Faith, Trust, & Foster Pups

Helping dogs on the road to forever, forever finding ourselves as we walk that road with them.


Muzzle Up!

“In the world of dog behavior, one of the most essential pieces of safety equipment we have is the muzzle. Unfortunately,  their appearance and the judgments associated with them prevent their usage, sometimes with tragic consequences.”
– Maureen Backman, Mutts About Town & The Muzzle Up! Project

Social media is a beautiful thing sometimes. Last week, an article on my Facebook news feed led me to my most current “I am so excited about this” thing. And let me tell you, I am excited about it.


Those of you who know this blog, or the dog in training who inspires much of it, know that Balton has been a work in progress when it comes to his reactions to people on leash and in the home. While it makes me happy to report that many of his learnings in doggy school seem to be translating to real life, and his confidence in new interactions continues to improve, he is still in training. Because his reactions to the things that scare him lean to the “fight” side of “fight or flight”, and the outside world is unpredictable sometimes, we use a muzzle as an extra layer of management.

For a really long time I was wary of using a muzzle, and I regret not embracing its use earlier on in training. My reason for being so wary was because I was afraid of the stigma that would be attached to it. I read articles about how muzzles are great management tools while training reactive dogs, like this one from Best Friends Animal Society, or this one from

I understood the message: Muzzles are important. Muzzles keep people safe. Counter-condition your dog to using the muzzle, and do it, because it is the responsible thing to do.

But, nowhere in these wonderfully informative articles do they address the hangup I had, or the hangup that I suspect a lot of people have with them: Muzzles look scary, and I didn’t want to taint my then foster dog’s public image any further by using one.

Eventually I had a wake up call, and with it, the basket muzzle became staple on all walks. Even the most experienced handlers, trainers, dog walkers, whomever, are susceptible to accidents. No human is immune to human error, and I never again want to find myself in a situation where a dog who may potentially bite actually does, because I was too stubborn and insecure to put a muzzle on him.

It’s now an accessory that accompanies Balton on every walk, every time.  But still, I felt by putting a muzzle on him, I was basically telling the world he was bad. He was broken. He was mean. He was a menace. When in reality, what I wanted people to know was, yes, he’s a DINOS. He’s got his issues that he is working on. But he is a GOOD DOG.

Even for the number of photos I share of my dogs here, and on Facebook and Instagram, I was always wary to post photos of Balton wearing his muzzle for fear of public opinion. I guess there’s an element of identifying your “kid” is not like all the others, but not wanting to plaster it everywhere for people to editorialize about.

Enter the Muzzle Up! Project to help people like me get over the hangups, and be proud to promote muzzle wearing pups like mine. The movement “promotes safety and education on muzzles and dog behavior, and aims to reduce the stigma associated with dogs who have to wear them…It’s not unreasonable that we should be wary of muzzles. After all, their main usage is to prevent dog bites, something we’ve been conditioned to fear. But which scenario is more unsettling: Encountering a dog whose owner has taken the protective measure of using a muzzle, or encountering a dog whose owner is aware of the potential for aggressive behavior but refrains from using one? While the second dog may not look as scary, the lack of muzzle presents a much more dangerous situation.”

So. Very. True. I wish I had this insight six months ago.

But, learning is a process, so while I can’t go back in time, I can pay it forward right now and encourage you to join B and me in spreading the word that muzzles are to be respected, but not to be feared. To help send that message home, here are a few photos of Balton living, loving, and “nuzzling his muzzle”.

To join in the movement, visit The Muzzle Up! Project site or follow them on Facebook.



Learning “Forever”: by Balton

This past weekend was Wags n Whiskers weekend, a big dog event that happens in Shirlington every year…I remember it well, because it was the last weekend I went to Lucky Dog adoption events before they got hard for me.

Wags ‘n Whiskers is also where I met my “forever” family. When I moved in with this family, they signed a form and got me a new collar and leash, and an ID tag with a new name. I figured this place would be special because it was so official looking with the paperwork, and I wanted to hold onto it for as long and hard as I could.

I think maybe I tried to hold on too hard, and I got to be really scared of the things outside my “forever” home. I got scared the scary things would hurt them, or that they would hurt me. The “forever” family took me to a vet who kept touching me in ways I didn’t like, and strange people kept coming up to so fast that I didn’t know what to do but bark and lunge and tell them to please give me space. The vet called me some choice words, among them that I was “aggressive toward everything” and “aggressive without warning”. He said that I was “dangerous to my family and to the public.” He said things like that I shouldn’t be allowed to go to the dog park (one of my favorite places on Earth) and that I should not be approached when eating.

That A word was used a lot, and if I’m being honest, it still hurts my feelings when I think about it.

