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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Football and Forgiveness: Musings on Man, Mutts, and Michael Vick

If you’ve been around this blog for any time at all, you probably know by now how emotional I get about dogs. Loving my dogs, rescuing dogs, studying dog behavior, advocacy issues involving dogs, educating others on how to respect their dogs…you get the idea. What you may not know is that I also can get really emotional about football. For 3 decades I have been raised as a devoted, passionate, optimistic, and for many seasons disappointed New York Jets Fan. My dad’s been taking us to games since I was a kid, and I’ve grown up unconditionally loving my New York football team, despite the fact that New York also happens to have another football team that actually has won (or been to, for that matter) Super Bowls in my lifetime.

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I’m sorry, Ollie. If  it’s not the Jets, it will be a Browns Jersey for your dad.

A time honored family tradition is believing in and sticking by our team, then being let down at the end of the season. But hey, we had a Playoff streak from 2009/10-2010/11, making it so far as to be crushingly defeated in the AFC Championship by the Pittburgh Steelers before a recent steady decline into sadness and butt fumbles. Then, just when you think you think being a Jets fan can’t get any worse, this happens.

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It’s been over 7 years since Michael Vick was sentenced to prison for his crimes. This July will mark 5 years since his release from incarceration, and subsequent reinstatement into the NFL. Yet, it’s only natural that Vick’s name continues to haunt and stir up emotions in people, and that my heart would sink and I would feel personally betrayed by the people who added him to the Jets roster. For the masses of dog lovers who also pay any scrap of attention to football, there has been a lot of outcry. Take a look at the Jets Facebook Page and you’ll see that fans are mad. The recurring theme in much of what I read is full of disappointment, anger, and a lot of animal loving Jets fans deciding to boycott the team (and with NY Giants Offensive Tackle Justin Pugh now representing the Show Your Soft Side Campaign, jumping ship for New York’s rival team seems apt right about now). Even dogs are shaming the Jets.

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Photo Credit Mr. Bones & Co. and Rescue the Runway – http://www.facebook.com/Mr.Bones.and.Co

The wagging tongues should come as no surprise to Woody Johnson, John Idzik, Rex Ryan, and the rest of the NY Jets Leadership. Nor should it be a surprise to the NFL, who still seems to be taking heat for reinstating Vick as a player in 2009, after his release from federal prison. As recently as January of this year, as the Philadelphia Eagles ended their football season, Juliet Macur of The New York Times reported on a sidelined Michael Vick, who had effectively lost his job to young starting quarterback Nick Foles in 2013. Macur provides an editorial caution to any prospective teams who may be looking to Vick as a possible fit. But the Times article mostly ignores his injuries, his age, or his prospects for contributing to a team’s performance. Michael Vick the athlete might as well not exist. Instead, the focus is on Michael Vick the dog fighter, and the advice is that teams “considering giving him a third chance in the N.F.L. should be required to look past his strong left arm, his nimble feet and his potentially cost-effective upside.”

The article goes on to recount the lives lost, the lives impacted, the lives of the dogs who were innocent victims to the atrocities committed by Michael Vick. I’ll spare you the horrific details, which you can get from the article and abundant other sources. Many people in animal welfare are already well aware of those details, and they continue to hurt hearts everywhere, mine included. Beyond the physical abuse, there is the road to rebuild. Peace, Love, & Fostering recently provided some heartbreaking perspective about what victims of dog fighting, as well as their rescuers, fosters, and adopters, are faced with when they pick up the pieces and try to achieve a normal life after a life of trauma. Physical injuries often take less time to go away than emotional ones, and the scars on a dog’s heart may leave deep and lasting impressions. Speaking as someone who has adopted a dog with physical and emotional scars, I can tell you those emotional scars are so much more visible every day than what his fur has concealed over time.

My mind cannot and will not ever be able to wrap around what causes a person to operate or support the use and abuse of animals for “sport.” It hurts my head, it hurts my heart. It hurts that the dirty and illegal sport of dog fighting continues to take place in pockets of the United States, and that all its rippling ramifications affect poor victimized dogs and their brethren well beyond the terrible abuse. It has yielded misguided Breed Specific Legislation and a public perception that Pit Bull type dogs are inherently vicious or dangerous. Look to the amazing examples set by Elle the Pit Bull, Xena the Warrior Puppy, Frankie, I’m a Lover Not a Fighter (just a small sampling of amazing bullies doing amazing things), and you’ll see how ridiculous that notion is.

