Pearl’s Tale

Long time readers may remember that I work at a low cost spay/neuter clinic in NJ, and that my boss, the vet, runs a dog rescue that rescues, rehabs, and finds adoptive homes forĀ Satos, Puerto Rican street dogs. The rescue continues to grow, and much of my boss’s farm has been transformed into climate-controlled housing for pups in need. With adoptions numbering in the hundreds each year, it is an organization that does an overwhelming amount of good. For the most part, my involvement in the dog rescue is limited despite the fact that I spend three days a week at the clinic, working as a tech.

I do volunteer my photography services to the rescue. When dogs come in, I am the one who takes their adoption photos. It’s a rewarding job because a good photo is often all it takes to find a lead for a homeless dog. It is also a fun job that involves lying in the grass in the sunshine, waving squeaky toys, and getting licked by puppies. Often times, I see the dogs once or twice between when they arrive and when they get adopted out. In fact, many of the puppies have homes lined up before they even fly stateside. Usually, I don’t get names or back stories on any of the dogs. I take the photos, edit them at home, and send out a mass email to all the parties involved in finding forever homes. The files go on my external hard drive and I almost never even look at them again.

Once in a while, however, a dog comes along whose story I can’t ignore. Sometimes, dogs come in extremely sick, and I hold them for diagnostics and treatment. I change blankets and flush IV’s and take temperatures. I snuggle pups whose bodies ache and who need a comforting hand to keep them quiet while they heal. Most of the time, the dogs recover and go off to live happily ever after. I can count on one hand the number of dogs we’ve lost in the four years I’ve been volunteering with the rescue. Still, sick dogs break my heart, and I don’t have the heart to write about their ailments.

This year, a dog came along that was special in a different way. This is Pearl’s story, and it’s a feel-good tale just in time for the holidays.

Meet Pearl:
12096555_10100760299141469_2816486152682750296_nPearl is a chi-weenie, or, at least, that’s our best guess. Like 99% of the dogs we take in, she was found wandering the streets of Puerto Rico. She was emaciated, full of heartworms and other parasites, and very, very pregnant. Pearl had been on her own for so long that she was completely terrified of people. Thanks in part to the fact that she was so incredibly sick and weak, the rescuers in PR were able to wrangle her and get her to safety.

It wasn’t long before Pearl delivered a litter of four teeny, tiny puppies.

The babies were healthy, but mom had given them all she had and was very, very weak. The puppies were supplemented with formula to take some of the strain off of Pearl. She was a good mom; a very good mom. She cleaned and nursed her babies and was very protective of them. Unfortunately, this made socializing her even more of a challenge. She barked and snarled whenever anyone came near her litter, and she even tried to bite on several occasions.

We received this photo with a plea, “Will you guys take these four puppies and their mom?”

11988239_1682675145288089_4447317928649180359_nWe also got this photo of Pearl looking completely mortified at the prospect of meeting more strangers.11988578_1682677018621235_3842343674468044919_n

How could we say no?

As soon as the puppies were old enough to travel, we arranged to have someone to travel with them as carry-on, and Pearl got her “Freedom Flight” to the States.12043216_1684853775070226_2895413968664326285_n

After a plane ride and a car trip, Pearl and her pups arrived safely at the farm, where Pearl began treatment for her heart worm. A few days later, I took adoption photos of her and her pups. I had to stay outside the ex-pen because Pearl would try to kill me any time I got too close to her pups. She was fiercely protective of her babies and tried to bite anyone who tried to come near them, including the doc!

Juggling Pearl and her pups over the next couple of weeks was tough. Of course, the adorable puppies found homes immediately. It was just a matter of waiting for them to be old enough to be weaned. Thankfully, they’d been handled by people since birth and were extremely friendly.

Once the puppies were weaned and adopted, the real work began. Without her motherly instincts kicking in, Pearl stopped being aggressive, which was a relief. However, she was painfully shy. The vet took her inside her house to get her used to cohabiting with people. Pearl started getting used to my boss, but still barked at her son and hid from him. Pearl was quickly getting attached to the doctor, but that wouldn’t help her get adopted.

One day, the vet brought Pearl into the clinic, and informed me that the little dog would be “working” with us every day. It became my personal mission to befriend the terrified chihuahua mix.

It wasn’t easy. Pearl hid from me. She barked at me when she felt cornered. She shook. I tried bribing her with human food and cat treats, tricks that have worked with many dogs over the years, but Pearl’s fear was greater than her appetite. She resisted even the most delicious treats (Dunkin Donuts hash browns!) even when I left them far from myself.

