Faith, Trust, & Foster Pups

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


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Sophia Yin Seminar Prelude: Fear, Aggression, Foster Dogs, and Me

In September, I had the opportunity to attend a two-day seminar with Dr. Sophia Yin, veterinarian, animal behaviorist, inventor of the Manners Minder/Treat & Train, and pretty cool lady. Dr. Yin began studying animal behavior after spending time in the veterinary field, after realizing during practice that more animals were being euthanized for behavior issues than for medical issues.

Since then, she has authored many articles and books, spoken at many seminars, and continues to provide resources to the pet owning, pet training, and veterinary community through her continued research and practice in the field.

I attended her September seminar on Fear and Aggression on behalf of Lucky Dog Animal Rescue, in order to bring back what I had learned and present it to the rescue volunteers in a way that would be worthwhile for them. Since much of my personal life (and thus, this blog) has become dedicated to creating a better understanding of fear, reactivity, and how they affect dogs in the shelter and rescue system and the people they connect with, I wanted to share some of my learnings here over a series of entries. This is a really tough issue when it comes to rescuing dogs, and one I am passionate about.

Best Friends Animal Society reports that 9,000 dogs die daily in shelters across the United States.  And the infographic below helps outline a few important points:

1. One of those most common reasons is for behavior problems
2. Public perception of how many animals die in shelters on the daily: 5% of what it actually is
3. 90% of those dogs that die in shelters are adoptable, or can be with care and treatment.

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Image credit bestfriends.org

Save Them All. It’s a powerful idea, and one worth pursuing as a collective rescue community. But for those of us who spend any length of time in the world of rescue, we know it’s easier said than done. With limited resources (space, funds, appropriately matched foster and adoptive homes, hours in a volunteer’s day) and way more dogs going into shelters than heading out, “saving them all” isn’t so easy.

Coming up with clear points that identify the 90% adoptable vs. the 10% unadoptable is another issue that has many more layers of difficulty. Sometimes, a dog may pass all standard behavior tests in the shelter. They may adapt well (or well enough) to different living environments, over and over again, or up to a point. Well meaning volunteers or adopters may push that dog further than it can adapt to, or not recognize warning signs of behavior challenges until they escalate to a point that become more stressful or difficult than they could or should have been.  In fact, this issue is partly addressed by Dr. Yin in her article “Adopting a Dog: Some Dogs are Easier Than Others”  as she writes “passing a shelter evaluation doesn’t mean a perfect pet.”

Dogs with certain behavior challenges and fear based issues can be placed, and I love seeing those hard-to-place dogs go home, to the right home. In my volunteer experience, Lucky Dog has successfully screened homes for and placed MANY fearful dogs, and they thrive in those homes with patient and loving adopters (even if they spend several months or more than a year looking for the right forever). But, as someone who has screened many adoption applications over the years, the #1 behavior issue adopters identify as a deal breaker is aggression. I can count on less than one hand the number of applicants that do not readily and adamantly admit that aggression would be grounds for a return. And I don’t blame them for that.

What I do ask is that we speak honestly about the known and unknown things about their potential new family member, in order to determine if it’s an appropriate match, and I ask that they make an honest commitment to understanding and training their dog as much as they commit to providing necessary medical care. I ask them how they will work with their dog to prevent aggression from developing, and explain the importance of taking a proactive instead of reactive approach to training. I get frustrated (or downright angry) when people adopt a dog with the promise of giving him the best life possible, and then break that promise by not supporting their physical or behavioral health. Adopters who do not address behavior issues early on, allow them to escalate, and then wash their hands of the promise they made frustrate me. But if someone determines prior to adoption that a dog’s overall needs don’t fit their lifestyle, or if after adoption they really, really try to give them that dog but are unable, I can only thank them for sincerity and honesty, and show support in compassion, problem solving, and identifying the right resources and next steps for them. In some cases, this means a dog doesn’t get adopted, or a dog gets returned, and it’s the best thing for that dog.

