Growing Up Guide Dog Puppy: Dierdre Goes to the Fair!

This month in puppy land, Dierdre goes with the puppy club to the South Florida fair (they hold those in the winter here because of the heat). But first, you can check out what I got in the mail from the guide dog school:

Baby Dierdre at about 5 weeks of age

Baby Dierdre at about 5 weeks of age

Right around when your puppy turns 4 or 5 months old, and you’ve gone through the worst of the housebreaking, crate training, whining, crying and nighttime potty trips- the guide dog school sends you a baby photo of your puppy with a guide dog harness and a thank you card. It comes in this nice card stock photo card, with a space on the opposite side ‘reserved for the puppy’s in for training picture.’


Picture Frame Card

Picture Frame Card

It’s quite a nice gesture to receive after the most trying stage of puppy raising, and who doesn’t love puppy pictures?

And now, onto the fair. Every year at the South Florida fair, the puppy club does a puppy demonstration to educate the public and expose the puppies. This year the ‘show’ was in one of the livestock pens, with tons of amazing smells to tempt the puppies!

We were allowed some time to go into the ring and let the pups smell before putting on vests to signal it’s ‘time to work.’ We did some practice obedience to focus the puppies.

Dierdre ignores the smells

Dierdre ignores the smells

When it was time to present, all the puppies were lined up in age order and our group leader gave a talk to the public about what puppy raising is, what puppy raisers do, and reviewed etiquette with the audience. After she was done speaking, the puppies demonstrated some of their obedience skills.


Club pups in age order! Dierdre is the second puppy from the left, all the way at the end.












As you can see from the picture, we are a club of mostly black labs! Besides Dierdre, there is one other yellow lab and a golden retriever. Dierdre was nervous of the audience applauding at first, but with some treats and redirection, she forgot all about them.


Puppy lineup after being given the “break!” command- signaling break time. Dierdre receives praise for being such a good puppy.

After the puppy raising portion, an obstacle course is set up and a friend of the puppy club- a man named Allen, works his guide dog, Jolly, though the course as a demonstration. He gives a presentation about Jolly and what guide dogs do in their everyday lives, and shows off Jolly’s impressive guide skills.

Guide Dog Handler Allan and his guide dog, Jolly, navigate an obstacle course

Guide Dog Handler Allan and his guide dog, Jolly, navigate an obstacle course












After the presentation, the puppies make their way through the fair to explore the sights and sounds. Dierdre navigated the exhibits well, and even ventured into the midway. She met some large stuffed animals, as well as visited the Farris wheel and stood next to the kiddie roller coaster to experience the loud noises. With each pass of the roller coaster, Dierdre was offered kibble, and she quickly began to look to me with each pass of the car.

Walking through the food aisle proved to be the largest challenge, and not for the reason you’d think! While many of puppies were very interested in the delicious smells, most of the food was being cooked in the open, on smokers and over open flame. While passing the BBQ vendor Dierdre slammed on the breaks, tucked her tail, and tried to flee, hitting the end of her leash unexpectedly, before doubling back and fleeing straight into my knee caps. While Dierdre had the most extreme reaction, two of the other puppies reacted negative to the smoke, so we retreated o a further area to allow Dierdre to regain her wits, and then slowly reintroduced her to the smoke in a most positive way. After working the area for a few minutes with lots of praise and kibble treats, Dierdre was able to comfortably sit several feet from the smoke without showing any signs of stress. Not wanting to push her any further, I counted that a success and we went on our way. When a puppy has a severe reaction, a puppy raiser makes a note of the conditions and reports the problem to the area coordinator, who will offer suggestions, or help design a training plan to slowly and positively expose a puppy to the scary thing. Often video of the reaction is taken for the puppy’s file, and if it’s severe enough the video and write ups will be sent to the guide dog trainers, who will offer input or make the decision to career change a dog.

Such a case happened recently with a club puppy who showed fear of riding in cars. After attempting a few weeks of counter conditioning, the puppy was still urinating when approaching vehicles and would often tuck his tail, so the decision was made to release him from the program. The trainers at the guide dog school will work a bit more, even on career changed puppies, to help a puppy that’s been dropped for such a reason before they adopt them out. While many dogs, with this extra trianing, may get over their fear enough to make a good family pet, the trainers don’t want to push a dog, especially when it’s something that dog will be exposed to quite a lot as a guide dog. They want all guide dogs to naturally love their job, so no puppy is forced into the role if they don’t exhibit positive body language and appropriate reactions to the big, wide, scary world.

After the scary smoke, the meeting was over, and the puppies were allowed time to relieve, drink water, and socialize a bit (with vests off, of course!) before taking a group photo and heading home. Someone spelled Dierdre’s name wrong, but she won’t hold it against them ;)

Group photo!

