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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Together we’re unlimited…

This week marks one year since I began professional training with Balton. Right around this time last year, I was feeling pretty lost and sad about my then foster dog, whose behavior was confounding me and frustrating me. I’d been feeling pretty lousy for not knowing how to help him with it. I saw this super dog at home, who by all accounts was a really wonderful companion and joy to have around. On the other hand, walks were miserable and rather unpredictable at the time. I was starting to feel like my argument of “surely this dog is adoptable!” was losing ground, and I was losing confidence in myself as a foster mom.

Last week marked the conclusion of flight school, otherwise known as the basic skills class Balton and I were trying out. The first week went great, the second week was not as great but gave us (me) some things to think about in increasing his comfort level sense of fun. We saw improvements each week in the remaining three weeks of class, and although he was able to participate in most of the class activities, we made some modifications as needed so that he could succeed and enjoy himself. For example, while the other dogs would practice their recall exercises (requiring the trainer to take the leash, which neither Balton nor I would have been okay with), we’d use it as an opportunity to lay down and settle, and just be relaxed amid the activity of the other dogs being excitedly called by their people. Although very much aware of the moving dogs and squealing people trying to call them, he wasn’t worried about it and did a great job practicing his braves.

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Mat settling like a boss

By week four, Balton was ready to let our new trainer try tossing some treats from a distance.  Early on when his trainers would do this, he would be too overwhelmed to eat them and sometimes sniff them and refuse them. We promised they weren’t poisoned, but it took him a few months to actually believe us.  Well, wouldn’t you know…when we did this exercise with our flight school trainer, not a single treat was poisoned. 🙂

Week five was our final class and class talent show. Our trick we practiced (and frankly learned just for the talent show) was to “wave,” shaped through hand targeting and then modifying the hand target for shake to a waving hand so he could differentiate the cues. This is what it looks like:

Balton waves hello

Following the end of class, the students who demonstrated the necessary skills taught in the class (many of which Balton came with, but had stage fright about initially) earned what is best described as a hall pass. It’s not exactly a diploma for graduation, but it means the dog has shown capable of moving up to an intermediate or Level 2 class. Coming into this class with pretty uncertain expectations, imagine my surprise when we got handed this:baltonhallpass

I admit that when I got the card, I stared at it and teared up over it and got goosebumps about it. Silly, perhaps, I know.

But when I think about where we were this time last year, and I think about where we are today, I consider what I thought possible for Balton then and what I consider possible for him now. Sure, my thoughts for possibility were perhaps a little idealistic at the time because I wanted so badly for him to be adopted by a family that wasn’t ours. But with that possibility there came a million limitations: no families with kids, must be a savvy adopter committed to what would likely be a lifetime of training and management, must live in a suburban or rural area, must live a quiet lifestyle without many visitors. And when you’re looking at a window of adopters among a sea of dogs without those limitations, that makes for a very, very small window.

When we adopted Balton, we frankly adopted him because of those limitations. When I looked at things objectively, I didn’t really see how we could pass the leash, but I believed he deserved a chance to be more than a dog too limited to live a full and happy life.

For a long time, there were a lot of self-imposed limitations because we couldn’t and wouldn’t push him too far too soon. We had definitely done things wrong for a number of months before we got steered right. But with the pressure off to find him a home, and the reality being that we were the ones to give him that full and happy life  I thought he deserved, we were able to slow things down. We were able to let Balton be the Balton he was, and that allowed him to become the Balton he could be.

These last few weeks, I can’t seem to get over how often I catch Balton smiling. I think it’s because he continues to redefine what his own limits are, and with that his confidence is starting to shine through in a way I don’t think I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen glimmers of it before, but I’m seeing it a lot more regularly.

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This particular happy moment was captured soon after we had a visitor over to our house this past weekend. Balton and I have found a training buddy to practice visits with from the Animal Welfare League of Arlington Pit Crew, the group with whom we do our social walks. The training buddy we are working with has a dog with similar “stranger danger” challenges, so I visit with him and he visits with us in order to “practice” being okay with guests. This Sunday was his second visit. Now, you could probably argue this was Balton’s happy face after our visitor left, but take my word for it when I tell you he was the most relaxed I’ve ever seen him with a guest. He was kept on a leash and we kept our distance, but on this visit our guest tossed him hot dogs while I also fed him treats and he laid at my feet. It helps to have someone visiting who gets what we’re going through, and makes a point not to make eye contact or get too close.  But it also speaks to Balton’s progress in overcoming those fears that have long since limited him. Seeing his world grow in tiny increments makes me so incredibly happy, and seeing this happy face who seems to know how far he’s come makes me grateful that we’ve been taking this journey together.

