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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Dear Balton: One Year In the Life of You

Dear Balton,

It’s been a full year now since we welcomed you home for good. Unbeknownst to us we had made you part of our family well before we signed your adoption contract, but we had a lot of learning and soul searching to do before could make it official. I don’t know if you knew that something had changed when we went from being your foster family to your forever family, but I like to think you did.

There was a cautious uncertainty you came to us with, mixed with some (rather trying) awkward adolescent behaviors of jumping, mouthing, knocking down your food bowl with excitement before it could even touch the floor, and exploring the contents of my purse and attempting to eat my pens if I left you for a moment. There was the immediate love and want to trust and be protected by your people, but there was a scariness about the unfamiliar people  and what their presence might mean. There was the overwhelming sense early on that we were not the right home for you to be in long term (and sometimes, even in that moment). But then over time, there was the overwhelming sense that you were right where you belonged…one of the most surprising and delightful things that strikes me today.

The purse explorations and food bowl knocking (thankfully) came to an end, but we’ve still been through a lot this last year – hard work, exciting adventures, frustration, joy, and love. So much love.

Life with you Balton has taught me how to be a kinder, more attentive human. I’m so grateful that you have sparked in me a need to share in each moment so fully with you, and to know that our learning together will never be done. I am grateful for the time I have spent training with you, and that it has motivated me to give Ollie that same time so I could build a stronger relationship with both of you.  I have learned to be fully present and celebrate every little victory that may seem invisible to the outside world. I have learned how to set boundaries and to listen to your needs. To make sure you believe me when I tell you “it’s okay” and that you don’t need to be afraid. That I will protect you, and keep you feeling safe through and through.

I have learned how to be a better human to other dogs altogether, and you have driven my motivation to help other humans do the same. You’ve helped me to help other people with reactive dogs. To help them see that their dogs are good dogs, even when they share some bad moments. I only hope I can continue meeting the standard that you have so unwittingly set for me. When we started on this road together, I said we were doing so with the same cautious uncertainty you had when you came to us 8 months earlier, but always having faith. And so we walked, one step at a time, with a lot of treats, a lot of courage, and a lot of motivation to learn together.

Seeing you today, and enjoying in your snuggles and smiles each and every day, gives me one of the greatest comforts I have known. That those snuggles and smiles become more and more prevalent as your confidence and sense of belonging grows, reinforces my belief that we belong together. The path is still uncertain in so many ways, and sometimes it involves several emergency u-turns and detours, but the scenery along the way sure has been pretty and become a lot less scary. From quiet moments at home to wild moments of exuberant play, I am so grateful that we found one another and that the dance continues.

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I love you, sweet boy. So very much. Thank you for being you, and helping me to be a better me.

Love,

Mom

 

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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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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?


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Spring Awakening – How We Spent our Winter Vacation

With the winter weather fading away soon (though I think we’re supposed to have one more bout of polar vortex coming through the DC area) methinks it’s time to wake up and start trying to write once again. The boys and I have been busy, which is why there’s been some radio silence here on the FTFP airwaves.

As you may know from an earlier post, we had a foster pup in our care for a few weeks after the new year. Dash has since been adopted, and is doing quite well with his new family so far. Out in one of the further out DC suburbs, Dash (who got to keep his namesake with his new adopters) is now the youngest of four boys. His three human brothers adore him, and he is sharing affection in abundance with them and his new mom. Here he is on adoption day, and snoozing soundly in his new abode.

We miss his snuggles and smooches, but Ollie and Balton were ready to bid a fond farewell to their energetic foster brother and get back to their regularly scheduled programming.