Gradually, however, she started to come around. She started taking food that I left on the floor for her. Then she’d eat it from a few inches away from me. Eventually, she took it from my hand if I sat completely still. After a lot of time and patience, I was able to pet her while she ate, and eventually pick her up.

The weather worked to my advantage. Once the temperatures started to drop, hairless Pearl from the tropics started to realize the benefits of a warm body to cuddle. I would have her sit in my lap while I invoiced and did office work at the end of the day, and it wasn’t long before I caught her following me around the mobile unit as long as I didn’t make eye contact with her. Slowly, she was coming around.

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In the mean time, we discovered that Pearl was a great little farm dog. She never strayed far. She came when she was called. She got along with the other dogs and cats on the property. She was quiet, unassuming, and obedient. Gradually, very gradually, she started to come out of her shell. She looked right at home.

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The hunt for an adoptive home began in earnest. Where were we going to find someone with the patience and quiet nature this skittish little girl needed? She deserved a home to call her own. A few people came to look at her, among them an elderly couple who wanted a small dog. One after another, they passed Pearl up in favor of the cuter, friendlier, more appealing dogs on the property. The weeks flew by,and still Pearl lived on the farm and hung out in the clinic with me.

Eventually, Pearl adapted enough to go to PetSmart with the other available dogs. There she would gain more exposure to life and people. PetSmart also increased her chances of someone noticing her.

And notice her they did! A family came in who wanted a project dog, someone whose affection they would have to earn. Pearl would be perfect. It was love at first sight!

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Next thing we knew, the family had passed the application process and was ready to take her home. Best of all, we got to receive updates on our little friend in her brave, new world. She was probably pretty overwhelmed at the size and newness of it all.

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We waited with bated breath to see if the home would stick. It has been five weeks now, and it doesn’t sound like Pearl is coming back to us at all. In fact, we just got this photo of her living the good life in her new home. Doesn’t she look like she owns the place?

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So You’re Thinking About Surrendering Your Dog!

No loving pet owner ever wants to think that they might be forced to relinquish their dogs. But it does happen, and it can happen to anyone, so let’s talk a little about what to do if you’re confronted with the difficult decision of whether or not to surrender your dog.

1. Making the Decision

The first question is always: Is it really necessary to rehome the dog?

Whenever possible, the first and best option is to see if there’s any way to keep the dog in its current home. Generally, surrender comes down to whether an owner is both able and willing to rectify whatever problem is threatening the dog’s home.

There are usually options available if the reason for rehoming is due to temporary external hardship. If it’s an emergency homelessness situation (such as a family displaced by fire or flooding), organizations like the Red Paw Emergency Relief Team may be able to help. If it’s financial hardship, many shelters and rescues (and some homeless assistance groups) maintain food banks of donated kibble and canned food for needy owners. Soliciting donations over Facebook or Kickstarter to fund vet care might feel uncomfortable, but it’s better than giving up a dog because you can’t afford necessary medical treatment.

If the owner’s contemplating surrender over a behavioral or training issue, then the question gets more complicated.

Training and management should always be the first option — the sooner, the better. Good professional trainers don’t come cheap, but having a happy and harmonious life with your dog is well worth the investment up front. Many dogs are surrendered for nothing worse than adolescent rambunctiousness that the owner doesn’t know how to control or channel. Teaching the dog some self-control and providing a structured outlet like dog sports can solve the problem and, beyond that, take the dog-human relationship to a whole new level.

Additionally, it’s important to rule out potential underlying medical causes. A difficult-to-housebreak dog may turn out to be suffering a medical problem such as a UTI or spay incontinence. Treat the medical cause, and the “behavioral problem” disappears.

Not all scenarios, however, can be addressed via training or treatment. Some are more complicated, and the owner may not be in a position to safely handle them (as with a fear-aggressive big dog with zero bite inhibition living in a home with small children). Sometimes an owner undergoes a life crisis, or a precipitous drop in health, and simply cannot care for the dog. And some solutions are arguably less humane than rehoming — if there are two adult females who fight constantly, then super strict crate-and-rotate may be the only way to keep them from getting at each other’s throats, and even with that regimen, the level of stress and anxiety in the home might be so high that rehoming one of the dogs is actually the better and kinder option for everybody. (Patricia McConnell has a good and thoughtful blog post about these scenarios, and it’s worth reading if you or someone you know happens to be in this circumstance.)