Group photo!

“I want a small dog because…” [*eyeroll*]

About one year ago (funnily enough, on Mother’s Day), a crazy little seventeen week old cattle dog/Jack Russell cross showed up at the shelter I volunteered at on the day I happened to be volunteering.  She’d been adopted as a tiny pup to a quite elderly couple, and after what I can only imagine were 11 weeks of hellfire,  they quite sensibly decided that she was not the right fit for them.  When I got her, she hated any kind of handling, would happily use her teeth to express displeasure, never stopped moving, and enjoyed shrieking in a way that I can only describe as blood-curdling.  She was also outgoing, funny, would chase a ball and tug on a toy until she was about to keel over, was gregarious and polite with other dogs, and even as a little baby, she loved to work.   Obviously she had to be mine.

One year later, Enya the shelter puppy has become my Widget, the dog who is simultaneously one of the most frustrating and joyous things about my life. She is still outgoing, funny, great with dogs and super worky.   Since coming to live with me, she has played around with herding, agility, rally and a little bit of flyball, and she’s racked up a couple of letters next to her name (beginner titles in herding and rally, plus a CGC).  She has a beautiful, full-speed recall that puts my older dogs to shame.  She will let me put a harness on her now and pet her and ruffle the sticky-uppy fur between her ears and pick up her paws (as long as I don’t linger too long on them).  She is horrendous for anything medical, is a bit of a resource guarder, still enjoys screaming, and the teeth thing….well, I guess the best thing I can say is that it’s slowly improving.


Widget, May 2013


Widget, May 2014

This is Widget the week I adopted her and Widget this May.  16 month old Widget’s ears have decided they want to go up, she’s developed some grownup looking musculature and all her rolly-polly puppyness has disappeared, leaving a sleek, lean, well-built dog where there once was a goofy little baby.   One thing you might also notice, however, is that even though she’s more adult looking these days, she’s not demonstrably bigger.  When I adopted her, she was 12 lbs., but I felt sure that her cattle dog genes would kick in soon and that she’d end up a nice medium sized dog on par with my older girls, maybe 40 lbs or so.  Last week at work, I weighed her: 19 lbs.  She wears an extra small harness, she’s going to jump at either 8” or 12” (depending on venue) when we start competing in agility.  She is 19 lbs and 11 inches of chaotic energy and pointy teeth, but no bones about it: Widget Quigley is a small dog.

I’ve spent the last several years working at shelters:  I love the work and we have fantastic adopters, but I think it’s inevitable that if you work at a shelter, you develop a couple of pet peeves.  I save the vast majority of my irritation for people who come in and say dumb thing about pit bulls; however, one other thing that makes me sort of internally sigh is when people come in with bizarre ideas about small dogs.  The last shelter I volunteered at was in an area where small dogs are hugely in demand and are generally adopted out very quickly. At that shelter, a dog could be feral, they could be a traumatized puppy mill rescue, they could have massive health problems, they could be 20 years old, they could have a bite history, it does not matter: if they were under, say, 25 lbs, they were generally going to be adopted within the month. And boy oh boy did I hear all manner of “explanations” for why people were picking the small dogs they were picking, and boy oh boy did I sigh when the dogs were returned for being too….something. Too different from what was in people’s heads when they thought about small dogs.

Though Widge is my first little dude, I have known a fair few crazy awesome sporty small dogs in my life, and I’ve very often enjoyed the small dogs that have wandered through my frame of reference (bratty dogs are brats regardless of size.) I count many small dogs among my good pals; just to name a few, there’s my dad’s new Papillon and his floofy little mix who just recently passed away, there’s my childhood Cocker, there’s the Basenji I lived with for years and there’s my grandmother’s awesome Chihuahua.  Besides the fact that they are all small, none of these dogs I have known have the slightest thing in common: they have radically different temperaments, radically different responses to new people/dogs, radically different interests, radically different drives, etc.  The same is true with the population of little dudes at the shelter: they are just as varied as any of our larger dogs, and they all have their own individual needs and quirks and challenges and positive qualities. And yet, we often get people coming into the shelter who haven’t considered much beyond size in thinking about what they want in a dog.  We’ve written before about going in with a plan when you’re adopting from a shelter (same thing goes if you’re buying a dog, imo): there are a ton of different things to consider when you’re thinking about a new dog, and size is only one of those.  Of course, there are a lot of reasons to look specifically for a small dog, just as there are a lot of reasons to look for a big dog: maybe you live in an apartment with size restrictions, maybe you’re very frail and need a dog who is not physically capable of pulling you over, maybe you travel a lot and want a dog who can ride in the cabin of the plane with you.   That said, it’s important to avoid eliding size with behavior or temperament: just as a big dog is not necessarily going to be a hyperactive, uncontrollable maniac, a small dog is not necessarily going to be a mellow little lapdog who’s content to hang out at home all the time.  So, without further ado, and in honor of Widget The Tiny Terror, here are some myths about small dogs* that I wish would go away.