The holiday season came and went like a flash, and involved a trip out to Ohio over Thanksgiving and a trip out to New Jersey out over Christmas. This was also actually the first Christmas Balton spent with us, because last year he spent it with an LDAR boarding partner. Based on the drips and drabs we know of Balton’s life before life as a Lucky Dog, I would venture to guess it was also his first Christmas. In both instances, we applied our learned skills for helping him be more comfortable at his grandparents’ house, and a lot of careful management. He wasn’t off leash if there were people in the home other than Nick and me, and we kept him basket muzzled. We rarely had him out and about for more than 10-20 minutes at a time, depending on what he could handle, and he had a safe zone away from all the action at both grandparents’ houses. Overall, he was a rock star. Here he is resting on his mat (and on a tiedown) by the fire over Thanksgiving.

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Despite his best efforts this year, Balton managed to earn a spot on the nice list (Santa seems to have a soft spot for fearful dogs, even the misbehaven ones). He brought him one new soccer ball for outside, and one for inside. The indoor one has been great for accompanying the polar vortexes, freezing rains, and recent snowstorms (speaking of snowstorms, Balton got featured on the Muzzle Up Project Blog last week for his arctic puppy playtime when DC got its big snow of the season two weeks ago – safe management for the win!).

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After the new year, the boys and I have been busy with our educational pursuits. Mine at community college are much less interactive than the ones at All About Dogs, and provide no snacks. Sometimes seeing Balton’s progress as a Rowdy Rover is sometimes equivalent to watching paint dry, but when I look back on this last year and see how far he’s come (and how far his trainers have noted he’s come) it makes me really proud and brings me more joy than I can say. We can see a clear and consistent improvement in his confidence in class, and although we still have a ways to go in keeping good Rowdy Rover behavior out in the real world, we’re seeing changes for the better there too.

Ollie is now going through the All About Dogs Levels Program, which allows dogs to progress through different skill classes at their own pace. We’ve been in the program for a month and will continue through to the end of June, then see if he needs to re-enroll when we get there. If I’m being honest, I sort of expected Ollie to breeze through his basic skills class (attention, sit, down, and sit-by-side, or heel are the ones to know in order to advance). But my dogs are always full of surprises and unexpected challenges. The trainers had seen Ollie had the skills needed to move up a few weeks ago, but he was definitely a bit stressed out at school and I was told he work on his confidence in order to move up. I found myself having to find some solutions to working through Ollie’s car anxiety and classroom nervousness (while silently having a “oh no, not you, too!” moment about the prospect of having a second worrier on my hands).

Fortunately, Ollie’s nervousness was much more isolated and far less severe, so with a little creativity, a little extra positive reinforcement, and complementary management methods like keeping a bed in the car and wearing a Thundershirt, we’re doing much better and having a much better time. If nothing else, troubleshooting for Balton definitely has made “calming your nervous dog” one of my new ingrained skill sets, and Ollie responds so well to just a little extra support and motivation.

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This weekend, Ollie showed he had the chops to move up from Level 1 to Level 2, so while I’ve been hibernating, he’s well on his way to earning his doggie PhD. Or so he says…talk about a confidence boost.


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Thirty Days of Thanks Day 9-10: Sleeping In and Silence

I realize I failed to give thanks yesterday, and so today I attempt to make up for it with two thankful fors which are sort of related.

I love sleeping in whenever I get the opportunity. For 7 years I worked in jobs that had me working every Saturday and sometimes Sunday, so weekends didn’t typically provide me sleeping in opportunity.

I now work a job where I only work an occasional Saturday, but sleeping in practices were often rattled by a sound sensitive (and sensitive in general) Balton who would normally be content to sleep in, if not for some early rising humans out for a stroll or running happily down to the playground down the street.

Saturday slumber interrupted by frantic barking and whining, coupled by one of two barely woken humans yelling to quiet down or hiding under a pillow to muffle the noise.

Barking out windows has not been limited to early morning rituals, but often would continue through the day as Balton played the role of neighborhood watch, or “I think I heard something” turned into a dramatic tantrum to scare off the people who, really, would bypass our house anyway without the dog barking at them, but Balton was assured his scary self is what made them keep walking. And once one dog starts barking the other feels inclined to chime in, so, yeah, there’s that.

