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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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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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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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