Category Archives: Rescue

Playing with your dog’s food… good idea or not?

Imagine, if you would, that I handed you a great big slice of cake. Let’s pretend that it’s your favorite kind of cake, and it’s homemade with a big scoop of ice cream on the side. You smell the sweet scent of the gooey dessert, and eagerly pick up your fork to take a great big bite. Just as you’re lifting your fork to your mouth, taste buds tingling in anticipation, I grab your fork from you and take that bite myself.

Now, I’m going to assume that you’re a kinder, more patient person than I am. Assuming that, I’m going to guess that while you’re annoyed with me for grabbing your fork, you’re not going to knock me out over a single bite of cake (even though it is your favorite kind). I’ll hand your fork back, and you’ll go to take another bite. As you do so, I’m going to stick my hand onto your plate and start smearing your cake around. How would you react? Are you getting more annoyed? How much would you put up with before you physically removed me from your plate before you tried to eat?

Photo by Esteban

Photo by Esteban

It’s understandable that you would be annoyed with me if I kept messing with your food. Putting my hand in your dish and taking your food away from you as you tried to eat would be an indescribably rude behavior on my part. In fact, it’s so rude as to be nearly unimaginable in our society. So why do we do this to our dogs?

There’s a myth out there that we should play with our dogs’ food to teach them tolerance while they’re eating. Like most myths, it’s got a kernel of truth at its center. Guarding is a normal, natural behavior in most dogs, and if they’re not taught to share while they’re young they may become aggressive over resources like food, toys, or bones when they hit adulthood.

It’s easier to prevent guarding than to treat it. But messing about in your dog’s dish while he’s eating is not the way to go about it. In fact, it could make things worse. After all, it’s generally a bad idea to expect your dog to be more tolerant and peaceable about intrusions into his personal space than you would be. Dogs are pretty cool, but they’re still animals, and we don’t live in a Disney movie.

So, how can you prevent guarding in your dog if messing with his food bowl is off-limits? Simple. Just convince him that it’s worth his while for you to muck about with his stuff.

Doing so is so simple that it takes mere seconds at every meal. Just feed your dog as usual. Wait for him to begin eating. Then approach his bowl and toss something better than his dog food in. I use small cubes of cheese or chicken, but you could use anything your dog especially likes. It just has to be something that your dog prefers to his regular food.

That’s it. Lather, rinse, and repeat on a regular basis, and your dog will be absolutely thrilled to have you approach his food bowl. Instead of worrying about what you’re going to do, your dog will begin anticipating your arrival, since it always predicts something good. You’ll see this shift in his attitude reflected in his body language. Instead of eyeing you out of the corner of his eye, stiffening up, or gulping his food down more quickly, your dog will start to wiggle as soon as he sees you approach. He’ll back away from his dish eagerly, excited to see what wonderful gift you’ve brought this time. He’ll be so busy feeling happy that you’re approaching his food that guarding will never even cross his mind.

Of course, if your dog already guards his food, use your own judgment about the safety of this exercise. Generally it’s best to work with a skilled professional if your dog has ever stiffened up, growled, snapped, or bit when he was guarding something.

However, if your dog has not yet started guarding, now is the time to begin these exercises. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and a few moments a week of food-bowl exercises such as this can prevent a great deal of problems later on. Do this exercise with new puppies as soon as they can eat solid food. Do it with your adult dog. Do it with foster dogs and shelter dogs. Do it with any dog who doesn’t yet guard, and you can prevent a lot of dogs from ever guarding at all.

Once your dog’s a rock star at this exercise with his food bowl, consider other situations in which you could do the same thing. Practice approaching your dog while he’s playing with his toys, chewing on his Nylabone, or eating a rawhide or bully stick. Each time, make sure that your approach heralds the arrival of a treat that’s much more delicious than what he had to start with. Soon your dog will be happy about you approaching him no matter what’s in his mouth.

Messing about with your dog’s food bowl is every bit as rude as sticking your hand in your spouse’s plate while you’re both eating supper. Let’s get rid of this harmful myth once and for all, and focus instead on teaching our dogs that we are trustworthy, kind, and respectful housemates. Next time your dog is eating, leave him to it in privacy unless you have positive intentions. Next time you’re eating cake, I promise I’ll do the same. It’s only polite.

What Kind of Dog do you Drive?

Bringing a new dog into your household is a big deal. It’s a long-term commitment that may last fifteen or more years. The type of dog you choose will influence your life in a big way. So why do so many people put less thought into bringing home a dog than they do into purchasing a car?

Photo by Andrew Morrell

Photo by Andrew Morrell

Recently, I invited Kim Brophey to journey to freezing Minnesota for a seminar on her DRIVE program. What if we put the same thought into bringing a dog into our lives that we do into buying a vehicle?

Obviously, dogs aren’t cars. Dogs are individual, sentient beings with unique personalities. Just as you’re not identical to your siblings, one dog from a given breed or group will not be exactly the same as the last one you knew. Asking which breed is the best for you misses the point. However, asking which type of dog would smooth most easily into your life is a very, very good idea.