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The Do’s and Don’ts of Hiking with Fido

The Bay Area of California boasts some amazing hiking spots, and we frequently take advantage of them by hiking with the dogs. There is nothing I love more than seeing my three buddies chase each other up and down hills, explore every inch of gorgeous shaded redwood forests, and wade through cool creeks on our weekly adventures. It is something our little family holds dear, but hiking with dogs comes with a few added concerns and takes some extra planning to ensure your outing is a successful one. Here is my quick guide of do’s and don’ts to keep both you and your dog happy and safe in the great outdoors!

First rule of dog hiking? Take as many cute photos as possible.

First rule of dog hiking? Take as many cute photos as possible.

Do respect leash laws.  

Don’t be that person who makes all responsible dog people look bad to outsiders; leash your dogs where posted and mandated by law. I hike my own guys almost entirely off leash, but only where it is legal to do so. Check the park’s website and read all the available signs if you have any doubt!

Even if the trails are legally off leash: it is ALWAYS a good idea to keep your dogs on leash in parking lots and when first entering a trail entrance. The last thing I want to happen when I’m getting ready to get my dogs out of their car crates is to have another dog come trotting over to us, and I especially don’t want to nearly hit them while trying to enter or exit the lot as well.


Don’t overestimate your dog’s recall skills.

Found an awesome off leash legal hiking trail? Great! But make sure your dog’s recall is top-notch before you unclip that leash. If you have any doubts about whether or not Max will come back to you when called, use a long line instead and work to improve his recall before going completely off leash first.

These dogs all have excellent recalls. The puppy who is not reliable yet is on a long line.

These dogs all have excellent recalls. The puppy who is not reliable yet is on a long line.

While out hiking there are a million and five things to attract your dog’s attention, and unless they have a solid recall foundation complete with plenty of well reinforced proofing, coming back to you immediately may not be included in their hiking agenda! Off leash hiking is a privilege for trained dogs, not a right. Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean your dog is ready for that kind of freedom. This is essential for their safety and also for the well being of any wildlife and other dogs/people you may encounter.


On that note… Do leave wildlife and any other animals alone!

Never allow your dog to approach another dog unless the other handler gives their verbal permission. Assume all other dogs are unfriendly (or just normal dogs who don’t want Lucky bounding into their personal space bubbles) and take appropriate steps to ensure your dog ignores them. Trust me, as the person who has two reactive dogs that love to go hiking, the person you are passing on the trail with a death grip on their dog’s leash will appreciate plenty of space and respect. Don’t think your dog will recall off another? Return to the previous point, please. Typically I step well off the trail and put my (now leashed) dogs into down stays until the other dog passes, rewarding all the while. It’s easy, it is a good distraction training exercise, and no one has to do the awkward “my dog isn’t friendly!” dance.

No, I promise, those grazing cattle really don’t appreciate your dogs running up to them and trying to give chase. Horseback riders also really hate to have your dogs harass them while trail riding. Be polite to all other animals, humans included! No one likes a nasty creek soaked dog jumping all over them, and some people don’t appreciate dogs approaching them at all (I know that is unthinkable, but just go with it, ok?) My dogs and I practice their “leave it” constantly while hiking and I keep them at heel position while passing anyone else; it is an excellent time to polish up those particular skills.


Don’t be ignorant of environmental risks!

Be aware of the temperature, any additional elevation that your dog may not be used to, poisonous plants, ticks (we love neem oil spray around here!), and other grasses and weeds that can get caught in your dog’s mouth or nose. Foxtail season is REAL around here and can include many expensive vet visits if you are not careful. Make smart decisions about which trail you choose. The single track that is bordered with poison oak and ends in a field of burrs is probably not your best choice if you know your dog wants to off road it.

We always try taking swim breaks if the location allows it. River says she wasn't trying to drown her brother, only to help... keep him cool, of course!

Swim breaks are excellent for warmer days, if the location allows. River says she wasn’t trying to drown her brother, only to help keep him cool, of course!

Hiking at 7am on a summer morning is probably a much better idea than trying to brave a 95 degree trail at 2pm. Heat exhaustion happens quickly and can be deadly, so know the signs and keep your buddy cool. Dogs, like people, can be very affected by high elevation. Go for short walks until they get used to it and make sure they drink even more water than usual. Owen didn’t seem to mind last year when we hiked in Colorado during our nose work camp, but some of his friends were exhausted easily; it varies by the individual. Know what normal for your dog is and be able to watch for signs that they aren’t feeling up to a big hike.