Still, through all this, I look to where we are today, in 2014, over half a decade from where Michael Vick was rightfully sent to jail. I keep being reminded of Michael Vick’s terrible sins. I read and re-read what the reporter writes, that “teams evaluating Vick should think about those horrors before offering him a chance to wear their jersey.”

I can’t help but think of so many of us in the rescue community – so hard on one another, so hard on ourselves, and yet, so endlessly compassionate to the animals who need our human help. We’ve seen the worst, and we sometimes fall into a pattern of therefore seeing the worst in people, whether they deserve to be seen that way or not. And I think of our dogs – I think of of the ways we may have wronged them in their lives. I think, if dogs held grudges the way humans do, the world would be a far less forgiving place. And I think, if we live in a world where we are irredeemable from the sins we commit, what’s the point of living in it?

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I always find myself thinking of the Vicktory Dogs, each offering a beacon of light from this whole ugly thing. The wonderful hearts of the humans who have allowed them to share that light with the world. Halle, Handsome Dan, HectorSqueaky JeanLayla, Ray. The memories and legacies left by Georgia and Lucas. I think of how easy it would be for them to hold grudges against humanity given what has been done to them, but how human kindness, even if not necessarily at the hand of Vick and those who had done unkindness to them, has allowed them to move on and live well.

Michael Vick has done some horrible things. He will forever hold a legacy as being one bad dude, and that’s an unfortunate consequence to pay for what he’s done. He maybe could have had a legacy of being a QB who ran the ball as effectively as he threw it, and maybe had his NFL career go a different way. His trades to teams would be analyzed by what he did on the field, instead of the crimes and atrocities he committed at the Bad Newz Kennels.

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They say that grace is a bestowal of blessings unto those who have committed sins and don’t really deserve those blessings. I can’t speculate if Michael Vick will ever be able to pay penance for his sins or be forgiven by those people who will feel like the prison time he’s served, or the stuff he’s done to try and pay his debt to society after getting out of prison will ever be enough to make things right. But in our life, we all will likely find ourselves needing some grace at some point, if we haven’t already. Michael Vick seems to have been offered that in being able to resume his career after all the intolerable, cruel, and downright wrong things he’s done. What he does with that grace is ultimately up to him. I’m not about to get all preachy, but I am a person of faith. I’m not in the position to pass judgement on the grace that has been shown by powers higher than me.

What I am in the position to do is to live like my dogs, and so many of the dogs I have come to know, and try to open my heart to some forgiveness.

Dr. Angela Londoño-McConnell said it well when she wrote on what forgiveness is, stating, “I think that we often confuse forgiveness with not holding people accountable for their actions. When we engage in the process of forgiveness (and it is a process), in no way does it imply that we condone the behavior of the person…Forgiveness does not suggest that their behavior was in any way acceptable. However, forgiveness does mean that we are not allowing their behavior to define our emotions.”

Here’s the thing. Boycotting the Jets, being angry at the NFL for letting him keep doing the job he was hired to do before he got arrested, harboring resentment – they’re all natural responses. But how is being angry, harboring resentment, or refusing to cheer for a sports team going to really undo the bad things that Vick did more than half a decade ago? How does turning my back on the team I’ve supported for three decades do anything productive? And regardless of whether or not he takes a snap all season, how is wishing my team not to do well, because of who they hired, saving any dogs or preventing any future abuse?

The truth is, none of these actions do anything to undo past abuses, nor do they do anything to help the millions of companion animals who need help today.  All they do is ruin my football season before it even starts.

I also have had some conversations with one of my fellow football enthusiasts, rescue heroes, and dog mom of the adorable Skylar and Maybel, Angel B., about this matter. She believes that “instead of being angry about Vick’s success, we should put the energy into positive endeavors — working to end dog fighting, advocating for tougher laws, being better voices for animals.”

