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 12: Grace

I admit I am not always the best version of me. Lord knows I try, but sometimes I fail. And sometimes maybe I don’t try hard enough. I can be angry, I can be envious, I can hold grudges, I can fail to see the forest through the trees.

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I do believe in grace. I also realize grace is granted, not earned. And when someone grants you grace, you need to be thankful for that, and find a way to grant it back to someone else.

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I try to be mindful of that, and seek opportunities to be graceful to others. And in my darker moments, I am thankful for the grace of God, and the grace granted to me by these three beautiful hearts who stand alongside me.

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Take a moment today to be graceful, to be gracious, to be grateful.


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Thirty Days of Thanks Day 7: Heart and Soul

This morning as I was checking my Facebook news feed, a post came through from Monique Anstee of The Naughty Dogge, a training center based up in Victoria, British Columbia. I often find useful and insightful thoughts through following the page on Facebook. Today, she writes about “soul dogs”…or as I think they’re more commonly identified state side, “heart dogs.”

But then as I thought about my two boys, I got to thinking, maybe there are heart dogs, and maybe there are soul dogs. One of the definitions for heart if you do a quick Google search says “regarded as the center of a person’s thoughts and emotions, esp. love or compassion.” Do the same search for soul, and it comes back “the spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal…a person’s moral or emotional nature or sense of identity.”

In so many ways, Ollie holds my heart and is the key to so many other dogs we have supported. While he’s almost-but-not-entirely perfect (don’t tell him or my husband that), he’s been able to roll with and support every single foster dog we’ve brought home, and also taught them how to be a dog and accept human love with the same wide eyed and trusting affection he seemed to have from day one he came to us almost 3 years ago. Also, it never escaped us that on his left side, he’s got a spot that looks like a heart.

ImageI adore him, and have loved and felt compassion to bounds I didn’t think possible through adopting Ollie.

But if what is written below is true about soul dogs, then Balton most certainly is mine. Somehow, every new day with Balton allows me to find some part of myself that had been hidden or overlooked. It’s hard to really describe completely, and the intangibility of that somehow can only be reflected in our immaterial souls.

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I cried a little bit when I read this, because it hit me so hard, and if ever there was something written by someone else that sums up our relationship, it would be written below.

“To really understand some words, we must know their opposites; for example, you cannot understand ‘fast’ without knowing ‘slow’. The same goes of appreciating beauty, if you have never seen ugly. And likewise, you cannot understand good, without knowing bad. That is where our dogs come in….

We as dog-owners will experience different levels of bonding with our dogs. We have dogs that we love, then we have dogs that connect to us on a whole different level; they read our minds, they know our actions before we have even had more than a flicker of a thought of the action – they become a part of us. I define these as soul-dogs. 

The Soul Dogs are almost always the ‘bad dogs’ or dogs that have been a struggle, or made us work way harder than we had intended. By pushing us and making us dig-deep to get them to become what we needed them to be, they truly teach us what ‘good’ means. And in the process of turning your monkey from a challenge to good, you will develop a bond that people with more normal dogs won’t comprehend. You must experience both opposites of a word to really appreciate what the power of that word means. Most Soul Dogs forced that upon us.

It is only through experiencing and understanding bad that we can begin to appreciate the good. If you’ve only ever had good, you don’t have a reference point to be able to fully appreciate exactly how great ‘good’ can be.

And when you do get to work through that with a dog, you will have a Soul-Dog that only those who have walked in your shoes will be able to comprehend.”

Monique Anstee
Victoria, BC
www.naughtydogge.com

So, yeah, I think I have in my life a heart dog and a soul dog, and I am so profoundly grateful for both, from the bottom of my heart and the depths of my soul.

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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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Ups and Downs of the Last Ten Days

All’s been quiet on the WordPress front – it’s been a busy, exhausting, and emotional week and a half, so I haven’t had a lot of time to process and write as I would like – I started and stopped a few times. Much of our animal experiences will require their own page, so, more to come I guess.