Do work your way up to very long hikes.

A well conditioned and healthy dog can hike much longer than a pudge-y Pug can, so be realistic about your own dog’s limits. They can get muscle soreness and strains too, so take it easy on them until they’re used to long outings. Old dogs, young puppies, and out of shape individuals should only go on hikes with caution – shorter hikes are best for these guys.

River's very first hike at 13 weeks old.

River’s very first hike at 13 weeks old.

This should go without saying, but plenty of water and a decent first aid kit are both essentials while out in the wild. Be prepared! Dog backpacks are growing in popularity as well, and I do use them myself. However, this is again something that needs to be conditioned. Start with an empty pack and slowly work up to a maximum of 30% of your dog’s body weight. Sloooowly, I mean it. Make sure your pack fits well and isn’t putting excess weight on the spine; this is really where “you get what you pay for” comes into play. Products like cool coats for warmer days and booties for paws to protect against things like sharp rocks and thorns can be helpful additions to your hiking gear.


Got all that? Good!

Seasoned trail dog.

Your dog can be a seasoned trail master like Owen in no time!

Hiking with dogs can add some additional planning and thought to your trip, but it is an excellent source of mental and physical stimulation for your best friend. Be safe out there and have fun!


K9DIY: Make your own Dog Training Platform!

In the last 6 months I have totally fallen for platform training, it is: fun, it helps train position for sports, it is great for confidence building and for tricks.  Platforms are an aide and a way to help your dog be “right”, every time.  I love training my dogs and watching them think and training with platforms is yet another fun way to do that and spend time with them.  When I first wanted to make my own platform, I found this awesome video that details how to make your own training platform – and since it helps me to see things laid out visually, I wanted to make a blog post about it.

Here’s What You’ll Need:
Interlocking Foam Floor Mat Squares (I recommend having 4 of these.  You can find them at Lowes or Home Depot.  The higher density of foam that you can find, the better!  My platforms are made out of some pretty cheap and light tiles, though, and my girls never seem to mind or tip them.)
Duct Tape
Ruler/Tape Measure
Serrated Bread Knife

You will also need your dog’s measurement.   If you are just starting out with training on a platform, I think it is best to err on the side of larger.  You want to set your dog up for success.   A larger platform is easier for your dog to get all four feet onto – and it can easily be cut smaller at a later time as you desire.  A tape measure will work just fine for this but I prefer a fabric measuring tape or rule since two of my dogs are on the sensitive side and the noises of a tape measure seem to make them nervous.  (Don’t let it touch my feet!)
My corgi Ein demo’s here and I would probably plan on making his platform 20 inches long and 8 inches wide.  The first platform that I made was for my poodle Perri, and I made it 10 inches wide and 30 inches long.

Please ignore the pitbull foot!








The foam squares are 24×24 inches, so not quite 30 inches.  I connected them and measured out a length of 30 inches (not including the little locking pieces – which would be cut off.) and then widths of 10 inches.

After you measure your rectangles and draw your marker lines, take the serrated knife and cut the foam.  You will also want to cut the little “nubbies” off the outside of your rectangles, since you will not need them when you assemble the platform.

And you should end up with this!

Cut in half along your marker lines to make two separate, identical rectangles…

Now here repeat the process.  You can make your platform as tall or short as you would like.  My platforms are made of four idential foam pieces stacked on top of themselves – but adding more height can be helpful.  Sometimes dogs can struggle with keeping feet on top of the platforms and adding an extra foam piece or two for more height can be helpful with that.  Remember – you can always add or take away from platforms as you see what your dog needs!

Rectangles cut, assembled and ready to be made into a platform!

I stack all four pieces on top of each other and just tape them very very tightly together with duct tape.  The tighter you can go the better – everything should be very snug.  I like to start the duct tape on the underside of the platform and wrap it around , overlap the starting point and end on the top of the platform.   Repeat along the length as much as you like – in my opinion more tape is always better!   Too little tape or pieces taped together too loosely can move around when the dog is using the platform.  It is also a good idea to have the foam side facing outward on both sides of your platform – it will be more grippy that way.

Yes this is a different platform than the one originally shown in the photos. I did not photograph the taping process on that first platform!

The finished product!

And remember – these platforms are very customizable.  If you have “scraps” from your platform construction save them.  You may want to widen your platform at a later date and it is nice to have extra foam pieces.   I made the platform pictured above a few months ago and it has since been cut in half with the two pieces widened and customized for both of my dogs.   Molly needed a far longer and wider platform , while for Perri I wanted a shorter and wider platform to work on sit position.