So, which type of dog should you drive?

Hybrid: the mixed-breed dog is often one of the best options for those new to dog ownership or those who need an uncomplicated family companion. Dogs who are so mixed that their heritage can’t even be guessed at tend to be fairly balanced and healthy. Nature’s a great fixer, and if we give nature a few generations to smooth away the rough edges caused by the small gene pools often found in purebreds, we often end up with wonderful dogs.

Scooter: the scooters of the dog world are the toy dogs bred for companionship. These dogs smooth easily into many different lifestyles. While they tend to idle high, their upkeep is fairly simple and they can be driven by a wide variety of people. They may not be the most practical choice for country life due to the risk of predation, but are otherwise able to thrive in many different environments. It’s harder to get in serious trouble with a scooter simply because of its size.

ATV: like all-terrain vehicles, partner hunters such as the sporting breed dogs are quite easy to drive, as long as you’re willing to take them off-road regularly. As long as their exercise needs are addressed, these dogs tend to be simple for anyone to own. Bred to work closely with their human companions and to look to people for guidance, these dogs are easily trained and cared for.

Dirt Bike: Quick and flexible, able to get into tight spaces and a bit racy, small terriers are much like dirt bikes. Expect to get a bit dirty if you own one, but if you’re ready for the ride you can have a lot of fun. These dogs may require a few lessons to drive appropriately, and they’re certainly not for everyone. If you’re going to be horrified when your dog revs up and kills a small critter or digs up your yard, you may want to look into tamer scooters, which have a similar look without so much need for speed.

Train: hounds are the trains of the dog world… after all, they run on tracks! In all seriousness though, hounds tend to be simple to operate as long as their driver understands that they may take a while to stop once they get up a full head of steam. Sighthounds are the commuter trains of the dog world, while scenthounds are more like freight trains – just a little less polished and a little rougher around the edges.

Cop car: “Where have you been? Do you know how fast you were going? Show me your license!” Owners of herding-breed dogs will be familiar with these cars. Driving a cop car requires that you be able to give your deputy consistent work and instruction, but if you’re up for the task they can be wonderful partners. These dogs crave direction. They’re constantly aware of their surroundings and able to keep tabs on everything going on at all times, so if you have a laid-back personality that doesn’t enjoy that constant state of readiness, you may want to consider a different vehicle.

SWAT car: like a cop car on steroids, working dogs with a military, war, or police background take hypervigilance to a new extreme. These dogs require very consistent direction from a competent leader. Expect them to be suspicious of new people, animals, and things. These aren’t dogs who will be everyone’s friend, and expecting them to love everybody is simply unrealistic. However, if you want a loyal companion who will always have your back, and if you have the time and effort to put into training and socialization, these dogs can be amazing partners.

Tank: you wouldn’t drive a tank to work every day unless you had a very specialized job that required it, and livestock-guarding or other guard breeds are quite similar. A bit too much for a city environment without special considerations, they can be indispensable for flock or property guardianship. These dogs don’t get fired up about much, but when they do they’re ready to do what it takes to defend against the enemy. Tanks are great for experienced drivers who need that level of firepower, noise, and loyalty, but tend to be a poor choice for inexperienced drivers.

Hot rod: sexy and responsive, bully breeds are the hot rods of the dog world. They can function much like a normal car most of the time, but in the right conditions they’ll go 0-60 in mere seconds. Arousal can be a problem for these dogs, and in inexperienced hands that don’t know how to handle such a big engine they could cause accidents. Drivers should understand how to keep their dog away from the starting line and consider lessons in driving such a powerful car.

Dragon: it’s impossible to drive a dragon, and owners of primitive, Nordic, and Asian breeds understand this well. However, if you can form a bond with your dragon, you’re in for the ride of your life. These dogs are smart and capable. In fact, if people all disappeared tomorrow, these are the dogs who would not only survive, but thrive. That said, they’re not a good choice for most people. Dragons are never going to be perfectly obedient, and they don’t tolerate manhandling. They’re likely to use their amazing problem-solving abilities for their own benefit, which may often run counter to your own wishes. If you have a specific destination in mind, there are much easier vehicles available to get you there, but if you’re okay taking the scenic route you and your dragon can go on great journeys together.

So, what kind of dog do you currently drive? What kind of vehicle would be best for you in the future? Do you feel like these descriptions are accurate? Please share in the comments below!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by feeb on flickr

Photo by feeb on flickr

“No shelter should keep puppies (under the age of 5 months) in a shelter facility. Puppies need to be in foster homes and attending puppy classes until or before they are adopted. We would be appalled if a shelter didn’t provide veterinary care to a puppy, but we don’t seem to see the cruelty of withholding life-saving behavioral therapy.”

- Cindy Bruckart
(Read the whole article here.)

