t afford to happen given that the trustee was doing me a favour. So, I became creative regarding shopping, not leaving her in the flat and sticking to basics! Thursday came – time to return to the centre now that the fire was out. I was relieved, as it’s tough trying to balance ordinary things such as gym, shopping and appointments with a dog that exhibits signs of separation anxiety.

Saturday comes, and she’s as bad as ever at the pop-up, now of course with the additional experience of living together for three days! It became a running joke amongst everyone that Rita, aka Bill of Rights, wouldn’t walk unless it was with me.

Missing you

Eventually the decision was taken that, to stand any chance of adoption, she must go into foster care and not see me again. I agreed – my lifestyle and flat weren’t suitable at that stage for a dog – I knew what a huge undertaking and commitment it was. A suitable foster was found, and whilst it was odd not seeing her on a weekend, I understood that it was in her best interests.

But I missed her. There was no doubt that we had a very special bond, and she was somewhat of an enigma. In her foster home she had the company of another dog, had a large garden to play in, and was happy! I couldn’t offer that. I remember speaking to the owner of the Woof project on a Sunday afternoon and saying that if the foster hadn’t worked out, then I’d just have to have come up with a plan, as none of us had ever seen a dog behave like she did. I was reassured that all was well, and that we’d continue to “market” and advertise her, but that she wouldn’t come to the weekend pop-ups.

The morning after that conversation, I was heading to a meeting with a very dear friend when the phone rang. The message left was: “Come and get your dog”.

My heart was racing as I called back. Rita had decided that she hates cats, of which there were two in the foster home. Recalling my words from the previous afternoon, the staff then expected me to “make that plan” and come and fetch her!

Yikes – suddenly an unexpected responsibility and commitment! And another life change. But I’m a man of my word!

On my way to fetch her after my meeting, I hastily bought a collar and lead, bowls and food. She greeted me, but didn’t go crazy, followed me to the car, jumped in, and lay down. Anti-climax. We were dining out with friends in a local restaurant that night... I took her with me – she was impeccably behaved. I’d walked her on Sea Point promenade late afternoon to make sure that she was comfortable. She wouldn’t let me out of her sight but was her usual self amongst all the other promenaders. It was a beautiful evening…

The start of a grand adventure

Suddenly, in the distance I saw a seagull with a damaged wing. Unfortunately, Rita saw it at the same time. She went running off after it – in front of everyone. Ignoring my desperate calls, in panic I went running after her – in flip-flops! A flapping seagull was too much to resist. Just as I caught up to her, that damn bird flopped off again with Rita in pursuit and me after Rita.

Eventually she cornered it. I had visions of thousands of eyes watching and cursing me as my out-of-control dog ripped an innocent bird apart!

Thankfully, as she went to smell it, she got a sharp peck on the nose and that gave me enough time to get the lead on, with a satisfying click. Phew – that must have looked hilarious – unless you were the seagull! Was this the sign of things to come?

We’ve had lots of adventures together subsequently, and she’s taught me so much about dog behaviour in general. Maybe in another article I’ll explain the lengths I had to go to, to address the severe separation anxiety, as well as the amazing people and friends that we’ve met since we came together. It’s changed both of our lives for the better. The Woof project isn’t just about adopting dogs; it’s about saving people. You get the dog you need, not necessarily the dog you want. I didn’t realise how much I needed Rita... but she did.

So – that’s how Rita and I became a team. She’s an amazing and enigmatic dog. We’ve both had to learn a whole new set of rules to cohabit, but she’s the best thing that could have happened to me. She knew all along. I took a little more time. So, signing the adoption papers there’s a twist. Rita adopted me, not the other way around – instead of my signature at the bottom of that contract, it should have been Rita’s pawprint

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