Our current platforms, after many “surgeries”.

Creating “additions” is simple.  If you mis-measured your dog and she is struggling with a too narrow or too short platform you will need to figure out how much more length or width you would like to add on.  For Perri’s platform on the left, I liked the length but wanted to add roughly two inches to the width.  I measured four strips two inches wide and matched the length to the length of the existing platform.  Cut them out, stacked and taped them together and added them onto the platform.  As long as you tape snugly and thoroughly, the dog will not notice that the new foam pieces were not part of the original platform!

Have fun!  Watch out – knives are sharp.  I only cut myself one time making my first platform and that is a record for me.

Coming Soon! Fun Things to do with a platform and your dog!

Marketing Foster Dogs, Part Two

(Previously, on Team Unruly…)

In today’s installment of How to Hock Your Homeless Dog, I want to talk about what you can do when you have a slightly less adoptable dog.

Underline that “slightly.” I am not talking about truly dangerous or difficult-to-place dogs — serious aggression cases, severely fearful dogs, dogs with chronic lifelong medical needs, etc. This post is geared toward dogs who are likely to be successful in most novice-to-moderately experienced pet homes, and who are likely to make their owners very happy once adopted, but who might need a little extra boost to find those homes and persuade people to overcome some age/breed/cosmetic bias to give these guys a chance.

In other words:

– senior dogs;
– dogs with manageable medical needs and/or cosmetic issues (tripods, one-eyed dogs, scarred dogs, dogs with mild to moderate hip dysplasia that are not badly affected, etc.);
– dogs with non-dangerous behavioral issues that a dedicated amateur owner should be able to rehabilitate or manage successfully (minor to moderate reactivity, shyness, separation distress);
– unruly teenagers (i.e., the classic big, boisterous 8- to 18-month-old rowdy, mouthy, jumpy dudebro of a dog whose bad manners are probably a big part of why he wound up homeless);
– dogs of less in-demand breeds.

My most recent foster dog, Queenie, fits into this category. Queenie is a nice dog: she is a playful, mischievous, clever little sprite who would be perfectly cast as some intrepid kid’s companion in a Disney movie harkening back to an imaginary yesteryear of treehouses and playing with slingshots in the woods. She is highly trainable, highly athletic, and just a really fun dog. There is no doubt in my mind that she would make someone a wonderful family pet and very possibly a nice little sport dog.

She is also a mix of breeds that are harder to adopt out (pit bull, Akita, and Jack Russell Terrier). Upon arrival, she was suffering from some minor skin irritation that has left her with hairloss and unsightly pink patches on her hind legs, and was also prone to minor, occasional displays of snarking and growling when other dogs approach her crate or give her the stink-eye on the street. They weren’t serious displays, and they didn’t really strike me as that difficult to handle (in fact, Queenie is a very dog-social dog), but I knew that given Queenie’s breed mix, it wouldn’t take much to turn adopters off. Any sign of aggression would do it.

In my opinion, none of these are or were issues that a committed novice adopter would be unable to handle. Queenie is not actually dog aggressive or even anything close to what I’d label a “reactive dog”; her snark episodes were brief, shortlived, highly predictable, and easy to extinguish. After three days of living in my house, her snark attacks in the crate vanished altogether, because she was familiar with my dogs and no longer worried about them. After about a month, she wasn’t snarking at dogs on the street anymore, either. Her hairloss and skin irritation was diagnosed as demodex (non-contagious) mange by the vet in North Carolina, and my vet here in Philly concurred with that opinion, adding a diagnosis of secondary bacterial infection.

And, of course, breed bias is just that: bias.

All of those things, however, made Queenie a pretty good poster child for today’s topic. She is a good dog. Her issues were well within the spectrum of normal dog behavior; as far as I ever saw, she was not a Dog With Issues. But she was a dog who needed a marketing boost. Unlike some of my other fosters, who had dozens of prospective adopters lined up before they even arrived in PA, I knew going in that Queenie might take a while to find the right home.

Here’s how we did it:

1. Put On Some Polish

The first and biggest piece of the puzzle was ensuring that Queenie was a well-behaved, well-mannered dog with a headstart on the basic things that most pet homes would expect their dog to know. On top of that, for as long as I had her, I was constantly adding new tricks and behaviors to her repertoire. By the time she found an adopter, six weeks after she came here, Queenie had her Novice Trick Dog title and knew 18 different tricks, with a framed title certificate to prove it and a cute little video to show off her skills.

A well-trained foster dog!

