Book Review: How to Foster Dogs, by Pat Miller

Maaaannny many years ago (well, okay, three), when I first started thinking about fostering dogs, I would have loved a little guidance about exactly how to find a good rescue, select an appropriate “starter” dog, handle introductions with my resident dog (particularly since my only resident dog at that time was Pongu the Insane, the poster child for jealous insecurity), and so forth.

In other words, I would have loved this book.

How to Foster Dogs is a book aimed squarely at that beginning-to-intermediate foster home. It starts with an overview of fostering, moves into a discussion of the different types of organizations that need fosters and the purposes for which they might place dogs in foster care, and then goes over how to choose, socialize, and train a foster dog. It talks about how to pick quality foods, how to avoid or discourage nuisance behaviors, and how to get started on basic training. There are concise chapters on the three most common behavioral issues presented by foster dogs (fear, aggression, and separation anxiety) and an extremely short discussion on placing fosters in their adoptive homes.

Three years ago, I would have latched onto this book like a life preserver. Because that’s what it would have been to me then.

[ An early foster. I was a LITTLE over my head with this one at first!]

Today, I look at it and think: “hmm, there’s lots of good stuff here, but…

First, the good. There’s a ton of solid, well-researched information in this book, and it’s packaged neatly and efficiently in a non-intimidating manner. Miller clearly knows her audience, too: right from the get-go, she emphasizes the importance of knowing your limits, respecting the needs of your own household and resident pets, and recognizing when a foster dog’s behavioral or medical issues are beyond your ability to handle. Having dealt with many, MANY rescue volunteers whose big hearts led them into big trouble, I applaud her for trumpeting the message that it’s okay to say no. That is something a lot of rescue people find very difficult, and the inability to say no is a huge contributor to burnout rates.

The training and behavioral advice is, as you’d expect, solidly grounded on scientific principles and dog-friendly ethics. Miller covers a broad variety of topics, ranging from getting a dog comfortable with body handling to humanely discouraging nuisance barking, and always provides enough information for a reader to at least get started on tackling the problems without suffocating under an avalanche of jargon.

And now, the “buts.”

The biggest criticism I have of this book is probably its price point. This is a slim volume, clocking in at just under 150 pages of informative content, but as of this writing, it’s priced at $14.95. That’s not out of line for Dogwise Publishing… but most of Dogwise’s other titles are aimed at a professional or specialist audience, i.e., the kinds of people (me! me!) who are totally used to forking over $100 for a 6-DVD set on training your dog to stand on things.

Most rescue people are not hardcore training enthusiasts. Most of them are pet owners who have a soft spot for needy dogs, and my suspicion is that a lot of them might balk at dropping $15 on such a compact volume. At that price point, it’s cost-prohibitive for most rescues to buy in bulk and provide to their volunteers for free, too. (By contrast, Patricia McConnell’s Love Has No Age Limit, which contains a lot of similar information and is comparable in length, was deliberately priced so that it would be affordable to rescues — as little as $3 per copy with bulk purchases.) That’s a shame, because this really would be a wonderful manual for shelters and rescues to hand out to new volunteers.

Love Has No Age Limit: Cheap enough to give away with every foster dog I place!

The second criticism I’d offer is that there’s basically no information on marketing your foster dog or screening prospective homes, and this is something that I have come to regard as critically important over time. Good marketing is crucial to finding the best possible home for your foster dog and avoiding a regrettable placement because, well, those people want the dog and you don’t have any better options. Been there, done that, regret it to this day.

Not only does marketing your foster dog open up a world of wonderful possibilities for that dog, but in my experience, it’s a powerful shield against burnout and foster failure. Every time I write a blog post, take a cute photograph, or strap on the Homeless Dog Vest of Shame to advertise my foster dog’s availability, I am not only marketing the dog to the outside world, but reminding myself that this is not my dog. That keeps me emotionally insulated against getting too attached. It also helps keep me looking forward to the eventual Happily Ever After that I’m sure the dog will have — and that insulates me against burnout.

In my house, but NOT MY DOG.