Even if it means oblivion

“Even if it means oblivion, friends, I’ll welcome it, because it won’t be nothing. We’ll be alive again in a thousand blades of grass, and a million leaves; we’ll be falling in the raindrops and blowing in the fresh breeze; we’ll be glittering in the dew under the stars and the moon out there in the physical world, which is our true home and always was.” – Phillip Pullman

Today is Dobby’s last day. I posted awhile back about Dobby’s struggles with seizures and behavioral issues. At that time there were two medication changes we still wanted to try, but neither made any difference and I made the heartwrenching call to schedule his euthanasia. At that point, he’d been having a seizure every six days on average, so I decided to push his appointment out a week with the knowledge that he may have another seizure or two and I may have to bump his appointment up if the seizures, fear, or aggression worsened.

dobby rocks

This last week has been spent enjoying Dobby. I made a “bucket list” of the things I thought he would most enjoy that wouldn’t be too exciting (and therefore likely to trigger a seizure). Dobby’s been on multiple off-leash hikes on friends’ rural properties. He’s gotten so many new toys I can’t even count them. He’s gotten to snuggle in bed with me and has eaten his favorite foods. I started feeding him twice as much at mealtime – there’s no longer any reason to watch his weight, and one of the side effects of his medication has been increased appetite. He’s swum and he’s played with his few doggy friends. I’ve told him how much I love him over and over and over again.

I’ve done some things for myself this week, too. I’ve spent a lot of time crying and a lot of time with caring friends. I had a professional photographer take pictures of Dobby by himself and of Dobby and I together to remember him by. I stroked his velvety ears and laughed at his happy prance when he got a new toy. I rescheduled all of the appointments I could and spent less time working so I could be with him.

Everyone who loves Dobby has gotten to say goodbye in whatever way made sense to them. My parents took him on long walks, snuggled with him, and fed him handfuls of popcorn. My boyfriend bought him a bulk lot of squeaky balls – more new toys than Dobby’s ever seen in his life. Friends gave him toys and treats and chews. They invited him to hike on their properties and told him what a special little dog he was.

It’s still hard to believe that it’s almost over. It’s been almost three years since Dobby was pulled from the Rochester Animal Control Shelter. He’s only four years old, and I wish he could live to be a wise, tottery old dog with a grey muzzle. It’s hard to think of my sleek, athletic, awkward, sincere little dog being gone.

Tonight Dobby will get a double dose of one of his medications, a situational anxiety drug. Tomorrow he will get another big dose three hours before the vet comes over, which will make him very sleepy. My vet will come to us, and he will be euthanized in the place he’s happiest and most comfortable. We’ll do everything we can to make sure he knows he’s loved and valued during his final moments. Afterwards, my other dogs will be given the chance to investigate his body before the vet takes it to be cremated.

It hurts to say goodbye, but I’m so glad I got to know and love Dobby. I’m grateful for all of the things he’s taught me about perseverance and love, about hope, and about accepting that the right answers aren’t always the easy ones. Today I will enjoy everything about my special little dog, and tomorrow I will do everything I can to help his final moments be gentle and comfortable.

As I miss Dobby, I’ll hold onto the belief that he’s not altogether gone. The special spark that made him who he was will live on in those whose lives he touched and changed.  We’re all a little better for the connections he made, and I’m hella glad I got to know him. I love you, Batdog.

Loving Dobby

Dobby’s eyes widen when he sees the new tennis ball, and he runs joyfully towards me. When I hand it to him, he arches his neck and puffs his chest out, tail held jauntily over his back as he prances around like the world’s smallest Hackney pony. His pride and joy bubble over. They infect me as he flaunts his new prize. He squeaks the ball loudly and repeatedly as his perfect little white feet rise and fall to its beat, a tiny soldier on parade with the lightning bolts on his legs flashing. I croon to him, repeating his name like a mantra. When I hold my hand down, he prances past it, rubbing his sides along my fingers with each ecstatic circle he marks out on the floor. He is electrically alive. I am holding onto this moment with everything I have, trying to live in the now like him.

I hold onto these moments, these bright sunbeams of hope, because I need something to hold onto when life with Dobby is hard. And life with Dobby is frequently hard.

Photo by SC Studios

Photo by SC Studios

Dobby was picked up as a stray by the Rochester City Animal Control. He was somewhere between six to twelve months old, unfixed and dirty. No one claimed him, and when his stray hold was up he was moved to the general holding area of the shelter. He clung to the back of his kennel, trembling visibly and averting his gaze when people passed by. When I slipped a leash over his neck to walk him, he pancaked to the floor and urinated.

It was obvious that he was way too frightened to assess, so those of us at the shelter that day sat with him and talked to him, coaxing him to eat treats which he mostly ignored. He froze in fear when he was touched, and kept his body low to the floor, tail touching his belly button. When we took him outside, he lit up a bit and explored, but kept a wary distance. Becca, a skilled foster volunteer, decided to bring him home.