My “forever” family kept trying to force me to meet new people after a few days. I kept getting scared and asking the new scary people to go away as loudly as I could. I thought maybe the “forever” family couldn’t hear me or didn’t understand me, so I yelled louder. My “forever” family said they were afraid of me, and the scary vet called them to say they should return me. He said that I would turn on them without warning. I didn’t know how to show them that I was really the most afraid of all, and just wanted for them to help me feel safe. They started calling me the A word that the scary vet did, and they said they couldn’t keep me anymore.

I started to think forever wasn’t really anything special. Or maybe I just didn’t understand forever after all.

I got bounced back to the foster care system, and after a few days in doggy daycare, I got picked up to go to another house by a lady, a man, and a little dog.

I worried that like the homes that came before it, I wouldn’t stay very long.

But I stayed. I stayed longer than I ever had stayed in a home before. It was a foster home, but it felt the most real out of the other homes I went to before. When I barked and pulled to get at the scary things so they would leave us alone, they didn’t act afraid of me. Instead, they tried to help me learn that the things weren’t scary, but until I could really learn that, they would work to protect me from them. When they brought me to daycare to play with friends, they came back for me.

Sometimes they made mistakes, but I forgave them. Sometimes, I made mistakes, but they forgave me.

I started remembering that smiling is my favorite.

It’s been a year since I went to my “forever” home, and for awhile after that, I didn’t believe much in forever, but the foster lady kept saying she was going to help me find it. Then one day, the foster lady came home and gave me a new collar. She said that I deserved forever, and said that she would teach me forever. For real forever. And she said I could call her Mama from now on.


Trainer people say that dogs learn best when you show them what you mean, and then pair it with a word after they learn the action. I didn’t understand forever at first, but I sure do understand it now.

I think maybe that’s because my family showed me what it meant before they gave it a name.

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Ode to Ollie

While I love to share moments of great success and interest from Balton, Ollie is my little ray of sunshine who always makes me laugh with his playful and bouncy enthusiasm, and love for pretty much all people and dogs. Last Thursday after class with Balton, I came home, let him settle in, and took Ollie for a walk alone and experienced a “Treat Yo Self” (credit Notes from a Dog Walker) inspired moment.

I love both my dogs, but I think Balton’s level of need tends to overshadow Ollie a little bit. Sharing love is  something I have to do more consciously when one dog demands so much more attention to achieve a sense of normalcy than the other. There’s a lot of internalized guilt in my efforts to show outward displays for both dogs in a way that is equitable.  Last Thursday’s peaceful stroll around the lake was a gentle reminder about how blessed I am to have a dog like Ollie, and how for all the love he has give to me, the many foster dogs we’ve looked after, and the world beyond is not to be taken for granted. In that walk, I discovered a new Thursday night ritual, and I am excited to start a 6 week agility class with him next Tuesday and spend some alone time with my little guy. He deserves it.


And agility class apparently can’t begin too soon! Those of you who follow us on Facebook may have caught this video that I took of Ollie, just delightfully being Ollie. I’ve rewatched it several times and it continues to make me laugh, so in the spirit of all the joy Ollie brings us regularly, I hope that in less than two minutes he’ll do the same for you, in case you missed it.

“Jack Russell Terriers are bred to go underground, following scent to locate and bark at quarry until they are dug down to or the quarry bolts. If they do not have an outlet for their natural instincts, they will invent new and fun jobs for themselves.”
-Jack Russell Terrier Club of America


Reactivity Activities: TTouch Much?

This is the first official entry in my ongoing series about Reactivity Activities. Though not meant to substitute for actual training, these extracurricular activities are meant to serve as complements to our ongoing training efforts in order to reduce stress and thus, reactive episodes, for Balton as he takes on the big scary monsters (well, perceived big scary monsters) of the world. Today, a recap on our first session with a TellingtonTouch (or TTouch) Practitioner.

Balton and I trekked up to Woodside TTouch in Silver Spring MD this past Sunday to meet with Pam Wanveer, a Level 3 TTouch Practitioner. I knew very little about what TTouch involved but had seen it referenced in a few places during my continued self-education, and our trainers at All About Dogs had suggested Woodside TTouch as a resource for “helping a dog learn to be more relaxed, confident, and secure in the environment.”

I also had learned about Linda Tellington-Jones (developer of TTouch) during my reading of Suzanne Clothier’s book, Bones Would Rain From the Sky, officially one of my favorite books ever. Suzanne Clothier’s relationship based training methods are heavily influenced by Linda Tellington-Jones. I had to learn more about the person who inspired she who so inspired me.


Last month, Your Dog’s Friend was offering a TTouch group workshop, which once again nudged me into thinking this might be something worth looking into. Uncertain that a workshop setting would be helpful for Balton (and therefore, its other attending students if he acted up and started an uprising) I emailed ahead to explain his situation and gauge if I should sign up for it. Ultimately, Pam and I decided that one-on-one TTouch time would probably be best for him. After several emails, sending a copy of Balton’s most recent behavior evaluation, a phone call, and some back and forth schedule conflicts, we were able to set up a time to get together this past weekend.