You don’t have to go that extreme with it, but training makes a huge difference in a foster dog’s adoptability. From the instant I pick up a new foster dog in the parking lot, we are working on training. Loose-leash walking, housebreaking, crate training, and not mouthing, jumping, or indiscriminately destroying household furnishings are pretty much the universal basics for any foster dog I get.

Most adopters expect to have to do a decent amount of training on their own, and most aren’t averse to teaching a dog to Sit or Down on cue (although, of course, if the dog arrives already knowing how to do that, most adopters are pretty pleased), so teaching specific behaviors is not my first order of business. It’s nice if I have time to get to it, but it’s not crucial.

Lack of life skills and house manners, on the other hand, can get a dog booted right back to the rescue, because a not-insignificant number of people are, for whatever reason, unwilling to deal with that. It is sometimes the very reason that the dog landed in the shelter to begin with.

So we hit those things first and hardest. Then we move on to the basic commands: Sit, Down (sometimes; I tend to prioritize that one last), beginning Stay, and beginning recall. (I never tell adopters that the dog has more than an unfinished foundation on those last two, because (a) it’s easy for people to misinterpret what exactly that means and demand more than the dog can give; and (b) if the dog doesn’t have a Stay that would pass AKC Open, then I don’t consider the dog to “know Stay.” And since Pongu can’t even do the AKC Open Stays, I’m certainly never going to make that claim for a foster dog!)

If you’re reading this blog, it is very probable that you can teach those basics to a foster dog without a whole lot of trouble. Do it. There are many, many benefits to giving your foster dog a little foundational training — it attracts adopters, gives the foster dog some mental and physical stimulation, helps the foster learn to bond with humans (something many of them have been sadly deprived of in their previous lives), and can carry lasting benefits in setting your foster dog on the road to lifelong positive reinforcement training. If the foster is already familiar with clicker training, then most adopters will be quite happy to continue with what the dog already knows — and since the dog has a foundation, results should come along faster, which further encourages the adopters to keep going with it.

For longer-term fosters, it can really help to get demonstrable results of your training. If you’ve got the dog for a few months, why not get a CGC? It costs $10 to $20 to do the test, and that small investment immediately distinguishes your foster from almost every other dog on the market. Finishing manners classes and getting a diploma or certificate of completion is another way to set your dog apart from the crowd. The Novice Trick Dog title costs about $20 and only requires that the dog know 15 beginner-level tricks, which is another easy and fun way to shine a spotlight on a dog who’s particularly talented and driven.

Four weeks after she came here, Queenie finished her Novice Trick Dog title. I put together a video to showcase her skills, focusing on a mix of cute tricks, basic manners “tricks,” and sport foundation behaviors that I hoped might catch the eye of an adopter looking for a performance dog.

Even if you don’t get all the way to finishing a NTD or CGC, you can take videos of your foster dog practicing basic stuff and upload them to Youtube or Vimeo for posting on Petfinder or your blog. Visual proof that your foster dog is well trained is much more effective than just talking about it.

2. Identify and Counteract Negative Images

Whatever makes your foster dog “less adoptable,” there is something you can do to change it. Really. There is always something.

The trick here is to reframe the issue so that you are not trying to change whatever the dog’s underlying trait actually is, but the prospective adopter’s perception of that issue. Ultimately, what we’re trying to get at is why somebody might not want a dog who has that trait, and then work to fix that misperception and show that this dog can be a great companion despite the handicap.

Queenie plays nicely with other dogs and is happy to share toys!

With behavioral issues, this is pretty straightforward. There are plenty of wonderful behavioral protocols out there to address shyness, reactivity, separation anxiety, and so forth. The key thing to remember here is that except in the very easiest and most minor cases, you probably will not have enough time to completely fix whatever the problem is, especially if it’s an issue like separation anxiety that is very likely to recur when the dog transitions to a new home.

What you can do, however, is get the dog started with a strong foundation, and keep good notes so that the adopters have a clear idea of what worked, what didn’t work, and where they should take it from there. Good adopters are often quite willing to address these issues if they have a roadmap, clear direction, and a sense that these problems can be fixed. Adopters who aren’t willing to put in the work are not ones you want for your foster dog anyway.

With physical issues like age, breed, and handicaps, you may have to take a more inventive approach.

No, you can’t turn back the hands of time. An older dog is going to be an older dog no matter what. But dietary supplements and physical therapy exercises can help that old dog look and feel younger and spryer. Figuring out what type of home would be best suited for that dog, and marketing it specifically to those homes, can also help a lot. There are plenty of retired people who would love a calm, low-key companion. There are plenty of families with young children who are in a position to appreciate the benefits of a patient, tolerant, even-keeled mature dog who won’t jump on the toddlers or scare their friends with puppy mouthing. Spell out all the reasons that your foster dog would be awesome in those homes, and take pictures that make those mental images concrete.

