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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Operation: Adopt Nala

“Saving one dog will not change the world, but surely for that one dog, the world will change forever.”

In the world of rescue, there are certain dogs who touch your heart in such a way that your heart just wants so badly to find that forever home they deserve. One such dog who has been touching hearts for some time is Nala.

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Nala was rescued from a rural shelter in 2013 and has been living in foster care with my good friend Cathy for one year as of today. When Nala first arrived she was incredibly fearful of the world around her, but the safe haven of a loving foster home has been a wonderful gift for this beautiful young lady, who has begun to learn the world is full of good and has really blossomed in Cathy’s care. I’ve had the joy of spending some time with Nala and helping her practice getting comfortable around strangers in the home, and also have gotten to see her work at doggy school when I would take Ollie in for classes.

Much of the last year has been spent getting Nala really and truly ready to go to her forever home, and her foster mom knows the time has now come to find happy ever after. Although Cathy loves Nala to pieces, she knows that hers is not the right fit forever home. Having put so much time into Nala’s training and confidence building, Cathy feels confident that Nala is now ready to transition into her life with her new adoptive family. I couldn’t agree more, and hope you will help us in spreading the word about this truly special soul so she can find them.

Nala has been attending adoption events through her sponsoring rescue, Rural Dog Rescue in Washington, DC, but as you might guess, adoption events are kind of hard for shy dogs like Nala to put their best paw forward. So a few weeks ago,  I had the pleasure of practicing my amateur photography skills as part of an adoption video Cathy made for Nala.  This video allows would-be adopters to see the Nala they don’t get to see at events, and Cathy did a beautiful job highlighting Nala’s skills, playful nature, and sweet disposition. And if you watch closely, you’ll notice a certain semi-celebridog who came along for play date fun during filming to make a cameo and credit appearance.

Please share Nala’s video far and wide, and help Cathy in her mission to get Nala adopted – she’s waited oh so patiently for forever and deserves it more than any dog I know!

To learn more on how to adopt Nala, check out her adoption bio or email her foster mom at cathyruraldog@gmail.com.  All of us on Team Nala thank you for your support and for reporting for duty on this very important operation!


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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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Thirty Days of Thanks: The Lucky Ones

This Thirty Days of Thanks Series seemed like a really good idea at the beginning of the month. Signing up to complete my one or my BSN program pre-reqs in an 8 week Oct-Dec class also seemed like a really good idea when I registered for the class. Unfortunately, both were pretty ill-timed with an event at my day job I’d been tied up with and losing sleep over for awhile. So between that and then trying to get caught up on Stat studying and homework upon its completion, the typical snowball effect of losing some momentum, plus a couple sprinklings of petsitting and keeping up with my own family’s needs, I got a little bit behind on my notes of thanks. I promise I’ve been counting my blessings though and just keeping my thanks up in my head and down in my heart. Sometimes something’s gotta give, and in this case the blog had to take a backseat to life and other grown-up activities.

I guess I could even argue that it’s something to be thankful to have a life so full that you can afford the luxury of having to prioritize and take a break from writing. Nevertheless, I have a bit of ground to make up, and so over the next few days I’m going to try and offer up some multiple thanks on things while I celebrate this Thanksgiving weekend with my family.

Today, I am going to share some of the work of others to give thanks to the rescue world I hold close to my heart, and to promote something that will do the same.

So, it may already be abundantly clear that I’m a big fan of Jessica Dolce’s Notes From a Dog Walker blog. Her clever, witty posts are always enjoyable reads, and so very often are helpful to caregivers for DINOS, which I sort of signed on to become some time ago without entirely realizing what I was signing on for. It’s worth mentioning that I am SUPER thankful for all the resources I have found incredibly helpful and inspiring through her writings.

Anyway, this time of year, as many people are working to help give gifts of forever homes for the holidays, there are a special crop of people that  I want to acknowledge and say thank you to, who don’t often get the thanks they deserve every moment of every day. And because Jessica honors them so well, I want to credit her tributes and thank her for writing them. I have provided excerpts below from each entry, but I encourage you to click through to the original post to truly have your heart touched.

Each dog takes a journey on their way to forever, and has many touch points along the way. Their first touch point is usually at the hardworking and ever gentle hand of the shelter worker.

“They stand at the doorway each morning and take a deep breath. The dogs, recognizing that they’re no longer alone, have erupted in a cacophony of demands for food, bathroom breaks, attention. Overwhelmed by the noise, hearts pounding, trying to pick a direction to go in first, they say, “I’m coming just as fast as I can everybody. I love you all this morning.” And then they start running…

…They are a vital part of our community. The safety net for our pets. The beating heart deep in our collective hope for a better world for our animals.