P1030828Under the expert care of Becca and her husband, Dobby began to blossom. He played with her dogs, and after several weeks moved in with me. Dobby began to figure out doorways, which were initially a source of great terror to him. He gained 9 pounds and 2 inches, growing into a sleek, muscular little dog. He started to seek out affection, pressing his neck and chin into the hands of those people he trusted. He learned to offer behaviors to earn rewards. He loved toys, and pranced around when given a new ball or chew toy.

There were problems to be worked through. People in hats were terrifying, and he would lunge and snap at hands that moved too quickly around him. He became aroused very quickly but was unable to settle back down, a quivering, mouthy beast with buggy eyes ready to grab anything that moved. Quick movements and loud voices would cause him to hit the ground and pee. Housetraining took a few months, and he could not be lured with treats or toys because of his fear of hands. Reaching towards his collar terrified him.

Photo by Ryan Windfeldt

Photo by Ryan Windfeldt

In spite of all of this, Dobby persevered. He tried his hardest and celebrated even tiny successes with his characteristic Dobby prance. Never has a dog been so full of try. He passed nine out of ten of the Canine Good Citizen test items and earned his first Rally Obedience title with comments from the judge on his joyful, prancy heel. He lit up when he was praised.

The seizures started when Dobby was somewhere between 18 to 24 months. Dobby’s eyes would glaze over and he’d stare at the ceiling with his back arched, for all the world like a dog intent on stalking a fly. A few times, he attacked whatever he saw moving as he came out of this state – me, another dog, even his own tail. After a seizure he would be tired and scared, wanting to curl up in the back of his crate and nap. They tended to come in clusters, piling on several days in a row before leaving him seizure-free for a few weeks or months.

All of Dobby’s progress vanished with the seizures, as if each seizure erased another of his newly forged neural pathways. He became fearful again, and worse yet, stress was one of his biggest seizure triggers.

photoSo, that’s where we’re at today. Dobby is on two seizure meds and an anxiety medication to try to control these seizures. We’re experimenting with a situational anxiety drug on top of his other medication. He’s receiving the top veterinary care at the University of Minnesota. Diet changes and changes to his routine have made no difference in his seizure activity. Even happy stress triggers seizures, so we no longer practice heelwork or play with the spring pole. He no longer attends any classes. We stopped playing tug. Dobby’s world has shrunk to a couple houses, a few walking routes, and some very careful play and training. His personality changes with each cluster of seizures, and he has become touch sensitive and cranky, likely to snap if another dog bumps him. He is introduced to new people carefully and is no longer introduced to new dogs so as not to trigger more seizures.

Dobby’s three to four years old at this point, and I hold on to the good days because I don’t know how many more he’ll have. I look at this gorgeous, funny, willing, sweet dog, and I think about euthanasia. I calculate percentages constantly: how many good moments is he having every day? How many bad? At what point is it no longer fair to make him keep trying in a world that is too scary and overwhelming? At what point does it become kinder to let him go, to take away the weight of living in a body which turns on itself over even minor stress? At what point is it no longer fair to my other dogs to live with an unpredictable housemate who is as likely to snap at them as to play? At what point do we stop?

I agonize and cry over this decision. I worry that compassion fatigue, a common problem with people in care-giving positions like this, is clouding my judgment. If I’m honest, living with Dobby is hard. It’s rewarding too, but it’s a constant drain to manage his environment, to set him up for success, to work with him between clusters of seizures in an effort to regain lost behavioral progress. For every step forward, there are steps back, and new challenges appear all the time. The side effects from his medication make him sleepy, hungry, and thirsty. People pile on with well-intentioned advice, clamoring for me to switch him to a raw diet, teach a new relaxation method, use Reiki, talk to an animal communicator, and try a plethora of herbal and homeopathic supplements.

Photo by SC Studios

Photo by SC Studios

All of this information flashes through my mind as I hand Dobby another squeaky tennis ball, one of the few things I can do to make him happy. I worry about the cost of his medication, blood work, and ever-present vet bills. I run probabilities as he burrows under the blanket when I crawl into bed at night, curling up in my arms and nestling his head under my chin to sigh deeply before drifting off to sleep. He’s warm and alive, he’s a great little dog, and I think about the finality of death.

I don’t know what I will do going forward. There are more drugs to try, more ideas to help him cope, and I want to explore them. During good moments, I delight in my little Dobby. In bad moments, when he’s scared and confused and hiding in his crate after a seizure, I feel guilty and sad. I wonder whether I’m doing more harm than good by putting him through a continuous cycle of new medication and the stress of day-to-day life. I wonder whether he wants the pain to stop. He seems so overwhelmed and scared sometimes. And through it all, he keeps trying as hard as he can to survive in a world where the deck sometimes seems stacked against him.

There’s no real conclusion to this blog post. I can’t tell you what will happen next for Dobby. I can only tell you that I want very much to do the right thing and that there’s no clear “right” thing to do.

dobby rocksI’m not the only one who wrestles with this awful choice. Many of my behavioral clients have been here before with their fearful, anxious, or aggressive dogs. Some euthanize their dog, realizing that they cannot continue to ask their beloved pet to live in a world where they will never find peace. Some euthanize their dog because they cannot honestly be sure that they can keep others or themselves safe if their dog continues to live. Some resolve to manage and work with their dog for the next five or ten or fifteen years. Some dogs do not have the brain chemistry or physiology to cope with our world, and some just need training and behavior modification to successfully rewire their brain.