Every dog deserves a home in which he can live safely and with as little stress and as much joy as possible. If you’re either unable or unwilling to provide that home, then perhaps it’s kinder to help your dog find another home that can. Dogs are resilient. A healthy and adaptable dog won’t die of heartbreak upon being rehomed. In fact, most of them bond very strongly to their new owners within weeks.

At the same time, it’s necessary to be completely, brutally honest about whether rehoming is truly the most responsible choice. By rehoming a dog, you are asking someone else to take that dog into their family. Please consider — truthfully and candidly — whether that’s fair, responsible, or right. If you, the owner who loves and has a bond with this dog, are not willing or able to adjust your life to accommodate the animal’s needs, how likely is it that someone else, without such a bond, will do so?
If the reason you’re contemplating surrender is because the dog is genuinely dangerous to himself or others, or because the dog has such severe and intractable medical problems that there’s no realistic prospect for that dog to live a happy life elsewhere, please consider whether it’s ethical to ask someone else to take on that burden. Is this really a dog that has the capacity to flourish in a new home? Or is this a situation where euthanasia would be the kinder choice? If the latter is true — and you’ve had professional evaluations to make sure of that — then have the courage to be there for your dog. Don’t surrender your companion out of cowardice.

2. Practical Considerations: Who Will Take the Dog?

There are basically three ways to go about rehoming a pet.

One, you can surrender the dog to an open-admission shelter. These are usually affiliated with a city or county and have an animal control contract for the local municipality. Legally, they’re required to accept any animal that is surrendered at the door or brought in by animal control officers; they can’t turn anyone away.

Because they’re open intake, these shelters are prone to overcrowding and often have to euthanize current animals to make space for new arrivals. Sometimes a dog’s maximum stay is dictated by local ordinance. Other times, the dog might have as long as the shelter can give her. Either way, however, euthanasia is a very real possibility at any open-admission facility.

However, for some dogs in some locations, going into a shelter may actually result in pretty good odds of landing in a decent home. A healthy, behaviorally sound dog that is anything other than a pit bull or pittie mix has a very good chance of being adopted quickly in a major East Coast city. In other regions, however, every dog may be at risk — no matter how cute, sweet, or adoptable. (Pitties, unfortunately, have terrible odds across the country. It doesn’t matter where you are, their chances are not good.)

The second option is to try to get the dog into a no-kill shelter (limited admission) or foster-based rescue. Here, a dog does not face euthanasia for space (although an animal may still be euthanized if its physical or behavioral health problems are so severe that the animal’s quality of life is significantly damaged).

The tradeoff here is that no-kill shelters and private rescues can only take a small number of animals, and the better ones will generally restrict intake to animals that they can expect to move in a reasonable timeframe, since every animal that sits unadopted in a kennel or foster home turns into a money drain, contributes to volunteer burnout, and prevents that organization from saving more animals. On top of that, a foster-based rescue is limited to accepting animals that it can find foster homes for. A dog with severe behavioral or physical problems isn’t easy to foster, and the rescue may not be able to find a safe, qualified placement for such an animal.

What this means for the owner trying to surrender a dog is that you might hear a lot of “no”s from these groups, particularly if the animal in question is likely to prove difficult to foster or difficult to place. A highly adoptable animal is likely to get a better reception from such groups.

A third option is private rehoming — keeping the dog in your home while trying to network the dog through friends, family, and any other means at your disposal (such as posting the dog on Craigslist).

In general, my feeling is that if you do not have much experience screening strangers on the Internet, it may be advisable to partner up with a good rescue and ask them to post a courtesy listing on Petfinder and possibly help screen prospective homes, with you as the “foster” owner getting the final word on where the dog goes. This allows you to piggyback off the rescue’s network for greater exposure and help with responsible placement.

Many rescues will be happy to help if you ask politely. Some may require a nominal fee (for example, the rescue that I currently volunteer for charges a $25 application processing fee from prospective adopters) or ask you to help out with occasional volunteer duties in exchange. However, if you can’t find a good local rescue to help out, it’s certainly possible to do just fine on your own. Online resources for foster homes can be helpful here.

No matter which option you choose, honesty is paramount in these interactions. The shelter or rescue needs to know exactly what they’re dealing with, good and bad, as do prospective adopters.

3. Emotional Considerations: Guilt, Honesty, and Relief

Making the decision to surrender a dog is difficult and emotionally fraught. It’s normal to feel guilty and unsure about whether you made the right choice. If you didn’t feel that way, you probably wouldn’t be a very good owner.

However, if you made the right choice out of concern for the best interests of the dog, then it’s okay to let that guilt go. Life happens. People fall into unexpected circumstances. Some rescues and shelters understand this; some don’t. If you’re unlucky enough to run across one of the latter type, that can be emotionally bruising too. The important thing to remember here is that you did what was right for the dog.