TTouch was developed by Linda Tellington-Jones in the 1970s. Its origins are with horses, but the practice has since been developed for companion animals, and even humans. According to the TellingtonTouch website, TTouch “is a method based on circular movements of the fingers and hands all over the body. The intent of the TTouch is to activate the function of the cells and awaken cellular intelligence…Using a combination of specific touches, lifts, and movement exercises, TTouch helps to release tension and increase body awareness. This allows the animal to be handled without provoking typical fear responses. The animal can then more easily learn new and more appropriate behaviors.”

For those of us who are more visual learners, check out the video below for a demonstrative summary.

(if you can’t see the embedded video, click here to go to the YouTube Page)

Sound like new age, sort of crazy medical magical mumbo jumbo? You betcha. But was I intrigued? You betcha. There have been lots of research studies done on TTouch and it is accepted worldwide. Training is helpful for skill building, but proactive efforts toward overall stress reduction will (I hope) ultimately assist in continued learning.

Much of our first session was focused on helping me understand a little bit of the science behind TTouch, while also working to set up a positive relationship between Balton and Pam. She put on some beef stew to get the room smelling yummy, and had a number of cozy blankets for Balton to lie on. She had chicken in butter, as well as other high value treats, at the ready for him and made a point to interact with Balton in a non-threatening way, capturing and shaping behaviors that showed relaxation (deep breaths and laying down without being prompted to, for example).

I had thought that TTouch was sort of like doggy massage – which it kind of is – but not quite. Instead, the idea is that “a system of non-habitual touch is believed to activate unused neural pathways and even create new, more complex neural connections within the body and the mind, to sharpen awareness, mind body integration and the ability to learn new information.” (source) – I guess if I had to come up with an imperfect analogy, it’s a little more like doggy yoga in the sense that the mind becomes calm through awareness of body. The touches are very light, but very purposeful.

All the while she talking to me about neurotransmitters and pathways, lobes in brain and shifting states. If I’m being honest, a lot of it went over my head because I was half focused on making sure Balton wasn’t getting keyed up and deciding he wanted to attack our new friend. If he stood in one position for too long I called his attention, but Pam assured me she was getting a lot of blinks, which is much better than a hard stare. He also was willing to turn his back to her as time wore on, and started begging her for food. Like, hard core begging, coupled with lots of whimpering, barking, and other vocalizations. The same sort of noise we get at home when Balton is attempting to demand something from us – like going outside or playing with him. I was pretty embarrassed.

But then Pam smiled and said “I’d rather he be bored to tears than intently focused on getting me.” Which, I suppose was a fairly good point. He soon started to figure out if he laid on the mat instead of barking, he would get the chicken.

Still, enough of it processed and resonated that I wanted very much to learn more. Among what was discussed was this concept of an awakened state of mind. “Studies suggest that horses move into an awakened mind state when training with Tellington Touch techniques. The Awakened Mind reflects a state of balance and optimal functioning that is expressed in a particular balance of delta, theta, alpha and beta brainwaves. Enhanced intuition, creativity, insight and spiritual awareness can occur. The body is relaxed and the mind is alive and capable of learning with ease. As described by Linda Tellington-Jones, the horse that is working in the awakened mind state learns more quickly and is safer to ride because the horse’s capacity to think helps it to override primary instincts to flee in novel or startling situations.” (source – with cool charts to help illustrate the delta/theta/alpha/beta balances).

Pam used an analogy of when you are taking a test and struggling to recall some bit of information and totally freaking out about it, then all of a sudden you have an “ah ha” moment and a flash of important info just sort of comes to you. This is sort of what the awakened state of mind can be likened to.

We spent the last bit of our session practicing TTouch on Balton. Well, I practiced and Pam supervised, in the interest of keeping session #1 a good one for B. I don’t really get how little circular touches have such a big impact, but after only a few minutes of practicing TTouch, it was remarkable how Balton’s face just softened and he laid in a position that exuded relaxation. I guess you had to be there to really get it, but I was amazed. I left feeling my own mind in an awakened state, and Balton slept in the car the whole ride home.

I still feel like I have much to learn, but I am fascinated and officially a believer. The only issue is too many in person appointments will get to be very expensive very quickly. Coupled with the weekly training we are already doing I know I will need to limit how much professional TTouch we can actually afford. But, if it will ultimately help Balton continue to excel in his training, and become equipped to find a sense of calm, I believe it’s worth it, and no matter how much professional help I can manage to get, this is definitely something I can (and plan to) do regularly at home. We’ve only scratched the surface but I can’t wait to dig deeper!