Regardless of the choice each of us makes, it’s a deeply personal one that’s not made lightly. It’s a heart-wrenching, gut-turning decision, whether the decision is to euthanize or to keep trying with the dog. Neither path is easy.

batdobbyWe live in a society where there’s still a prevalent myth that every dog can be saved and that behavior issues are solely a result of environment rather than the complex stew of brain chemistry, development, and past history that really creates the perfect storm of an anxious, fearful, or aggressive dog. Dobby has seizures, but he also has behavioral concerns. Whether these issues are a result of his seizures or not (and I truly believe that they are, at least in part), my decision to keep working with him or euthanize is focused on his quality of life, the quality of my other dogs’ lives with him, and on the risk of keeping an unpredictable and fearful dog. The ultimate decision will be made with careful, empathetic consideration of Dobby’s happiness and the happiness of those of us (human and animal) who live with him every day.

So I walk the tightrope of Dobby’s life with him, helping him succeed and drinking his joy in. He watches me earnestly, my sincere, awkward, special little dog with the lightning-striped legs. I don’t have any answers, so for today a new squeaky tennis ball will have to do.

pride

Why You Shouldn’t Adopt a Dog

The ad is well-intentioned, as are my friends who share it on Facebook. “Adopt a less adoptable pet!” the ad urges, with examples of “less adoptable” traits such as old, blind, Pit Bull (really?…), or just different. “Don’t hate me because I’m less adoptable,” the ad pleads, “adopt me because I need you.”

Now, my friends could tell you stories about my love for dogs who fit into some of these categories. I adore senior dogs, and when I put the word out that I was looking for a dog before I adopted Dobby, a friend joked that she would keep her eyes open for a three-legged, fearful, crotchety senior Pit Bull for me. I agreed that such a dog sounded lovely before I realized that she was pulling my leg.

Photo by Erick Pleitez

Photo by Erick Pleitez

I adore many of the “less adoptable” dogs, but I think this ad campaign is abhorrent. In fact, I would urge you never to adopt a dog because he needs you. Don’t adopt a dog because you feel sorry for him. Don’t adopt a dog because of his appearance. Don’t adopt a dog because his story made you cry. Don’t adopt a dog because he looks sad or acts like he was abused. Don’t even adopt a dog because he’ll die otherwise. Adopt a dog because he’s a good match and because you’ll make one another happy. Anything less is unfair to both of you.

I understand the pull to help animals. My first day working at a local pet shop as a fifteen-year-old, I brought home a three-legged, mite-infested guinea pig that was being kept in back to be sold for snake food. My first paycheck didn’t even cover the cost of her vet bills, cage, food, and other essentials. Lucky the guinea pig later became a beloved nursery school pet, and I never regretted my decision to buy her.

However, every week I work with clients whose rescue stories don’t end so happily. Love alone is not enough for every dog. While it may feel good to save the life of that terrified, shivering dog who has pressed herself into the back corner of her kennel, bringing her home to a busy household with lots of visitors isn’t doing her any favors. In some cases, it’s merely prolonging the torture. Remember, dogs live in the moment, and every moment that your new dog spends plastered behind the sofa or barking frantically in the back room because yet another friend has stopped by to visit is painful to her. Emotional pain is every bit as cruel as physical pain. Not causing it doesn’t mean it’s okay for you to neglect to address it. And quite honestly, that bouncy, social dog in the kennel next to her (the one who would be a really great fit for your social lifestyle) needs you every bit as much.

Understand that I’m not saying that you shouldn’t adopt a dog who needs a little extra. Maybe you’re really good with shy dogs, and you don’t ever have any visitors, and you are a naturally patient person. In your case, that terrified dog could be a wonderful fit for your household. You’ll enjoy helping that dog blossom, and that dog will have a safe and caring environment in which to become the wonderful pet she wants to be. The important consideration here isn’t whether your potential dog is perfect, but whether you and she are perfect for one another.

 There are thousands of wonderful dogs who would thrive in a home just like yours, and your job as an adopter is to find them. Working with a responsible rescue will help, but even before you get to that point, you need to take a moment to think about what you need. What traits does your ideal dog possess? Is he active or sedentary? Goofy or serious? Does he need to get along with children, visitors, cats, other dogs, livestock? Are you open to housetraining and teaching him basic obedience, or would you rather he already understand such things? Be honest about what will make you happy. Your ideal dog is someone else’s nightmare, so go find that dog and save his life, even if his situation may not have appeared as desperate as another dog’s.