If your foster dog is disabled, show pictures and post anecdotes about how that dog can do lots of things that people might not imagine a handicapped dog can manage. Tripod dogs are often every bit as strong and athletic as their four-legged comrades. If you have the opportunity, take pictures of those dogs running, playing, jumping through hula hoops, dashing up stairs, and otherwise living life at full speed.

If you have a one-eyed dog, show her chasing down balls, playing with a flirt pole, gazing adoringly at a person, and otherwise engaging with visual targets.

If you have a pittie, and it’s appropriate for your foster dog, show that foster playing nicely with other dogs, being calm and cuddly with small pets, behaving politely with children, and so forth. When I was filming the “Stay” segment for Queenie’s NTD, I used a group Stay rather than a solo Stay for exactly this reason (and to help me out even more, Queenie did a cute little butt scooch to get closer to Pongu as I was taping). Pictures and stories are incredibly powerful — use them to undercut whatever negative stereotypes are appropriate for your foster dog and situation.

Never be dishonest, even by suggestion, and always strive for accuracy in your portrayals. It does neither dog nor people any favors to encourage a mismatch. If your foster dog really isn’t good with most other dogs, don’t show him playing at the dog park. But do try to combat whatever negative stereotypes and misperceptions might underlie an adopter’s reluctance to consider a pet that could be the perfect fit for their home.

3. Maximize Exposure

In order for your foster dog to find a good home, those good homes have to know she’s out there. Exposure is key to success. Get the word out in as many different ways and across as many different social networks as you can.

Petfinder, Petango, and similar Internet listing services are a great way to begin. Showcase your foster dog with at least three good-quality pictures (and, again, my advice is to go with three different shots: an indoor shot, an outdoor shot, and one with a person or another pet in frame to highlight your foster’s social skills), spend some time putting together a nice writeup, and be sure to include your contact information if you’re comfortable with talking to prospective adopters directly.

Adoption events are also a tremendous help if you’re lucky enough to be part of a group that hosts them regularly. If you’re doing this solo, it doesn’t hurt to ask around to find out whether you can tag along at a local group’s event — many rescues welcome visitors, provided that your request is courteous and respectful, and your dog is well behaved and not likely to reflect poorly on them by association.

But think beyond that, too. Flyers in coffeeshops, supermarkets, and pet-supply stores might be a little old-fashioned, but they work. Online posts in social groups for local dog-related community groups and businesses can serve the same function in a more 21st-century style.

The Homeless Dog Vest of Shame. Hey, it works.

You can buy “Adopt Me” vests and bandannas at a number of online retailers, and those help too. Whenever I felt even remotely capable of carrying on a non-abusive conversation with strangers, I plopped Queenie’s vest on and turned her into a walking billboard for herself. It worked; we got several inquiries that way. To help people follow up from those street contacts, you can get cheap business cards made at Vistaprint and other services. Mine has the URL for my dog blog, my foster-specific email address, and a blank space in the middle where I can write each foster dog’s name in Sharpie, so that the adopters know who to look for and I don’t have to print up new cards for each dog.

There’s always word of mouth, too. Every foster dog you place is an advertisement (hopefully a good one!) for the next. Every adopter you have a positive experience with is more likely to recommend you to their friends and family when the next person is looking for a dog. That tends to be highly successful for both sides — the homes I’ve gotten by referral have been among the best homes for some lucky dogs. It takes time to build up that network, but it’s a good thing to be mindful of right from the beginning.

And that is pretty much my approach to marketing “less adoptable” fosters: a three-step process of actually teaching her to be a great companion, portraying her in a way that is conscious of and targeted toward dispelling whatever inaccurate stereotypes might cause an adopter to unfairly dismiss her, and getting the word out to as many different audiences as possible.

It worked. Six weeks after Queenie arrived in PA, we sent her off to a wonderful adoptive home in New Jersey. Not only did her training foundations help her secure a great home, but seeing how successful this little dog had been with her trick training encouraged her adopters to follow up by enrolling in training classes not just for Queenie, but for the resident dog already in the home.

Win-win all around. And that is exactly what we strive for.

The F Word: Furunculosis

If you’ve been a reader of Team Unruly for long, you’ll know that Cerberus is a very special dog. A very special snowflake, one might say. A delicate hot-house flower, a dog of fragile sensibilities — in short, a glass cannon. Despite his appearance, which is of the Mack Truck variety, my bully boy seems to fall apart at the drop of a hat.