Nothing’s ever perfect, of course, and despite my minor complaints, I do think this book is a strong and worthy addition to the literature. There’s really not a lot out there that talks specifically about fostering dogs, and I’m glad Pat Miller stepped in to cover that gap. If you’re debating whether to get into fostering and/or looking for tips on how to start on the right foot, How to Foster Dogs is a great resource and well worth the $15.

Team Unruly Reads: Show Dog (Josh Dean)

Josh Dean (author) poses with Jack (star)

Welcome to Round Two of Team Unruly Reads, TU’s semi-monthly virtual book club where we get together to talk about dog-themed books. This month, we’re reading Show Dog: The Charmed Life and Trying Times of a Near-Perfect Purebred. We’ll be keeping this post open for comments through Monday, 3 December: we hope that’s just enough time for a fun, easy-to-follow discussion that gives us enough time to get into things but doesn’t stretch on forever.

As before, the floor is open for you to talk about anything you’d like to bring up about the book. Likes, dislikes, interesting bits, open-mouthed gawking at some of the intra-breed bad behavior, whatever you’d like!

If you’re stuck for what to talk about, here are a couple of our thoughts that might spark your own ideas:

  • Dean doesn’t hide the fact that while he’s a big fan of dogs, he’s an outsider to both dog shows and the larger world of Dog People. He does, however, still clearly have dogs on the brain: he’s been writing an occasional dog-based blog since the publication of the book. In the blog, he writes “I’m often asked to explain how I, a guy who has written mostly about people and sports, came to write about dog shows. I tend to answer that a) you can’t have dog shows without people, and a book about dog shows is as much about people as it is about dogs, and b) many would argue that dog showing is a sport, and I felt pretty confident I could cover it in that way. And I did. Sort of….[O]ne of the things that scared me most putting it out there into the world was that dog show people might find it overly simplistic, or somehow wrong.”

So first, people who show: did he get it right? And second, for the rest of us: did you think the fact that the book was authored by a non-Dog Person helped it? Hurt it? Something in between?

Team Jack: (l) Kimberly Smith, Jack’s owner, (r) Kerry Kirtley, Jack’s breeder (far right: Jack)

More Team Jack: Heather Bremmer, Jack’s primary handler (r: Jack)

  • The relationship between humans and dogs is always an important factor in books like these, and in a situation like Jack’s (where he’s got a whole bunch of really important humans in his life), it’s even more multi-dimensional.  For me, one of the most interesting part of Show Dog was the (sometimes tense) interactions between Kimberly (Jack’s owner), Heather (Jack’s handler) and Kerry (Jack’s breeder). While they all wanted him to win, they each had their own specific goals for him that the others didn’t share, and I get the sense they had pretty different methods for achieving those goals. What did you think about this?

Frisbeeeeeeee! (don’t tell Heather)

  • Of course, in a perfect world, all show dogs are beloved family pets first and foremost; however, as the occasional tension between Kimberly and Heather (over Frisbee, Jack’s condition, Jack’s manners and so on) indicated, sometimes a dog’s career as a pet can be a little at odds with their career as a show dog.  Thoughts on this? What about dogs who are involved in other kinds of performance venues (sports, service, different kinds of work, etc)? Is it possible for dogs to comfortably wear multiple hats (service dog during the day, lazy buddy playing with the kids at night) or do Dogs With Jobs have to sacrifice a ‘normal’ life?

Vendor area at the Peninsula Dog Fanciers’ Club All-Breed Dog Show

  • As I do not live under a rock, I was aware that a bunch of money flows through dog shows, but BOY does Show Dog shine a light on that! From the show vendors to the entry fees to the, um, “collection services” to the rates for professional handlers to the people who are jetting between shows in their private planes, it seems pretty clear that showing dogs (especially at the higher levels) is not an inexpensive hobby to participate in.
  • On this same note, Dean writes a lot about the growing professionalization of dog shows, particularly the near-ubiquity of professional handlers (rather than owner-handlers). Of course, this dovetails with a growing trend towards specialists/away from amateurs in many, many hobbies and pastimes (don’t believe me? Check out Stefan Fatsis’s Word Freak, about the competitive Scrabble circuit, and Sam Walker’s Fantasyland about an especially ruthless fantasy baseball league made up of fantasy baseball professionals (which, among other things, spawned Nate Silver). Anyway, as a current non-show person who is vaguely interested in maybe showing someday, I found this all rather terrifying! Do you feel the same, non-show people? And show people, what do you think? Are Dean’s concerns overblown here?