If you work in a shelter or rescue, stop with the sob stories and emotional blackmail. If the only way you can save that dog is through suckering some soft-hearted person into taking them on, then I have some serious concerns. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t make your adopters feel like heroes. They are! However, you and I both know that most homeless dogs aren’t broken, merely unlucky. Let’s focus on their good traits, those things that will make them wonderful pets. Let’s focus on that ideal home and talk about why that home will be so incredibly lucky to have this great dog. Let’s do everything we can to make sure that the next home this dog winds up in is his last. Let’s make such solid, perfect matches that our adopters would do anything to keep that dog for the rest of his days, such solid matches that those people come back to you ten or fifteen years down the line when they are ready for another dog.

Don’t adopt a dog because he needs you. Adopt a dog because you need him. Adopt a dog because you will make one another happy. Adopt a dog because you can’t imagine your life without him. There is no better feeling in the world, and no more heroic thing you can do.

Fostering Success

For many homeless dogs, foster homes are the springboard from which they find that special home they’ve been waiting for. People get into foster care for many reasons. Maybe they’re not financially ready to adopt a dog, they want to help homeless dogs, they enjoy dog ownership but cannot care for a dog 12 months of the year, they want the training experience that working with many different dogs provides, their dog enjoys the companionship of foster brothers and sisters, they feel strongly about promoting a certain breed, or maybe it just plain makes them feel good. Whatever your reasons for doing foster care, it can be a wonderful and fulfilling experience.

Tank snuggles with his adopter.

Tank snuggles with his adopter.

When I work with new foster homes, I always tell them that there’s no “wrong” way to provide foster care. No matter how you care for your foster dog, you are saving a life, and that’s wonderful. That said, I think it’s very important to foster in such a way that you put the dog’s best interests first.

You see, many foster homes get it backwards. It’s easy to do. When the dog comes into our home, we treat him or her just like one of our own pets. We welcome them in and encourage them to sleep on our bed and snuggle with us. They become comfortable and begin to blossom. We take them to adoption days and share their picture on Facebook, and eventually they find that perfect adoptive home.

And their heart breaks. You see, from the dog’s perspective, he was already home. He has become attached to you, and now you appear to be abandoning him. How is he to know that you were just a foster? How is he to know that this new family isn’t going to do the same exact thing?

Separation and attachment issues are two of the most common issues I am hired to work with in adopted dogs, and these issues are far, far more common in dogs who come from foster homes than from shelters. I don’t think this is a coincidence.

As a foster, it’s important to think about what you’re teaching the dog. Are you really preparing that dog to succeed in his new home?

Remember, most of us in the rescue community are truly “dog people.” We don’t mind fur on the couch or paw prints on the linens. We don’t blink when a new puppy cries for half an hour in his crate or a senior dog needs to go outside multiple times in the middle of the night because he just can’t hold it anymore. We naturally know how to set dogs up for success, gating off the litter box and blocking access to the front door. We read body language well, and subconsciously adjust our own body to make a timid dog more comfortable or redirect an aggressive dog before he escalates from mild warnings.

We do all of this, but your foster dog’s new family won’t. And we need to prepare our foster dogs for that.

I want my foster dog to think that his new home is way cooler than mine was. That means that I set him up for success right from the start. I don’t know whether my foster’s new family will allow him to get on the furniture, so I teach him to sleep on a dog bed and stay off my sofa. Sure, my dogs are allowed on the couch. That doesn’t mean I need to extend the same privilege to my foster dog. I don’t know whether the foster dog’s new family will have a fenced yard, so I teach him to toilet quickly on a leash. I don’t know whether my foster dog’s new family will want him loose in their house overnight, so I teach him to be content sleeping in a crate.

Kip learned about polite yard manners with his Gentle Leader and dragline.

Kip learned about polite yard manners with his Gentle Leader and dragline.

As much as I love my foster dogs, they are not my dogs. Treating them as if they are is nothing less than selfish. I am only a caregiver, preparing them for bigger and better things. So I treat them differently than my own dogs, caring for them kindly and fairly but not letting them get too attached to myself or my other dogs. I train them and teach them that people are gentle and trustworthy. I teach them that good things happen when people handle their paws, mouth, or ears, that wonderful things happen when people reach towards their food or toys, that crates are comfortable and safe places to rest quietly, that sitting and looking at people works wonders, and that calm behavior in the house results in great rewards. I take them on field trips and introduce them to new people and places. They learn so much.

And then they get adopted, and they go home. Their new family gives them more privileges and attention than they had from me, and they quickly become attached. They bond with their new owners, and while they’re very happy to see me whenever we encounter one another for the rest of their lives, they are also quite clear whose dog they are. My heart breaks for dogs at adoption days who only have eyes for their foster parent, because I know that the dog is going to feel heartbreak when they get adopted.

Consider what you’re preparing your foster dog for. Teach him to succeed. Then let him go gently, and watch him blossom under the love and care of his new family. There is no better feeling, and no bigger service you can do for that dog.

Ripples in the Rescue World

While I’ve been active in the shelter and rescue community for over 13 years, I rarely write about this topic. This is quite intentional. Dog rescue is an emotional and controversial topic, and it’s appallingly easy to offend or upset people, which is the last thing I want to do.