In a Dogster article by Sassafrass Lowrey on adopting “imperfect” dogs, her words resonate as we work to place dogs in homes where they will be able to stay and thrive. She writes, “I want people to rescue dogs, but I also want rescue dogs to get forever homes — not experience one more rejection. I believe part of that winning combo is transparency about what an individual dog has: their strengths as well as their struggles. Then, the prospective adopting family needs to do thoughtful self-analysis ensure they aren’t just falling in love with a cute face but can and will handle everything about this dog. Don’t judge yourself if the answer is no, this isn’t the right fit for my home/lifestyle/family/wants. It doesn’t make you bad to realize those things; it makes you responsible.”

If we ask adopters to be responsible, we as members of the rescue community need to ask the same of ourselves. And so, there is a delicate line that is toed regularly in the world of rescue: the line between saving all and assessing risk. Sara Reusche of Paws Abilities wrote a very good piece on Responsible Rescues  which addresses some important guidelines which outline the characteristics of a responsible rescue (if you haven’t read it, take a few minutes to…it’s very good). In short, these characteristics are:

1. Focusing on making good matches between animals and adopters
2. Not making excuses for their animals
3. Caring as much for the safety of the adopter and the community as they do their animals, and not placing dangerous animals
4. Working within their means
5. Improving the animals in their care
6. Following up

So, in following these guidelines, and the guideline of “Knowledge is Power,” I’m on a mission to offer some access to educational opportunities that will allow a volunteer-run, foster-based organization to follow these guidelines.

It’s important to recognize the very nature of being a foster dog is stressful, and our role as fosters or rescue volunteer is to “do no harm”. Dr. Yin addressed this in her seminar, and in her book to the veterinary community on Low Stress Handling, Restraint & Behavior Modification of Dogs & Cats. Additionally, Debbie Jacobs of Fearfuldogs.com recently started a series on “Fostering Success” through her blog, and she explains, “The most important role a foster caregiver can play in the life of a dog in transition is to ensure that the dog, at the very minimum, does not develop new fears, concerns or reasons to distrust people. Every dog in the rescue system would have a unique tale to tell, were they able to do so…when these dogs roll the dice they may not be expecting lucky sevens…a foster home should prove to these dogs that their luck has changed, that betting on people being good to them is worth the risk. And there are the dogs who despite everyone’s good intentions remain wary and unsure.”

Dr. Yin said at her seminar, “every time we interact with a dog, we learn something and the dog learns something.” The question then is what are we learning, and what are they learning? In our lessons with dogs, are we teaching them we humans don’t listen to them, and therefore can’t be taught or trusted, or are we ultimately helping them learn the crazy human world we’re asking them to live in is a good one?

Even if we provide positive experience in a foster home, it’s also important to consider many foster based organizations also rely on weekly adoption events to showcase dogs in their care, since they don’t have shelter visiting hours. These events can be super stressful for dogs who are greeted by would-be adopters and random people on the street who can’t resist the cute factor, but may be clueless/rude in the way they greet dogs. This can lead to the development or exacerbation of fear issues in dogs. Dr. Yin says fear is a precursor to aggression, and most dog bites are attributed to a fear response (which we’ll address in some more detail later). Aggression is a normal fear response for a dog, but in our human world, it is inappropriate. A dog who bites, regardless of reason or emotional state, is considered a liability.  Volunteer and public education on recognizing signs of fear and how we humans make fear worse is critical by virtue of this fact alone, as improper greetings and failing to recognize early signs of fear can literally put dogs’ lives at risk.

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Image credit drsophiayin.com

It seems fairly obvious that animal rescues want to rescue animals, and that rescue volunteers have kind hearts and good intentions. Unfortunately, kind hearts and good intentions aren’t enough to prevent or resolve behavior issues, as I came to learn with Balton. I had to get smarter to learn how to work with him and address his fears, and I did (and continue to). Unfortunately, while I was learning how to address his fear, he was learning that behaving aggressively makes scary things go away, and practicing that behavior. Sara Reusche addresses the “practice makes perfect” idea in this post on reactivity, stating “the more your dog engages in any behavior, whether you approve of that behavior or not, the better your dog will get at performing that behavior.”

Seeing how good Balton was with the people he trusted (namely, my husband and me), I was his biggest cheerleader for adoptability to the right home for many months. Then we had a behavior assessment done, and the professional assessment told us otherwise. Our trainers told us in kindness and honesty after observing him “you’re great with him, but you’re not normal.”