They are the magicians, the master jugglers, the contortionists, working endlessly to pull one more miracle out of their bag of tricks. One more life saved by their weary hands. They are the underpaid, overworked operators working the lines until there is a happy ending.”

Pictured here are just a few of the ladies who are the miracle workers of Lucky Dog Animal Rescue, and the heroes I hold responsible for both Ollie and Balton coming to my my life. Stephanie, Tiffany, and Pam are three of the most dedicated ladies who work with two of Lucky Dog’s shelter partners, and countless lives are owed to their dedication down in the trenches (photo credits to Lucky Dog Animal Rescue, Cris Ghillani, and Virgil Ocampo).

The next touch point a shelter pup finds holding its leash on the road to rescue is the volunteer.

“They are the worker bees, absolutely essential to the bustling hive that is the shelter. They work together towards a common goal: saving lives.

They discover that they themselves have found a home among the temporarily homeless.

The work is tough, but they feel uplifted, empowered and proud. They are contributing to a cause, making a difference in every single life they touch. A community is discovered, new friends are made, a purpose is revealed, a fire is lit!”

Volunteers make their impact down in the shelters where Lucky Pups come from, and once they arrive here to the DC area, Lucky Dog volunteers come in many forms: drivers, handlers, home visit volunteers, adoption coordinators, event team members, weekly volunteer email composers, community members like trainers, groomers, boarding facilities, veterinarians, dog boutiques, and photographers who donate their services in order to make a difference for one lucky, precious life at a time (and as I write this, Lucky Dog’s volunteers and the 6,000+ lives they’ve saved are thanked in this lovely guest blog post featured in NovaDog Magazine’s blog!). We’re not kidding when we say it really does take a village, and there can never be too many volunteers. Below is a sampling of LDAR volunteers from all walks of life at this year’s Strut Your Mutt walk with Best Friends Animal Society, who collectively raised over $18,000 to help more even more pups, and had fun doing it. Many hands working hard, making great things happen. That’s what volunteering is about.

symteamphotoAnd in the world of rescue, the final bridge on the road to forever tends to be the foster family.

“They do their best to balance holding tight and letting go. It is a tricky dance to care so deeply for a guest, since dogs stay forever in our hearts. But when people tell them, “I couldn’t foster because it would be too hard to give the dog up.” They say, “How can it be harder than knowing a dog died because no foster home stepped up?” And that is why they do it time and again.

And while they worry they might not be strong enough to let this one go, something special happens: The right adoption application arrives!

They lifted a single soul up, out of the crowd and floating on their hands, their foster dog arrived in the arms of the family that has been searching for him. It was all worthwhile.”

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Fosters Angel and Allison with their now-adopted-former-fosters, Randy and Wilson

In the new year, tribute will be paid to the touch points that act as stepping stones on the Lucky Dog journey, thanks to a documentary being created by Creative Liquid Productions called “The Lucky Ones.” The film will premiere in January 2014 here in the DC metro area, but the trailer can be viewed on “The Lucky Ones” landing page now. Check it out, and stay tuned for premiere details as they become available!

PS – In case anyone is counting, this brings today’s not-too-shabby thank you tally to 6:

  1. to full life
  2. to Jessica Dolce/Notes from a Dog Walker/Dogs In Need of Space
  3. to shelter workers
  4. to volunteers
  5. to fosters
  6. to Creative Liquid Productions

By my count I still owe at least 7 extra thank yous to get caught up, but I will get there!


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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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Crisp Air, Crunching Leaves, Creepy World

ImagePhoto credit The Smitten Image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That would be my happy ending, anyway.


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Persistence Drive

Every Thursday night for the last almost 4 months now, I have brought Balton out to our “Relaxing Rowdy Rovers” behavior modification class at All About Dogs. Each week I try to time my commute just so, so that I can zip from Tysons Corner to Woodbridge (almost 30 miles each way) by catching the HOV lanes right when they open, swing by home to grab Balton, a treat pouch and frozen/apportioned treats that I refer to as his “school snack”, and zip again to the other side of Woodbridge (another 8 miles door to door) so we can make it there by 7pm.

Sometimes I am late, and often I am flustered and feeling like I am just about to hit the run course of a Sprint Triathlon when I arrive, as a result of my calculated preparations, transitions, moments of panic, and yet still not being done for the day. I hit traffic, or I get home and realize I forgot to lay out the Thundershirt. Last week Nick beat me home, and his proactive effort to be helpful by feeding the boys was met with a crazed and ungrateful “Why did you feed him before class?!” Sometimes I think perhaps I should be in a class for Finding-Your-Happy-Place for Fido’s Frantic Female, or something to that effect.