Photo by Michael Verhoef

Photo by Michael Verhoef

There’s been a frightening upsurge in the amount of serious behavior consults I’ve done for recently adopted dogs in the past year. More alarming still, the majority of these cases can be traced to a scant handful of rescues and shelters in Minnesota. What’s going wrong?

Well, something’s definitely breaking down in each of these cases. In spite of the public perceptions that dogs from rescues and shelters are somehow “damaged” or inferior, the vast majority of homeless dogs have simply been unlucky. They’re wonderful dogs just waiting for a chance to shine. They may be victims of foreclosure, divorce, financial hardship, or other life changes. Their owners may have been young or not realized how much work a dog was. Most of the dogs in shelters and rescues have been loved by someone at some point. The idea of an “abused” and broken dog may make for a great story, but is rarely the case.

However, there are cases where something has indeed gone wrong. Perhaps the dog has a genetic predisposition to be reserved and quick to bite, or perhaps he learned early on that snapping was an effective way to convince people not to mess with him. Perhaps past trauma has shaped the dog’s worldview, or more likely a simple lack of any sort of socialization has narrowed that worldview so much that anything new is terrifying. Perhaps mismanagement by a previous owner resulted in the dog biting another person or maybe even injuring or killing a dog, cat, or other animal. Whatever has gone wrong, something has broken down.

Whatever has gone wrong, it’s important to remember that it’s not the dog’s fault. But it’s equally important to remember that placing unsafe dogs is unethical. This is one of the main things that separates responsible rescues and shelters from well-intentioned but irresponsible organizations.

So where are these irresponsible organizations going wrong? None of them are evaluating their dogs. A formal behavior evaluation allows organizations to make more responsible placement decisions, resulting in better matches between dogs and adopters and increased pet retention. This is good for dogs and good for adopters, not to mention how good it is for the shelter or rescue’s PR and bottom line. A couple of the irresponsible organizations are pulling dogs from out of state shelters, transporting them to our area, getting them vet care, and adopting them out without ever getting to know them. Yikes!

Adopting out unsafe dogs feels good as a rescuer. Every adoption feels like a success, and when that dog-, child-, cat-, and male-aggressive Lab mix finally finds a home after a year everyone pats themselves on the back for not giving up on him. He made it! Now he has a family who loves him!

Unfortunately, most rescuers’ involvement in the dog’s life ends there. They don’t see the new owners struggling to live with and love their new pet. They don’t see them crying when the dog bites the neighbor boy in the face or kills their cat. They don’t realize the financial and emotional burden they have placed on these well-meaning people who wanted to adopt a needy animal, not a project. Most of the time, my clients are too embarrassed or upset to contact the shelter or rescue that their dog came from after an incident, in spite of my recommendation that they do so.

There’s a ripple effect that happens after an unsafe animal is placed, and its toxic influence is part of the reason why we still have a homeless dog problem in shelters and rescues. There are enough homes looking for dogs to solve the shelter dog issue today. In fact, if these people all adopted, we wouldn’t have enough dogs in shelters and rescues to meet the need. These homes just aren’t going to shelters and rescues.

They’re not going to shelters or rescues to get their next pet because they’ve seen their friend, family member, coworker, or neighbor struggle with an irresponsibly placed rescue dog. Or maybe they were the ones struggling. Regardless, they’ve seen the potential problems with rescuing a dog, and they’re not having any of it. Instead, they order a puppy online or go to a breeder they found in the newspaper, never realizing that there are responsible and irresponsible breeders just as there are responsible and irresponsible rescues. Every irresponsibly-placed dog drives people away. Lots of people. And all those wonderful dogs that those nice people would have adopted if they’d seen how well adoption worked for others they know? They sit in our shelters and foster homes longer, because their potential adopters took their business elsewhere. Backyard breeders and puppy mills love irresponsible rescues.

Part of the problem with the rescue world is that there are no easy answers. We’re dealing with intelligent animals who feel pain, fear, joy, and love. We’re dealing with relationships between two different social species, each with its own expectations and needs. Things get messy.

That said, one of the best ways to reach for an answer is to talk about the problem, openly and respectfully. Create a dialogue.

Is there more that shelters or rescues should be doing to make sure that they place safe animals, or does the responsibility fall on the adopter to make an informed decision? Have you ever adopted a dog with “issues?” Would you do so again? What’s the best way to tackle the issues discussed here? Please comment below with your thoughts!

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

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“To foster is to cut out a piece of your heart, hand it to strangers, and beg them to be gentle with it.”

- Laura McKinney, Rollin’ With Rubi

“It’s all in how they’re raised.”

“All puppies are blank slates.” “If you do everything right with your puppy, you’ll have a great adult dog.” “If dogs have behavioral issues, we should blame the handle end of the leash.”

These are common misconceptions I hear as a trainer, and they make me so very sad. Behavior is a combination of nature and nurture, and if we could just take a moment to look logically at these myths, we would see just how silly they are.