There is so, so much more to talk about, but that’ll hopefully get you started! In the meantime, I will leave you with an excellent video of Jack’s most recent litter of puppies, with book co-star, Hallie B.

[Wait, one more thing: anyone wanna take bets on how long it'll be before Josh Dean gets a dog?]

Team Unruly Reads, November Edition: Show Dog (Josh Dean)

First off, thanks to everyone who participated in our first Team Unruly Reads: we had a really fun, interesting discussion about Rin Tin Tin: The Life And Legend (miss the discussion? You can see it here) and it was successful enough that we’ve decided to make it a regular feature! We batted around a number of possibilities for our next book; the votes are in, and we’ve decided that our next group read-along will be Show Dog: The Charmed Life and Trying Times of a Near-Perfect Purebred by Josh Dean.

If you aren’t a show person yourself and are wondering if you’ll enjoy the book, take heart: Show Dog isn’t a manual on showing, or even primarily about dog shows writ large. Instead, Josh Dean, a freelance journalist who likes dogs but isn’t a Dog Person, follows one particular dog on his journey through a year of shows, and the story that results is as much about human relationships and the bond between humans and their dogs as anything else). The dog he chooses, an Australian Shepherd named Jack (who has a blog!), is neither a total novice nor the winningest superstar in his breed: he’s kind of a middle of the pack competitive show dog, and that makes for a much more interesting story. Here’s a blurb for the book, which sums the whole thing up nicely:

Journalist Josh Dean tells the story of a loveable Australian Shepherd, Jack, on his novice tour through the exciting world of professional dog showing, following Jack from his first competitions in local school gymnasiums all the way to the great granddaddy of them all, the Westminster Dog Show. A veteran journalist, Dean shines a warm, steady light on the trials that Jack and his plucky, dedicated owners come to face, and uses their story to explore the larger histories of dog shows themselves; the fascinating and sometimes bizarre history of purebred dogs; and our complex, heartfelt relationships to the pets we grow to love.

Several of us here at TU (including both show people and non-show people) have already read the book and love it; it’s gotten positive reviews from people both in and outside of the show community, and the Amazon reviews include thumbs-ups from Pat Hastings, John Hodgman, Jim Gorant and Entertainment Weekly, a group of names I bet you will never see listed together again. It’s lively and fair and funny and light, the perfect curl-up-by-the-fire-and-read book, and we hope you’ll like it as much as we do.

As before, we’ll post an open discussion thread here on the blog at the end of the month: we’ll leave the thread open for a couple of days, but we think the discussion works best when it’s time-limited so people can actively follow and participate. This month, American Thanksgiving falls on the last full weekend in November (I personally plan to re-read the book while working off my pumpkin pie stupor), so we’ll open the thread on Friday, November 30th and close it Monday, December 3rd. The book is available in hardcover and e-book: if you’re in’s delivery area, you can also pick it up for about five bucks right now.

Here’s the book trailer

And just for fun, here is the, um, more PG-13 cut of the trailer

Team Unruly Reads: Rin Tin Tin: The Life and Legend (Susan Orlean)

“…dark, slim-nosed, with unexpectedly dainty feet and the resigned and solemn air of an existentialist.”
-Susan Orlean, describing Rin Tin Tin (I)

Welcome to the first virtual meeting of Team Unruly Reads, our experiment in putting together an online book club themed around dog books. This month, we’re talking about Susan Orlean’s recent book, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and Legend. We’ll keep this post open for comments through Monday, October 1st (it went up a little late because I, your humble moderator, have had a trying week; sorry about that.)

In any case, the floor is now open to anything you’d like to discuss! Tell us how you felt about the book generally, your favorite parts, things that sparked your interest, whatever.

If you need some discussion inspiration, here are some of the thing the TU writers found most engaging about the book: feel free to weigh in on any/all of them! Continue reading