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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Thirty Days of Thanks Day 2: Warmth (by Ollie)

Today my thanks goes out to warmth.

I don’t remember much about life before leaving the shelter. But I remember the floor was cold. Then I took a long ride in a van and it was warmer. Then when stepped out, the ground was cold again. Colder than the floor even. And wet. And white.

They called it snow. I didn’t like it.

Luckily I didn’t have to stay in the snow very long, and soon made it to my new home and immediately got to looking for something warm to lay on. And I found it!

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But then I found a warmer spot, so decided to lay there instead.

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Mom and dad quickly discovered that I need to always find the warmest spot. And I’m proud to report that I continue to have great success in finding it. Sometimes brother Balton tries to take the warm spots, and sometimes I let him share.

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Other times…well…I do what I have to do to stay warm.

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I try not to ever forget or take for granted how glad I am to have found my warmth, and I try to always give warmth back whenever I can.

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This time of year it starts getting cold. And so this time of year, I am especially thankful to my Lucky Dog friends, and to all the people who rescue pups like me to help us all find a warm beds, blankets, and humans to cuddle up with.


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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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Learning “Forever”: by Balton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I started remembering that smiling is my favorite.

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

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

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


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Barking About Buddy, Rugby, and Room to Roam!

Busy week on the Lucky Blog front friends! I made it through Adoption Coordinator (AC) Training and now have two awesome dogs to brag about and find their forever homes! Buddy and Rugby are the handsome boys I am proudly AC’ing and accepting applications for.

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Buddy is a super cute Chi/Beagle Mix (with maybe some pug or doxie mixed in), about 2-3 years old, and 18 lbs…out of that crazy puppy phase and the perfect size package for apartment living. He’s being pulled from the shelter and arriving in DC this week. Rugby is still down in in a South Carolina Shelter and can’t wait to get his new leash on life when he arrives in DC! Their bios can be viewed at http://www.luckydoganimalrescue.org/adopt/adoptable-dogs if you would like to read a little more about them! If you or someone you know is interested in adopting Buddy or Rugby, or any of the awesome Lucky Dogs, go to http://www.luckydoganimalrescue.org/adopt/adoption-process to see what you need to do and to download an adoption questionnaire!

Also this week, my community of Prince William County held a public hearing outlining the master plan for our soon to be (we hope!) dog park, the first of its kind in Prince William County. Personally, I’m super excited about being able to drive down the street and not across county lines to exercise little Ollie and my future fosters! While this project will be supported by the Prince William County Park Authority, it will not be paid for by them and our local dog park support group and community members need to raise about $12,050 to get the park built. That’s a lot of milkbones, so we need to create lots of awareness and make this a concerted community effort from dog-lovers in our county and elsewhere!

You can help support the project by going to our Prince William County Dog Blog (http://princewilliamcountydogs.blogspot.com/) and encouraging everyone you know to do the same. Please also follow us on Twitter at @PWCDogs and encourage others to follow us in this grassroots initiative as well! Also, if you’d like to get involved in helping us fundraise, definitely let me know!

Thanks!
Lynn


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Really, I’m the Lucky One…

Welcome to my “Lucky Blog”, dedicated to my chronicles as a foster parent for Lucky Dog Animal Rescue (LDAR) in DC. I hope that my musings will provide some entertainment as I share the joys and challenges that go hand in hand with dog fostering, and an opportunity for learning for both my readers and me. Most importantly, though, I hope to highlight some truly amazing dogs and the work of LDAR, in hopes to find some great dogs their great fur-ever homes.

I got involved with Lucky Dog when my fiance, Nick, and I started talking about adopting a dog before Christmas 2010. Each of us had one specific condition. Having grown up with a Jack Russell Terrier, Nick would not negotiate on having any other dog. Having grown up with rescue animals, I would not negotiate on our family pet needing to come from one. We both were able to compromise on these conditions and started searching online for our perfect new pet.

Some light, but consistent, searching on Petfinder.com eventually led us to Lucky Dog, who had a 1 year old Jack Russell Terrier up for adoption. I saw his picture, read his bio, and saw that he was in a shelter and needed a foster. Seeing this little guy’s face and feeling a need to help him in some way, I sent an e-mail to his Adoption Coordinator, Suzie, with an application, to inquire about fostering or adopting the little guy. My thought was that we wanted to be sure we were being careful about our decision to adopt and giving this pup the best opportunity at a great shot at life, so fostering seemed like a good way to test the waters of pet ownership.

When Suzie called me the next day, she explained a little more about what fostering involved, and also explained that fostering might put us in a position where we potentially fall in love with the dog and then lose him to an adopter…but Lucky Dog offered a 2 week trial adoption period for us to be sure we were doing the right thing, since we were adopting him sight unseen from transport, and needed to see how he would be living with my two cats. An interview, a vet/landlord check, and a home visit later, and Nick and I were approved to pick “Lyle” (the name Lucky Dog had given him) up up from transport. We weren’t sure how we felt about a dog named Lyle, but we were sure we felt so incredibly happy to get that approval e-mail (and I imagine PetSmart did as well, who got some great business that night).

How his story’s prologue landed him in a high kill shelter in South Carolina, I can’t even fathom. But I like to think Chapter 1 started being written on that cold winter’s day, when he saw snow for what I imagine was the first time and changed our lives for the better. On January 29, we picked up “Lyle” from transport, and it was love at first sight. in that moment, I was so glad that we decided to adopt instead of foster, and every day since then I have felt like the truly lucky one, for the work of Lucky Dog brought this amazingly sweet, playful, loving, silly, and sometimes challenging animal into our lives.


After spending a few hours with him, we thought Oliver, or Ollie for short, seemed more fitting of this little orphan boy who seemed unfazed by the shelter walls that had surrounded him before and had nothing but love for his new people and the world around him. We did, however, want to keep the namesake assigned to him by Lucky Dog as a middle name. Oliver Lyle Heun snuggled right into our laps and hearts, and if it wasn’t for the work of Lucky Dog, our lives might not be as rich, and sadly Ollie might not have his life at all. He was rescued by LDAR from a high kill shelter, as are all of the dogs that the rescue fosters and adopts out. Their second leash on life maybe gives them the title of Lucky Dogs, but truly I think the families they get adopted into are the luckiest of all.

As for all of the people that help to get these dogs into forever homes, they are 100% volunteer. There is not one single paid staff that is part if Lucky Dog. They all just want to make a difference and save some puppies, and commit their time and love to this organization’s success outside of their normal 9-5 jobs. I was in awe when I learned this, and wanted to help. So I reached out about volunteering and shortly after attended my first adoption event. It didn’t take long before I ended up with my first foster, and Ollie got to start paying it forward to the organization that saved his life.

Since this post has gone a little long, I will move into “my life as a foster” and showcase my foster pups tomorrow (because let’s be honest, that’s why you’re reading in the first place), but I did want to share how I ended up here and how passionate I am about this amazing rescue, fundamentally built on kindness of the human spirit.

To learn more, meet the Lucky Dogs, and get involved, visit http://www.luckydoganimalrescue.org/ and if you have about 15 minutes, check out a great video that really highlights the amazingness of LDAR’s mission at

http://creativeliquid.com/news/archive/2011/04/creative-liquid-wins-second-2011-telly

Thanks for stopping by, and stay tuned for the best part of this blog: foster puppy stories!

Hugs and Puppy Kisses,
Lynn