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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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.


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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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Balton the Brave: Super Hero Flight School

Life as a superhero in training is perhaps a little different for Balton than the average caped crusader. While other heroes are working on leaping tall buildings in a single bound or using superhuman strength to carry cars over their heads, Balton works on not sweating the small stuff and using superpuppy self-control to keep calm and carry on.

Following Balton’s beautiful stranger moment, I didn’t think it could get much better for the week in class. But it did, because our classmate wasn’t the only one who had noticed Balton’s good behavior. After nearly a year of hard work and much practice, Balton earned a new cape.

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Okay, not a cape, exactly. But close. This orange bandana is what they give to Rowdy Rovers when they are allowed to go to a “regular” class. It means Balton has  shown enough confidence and skills through his behavior modification to try one out, so he can work on his training skills in a new environment. Much like the capes that he’s worn before, this orange bandana must be worn in his new class, so the other students and new teachers can easily identify he needs space, and Balton can learn without getting overwhelmed by other people not familiar with Rowdy Rover protocol being too close or making him uncomfortable. But unlike those other capes, he’s earned this one. And he’s going where no Balton has dared to go before.

Our caped crusader’s next adventure is going to be different. It’s going to be new, which means it’s probably going to be just a little scary at first. But I know his teachers will help me to help him feel safe, just as a good super hero sidekick helps to provide backup. And if we do a good job, B will have found one more not-so-scary place in this world.

We hope you’ll wish us a little extra Lucky Dog luck this week, but more than that, we hope you’ll send us lots of encouragement for superhero courage.


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The Kindness of Strangers

I spend a good deal of time celebrating Balton’s little moments of bravery. Making it through a walk without incident (or even with only one minor incident) usually is enough to make me proud. When most people think about what a “good dog” is though, Balton’s little accomplishments may not add up to much. I think if they got to be a fly on the wall at our house, maybe they would see what a lovely dog he is. But, let’s be honest, public opinion does matter, and B doesn’t always do his best out and about in the real world. He sure has come a long way, but most people don’t get the luxury of knowing that. Even at his best, greeting strangers and their dogs on leash aren’t things he can do.

When working with a dog who has fear issues, progress is measured in such tiny increments that it can feel like watching grass grow. When your reactive dog has a reaction after you feel like he’s come a ways, it makes you question if the grass has been growing at all, or makes you feel like you’ve lost the ground beneath you entirely. Maybe that’s why few things give me a greater joy than when I hear someone else pay Balton a compliment on his behavior. It’s one thing for me to see him doing well, but another quite entirely to get an outsider’s perspective. In those moments, I feel like the progress he’s made is something big.

Since we started his Relaxing Rowdy Rovers training class almost a year ago, we’ve seen a lot of dogs come and go while we’ve kept working, in an effort to give Balton a safe place to train each week. We’ve had stops and starts, and after seeing little bits of progress, we would hit road blocks and have to take a few steps back. Recently though, Balton’s been on a trajectory upswing in his training class. His quiet confidence has been shining through in his willingness to take treats from the trainers and greet them with cautious optimism, to settle with his back to the other dogs in the room, to walk about the room with a lightness in his step, to not feel the need to go on the offensive if his classmates bark at one another. To trust. To relax.

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Last week, as one of our trainers was working with another family who started class recently and is as anxious as Balton was when we first started, she commented on how well Balton was doing. Our classmate said something to her, and she smiled and said “say that so Balton’s mom can hear you.” He looked at me and said his wife last week commented on how “Thundershirt Dog doesn’t need to be here.” I looked at Balton (sporting his weekly school uniform of a Thundershirt) and smiling, joked that he puts on a very good show for class. But for me, it was all I could do to keep from crying happy tears in that moment.

Those words came from someone who really doesn’t know Balton. They came from someone who didn’t have to try to dig deeper to see Balton’s beautiful heart, to keep from seeing him as mean, scary, or broken. The words were unbiased by love, affection, or filtered through my eyes as people here see Balton. I think those words may be the kindest words an almost complete stranger has said about him.

As it turns out, that wouldn’t even turn out to be the biggest moment of class for Balton this past week. More on that tomorrow…


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Thirty Days of Thanks: Snow Soccer

Happy Thanksgiving Everybody!

This year I got to start off celebrating the holiday of delicious table scraps doing two of my favorite activities: playing in the snow and playing with my most favorite ball!

Gram and Grandpappy don’t have a fenced in yard, but they do have a big field with soccer goals and a baseball fence across the street from their house, so mama and I brought our long line over and had some cold wet fun before all the Thanksgiving guests started arriving.

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So I’m good and exercised now, and happily updating my blog before I settle in for some nappings in my crate while all the goings on are going on.

More to come on how I handled the holiday hustle and bustle, but so far so good!

Turkey Day Tail Wags,
Balton