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Michael Vick’s case has muddied his name, but shone a hot light on a terrible practice that wasn’t getting too much attention before 2007. A public dialogue has been created about a very serious abuse, but it’s not enough to just keep talking about it. I ask of my fellow dog-loving Jets fans who feel like we drew the shortest straw, of all the people who resent the NFL’s decision to allow Michael Vick to play football, to think about where you want to channel your energy. I ask that instead of getting mad, you take action.

Consider what you can do in order to better the lives of animals who need you, and do it. Volunteer your time at a local shelter. Foster a dog through a local animal rescue, or if you want to go a few steps further, foster a victim of dog fighting through a special program (or donate  to support the special needs of dog fighting victims). Join an action network to make your voice heard on issues like animal cruelty and breed-specific legislation. Align yourself with an organization that seeks out fair and equal treatment of Pit Bull type dogs, and educate yourself about responsible dog parenting and implementing community advocacy initiatives while you’re there.

While I would be hard pressed to say that Michael Vick has adequately “served his time” as I’ve heard so many times, and I will never find it in me to buy his jersey, I do want to believe in a road to redemption. I want to believe in grace bestowed leading to better lives lived. I want to believe in the New York Jets, and if people want to believe in something different, that’s okay. I just hope that whatever you believe will drive you towards making a difference instead of just making a lot of noise.

A final note: I know and respect that this is a really sensitive issue for many of us who care about animals. It has taken a lot for me to process my own emotional response and to find a way to share my thoughts in a way I intend to be meaningful and constructive. I encourage comments to add to this conversation, but hope that anyone wishing to share their insights will keep it civil.

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One Step at a Time

As you may recall, Balton was given clearance to attend his first group class last week, after almost a year’s worth of working weekly on behavior modification and desensitization as a “Rowdy Rover.” Thursday night classes have become a regular routine for Balton by now, and while awhile ago his favorite part of class was the going home part at the very end,  not long ago he actually began looking forward to them and enjoying himself while actually in the classroom. In fact, when Thursday night last week rolled around and we turned left instead of right to go to our new class, he was visibly thrown off by the fact we deviated from our normal route. Routine and consistency really do make an impression on a dog. He even has developed a lovely relationship with his one instructor, who has dependably become the one trainer who gives him treats each week, but doesn’t try to push their interactions further than that and a couple kind and gentle words. For someone who was so cautious for so long, it’s been really refreshing to see this change in perspective.

Still, as I saw him doing better and knowing that this weekly staple in his routine was really good for him, I did find myself asking questions like “what’s next?” and “how do we take all the good stuff he’s doing in the super controlled Rowdy Rovers out to the real world?” When you’re dealing with classmates who understand reactive dogs, and trainers who really work to keep those dogs in a safe learning environment, it’s a spectacular setting for learning, but it’s not real life. Real life is a world where you can’t always find a place to escape to, and where not everyone understands the importance of respecting the space of a DINOS (or where they might not realize your dog is a DINOS until they’ve invaded your space before you could do anything to prevent it or bail out).

Group class with “normal” dogs is probably the best transition zone for a dog like Balton, because he’s got some professional support on top of my managing and working with him, but as we learned in our first class, there are a lot of lovely dog parents with lovely dogs, who honestly have lovely intentions, but no manners. I don’t mean that with any ill-intent or judginess. People enroll dogs into training classes to help them with their manners, and our group classmates were literally in their very first obedience lesson. Balton’s been building the basics and then some much longer than they have, which was evident once we settled in and found our stride.

Still, the difference in dog management, coupled with a much smaller room than we are used to, made for a challenging first few minutes in the new class. Novelty is not Balton’s friend, and when the over-excited Husky next to us kept barking at him, Balton also decided they were also not to be friends. There was some growling, and I was doing a lot more body blocking and redirecting attention than I normally do in class at first.