Photo by Tavallai

Photo by Tavallai

Genetics influence behavior. This is part of the reason we have breeds: if you want a dog to work your sheep, you’re going to choose a Border Collie, not a Brittany Spaniel. Even though the two dogs have the same basic size and shape, one is more likely to have the instinctive motor patterns to do the work than the other. Getting a Border Collie whose parents successfully work sheep further increases the likelihood of your dog having the necessary genetic ability to be a great sheepherder.

In the 1970′s, Murphree and colleagues began to study the difference between normal and fearful lines of Pointers. In cross-fostering experiments, puppies from fearful parents were raised by normal mothers. These puppies still turned out fearful, in spite of proper socialization and a confident role model.

Interestingly, puppies from normal parents who were raised by fearful mothers also turned out fearful. Environment also influences behavior, and the best genetics in the world can’t create the perfect dog without a supportive upbringing.

If we believe that the way a dog is raised is solely responsible for his adult behavior, how can the tremendous success of the Pit Bulls from Michael Vick’s kennel and many other fighting operations be explained? With their neglectful and abusive upbringing, we would expect these dogs to be vicious and unsalvageable. Yet many of them have gone on to become wonderful pets. Some compete in agility or work as certified therapy dogs. Many Pit Bull enthusiasts are adamant that it’s all in how the dogs are raised, yet the success of many former fighting dogs tells us that it’s more than just that. These amazing, resilient dogs also have to have a sound genetic basis to explain their ability to overcome adversity.

On the other end of the spectrum, many of my clients have done everything right, yet continue to struggle with anxiety or aggression issues in their dogs. Certain lines of Golden Retrievers are known for severe resource guarding issues that often show up even in tiny puppies. Most of my German Shepherd behavioral consults occur when these dogs hit 12-18 months and growl at or bite a stranger. Miniature Australian Shepherds are likely to come to me due to extreme fear issues at 6-10 months of age. Terrier owners often call me when their dog hits social maturity and begins fighting with housemate dogs. While these traits may be common in my area, trainers in other areas of the country report completely different issues in the same breeds due to different lines of dogs with different genetic potentials living and being bred near them. I also see hundreds of friendly, stable, solid Goldens, German Shepherds, mini Aussies, and terriers in our Beginning Obedience and Puppy Kindergarten classes.

The truth is that dogs are born with a certain genetic potential that will influence which behavioral traits they display. This could include a dog’s sociability towards people, dogs, or other animals; their level of boldness or fearfulness; their likelihood to display anxious or compulsive behaviors; whether they are calm and confident or nervous and neurotic; and many other behavioral factors.

Let’s look at one trait to make this more clear. We know that dogs born from fearful parents are more likely to be fearful and that dogs with bold parents are more likely to be bold. There is a behavioral continuum, with boldness on one end and fearfulness on the other. Here’s what that spectrum would look like. A dog on the left end of the spectrum would be incredibly fearful, while a dog on the right end would be exceedingly confident. Most dogs wind up somewhere in the middle, and dogs on both ends of the spectrum present challenges for their owners.

naturevsnurture

A dog with bold parents is born with the potential to be quite bold. He is physically capable of bold behavior. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he will become a bold dog. If his experiences as a puppy and young adult are very limited or if he has negative, scary experiences, he may develop into a fearful adult due to environmental influence. His genetic potential gave him the ability to be bold, but his environment did not nurture that ability.

naturevsnurture_bold

On the other hand, consider a dog who is born from fearful parents. This dog does not have the genetic potential to be bold. Even given an incredibly supportive and nurturing environment as a puppy and young adult, this dog will always be somewhat fearful because the physical ability to be bold is just not there.

naturevsnurture_fearful

These dogs may present identically when we look at their behavior, in spite of the very different levels of dedication their owners had to socializing and supporting their puppies. However, the genetically bold dog may make a lot of progress with appropriate behavioral interventions, while the genetically fearful dog makes little or none. This has nothing to do with the skill level of each dog’s owner, but rather with the raw material each dog started with. (This is also, by the way, why ethical trainers do not make guarantees: without knowing what genetic package a dog starts with, there’s no way to know how much progress that dog can make until we try.)

Do you see how very unfair statements about how “it’s all in how they’re raised” are to committed, wonderful dog owners who have dogs with more difficult baselines? Just because your dog flew through a behavior mod program doesn’t mean every dog can or will, and assuming that it’s all because of the owner is unrealistic and downright cruel. I regularly work with wonderful people who do the best they can with difficult dogs, and that adage about walking a mile in someone’s shoes is applicable to their situation. As if living with and training a more difficult dog weren’t enough, these people are often subjected to comments and insinuations that if they were just a better handler, a better trainer, or a better leader, their dog would be perfectly fine. This is untrue and incredibly hurtful, and it needs to stop.

Do you know anything about your dog’s parents? What environmental and genetic factors do you think contributed to your dog’s behavior? Please share your stories in the comment section below!