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A combination of training and management has since been implemented to help our house patrol feel less of a need to patrol the house since early days.  Window film from Home Depot has helped make a world of difference in curbing the downstairs window hysteria because even if he hears something and starts barking, he rushes to the window and sees a whole lot of nothing. When he takes a moment to ponder what he was so upset about, I call his name and he comes running to me, and he gets a treat. While the window film has helped quite a bit as far as managing the behavior, the calling and treating has helped to teach a better behavior. Snack and praise > barking at neighbor.

Previously, any rustling of noise would trigger a long-winded and intensely performed barking soliloquy, so I’ve started being more aware of those noises. Lately, on a Saturday or Sunday morning when I get the chance to sleep in, I hear a neighbor outside and brace myself for the barking to commence. History has taught me to expect it. But lately, the early morning barking has not been as regular an occurrence. In fact, it’s now more the exception than the norm.

I’m grateful that B has had the opportunity to learn that sleeping in and cozy blankets> early morning barking and rushing the window, and we’re all once again getting the opportunity to remember just how golden silence is.

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Thirty Days of Thanks Day 5: Couture (by Balton)

Now that the cold wind has started blowing in, my fine bones have been feeling the change of seasons and it’s been a bit ruff on my sensitive soul. Now, I know what you’re thinking… “Balton, you have your own built in winter coat , doesn’t that keep you warm enough?”

Well, perhaps it would be if I had the thick and fluffy coat of a Husky or a Great Pyrenees, but my coat is short, thin, and sheds often.  When I go outside at night, I leave my house and it’s so chilly that I forget why I ever would have wanted to go outside. That is, until I get back in where it’s warm, and then I remember and ask to go our again. Mom has been none too thrilled with my indecisive attention to business, and has started feeling like we may have a long winter ahead of us.

Two weeks ago we had our first smack of sweater weather, and Mom started rummaging through the closets to find me something to wear. But last winter, she didn’t really do much shopping for me on account of the fact she was hopeful I would be getting adopted elsewhere. While I’m pleased with the way that silly notion of hers turned out, I’m not so pleased that she didn’t buy me anything other than a fleecy coat which didn’t really fit quite right.

Mom seems to have a tough time shopping for me, since I’m a big-ish dog, but I am long and lean (like a supermodel!). So, normal dog sizes for clothes have a tendency to either be too big going around, or don’t cover my whole body to keep the part near my tailbone warm.

She pulled out the one sweater that was almost kind of sort of Balton sized. Unfortunately, it was a girl dog sweater.

Purple I can sport, but sparkles and ruffles? Are you kidding me right now?

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Thank goodness she was almost as embarrassed as I was, and took immediate action to correcting this dire situation. And thank double goodness our friends at Tiennot Knits Sweaters have been helping support fashion victims like myself all over the great United States.

Mom got to ordering me something which would would be stylish, yet functional, and Tiennot Knits asked for my exact measurements so it would cozily cover my entire Balton body. And, because I’m what you would call a DINOS (a Dog In Need of Space), and there is a global movement going around to help us DINOS called The Yellow Dog Project, Mom wanted to get me something that helped me represent and advocate for DINOS and Yellow Dogs, while still looking good.

The sweater was ordered and man, those hands moved fast to make it, because it arrived on our doorstep only one week later, not a moment too soon either because it was fa-ree-zing last night!

It came with a card that said it was made especially for me. Ollie tries to steal my stuff all the time, so this I was super happy to have documentation proving it was really and truly my sweater.

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I tried it on and it fit perfectly. Mom also had it customized with a pocket on the back so I can carry extra treats around on cold winter walks! I was so excited about it that I even agreed to a few vogue photo shots.

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I think Mom might be a little envious of my new threads. Apparently she has never owned any couture in her life, so I guess that makes me a pretty special and loved dog. Okay then, one more over the shoulder shot to show my heartfelt appreciation. And because in this moment, I’m feeling really, really, really ridiculously good looking. 

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