This is where professional intervention is helpful, since I was a little overwhelmed myself and didn’t think to ask for a barrier.Our instructor (who has assisted in Rowdy Rover classes and is the mom of one herself) took it upon herself to put one up between Balton and our next-door neighbor to the left, which was a big help (even though there were couple moments of both trying to sneak a peek around the fence to each other). It wasn’t long before Balton settled in and began participating in all the training games and exercises that his classmates were working on (the “name game,” the attention game, sits, downs, and “lets go/come” activities). He already knows a lot of these games, so the skills themselves weren’t hard, but there were a whole new set of distractions, which is what I anticipated would make offering behaviors difficult. The fact that he was able to reliably lay down, even given the fact I left his safety bath mat in the car by mistake, was as delightful a surprise as walking into my back yard to discover a unicorn grazing.

After class, we had a near run in with someone who was in the class after us and coming through the front door. I stammered and stumbled a bit in assessing and asking could she please let us by before the other classmates came from behind us out of the classroom. Nothing bad happened, per se, but Balton did use the pause in the lobby as an opportunity to pee on the floor. Awesome.

I managed to direct her back out to the parking lot, confusing the poor woman who didn’t entirely seem to understand why I would not let her enter the building, but followed direction well enough. I scampered out with Balton, put him in the car, then ran back in to tattle on him and help clean up his puddle. I asked our trainer how she thought he did, and she said she thought he did really well. She noted his initial stress but that he had seemed to calm down after a bit of a tough start. She also said he was clearly the most focused dog in class. All in all, I think it went leaps and bounds better than we could have expected (though I admit my expectations were rather low).

Later, I sent a note to our Rowdy Rover trainers to send our week one progress report, and snapped a photo when we got home of Balton looking super pleased with his first week in higher education. I figured his usual teachers might have missed him, and would have enjoyed seeing him look so happy in his orange bandana. I didn’t figure that they would share their own happiness by reporting on him on their Facebook Page though, which pretty much made my weekend. My dog is literally a poster child (well, if you can call a Facebook wall posting a poster, which is exactly what I am doing) for behavior modification and the power of positive reinforcement.

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Balton’s had a lot of big wins this month, but I know better than to take these awesome moments of progress as evidence of being “fixed” or as license to put him in situations that he’s not ready for. There’s a note that sticks with me from the Sophia Yin Seminar I attended back in October, about the big mistake reactive dog handlers make when addressing situations that may trigger a fear response. Truth told, it’s the root of so many mistakes I made early on. Handlers tend to hope their dog will “be okay”. Instead, they must assume dog will be reactive on each encounter and take precautions. 

I’m smarter now than I once was, and tend to err on the side of caution in expanding his horizons and building his confidence. I know how not to set Balton up for failure, no matter how much belief I have in him. It’s my job to protect him while giving him the best quality of life possible, and it’s a job I take very seriously. I know better, so I do better, and oftentimes doing better means progress in tiny, tiny increments. Over time, the forest has started to emerge from among the trees.

It’s a fact that I am a fan of happy pop tunes with an inspirational message. I remain unapologetic for it, but ask that you try not to judge me too harshly for the fact that I’ve pretty much been singing this Jordyn Sparks song on repeat in my head when I think of Balton’s big moments of the last week.

“We live and we learn to take one step at a time. There’s no need to rush. It’s like learning to fly or falling in love. It’s gonna happen when it’s supposed to happen, and we find the reasons why one step at a time.”


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Balton the Brave: Super Hero Flight School

Life as a superhero in training is perhaps a little different for Balton than the average caped crusader. While other heroes are working on leaping tall buildings in a single bound or using superhuman strength to carry cars over their heads, Balton works on not sweating the small stuff and using superpuppy self-control to keep calm and carry on.

Following Balton’s beautiful stranger moment, I didn’t think it could get much better for the week in class. But it did, because our classmate wasn’t the only one who had noticed Balton’s good behavior. After nearly a year of hard work and much practice, Balton earned a new cape.

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Okay, not a cape, exactly. But close. This orange bandana is what they give to Rowdy Rovers when they are allowed to go to a “regular” class. It means Balton has  shown enough confidence and skills through his behavior modification to try one out, so he can work on his training skills in a new environment. Much like the capes that he’s worn before, this orange bandana must be worn in his new class, so the other students and new teachers can easily identify he needs space, and Balton can learn without getting overwhelmed by other people not familiar with Rowdy Rover protocol being too close or making him uncomfortable. But unlike those other capes, he’s earned this one. And he’s going where no Balton has dared to go before.