They further told us they felt great confidence in my ability to provide him a full life and keep him and others safe, but if asked would they be comfortable with their next door neighbor adopting him, the answer would be no. His social drive was low, his warning system was poor, and despite his tolerance,  acceptance, and eager-to-please affection for those he trusted, he was too quick to bite the people he didn’t. He would require a lifetime of training and management, and our assessment report stated “management is very hard and most people don’t have your level of skill…he is sweet dog, but a project, and likely will be for life.” If we couldn’t adopt him, it would be understandable, but the kindest thing for him would then be euthanasia.

When I first set out to foster Balton I was adamant that we were an okay home for him in that moment, but not for the long haul. He was doing well in our care, and so I while I knew full well his adoption window was small, I thought his love for “his” people would eventually triumph over his challenges. Well, it did, but not quite as I had thought it would. Ultimately, when faced with the decision on how to move forward, I believed Balton had not reached his full potential. I believed there was more for him than months and months of hard work together, scratching the surface of progress made, and a young life cut short. Continuing to be his cheerleader, I believed he deserved better, and I adopted a dog who had been assessed as unadoptable.

My admission of adopting an unadoptable dog is simply that: an admission of a fact. It’s not a bragging right, nor is it a confession of some sort of sin. Some people might celebrate it, some people might condemn it. I’m sure there are a number of good points to argue either. The point is I knew who this dog was, what he needed to be successful, and how to offer it to him. After a series of early mistakes while fostering Balton, and learning from those mistakes, I wanted to do right by him, and felt capable of doing what was necessary. He is so much better than he was a year ago. Our relationship, and the way he and I partner together to handle his fears, has improved by leaps and bounds and taught us both so much.

Having said that, he will always have challenges, and I will never force him to be a dog that he isn’t or fit a mold that others may expect he should fit as a “good dog”. I know he is a good dog, but I also know it would be irresponsible to pass the leash to someone else, given the level of training and management he would require. I was prepared to provide him that training and management, but if I was not, it would also have been irresponsible for me to adopt him.

With Balton’s adoption, I am currently one less available foster home, which may have helped to provide shelter and development to countless other dogs. However,  I also have a much greater knowledge and desire to learn about dog behavior than I had or could have expected before he came to me. I don’t take for granted how little I knew when we started off together, nor do I consider myself an expert today by any means (you can find some experts on my resources page though). Still, I continue to believe Balton came to my life to teach me things, and I don’t want to keep those lessons to myself if they can somehow help other rescue volunteers and the dogs in their care.

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Reactivity Activities: Balton Joins the Pit Crew

This Saturday was National Pit Bull Awareness day, and Balton celebrated in good form by joining up as a member of a club that devotes itself to Pit Bull Awareness. He’s very passionate about social education and advocacy with issues pertaining to his canine buddies!

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Once upon a time, the Shepherds were the breed of choice to pick on as inherently dangerous, and many GSDs are still banned from many apartment buildings here in the DC metro area, so Balton totally empathizes with his Bully brethren.

Okay, so really it was more of a happy coincidence that he happened to meet up with this group on this very important holiday, but we were super excited to join them, and Balton is very proud to be an honorary Pit Bull.

Let’s backtrack a bit. A few months ago I had started reading up on structured social dog walking groups and found what I was reading fascinating. Groups like Chicago Sociabulls, KC Pittie Pack, and Positive Pittie Pack Walk. In fact, it was a post about PPPW featured on the Chicago Sociabulls group that first drew my attention to the idea. See it here to get a sense on why I was so inspired.

I loved the concept behind these groups. While part of their effort is to change perceptions about bully breeds (mission point #1 that I love), they also strive to help dog owners offer safe and structured environments for dogs. They provide opportunities to be in group settings with other people and dogs, allowing the opportunity to work on leash manners and have good experiences with dog owners who won’t judge them. And, there are rules. Rules about where dogs fall in the lineup, rules about not allowing dogs to greet before, during, or after walks. We love rules. We love tools that facilitate those rules to be followed, like providing special colored bandanas to make it clear which dogs need more space, and dogless walkers to offer a buffer between the group and dogs and their owners who were not with the group. We love a kindhearted understanding that some dogs will need more space than others, and this doesn’t make them a bad dog. This was exactly the kind of support network Balton needed.