We’re learning that the world we thought we knew is changing each day, redefining what is possible, and defying gravity as a team. Discovering that our limits are no longer the same as they once were makes me really believe there is no limit to where we can go or what we can do. We just have to understand what our limits are in each moment, and keep walking the path, even if we walk it little more slowly and take some detours behind a car or a tree, or take an emergency u-turn every so often.


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Updates from Flight School: Week 2

As you may recall, Balton and I have been improving upon our superhero skills during a recent stint at Flight School. We’re now officially more than halfway through the class and it’s definitely been a unique learning experience for the both of us. Balton’s trainer, and one of his biggest advocates, told us going in that she was less concerned about Balton’s ability to perform as in his ability to remain relaxed and maybe even happy in the new environment. I’ve tried to keep this in mind.

As I mentioned from Week 1, the Basic Skills classroom is much smaller than the one we usually work in, and everyone is much more in Balton’s space than what we typically encounter in our reactive dog class environment. Still, he managed to settle in well and overall, seemed surprisingly comfortable and focused in the first class. Going back for Week 2, I didn’t know whether he would continue to do well, or if he would carry in some new stress, which I know can happen. Sort of like the first time you take a cat to the vet, kitty has no problem getting in the carrier and seems to do all right through the visit, but then the next time kitty needs to go to the vet, or get into the carrier for anything, all bets are off.

Week 2 was a little more kitty carrier response, so to speak.

Frankly, I think Balton was just having a more reactive night than usual. We have a standard Thursday night school routine that involves me high tailing it home from work, taking both boys out for a potty break, grabbing our gear, giving Ollie a Kong, and rolling out the door. He’s to a point where he usually is good through all these regular rituals, but not so much on this day. Balton saw someone walking down the street on the potty break that made him go into a leash gremlin fit. Then he saw some people from the car while we were at stoplights (and we hit just about every light, of course) who needed to be told off. For my part, I was throwing treats into the backseat, running late, feeling  frazzled, and breathing deep in an effort to curb my own inner gremlin.

I’ve gotten into the habit of bringing a mat with me and Balton, because he has long since had some issues with laying down on the floor. The classroom floors, for one, are sort of icky for him (we train in a dog daycare facility). Laying down is also a fairly vulnerable position for a dog to be in. But, when he lays down and gets himself into a settle position, it helps him to get his mind into a similarly more settled state. Anyways, Week 1 I had forgotten to bring the mat with me, but Balton had done just fine without it. I probably should have thought it a fluke and come prepared with the mat the next week, but hindsight is 20/20, right? Sure enough, the idea of laying down on the bare floor he had readily laid on one week earlier was a no-go.

I discovered that our usual go-to best snacks of meatballs and chicken were ineffective at getting/keeping attention, and since they was the best I had in my bag of tricks, Balton was pretty caught up in staring and barking at at the other dogs in the room. Towards the end of class, he was less reactive but still seemed stressed, and was quite honestly kind of shutting me out. We just never found our groove, and I think we both left class feeling exhausted.

Six months ago, I likely would have stewed and lingered and worried we were moving backwards in our progress. I might have worried that we should not go back the next week for fear of setting him back.  I might have wondered if this was all a hopeless plight.

While these thoughts all sort of flashed in my head for a brief moment, I was able to identify a little more easily that we had quite simply had a bad day. And ya know what? Bad days happen, and it’s absolutely okay.

The next day, I loaded up on new and interesting treats (including some cheese sticks and steak strips from the grocery store). I decided not to be complacent at home and we began doing some more skills practice in a less distracting environment. We started working on shaping our Week 5 Talent Show Trick. In between weeks 2 and 3 of Flight School, we got back to partnering with each other and refreshing on how much fun learning is.

I read this article from Reactive Champion and was gently reminded that some classical conditioning, or creating a positive emotional response/association (vs. operant conditioning, or teaching a behavior) is sometimes all you can do or expect with a stressed out dog. Also, that “behavior modification is not a race against others.”

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Sometimes, you just have to take a couple steps back in order to get a better look at the picture in front of you, before stepping forward to straighten it out a little bit.