Our caped crusader’s next adventure is going to be different. It’s going to be new, which means it’s probably going to be just a little scary at first. But I know his teachers will help me to help him feel safe, just as a good super hero sidekick helps to provide backup. And if we do a good job, B will have found one more not-so-scary place in this world.

We hope you’ll wish us a little extra Lucky Dog luck this week, but more than that, we hope you’ll send us lots of encouragement for superhero courage.


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The Kindness of Strangers

I spend a good deal of time celebrating Balton’s little moments of bravery. Making it through a walk without incident (or even with only one minor incident) usually is enough to make me proud. When most people think about what a “good dog” is though, Balton’s little accomplishments may not add up to much. I think if they got to be a fly on the wall at our house, maybe they would see what a lovely dog he is. But, let’s be honest, public opinion does matter, and B doesn’t always do his best out and about in the real world. He sure has come a long way, but most people don’t get the luxury of knowing that. Even at his best, greeting strangers and their dogs on leash aren’t things he can do.

When working with a dog who has fear issues, progress is measured in such tiny increments that it can feel like watching grass grow. When your reactive dog has a reaction after you feel like he’s come a ways, it makes you question if the grass has been growing at all, or makes you feel like you’ve lost the ground beneath you entirely. Maybe that’s why few things give me a greater joy than when I hear someone else pay Balton a compliment on his behavior. It’s one thing for me to see him doing well, but another quite entirely to get an outsider’s perspective. In those moments, I feel like the progress he’s made is something big.

Since we started his Relaxing Rowdy Rovers training class almost a year ago, we’ve seen a lot of dogs come and go while we’ve kept working, in an effort to give Balton a safe place to train each week. We’ve had stops and starts, and after seeing little bits of progress, we would hit road blocks and have to take a few steps back. Recently though, Balton’s been on a trajectory upswing in his training class. His quiet confidence has been shining through in his willingness to take treats from the trainers and greet them with cautious optimism, to settle with his back to the other dogs in the room, to walk about the room with a lightness in his step, to not feel the need to go on the offensive if his classmates bark at one another. To trust. To relax.

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Last week, as one of our trainers was working with another family who started class recently and is as anxious as Balton was when we first started, she commented on how well Balton was doing. Our classmate said something to her, and she smiled and said “say that so Balton’s mom can hear you.” He looked at me and said his wife last week commented on how “Thundershirt Dog doesn’t need to be here.” I looked at Balton (sporting his weekly school uniform of a Thundershirt) and smiling, joked that he puts on a very good show for class. But for me, it was all I could do to keep from crying happy tears in that moment.

Those words came from someone who really doesn’t know Balton. They came from someone who didn’t have to try to dig deeper to see Balton’s beautiful heart, to keep from seeing him as mean, scary, or broken. The words were unbiased by love, affection, or filtered through my eyes as people here see Balton. I think those words may be the kindest words an almost complete stranger has said about him.

As it turns out, that wouldn’t even turn out to be the biggest moment of class for Balton this past week. More on that tomorrow…


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Weird Morning Rituals

All of us have different rituals for different parts of our day. Some of them are stranger than others. One of those strange rituals that has me scratching my head is Balton’s.

First thing he does as soon as a human is up and moving is take their spot on the bed. Not so weird, as he’s merely relocating to the warmest spot.

What IS weird is that every morning for as long as I can remember, he decides at some point after jumping on the bed that he needs to do this:

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I’m not sure what it is, but he absolutely has to give Ollie a full on sniff down when he discovers he’s there. As if he needs to check and make sure he’s still Ollie. Ollie just sort of lets him do what he needs to do, for as long as he needs to, and when B is done sniffing they both go back to sleep for a bit, or get up and carry on about their day (read: wanting to go outside and eat breakfast). Ollie’s head a little soggier, but otherwise it’s as if nothing ever happened.

It’s kind of sweet to watch, as it truly does seem to be a daily act of affection between brothers, but I still am puzzled by it. Anyone have any ideas why Balton might do this? Any weird morning rituals you observe in your fur kids that you care to share?