I started looking into Meetups to try and find a similar group and was disheartened to find other dog walking groups seemed lovely, but weren’t really conducive to what we were looking for. Many of them took routes where members could and would allow dogs off leash. I had visions of dogs and people rushing us and giving dirty looks since we walk him in a basket muzzle and need to respectfully request space. I pictured Balton and I both having a panic attack on a trail out in Virginia somewhere, with me wondering why people are so resistant to leash laws, and why I would put my dog in an environment that would effectively make future walks much more stressful.

A year with Balton has taught me some valuable lessons about taking hindsight experiences to improve foresight.

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Heeeey, good job Ma! You’re making great progress in your training!

Then my friend and fellow foster Angel of Wet Nose Seeks Warm Bed told me that the Animal Welfare League of Arlington actually has a walking group. In fact, I had been following their offshoot group the AWLA Pit Crew for some time because of their awareness and education efforts towards myth busting, promoting adoption, and responsible ownership of bully breeds. But I had no idea they also had a structured walking group. A few emails and questions later (among which admittedly included “is it okay that my dog is not a Pit Bull?”) and I was reviewing their rules, submitting B-man’s info, and eagerly awaiting my first walk invite. I decided to attend the first group walk solo, so I could get a sense on how things are run. I wanted to (a) determine that this would be a good fit for Balton and (b) get out some of my own nervous jitters so that I could feel better prepared when I decided to bring Balton out. Everyone was so incredibly nice and welcoming, and dogs who had reactivity issues were designated with red bandannas so that other group members knew they needed extra space. That said, they  require that walkers keep a minimum of five (5) feet of space between dogs even if their dog is a social butterfly (and note that some dogs will need much more space). As the walk progresses, some dogs may be able to shorten that distance, but they keep a strict no contact rule throughout the walk.

So, after my dogless walk, I felt awesome, and was excited to bring Balton out to this Saturday’s walk starting at the Marie Leven Butler Reserve in McLean, VA.

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It was a cold start to the morning, and there was a lot of novelty for Balton. Fortunately, the DINOS stars smiled on Balton and it was a pretty small walk this week. There were only two other dogs (one of whom is dog reactive) and four other people. It didn’t stop Balton from doing a bit of introductory barking and lunging, but our fellow walkers were very kind and placed us in the way in the way back so we could control the distance between us and the group. There were dogless walkers able to alert us if there was a person/dog/car up ahead to be aware of, and would also help run interference so that we didn’t have any catastrophic run-ins. As the walk wore on, Balton’s comfort level increased and we were able to decrease distance with the dog and people in front of us. There were a lot of new smells and exciting things, but Balton did really well at checking in with me regularly and staying focused (at a high rate of reinforcement) when two dogs from outside the group bypassed us on the trail. Having heads up and emotional support from the group made these encounters so much easier to handle.

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Out on the trail, with a big smile on his face (and a red bandanna – just like adoption events days of old – ah, memories).

We crossed over a river by way of a rock path, we saw a lot of beautiful houses, and we sniffed a lot of  ground (well, Balton sniffed). And when we were done, we had a short reconvene with our new friends (no greeting, just standing around for a moment before parting ways) and B was in a really good place.

When we got back to the car he had this look on his face that seemed to say “Holy wow, did I just walk with a bunch of new people and dogs and enjoy myself??? I’m gonna have a party here in the back seat!”

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And then he pretty quickly realized that he had covered a lot of ground (physically, mentally, and emotionally), and it turned out he was pretty exhausted. So he napped the whole way home.

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While some might argue that these structured walks don’t exactly make for a “social” setting, this was a huge day for Balton. For him, this IS a social event, and what’s more important, it’s a social event that allows him to change associations with humans attached to on leash dogs. He doesn’t really get the chance to go on walks with anyone other than Nick, our dog walker Alex, and me. And other people walking dogs is something that stresses Balton out a lot when we are out in the world. We’re good at keeping distance, but we don’t get the opportunity to use those one-off encounters as good learning experiences for him because we cannot trust strangers to be understanding or respectful of his space or fears.