A word about honesty: In order to make appropriate choices and lasting placements for the dog, honesty is paramount. The shelter, rescue, or prospective adopter needs to know exactly why the animal was surrendered. If the dog was just too unruly and excitable to live in a home with young children, that’s okay. You can — and must — tell that to the rescue. Otherwise there’s a real risk that the dog might be placed in the wrong home and wind up right back in the rescue, but now with added confusion and stress and possibly even the black mark of a bite on his record. No matter how difficult it is to be candid about the reasons for surrender, honesty is crucial for ensuring the animal’s well-being. Lying or hiding those reasons can only hurt the animal.

And, lastly, a word about relief: Just as it’s normal to feel guilty about making this decision, it is also normal to feel relieved. Quite often, people don’t realize how stressful it was to live with an ill-matched dog until the dog is out of their homes — especially in scenarios where the dog wasn’t getting along with a person or another animal in the family.

Feeling relief at having that stressor removed does not make you a bad person. It only means that you were correct in your judgment that the situation really wasn’t working out. Very probably, the dog was stressed too, and is also feeling a kind of relief at having the opportunity to move on to a life without that worry.

On foster failing, or not

Exactly 10 days ago today, I called my mom after work, and without even saying hello, I said, “Mom, I have to tell you: I have fallen in love.”

There was a pause, and then an audible sigh.

“It’s with a dog, isn’t it?”

Sometimes your mom can know you a little too well.

The object of my affection, and the source of the consternation that lead to this post is this handsome young gentleman:

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Hi there!

Meet Shine. He is a cute, twoish-year old little dude who Sarah says looks like a McNab collie and Jen says just looks like a Heinz 57: Herding Flavor. Either way, he showed up in admissions at my shelter, and pretty much the instant I met him, I was all, “GIMME THAT POINTY DOG!” He was doing poorly in admissions–classic ‘dog who is stressed out by a shelter environment and turns into a monster because of it’–and I volunteered to bring him home for a little while, assuming he could work with my group of animals. I knew full well that I kind of secretly totally wanted him and that he would be a dangerous guy to bring home, given that it is not my objective to acquire any more dogs. However, I assumed that he would bomb out at some point in the introduction process and then I wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore. To my massive surprise, however, he passed his cat test and all of my dogs thought he was swell (Lucy, my old dog who hates basically everyone, play bowed at him and then got the zoomies, and I will have to plead the Fifth on whether or not that made me burst into happy tears.) So, because I had no built-in excuses left, he is now curled up in a ball with Nellie on my couch, and I have spent the last several days Hamlet-ing around about whether or not to keep him.

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Duh, you have to keep me. Nellie thinks I’m great!

[Shine, by the way, is not his official name. Pretty much immediately on arrival, I decided his shelter name was non-euphonious and too difficult to call (plus, he didn't know it), so I decided that he seemed like a Shine and that was now his name. Step one in not adopting your foster dog: DO NOT RENAME HIM! Sigh.]

I have fostered a fair bit, and I am proud to say that I have only ‘foster failed’ (adopted a foster dog) once. That foster fail was Nellie, and the difference between her and my other fosters was that a) I was actively looking for a second dog when I agreed to foster her, and b) I mostly wanted to foster instead of adopt because I thought there was a good chance Lucy might want to murder her, and I wanted to have an ‘out’ just in case. I have had a couple of fosters that I was glad to see go, but I have been lucky in that I have mostly had foster dogs that I’ve adored. There were a couple that I desperately wanted to keep and did not; all of those dogs are in terrific homes and are thriving, and I know now that my decision to let them go was the right one. The stakes on both sides are pretty obvious: of course, if you keep your foster, you get an awesome dog and they get an awesome home. However, if you keep your foster, you also give up your ‘foster slot’, either temporarily (as New Dog adjusts) or permanently (because you are now full up on dogs). Keeping a foster dog means, theoretically anyway, that all of the potential foster dogs you could have taken in will now either need alternate placement or will not be rescued at all. So the decision to keep a foster isn’t tiny, and it’s not even necessarily about just you and the dog.

However, if you, like me, have a foster dog that is currently making your heart go pitter-pat, I thought I’d talk through some of the things I’m thinking about as I agonize over whether or not to keep Shine. If you’ve had to make the To Keep Or Not To Keep decision and had other criteria that you considered, please feel free to share those in the comments! Help me, help your fellow dog nerds.

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