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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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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Reactivity Activities: Balton Joins the Pit Crew

This Saturday was National Pit Bull Awareness day, and Balton celebrated in good form by joining up as a member of a club that devotes itself to Pit Bull Awareness. He’s very passionate about social education and advocacy with issues pertaining to his canine buddies!

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Once upon a time, the Shepherds were the breed of choice to pick on as inherently dangerous, and many GSDs are still banned from many apartment buildings here in the DC metro area, so Balton totally empathizes with his Bully brethren.

Okay, so really it was more of a happy coincidence that he happened to meet up with this group on this very important holiday, but we were super excited to join them, and Balton is very proud to be an honorary Pit Bull.

Let’s backtrack a bit. A few months ago I had started reading up on structured social dog walking groups and found what I was reading fascinating. Groups like Chicago Sociabulls, KC Pittie Pack, and Positive Pittie Pack Walk. In fact, it was a post about PPPW featured on the Chicago Sociabulls group that first drew my attention to the idea. See it here to get a sense on why I was so inspired.

I loved the concept behind these groups. While part of their effort is to change perceptions about bully breeds (mission point #1 that I love), they also strive to help dog owners offer safe and structured environments for dogs. They provide opportunities to be in group settings with other people and dogs, allowing the opportunity to work on leash manners and have good experiences with dog owners who won’t judge them. And, there are rules. Rules about where dogs fall in the lineup, rules about not allowing dogs to greet before, during, or after walks. We love rules. We love tools that facilitate those rules to be followed, like providing special colored bandanas to make it clear which dogs need more space, and dogless walkers to offer a buffer between the group and dogs and their owners who were not with the group. We love a kindhearted understanding that some dogs will need more space than others, and this doesn’t make them a bad dog. This was exactly the kind of support network Balton needed.

I started looking into Meetups to try and find a similar group and was disheartened to find other dog walking groups seemed lovely, but weren’t really conducive to what we were looking for. Many of them took routes where members could and would allow dogs off leash. I had visions of dogs and people rushing us and giving dirty looks since we walk him in a basket muzzle and need to respectfully request space. I pictured Balton and I both having a panic attack on a trail out in Virginia somewhere, with me wondering why people are so resistant to leash laws, and why I would put my dog in an environment that would effectively make future walks much more stressful.

A year with Balton has taught me some valuable lessons about taking hindsight experiences to improve foresight.

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Heeeey, good job Ma! You’re making great progress in your training!

Then my friend and fellow foster Angel of Wet Nose Seeks Warm Bed told me that the Animal Welfare League of Arlington actually has a walking group. In fact, I had been following their offshoot group the AWLA Pit Crew for some time because of their awareness and education efforts towards myth busting, promoting adoption, and responsible ownership of bully breeds. But I had no idea they also had a structured walking group. A few emails and questions later (among which admittedly included “is it okay that my dog is not a Pit Bull?”) and I was reviewing their rules, submitting B-man’s info, and eagerly awaiting my first walk invite. I decided to attend the first group walk solo, so I could get a sense on how things are run. I wanted to (a) determine that this would be a good fit for Balton and (b) get out some of my own nervous jitters so that I could feel better prepared when I decided to bring Balton out. Everyone was so incredibly nice and welcoming, and dogs who had reactivity issues were designated with red bandannas so that other group members knew they needed extra space. That said, they  require that walkers keep a minimum of five (5) feet of space between dogs even if their dog is a social butterfly (and note that some dogs will need much more space). As the walk progresses, some dogs may be able to shorten that distance, but they keep a strict no contact rule throughout the walk.

So, after my dogless walk, I felt awesome, and was excited to bring Balton out to this Saturday’s walk starting at the Marie Leven Butler Reserve in McLean, VA.

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It was a cold start to the morning, and there was a lot of novelty for Balton. Fortunately, the DINOS stars smiled on Balton and it was a pretty small walk this week. There were only two other dogs (one of whom is dog reactive) and four other people. It didn’t stop Balton from doing a bit of introductory barking and lunging, but our fellow walkers were very kind and placed us in the way in the way back so we could control the distance between us and the group. There were dogless walkers able to alert us if there was a person/dog/car up ahead to be aware of, and would also help run interference so that we didn’t have any catastrophic run-ins. As the walk wore on, Balton’s comfort level increased and we were able to decrease distance with the dog and people in front of us. There were a lot of new smells and exciting things, but Balton did really well at checking in with me regularly and staying focused (at a high rate of reinforcement) when two dogs from outside the group bypassed us on the trail. Having heads up and emotional support from the group made these encounters so much easier to handle.

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Out on the trail, with a big smile on his face (and a red bandanna – just like adoption events days of old – ah, memories).

We crossed over a river by way of a rock path, we saw a lot of beautiful houses, and we sniffed a lot of  ground (well, Balton sniffed). And when we were done, we had a short reconvene with our new friends (no greeting, just standing around for a moment before parting ways) and B was in a really good place.

When we got back to the car he had this look on his face that seemed to say “Holy wow, did I just walk with a bunch of new people and dogs and enjoy myself??? I’m gonna have a party here in the back seat!”

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And then he pretty quickly realized that he had covered a lot of ground (physically, mentally, and emotionally), and it turned out he was pretty exhausted. So he napped the whole way home.

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While some might argue that these structured walks don’t exactly make for a “social” setting, this was a huge day for Balton. For him, this IS a social event, and what’s more important, it’s a social event that allows him to change associations with humans attached to on leash dogs. He doesn’t really get the chance to go on walks with anyone other than Nick, our dog walker Alex, and me. And other people walking dogs is something that stresses Balton out a lot when we are out in the world. We’re good at keeping distance, but we don’t get the opportunity to use those one-off encounters as good learning experiences for him because we cannot trust strangers to be understanding or respectful of his space or fears.

Keeping below threshold is not easy, and dogs on leash with their people are the scariest thing for him, triggering his worst reactions. I believe this bizarre reaction has something to do with fear of humans, but also frustrated greeting for the dog. He really likes other dogs and wants very badly to get more info on them, and in fact got to be okay with Alex, (who he did not start on good terms with) after I took him on a walk with Alex and his dog, Hank. Hank started coming on walks for awhile after that, and Alex was greeted much more favorably when he came to our home. Since then, Alex remains one of the few in Balton’s trust circle, which is incredibly fortunate for us. However, we had fallen into a pattern for awhile of on leash dog = total cluster of leash gremlinism, with no clear way to help generate a better experience.

So, creating a positive walk experience in the company of other humans and their on leash dogs is kind of a big deal, and the more he gets to do it, the better I think walks will be in general for him. To that end, yesterday we had an amazing walk with regular check ins and happy demeanor, even when we had to bypass a scary (by Balton standards) man raking leaves and a gaggle of screaming children running every which way. Nick and Ollie help to provide a great buffer zone, but Balton was so much less stressed on yesterday’s walk than I think I have ever seen him on a walk.

I can’t help but believe his good time Saturday carried over, and can only hope that more of these walks will help Balton continue enjoy himself on walks, which, honestly had been very difficult for a very long time.

I’m so, so grateful that the AWLA Pit Crew exists, and am so grateful they have been so welcoming and supportive of Balton and other dogs like him with specific challenges. Having said that, the AWLA Pit Crew Walking Group is not just for reactive dogs! It’s a social group that is welcoming of all dogs and has amazing volunteers. They also are always in need of more volunteers to get involved and help host walk sites, which we plan to do after attending a few more walks.

To learn more about them, visit www.awla.org/volunteer/pit-crew/ and to find out how to join the Pit Crew walking group, email pitcrewwalks@awla.org 


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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.