Keeping below threshold is not easy, and dogs on leash with their people are the scariest thing for him, triggering his worst reactions. I believe this bizarre reaction has something to do with fear of humans, but also frustrated greeting for the dog. He really likes other dogs and wants very badly to get more info on them, and in fact got to be okay with Alex, (who he did not start on good terms with) after I took him on a walk with Alex and his dog, Hank. Hank started coming on walks for awhile after that, and Alex was greeted much more favorably when he came to our home. Since then, Alex remains one of the few in Balton’s trust circle, which is incredibly fortunate for us. However, we had fallen into a pattern for awhile of on leash dog = total cluster of leash gremlinism, with no clear way to help generate a better experience.

So, creating a positive walk experience in the company of other humans and their on leash dogs is kind of a big deal, and the more he gets to do it, the better I think walks will be in general for him. To that end, yesterday we had an amazing walk with regular check ins and happy demeanor, even when we had to bypass a scary (by Balton standards) man raking leaves and a gaggle of screaming children running every which way. Nick and Ollie help to provide a great buffer zone, but Balton was so much less stressed on yesterday’s walk than I think I have ever seen him on a walk.

I can’t help but believe his good time Saturday carried over, and can only hope that more of these walks will help Balton continue enjoy himself on walks, which, honestly had been very difficult for a very long time.

I’m so, so grateful that the AWLA Pit Crew exists, and am so grateful they have been so welcoming and supportive of Balton and other dogs like him with specific challenges. Having said that, the AWLA Pit Crew Walking Group is not just for reactive dogs! It’s a social group that is welcoming of all dogs and has amazing volunteers. They also are always in need of more volunteers to get involved and help host walk sites, which we plan to do after attending a few more walks.

To learn more about them, visit www.awla.org/volunteer/pit-crew/ and to find out how to join the Pit Crew walking group, email pitcrewwalks@awla.org 


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Lucky Enough.

Lovely post in celebration of Pit Bull Awareness month, and the way love and patience strengthens the bonds of trust and family, from Temporary Home, Permanent Love.

Temporary Home, Permanent Love

I’ve been meaning to write a post for Pit Bull Awareness Month and today while cleaning out my inbox I found a picture that I’ve been searching for for months and I dare say, is quite fitting for the topic at hand.  Check it out:

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Recognize that face?  This is Maggie, about a week (and a week’s worth of meals) after she was found.  That thing hanging from around her neck is what she chewed through to free herself.  Look at her ribs.  Her sunken forehead.  Her posture.  The dark, sick rings around her eyes.  This picture makes me think of Gollum from Lord of the Rings.

Pit BullAnd look at her now.  Meat on her bones, a twinkle in her eye, and a big ole goofy grin on her face.  Quite the transformation, right?  Well, I want to let you all in on a little secret:  this is normal

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Crisp Air, Crunching Leaves, Creepy World

ImagePhoto credit The Smitten Image

The fall changing of seasons is here. And with it comes sweater weather, beautiful colors, earlier evenings, and what seems to be a sense of heightened sensitivity in my sensitive dog.

I don’t know why I didn’t notice it last year. Probably because I was still very much struggling/clueless in how to cope in my relationship with Balton, and how to address his over the top reactions to scary stimuli. But I guess it makes you realize how far you’ve come in a year, even though in some ways it feels like we’ve only taken a couple baby steps to where we ought to be.

Last night my Statistics homework and I were interrupted by the pacing and doorknob nosing of one Shepherd’s quiet requests to go to the bathroom. I’ve always given Balton lots of credit for his polite house manners and gentle requests for attending to his business. Only after I’ve put him off too long does he start getting demanding with some short and sharp barks.

So, out to the autumn chill we went. It was dark, and there were noises off in the distance – be they leaves crunching or our neighbor down the street hammering something on the outside of his house which warranted a low growl and a few barks. We were trying to find some potty spots underneath lamp posts so it could be well lit, then returned to our side yard to give it a go. Balton peed on a few posts, but number two he would not do.

So after 20 minutes, back inside we went. Soon as we got back to the comfort of home, Balton seemed to remember what we had ventured out to do in the first place, but he had been too worried to do. He meandered back over to the door right after I took his leash and my jacket off, nosing the doorknob once again. “Really?” I asked with a sigh. He looked at me with big eyes that seemed to promise he would finish the job this time.