Here’s what’s happened this past week and a half:

  • We traveled out to Ohio to visit family (and friends along the way at Penn State) – another experience in our travels with dogs with more learned along the way, and a feeling that while not always perfect, it gets a little better each time as Balton becomes more worldly.
  • We experienced the sudden and heartwrenching lesson in what Feline Aortic Thromboembolism (Saddle Thrombus) was, which quickly took the life of our 11 year old cat. My body hadn’t been so utterly exhausted from tears shed in I can’t remember how long before she crossed to the rainbow bridge.
  • We started up week two of agility class with Ollie – where he continues to excel and seems to have fun, whereas I continue to develop my own coordination skills…but I also do have fun.
  • I attended a weekend seminar with Dr. Sophia Yin, who provided an excellent presentation on fear and aggression in dogs, and gave me a lot of great knowledge that I am currently working on processing and presenting to Lucky Dog Volunteers.
  • We are embarking on our first petsitting experience through Rover.com as part of their “Sit a Pet, Save a Life” program – it’s like fostering except we know exactly when the dogs will leave and they already have a forever home, which makes it more workable with our current household dynamic (though, I’m not sure if watching someone else’s dogs is more or less pressure  than the act of fostering!). The “save a life” piece comes into play because 10% of our petsitting fees will be donated back to Lucky Dog Animal Rescue, which is pretty neat.
  • Finally, we celebrated one year of life with Balton this past week – and I took some time to reflect on all the smiles, tears, stress, love, and learnings he’s brought into our lives.

Each of these points have a story in themselves, and I’ll get to sharing them in the coming weeks. In the mean time, I encourage you to do a little blog hopping while I work on getting myself, and with that, original content, together. Here’s a few things I read this past week and affected me in some way, so wanted to share them with you too.

  • Like this very wise and relatively short piece on all-to-important lessons from dogs and grandpa, by Oh Melvin.
  • Or this not-so-short, but very powerful piece on how Self Care is Not Optional, and the effects of Compassion Fatigue, by Notes from a Dog Walker.
  • Or get your foster fix with an update from our friend Katie at Maryland-based Of Barks and Bones, who is caring for her first full time foster, an adorable beagle named BJ (sharing his story and helping him get adopted would also be pretty awesome).
  • Or, finally, break out the tissues and read this beautiful tribute from Reactive Champion about a beautiful dog named Dobby, who was given a gift of love and kindness without compare by his mom of Paws Abilities. I don’t know Dobby, or the people in his life, but I do love both of their blogs – and his story is one of great beauty.

More to come soon, but please hang with us until the next post at Facebook or on Instagram. It’s really the best way to catch us in “realtime” and play virtual soccer with Balton. Because, really, who doesn’t want that?

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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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Ode to Ollie

While I love to share moments of great success and interest from Balton, Ollie is my little ray of sunshine who always makes me laugh with his playful and bouncy enthusiasm, and love for pretty much all people and dogs. Last Thursday after class with Balton, I came home, let him settle in, and took Ollie for a walk alone and experienced a “Treat Yo Self” (credit Notes from a Dog Walker) inspired moment.

I love both my dogs, but I think Balton’s level of need tends to overshadow Ollie a little bit. Sharing love is  something I have to do more consciously when one dog demands so much more attention to achieve a sense of normalcy than the other. There’s a lot of internalized guilt in my efforts to show outward displays for both dogs in a way that is equitable.  Last Thursday’s peaceful stroll around the lake was a gentle reminder about how blessed I am to have a dog like Ollie, and how for all the love he has give to me, the many foster dogs we’ve looked after, and the world beyond is not to be taken for granted. In that walk, I discovered a new Thursday night ritual, and I am excited to start a 6 week agility class with him next Tuesday and spend some alone time with my little guy. He deserves it.

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And agility class apparently can’t begin too soon! Those of you who follow us on Facebook may have caught this video that I took of Ollie, just delightfully being Ollie. I’ve rewatched it several times and it continues to make me laugh, so in the spirit of all the joy Ollie brings us regularly, I hope that in less than two minutes he’ll do the same for you, in case you missed it.

“Jack Russell Terriers are bred to go underground, following scent to locate and bark at quarry until they are dug down to or the quarry bolts. If they do not have an outlet for their natural instincts, they will invent new and fun jobs for themselves.”
-Jack Russell Terrier Club of America