Monthly Archives: February 2013

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Barbara Krawcowicz

Photo by Barbara Krawcowicz

“The whole “animal rights” movement with its theme that “dogs are just the same as people” has potentially broad destructive effects. Dogs are not the same as people. Dogs are dogs, and we have to teach people how to relate to them as

– Morgan Spector

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.

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Dmitri Dimitrijev

My dogs are not my minions to be forced to bend to my will. They are thinking, breathing individuals, and just because they can’t speak English or spend money doesn’t mean they are not deserving of respect. Not being human does not make them less.

-Laura McKinney

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

Photo by Mark Robinson

Photo by Mark Robinson

It’s always ok to ignore your trainer; it’s never ok to ignore your dog.

Denise Fenzi


Layla was two years old when she was attacked. The other dog, owned by a friend of mine, was safely muzzled but was an impressive 60 pounds larger than little Layla. We were attempting to introduce Layla, who had wonderful social skills, to my friend’s dog, and the introduction went sour. Layla rolled over, exposing her belly, and the other dog muzzle-punched her on her abdomen. Had she not been muzzled, I hesitate to think of what could have happened. Layla screamed, likely a combination of pain and fear, and ran away, triggering the other dog to chase her. We were unable to catch either dog for what felt like forever, but was probably less than a minute.

Photo by SC Studios

Photo by SC Studios

After the attack, I took Layla home. She crawled under the covers of my bed and trembled. Her abdomen and the insides of her thighs were bruised and sore. After that day, she became very reactive towards other dogs, lunging and barking from even very great distances. She was especially reactive around large dogs and dogs that resembled my friend’s dog.

And I blamed myself.

Every week, I work with clients who are trying to help their reactive dogs. Each one of them has a unique story. There has been some past trauma, or there hasn’t. They know what precipitated the reactivity, or their dog has always been like this, or the issue developed so gradually over time that they didn’t realize what was happening at first. They failed to protect their dog, or someone else failed to protect their dog, or they didn’t know enough to prevent this issue. They didn’t understand how to choose a breeder or a rescue. They didn’t realize that their zoomy dog was actually stressed. They didn’t realize that their anxious dog needed medication to address a real physical problem.

Every story is different, but through each of them runs a unique thread: “this is my fault.” In each case, these owners feel guilty that they didn’t do more or know more or take a different action. In each case, they wonder whether things would be different, if only…

And they blame themselves.

There’s a quote that I have hanging up on my work station by Maya Angelou, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”

I think it is absolutely normal for us to feel guilty about what has happened. Remember that guilt comes from a place of compassion: we love our dog and want the best for them. It’s also okay to let it go. We do the best we can in the moment, and as we learn, we do better.

Our imperfections are part of what make us special, and sometimes scars (whether real or emotional) are simply another way to show the world that we survived adversity. I feel guilty that I didn’t protect Layla that evening when she was attacked. But that incident was one of the many forks in the road that led us on an amazing journey we have taken together.

Had Layla not become reactive, she may not ever have had the chance to teach me how to listen to a dog. The lessons of connection, empathy, respect, humility, and compassion that come from working through these issues were painful and hard-won, but they have since served me in helping hundreds of other dogs and their owners who were just starting down the same path.

Layla had to learn too: she had to learn to trust me, to communicate her needs in a way I could understand, and to control her own impulses and emotions. I can’t ask her (and don’t want to anthropomorphize), but I’m pretty sure she found the journey every bit as rocky and frustrating as I did.

We all wish that we could do better by our dogs. I doubt they wish that they could do better by us. They may wish that we would walk just a little longer, or share our sandwich crust, or back off when they lick their lips and turn away. But their wants and needs are in the moment. We could do well to emulate that.

Do the best you can with your dog. Give him or her the happiest life you can with the tools you have. Give your dog the benefit of the doubt, and be as kind as possible. But when you’re tired and frustrated, give yourself the benefit of the doubt too. It’s okay to be imperfect. Enjoy your unique journey together, and let the scars of your mistakes become a roadmap to the paths you’ll explore with one another.

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

Photo by Stewart Black

Photo by Stewart Black

“Much like mountain climbing or parachute jumping, it is that heady feeling of success when an open-environment trained animal returns to run (or swim or fly) again. The heady feeling, or “rush,” is increased in direct proportion to the duration, distance, and complexity of the trial. Every time you release the animal, it could go somewhere else. In spite of 99.999% success, that next trial could result in an animal running, flying, or swimming away; that is 100% failure. You are just as dead if you fall while ascending or descending a mountain. It only counts as a success if you get the animal out and back. If you have not climbed a mountain, or jumped from a plane, or released and recovered a trained wild animal, you cannot fully comprehend the feeling.

– Bob Bailey, when asked to describe his favorite training moment

Canine Body Language: Whale Eyes

Whale eye refers to a body language signal where the dog shows the whites of his eyes. This is a warning signal and is often accompanied by hard eyes, freezing, stiffening up, and/or growling.


Obviously, this is somewhat breed specific. Many brachycephalic (short-nosed) dogs, such as Pugs and Shih Tzus, will naturally have the whites of their eyes exposed due to the structure of their skull. However, if they begin to show more white than normal or if you notice other warning signals, they are likely displaying whale eyes.

Layla tells a friend's adolescent Shorthair puppy to back off when he gets too rowdy. Photo by A Dog Spot.

Layla tells a friend’s adolescent Shorthair puppy to back off when he gets too rowdy. Photo by A Dog Spot.

If you see your dog displaying this body language, back off and figure out what prompted it. Was your dog guarding something? Was he uncomfortable with how you were touching or interacting with him? Is he sore or experiencing pain?

Photo by Megan Nelson

Photo by Megan Nelson

Whatever you do, make sure you never punish a dog who is displaying warning signals. Instead, figure out why he is warning you and do something to change his emotional response to whatever was upsetting him so that it no longer bothers him.

Photo by akeg

Photo by akeg

What situations has your dog displayed whale eye in? Please share in the comments below!