So back to the dark and scary night we went. I watched him and offered him treats when he spooked at a far off sound indicative of a scary monster from nowhere, but then looked back to me after gently calling his name or making kissy noise.10 minutes later, he finally accomplished what he set out to do, and I celebrated being able to go back to the couch and histograms I was studying (let it be known I was less celebratory about the histograms than I was the couch).

We headed to the house, and I gave him a treat on the doorstep before we entered back indoors (unsure if it made sound training sense, but I wanted to reward him for facing the night before we went back inside). Balton galloped up on the couch and looked worried for a few moments more, until I cuddled him and told him what a good boy he was. He collapsed at my side and fell asleep, warming my lap and not moving again until he was called to bed for his nighttime snack.

Balton is described by his trainers as a worrier, and it has been great seeing him less worried week by week when he goes to class and faces some of the things that caused him angst. Seeing him last night, the words of my trainers resonate. Novelty of some things has worn off with counter-conditioning and desensitization, but last night it was like everything had changed and become scary again. His ears were back, his stance was stiff, he was acutely aware of every rustling and off distance noise around us. Seeing him so afraid at the things that go bump in the night hurts my heart in a way that’s tough to describe. It reminds me how fragile he is, and makes me wish people could get that when they interact with him.

I think of the people who think he’s so scary, and wish they could get a real honest glimpse of how much more afraid he is of them.  It made me think I may have the makings of a children’s book on my hands: Balton the Fraidey Dog Who Everyone Was Afraid Of

I feel like children’s books tend to require a happy ending (unless you’re Hans Christian Andersen I guess – he missed that memo). For Balton, it would be super for that ending to result in a removal of fear, or some triumphant breakthrough where some mutual understanding where a little kid can teach grown ups why they shouldn’t judge their sweet friend…and yes he is a sweet, sweet friend to the gentle soul and open heart of that child.

Maybe Balton the Brave: An Unlikely Superhero’s Story could follow this up as a two part series- where his super qualities triumph over the scary monsters he lives among in the human world.

That would be my happy ending, anyway.


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(Mostly) Wordless Wednesday: Adopt a Pet Infographic


BlogPaws Adopt a Pet Month Infographic: October 2013
BlogPaws

Additionally, I’m working to find some homes for these three pups – help share their stories and find forever homes in celebration of this month dedicated to them!

Rudy – here in the DC area and seeking a foster or forever home!


Jacey – arrives to DC Saturday 10/19 – seeking a foster or forever home!

Tinkerbell – currently in South Carolina Shelter – seeking a foster or forever home so she can come to DC!

Learn more about all these cuties and other adoptable pups through
Lucky Dog Animal Rescue’s Adoptable Dogs Page!


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Dogs and Personhood

Recently there’s been a NY Times article going around about how Dogs are People, Too. The article focuses on an MRI study done with dogs (trained to go through an MRI machine) and reveals brain activity maps. The study, in short, seems to indicate that dogs have the ability to experience human emotions, such as love and attachment. This finding goes steps further to re-evaluate how we treat animals, suggesting we should look to provide guardianship over creatures with limited personhood, rather than ownership over property. I would encourage you to read it if you have not done so already – it’s a fascinating piece.

I also recently read a piece on Creating New Pathways for Your Dog’s “Monkey Mind”, which writes about dealing with human anxiety and carving out new pathways, and the implications that has with dog behavior.

These writings have gotten me to thinking about the emotional ties that bind us to our dogs. And the longer I live as Balton’s guardian, the more I begin to think he may have found me so I can start to evaluate my own emotional patterns. I’ve often said I learn about myself in learning about my foster dogs, but each day with Balton tends to remind me of my own humanity more than I can say.

Over the course of life, bad things happen and good things happen. They happen to people and they happen to dogs. I think about Balton’s lack of confidence, which is why he feels the need to be on a defensive unless he can trust I am looking out for his best interest. I think about what may have caused the emotional pathways in his brain to be carved out the way they have. I think about the work we need to do in order to create new pathways. Maureen Backman writes “Fearful pathways are deep, strong and rehearsed. Carving out new pathways – new ways for dogs to behave, to feel about the environment – takes effort, consistency and compassion. In writing this post, I thought of ways we can help our anxious and fearful dogs find new pathways for behaving. Many are comparable to creating new pathways in our own lives (Creating New Pathways for Your Dog’s “Monkey Mind”).”