All (human) students attend an orientation before their first class, and they tell us that they rather we show up late than not at all. So, while I try not to be late, I take that advice to heart each week. If I get there at 6:55 or 7:20, I show up, no matter what.

In some ways it’s nice to be in a class with other people and dogs like us. We never converse with one another for the benefit of our dogs, and going from our cars to the classroom and our individual condos (which, by the way, are not as luxurious as they sounds – but fashioned out of PVC piping and draped with a garbage bag) is like air traffic control, but in our own quiet, non-communicative way, we tell each other we get it. Nobody feels like they have to apologize for outbursts, and no one needs to be on alert to say “sorry, my dog is reactive, please keep your distance” to unknowing people who walk right at you with their dogs on retractable leashes that don’t seem to ever lock.

Some weeks are better for us than others, as might be expected when you are in a room with 5 other dogs who all have different levels of and triggers for their reactivity issues. It’s sort of a rolling admission class, so space is limited to no more than six dogs. If you’re identified as a Rowdy Rover, you’re placed on a waiting list until a spot opens, and you stay in for as long as you (a) need the class and (b) are able/willing to renew membership for. Some Rowdy Rovers are dog reactive, some are human reactive, some are both. Some have been in the class a few weeks, some a few months, some over a year. When I first signed up for the class I signed up for 4 months, thinking Balton would build some skills over the span of about a month or so and quickly graduate out to the basic obedience levels classes.

4 months later, we remain Rowdy Rovers and are preparing to renew – my long term goal remains to graduate and integrate into a class setting with “regular” dogs. I just don’t know how long it will take to reach that goal, and though I remain hopeful that he is on his way, our accomplishments are measured and celebrated in smaller increments:

  • being able to eat, focus, touch, sit, lay down, settle inside the condo
  • Being able to handle the extra stimulation outside the condo.
  • Heck, I even count it a victory when Balton doesn’t pee on the condo.

For most, it’s probably not anything special when someone says “remind me next week that I am going to toss your dog treats.” For me, those words from our trainer equates to hearing we won some rally title at an obedience competition, because it means he’s getting closer to having positive human interactions in an environment where he can learn, where people understand his body language, and where they have reasonable expectations of how far he can go before he reaches his tipping point.

Our trainers identify him as a worrier, but he works hard each week.  He often starts out excited to work, and after time wears on, the barking dogs around him from in class and the daycare next door start to wear on him. He doesn’t ever join in on the barking, but his ears move back and forth like antennae and he sometimes shows concern about what is behind him when I’m asking him to sit and focus on me. When we go back to the car, he is relieved to be done and my hands smell like the flavor of the week – sometimes chicken, sometimes lamb, sometimes fish. 45 minutes of being a good student tends to look something like this at the end:

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And I can’t help but feel that way a little myself as we head out of the parking lot, after intently watching each signal Balton offers  – to tell me he can handle it, to tell me moments later no, he’d rather not – and when he tells me that, finding a way to let him know he’s been heard and helping him relax within the limited confines of the classroom environment. It’s the delicate dance we do, the silent talk we have, in order to make sure he knows he’s safe, that he doesn’t have to act out, and that the strange people and dogs around him (who, to be fair, are starting to become familiar faces) mean there are delicious treats coming. In this talk, he also tells me he’s ready to practice our work of the day. He hasn’t lunged in class since week two, and his cut-off signals have become much more polite.

Translating our experiences in our classroom to the world outside it is bit different, and we still struggle to get through daily walks without reactions. Maybe he knows he’s in good company at Rowdy Rovers class, and that each week, no matter the worry, he gets his most delicious treats and makes it out okay. In class, space is respected, and in the outside world, the retractable leashes are still there, still not locking. The people still walk at us and are quick to judge if Balton isn’t okay with it because he can’t predict their intentions.  Because of this, I know he’s not quite ready to graduate to a class with the “regular” dogs. Not yet.

And as we turn onto the road that our school is on, as we turn off it to head home, we pass the street sign that acts as a gentle zen landmark for me. Our school on Persistence Drive.

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He may not be ready to move up next week, or the next, or the next. But one day, he will be, and so we keep at it. While I somehow doubt the placement was deliberate, this street sign sure helps my frantic-post work self take a breath on our way in, and helps me look forward to going back the next week.