The Great Outdoors: Our Weekend Camping with Canines

This past weekend the boys and I went down to Williamsburg, VA for a day at Busch Gardens with my family who was traveling down from New Jersey. Williamsburg is about 3 hours from our house without traffic.  I would like to state for the record that “without traffic” simply does not happen for I-95 in Virginia, so it was a bit much to handle for a day trip. Nick and I ultimately decided to make a weekend of things for sanity’s sake.

Traveling has admittedly become harder for us since adopting Balton. Because Ollie is small and travels well, we have historically taken him with us most places we can drive to (and even once on an airplane to Ohio), but it’s also always been easy to find a friend to watch him for the weekend if needed, so we’ve never had to seek out pet friendly accommodations unless we wanted him to join us.

Because Balton is, erm, special in terms of his overall sociability and can’t stay with just anyone, we find ourselves reserving doggy caregivers for those occasions when it’s simply not feasible to take the dogs with us. So far, those occasions have occurred when we are getting on airplanes, but we did plan to board Balton when we were headed out of town to visit family for a week since it would likely have been too stressful for him, and sadly, my family. A dream of mine would be to get place in his training where we CAN take him along, but he’s quite simply not ready at this point for extended family functions.

Hotels that allow dogs are certainly helpful, but even these are tough to manage. When we went to a friend’s wedding 6 weeks ago, Balton had a tough time handling the large amounts of foot traffic and close encounters with other people and dogs when we had to do potty breaks. And though we stayed in an end room that was miraculously larger than what we needed, I held my breath every time we took the stairs down to the side of the building, hoping not to see any strangers. B managed okay, and we brought plenty of toys, made him work for meals, and had his crate safely behind closed doors as a precaution to any cleaning staff who did not heed our “do not disturb” message on the outside door. But he was definitely ready to roll after two nights and had a few emotional outbursts at passersby.

This weekend, we stayed at a campground cabin since the price was low, the cabin had air conditioning, and there was no extra fee for pets. I did worry that if Balton had an outburst we might get the boot from the family friendly grounds though. So, I went into the weekend not fully sure how this would plan out, and perhaps panicking ever so slightly.


When we arrived on Friday night, there was a large family taking up two cabins – one right next to us and one across the way. Suffice it to say I did not feel we were off to a good start, but hurried Balton and Ollie into the cabin and tethered them to bed posts while we unpacked. We also laid out their mats and fed the boys a slow dinner through their Kongs straight away.


Once the (human) bed was made, Balton was quick to settle into our weekend accommodations.


Ollie was perhaps less impressed with the accommodations, but presumably got over it and also settled in the bed with his favorite snuggle buddy.


Next morning we brought them down to the “Kamp K9” off leash area. It was a very small space contained by a picket fence no more than 5 feet. Thankfully neither dog is a fence jumper. Balton was a bit suspicious and nervous of the new space at first…


…but later let loose and romped around.


We watched campers and camp staff walk by and got to practice some counterconditioning/desensitization as he safely observed through the fence, they paid him no mind, and he got snacks.

Ollie also decided Kamp K9 was pretty fun…


…though was decidedly less enthusiastic the next day, as it had rained and gotten the ground all muddy.


By the way, for a dog who opts to roll around in dry dirt at the dog park after getting wet, Ollie sure can be persnickety about what physical components make wet dirt fun.

Balton was made to feel comfortable during our weekend trip with his Linus Blanket equivalent, his soccer ball.


And his crate, which further reinforced the importance of crate training – not just for house training but for trips in unfamiliar surroundings.


I don’t know if it was the air, the cabin, the training we’ve done, or the sparsely populated area, but Balton handled this trip far better than I could have ever expected. He was able to hang out outside and observe our neighbors for lengths of time longer than I would have ever thought he could, and the low stress activity surrounding us provided great training opportunity.


Balton also walked on loose leash consistently, and wasn’t having a panic attack with every walk we took.


It was really delightful to see Balton so relaxed and happy over the course of the weekend, and managing his stress so well. It made me wish for a different kind of life – one where we could live in the middle of nowhere with a big fenced in yard – things we can’t provide in a townhouse in the DC area. Even though we live far out from the city, it’s not a slow enough pace. And sadly, when we came back home, the walks once again became stressful and the loose leash behavior once again became frenetic and erratic. The good news is kids go back to school soon and so at least mid-day walks will be better, but it’s hard to see the shift back to reality when I got a glimpse into what could be.  On the other hand, it is encouraging to get a glimpse of what could be.


So, back to making life easy as we can in the life we’ve got here – this Sunday we are going in for our first TTouch consult, which was recommended as a complementary tool to our training efforts by our trainers and also recommended in Nicole Wilde’s book “Help For Your Fearful Dog”. More on how that goes in our ongoing series about our Reactivity Activities.

Happy weekend, everyone!