I have struggled with confidence in myself, and trust in others, for some time. I have fought a 15 year battle with anxiety and depression that sometimes I feel like I’m winning. Most times, I feel like I’m losing. But I’ve learned a game face will allow you to function all right. If you’ve got your game face on and your depression under wraps, you’re looking okay to the rest of the world, even if you’re hurting inside and not wanting to face life. Looking for some answer or a switch to make small life situations not feel so looming and hard. Feeling somehow inadequate or like a terrible person because you can’t just be grateful for the blessings you know you have. Feeling like somehow you have some untapped potential to be a better person and you just can’t tap it.

Depression, anxiety, and addiction are not well understood. Not by those suffering them, and less so by those who don’t live with emotions and fears that frankly seem irrational. I remember when I read Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half post on depression, and rereading it again and again. I hoped that what she was writing would make sense to those who never really got why people don’t “just get over it”. How well meaning attempts from others to offer solutions can make you feel super alone, and worse that you can’t just get off the couch and go to yoga to make your demons go away with a finger snap. But, if nothing else, the post was validating for me in knowing someone had penned depression well, and somehow managed to make me feel less awful about it.

Aggression in dogs is misunderstood and not constructively addressed by most people in society. There are some really good organizations and professional trainers who look to these dogs with compassion and kindness, seeking to address the root cause of aggression. But for most people, they see a dog lunging or barking at them and can’t see fear. They see a dog that needs to be controlled or dealt with, or they see irresponsible caregivers for that dog.

Aggression is a symptom of an underlying emotion (often fear). Shutting down, being unable to focus, or intense dread about picking up the phone to call someone you consider a friend or should depend on as family, are symptoms of my underlying anxiety and depression. You can control symptoms, but controlling symptoms does little, if anything, to really develop solutions for cause.

You can train obedience in a number of ways, but if you’re training obedience without addressing stress, you may just be painting over a crack that is a symptom of crumbling foundation. You don’t see the crack, but the foundation is continuing to crumble, and it’s only a matter of time before the repairs become much more costly than a can of paint.

I think the same applies to human conditions. You can only drive a car without oil before it leads to bigger engine problems, and I then dealing with your car’s overall health becomes far more overwhelming than it would have been if you just changed the oil like you should have. My husband offered me this analogy in a recent low point with my depression.

This could very well bring on another discussion in looking critically at tragedies which occur as the result of human conditions. Violent crimes with mental health undertones, for example, which focus more on gun control than developing real solutions for those with mental health conditions. I need to do some more research here, but I can’t help but feel if you’re functioning and going with the motions for what society needs to see you as, you’re okay. Until you’re not. The same can be said for dog bites that “came out of nowhere.” The dog was fine. Until he wasn’t. And now he needs to find a new place to live because the family who ignored his early warning signs can’t have a dog that bites.

I’ve spent a lot of years trying to fix myself, but if the last year with Balton has taught me anything, there is no such thing as an easy fix.  While I was once convinced that there was a different forever home out there for him, I’ve started to have a greater acceptance that his “hard to place” status wasn’t a thing that has only been to his benefit. The universe seemed to tell me I was meant to be the caretaker he needed, but lately I’ve been starting to think maybe he’s the dog who was meant to teach me how to be a better caretaker of myself.

got your back

“You’ve got my back, and I’ve got yours.”

Maybe as awareness of my dog’s personhood grows, I can start becoming more aware of my own human personhood. And maybe, just maybe, building some new pathways for Balton can teach me how to build some new and improved pathways for myself.


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Foster Flashback Friday: Environmental Management

Managing a dog’s environment is something that can lead to great success and great fails (not in the cute happy ending way that Balton likes to talk about either). We’ve seen our share of both, and sometimes even good management can fail (so it’s often wise to have multi-management systems in place). Fostering has taught me there’s a human learning curve when dealing with many dogs, with many individual personalities and their own doggie learning curves for training progress.

Sometimes, you forget that with a new dog, you have to hit reset. This is true for adoptive homes and the perpetual revolving door for foster parents. Bear in mind that even though your last dog or foster dog may not have never chewed anything or required minimal exercise, for example, the new standard of living is going to be different with a new dog. Perhaps if more people went into adoptions with this one thing in mind, we would have fewer dogs being returned to rescues or being dumped at shelters (article credit Dogs Out Loud).

One lesson in environmental management that I often reflect on comes courtesy of one of my favorite fosters, Loopy the one-eyed Rottie mix.

Loopy - Adopted December 2012

There’s something incomparably lovely about a dog who always is winking at you.

Loopy liked to play, run, and cuddle.

ollieloopybed2

15 lbs of dog underneath 55 lbs of dog. Seems reasonable.

We learned pretty soon after her arrival that she also liked to chew. Her most favorite snacks were rolls of paper towels or toilet paper, and electronic cords. In the 3 weeks we had her, I said sayonara to one cell phone charger, one laptop cable, and almost one vacuum (fortunately we have a handy friend who was able helped us fix the vacuum).  All of these items could have been saved if I had been a little more diligent on management.

I knew it didn’t take long for Loopy to find something “delicious” to snack on – we came in from a walk on day one when she dashed into the kitchen and went to town on a paper towel roll that had been left on the floor. 2 seconds was all she needed to destroy stuff. And yet, I somehow was surprised when I took a short break from vacuuming later that day to do some laptop work at my dining room table while Loopy rested near me in the living room. Within minutes, the vacuum plug I had left unraveled on the living room floor was being chewed just outside my periphery.

She was IN THE ROOM WITH ME and I didn’t see it happening. But why did I think that it would be reasonable to just leave the vacuum plug lying on the floor with a known chewer? Well, maybe because I didn’t think she would have an appetite for plugs. So I’ll let myself slide on that one.

Later that day I had to take a shower. While I am a huge fan of crate training (and Lucky Dog requires it when foster parents are out of the home or sleeping), I somehow thought that this lovely dog who had already shown a predisposition for chewing non-food and non-toy items would be okay for the 10 minutes I was indisposed and unable to watch her. Thus, the demise of my laptop cable. What the heck was I thinking by not crating her?

Thankfully, a little collateral damage was all that came from this great day of learning, and Loopy was unharmed. I take full ownership of being a poor environmental manager, and became a lot more diligent about managing Loopy’s environment. I later had the good fortune of completing her home visit with her forever family, and spied a laptop plugged in on the floor. I cautioned they would want to pick that up, offering what I had learned the hard way as a preventative tip for the new adopters.

cb51d-loopyholly

Loopy (now Leela) in her new home with her Pomeranian mix sister (keep an eye on the laptop in the corner!).

It’s important to note that when something gets destroyed or impacted by the result of poor management, it’s not really the dog’s fault. Let me repeat that. When you fail as a manager, it is not your dog’s fault. It is your fault, human. I’ve seen more than a few situations of adopters getting mad at their recently adopted dog when he shows destructive behavior. Then I come to find out that dog was left unsupervised and uncrated (when the dog had been crate trained and was perfectly comfortable in a crate). I’m sorry, but there is no excuse for blaming a dog for the fact that you set up his environment to fail. Mistakes happen. Accidents happen. But we humans are the ones who control the environment and teach our dogs what behavior is appropriate under our supervision. Eventually, those dogs learn and can be entrusted to less supervision. But until they do, we cannot expect them to know what they have not learned, and have no right to get mad at them when we are the ones who screwed up.

Environmental management is obviously not a substitute for real, honest to goodness training, but it definitely can save shoes, cables, and other casualties of dog boredom (or in some cases, anxiety) as you work on teaching a dog appropriate behaviors and building trust in one another.

For a few more good pieces on management, check here (credit Paws Abilities), here (Fearfuldogs.com), here and here (Eileen and Dogs).  In dogs with more serious behavior issues (like our Balton), you can see a few more flashbacks of management in action herehere, and here.

How about you? Any management tidbits that have been helpful with your past or present resident dogs? Or hard knock lessons that resulted in improved management?