That’s why, when I came home after a weekend away and was greeted by one (1) husband and one (1) bulldog with an extremely swollen paw, my first thought was “What now?” See, we’ve been through reactivity, we’ve been through histiocytomas, we’ve been through food intolerances and seasonal allergies, we’ve been through hemorrhagic gastroenteritis and, most recently, we very nearly went through foreign body surgery to extract a chunk of plastic from Cerb’s gut (we dodged that bullet, thankfully). So, as heartless as it may sound, when I noticed that Cerb’s front right paw was starting to swell, my first thought was not “Oh no, my baby!” but “Damn it, what fresh hell is this?”

He makes a pretty pathetic patient.

He makes a pretty pathetic patient.

I checked out his paw and deduced that the swelling was coming from between his toes. It was obviously painful, but Cerb let me manipulate the toes and I couldn’t see any cuts or foreign bodies that could be causing the swelling. I soaked his paw in a medicated bath, dried it off, bandaged a clean sock over the paw to prevent licking/chewing, and decided to see what it looked like the next day – it didn’t seem to warrant an emergency vet visit.

Unfortunately, the swelling didn’t subside. I did a bit of Internet Doctoring and realized I was looking at interdigital furunculosis. Interdigital furuncles (lots of people call them interdigital cysts and I don’t blame them, because “furuncle” is an ugly word) are little swollen nodules that pop up on the webbing between dogs’ toes (hence the “interdigital” part – they are found between the digits). In my Googling, I learned that bulldog breeds are particularly susceptible to these things, because they tend to have short, prickly hair that can cause the irritation that promotes the furuncle, AND because so many bully breeds are susceptible to skin allergies, which are a common cause of recurrent interdigital furunculosis.

Okay, I knew what it was. Now what? The stuff I was reading was not making me particularly optimistic. People on forums were talking about fighting these things for MONTHS, doing daily paw-soakings, bombarding their dogs with antibiotics, and sometimes even resorting to surgery in chronic cases. Full of dread, I made a vet appointment for Cerb to see if there was anything more I could be doing.

Our vet is a wonderful woman who is very familiar with Cerb’s, um, fragility — we had been in there barely a month before this with his intestinal blockage. She’s also aware that Cerb is not her biggest fan. Thankfully, she and her techs are understanding and know just how to bribe Cerb into cooperating, and she was able to get a good look at his very swollen, red, weepy paw.

She prescribed a course of antibiotics, an anti-inflammatory medication, and a session of lasering to stimulate the cells and increase blood flow to the paw and help it heal.

In the manner of most of our visits to the vet, I think that Cerb’s paw had been on the mend by the time we had our appointment, and it continued to get better in the following days. A week later, the only sign anything had been wrong was the slightly thickened skin between the affected toes.

That is, until a week or two after we finished treatment, when suddenly Cerb’s OTHER three paws suddenly swelled up in the same manner – and this time he got a yeast infection in one ear, too (likely due in part to the antibiotics for his paw). Glass cannon, I tell you.

Now that I knew what was causing the paw swelling, I was able to treat it at home by soaking Cerb’s paws in a bath of chlorhexadine rinse and epsom salts, and his paws healed up fairly quickly. The ear infection is more difficult to treat because he is so ear-shy, but it’s on the mend now.

Just try keeping him away from potential allergens.

Just try keeping him away from potential allergens.

Dealing with an allergic dog can be really difficult. This year was particularly bad for Cerb — in past years, he has had much milder symptoms or no symptoms at all, but my allergy-suffering friends tell me that this is a particularly bad year for them, too. In the future, we plan to get an allergy test done so we can pinpoint exactly what causes these skin flare-ups (we are thinking it has something to do with trees and pollen), but the source of Cerb’s environmental allergies might not be easy to avoid. If he continues to struggle, we have the option of trying an allergy medication or allergy shots. Though these solutions may be expensive and may not be 100% effective, they’ve gotta be better than an unhappy bulldog.

Growing Up Guide Dog Puppy: Dierdre Has Surgery

Despite rounds of antibiotics, prescription food, and drinking only reverse osmosis water, Dierdre continued to have accidents in the house. It was determined that she had a minor defect in her vulva- something every female puppy in her litter had been born with, and her vulva was tucked too far up and was retaining liquid every time she pottied, resulting in a constant source of infection. Commonly known as a recessed vulva. In the dog world, she was an “innie” when she should have been an “outtie!” (The opposite of those pesky belly buttons).

After some consultations between Dierdre’s regular vet and the head vet at the guide dog school in Tampa, it was determined that Dierdre would have a bit of nip/tuck plastic surgery on her girlie bits to try and eliminate this problem. All of her sisters were also scheduled for the same procedure.

Due to this defect, the breeding and genetics department at the guide dog school also determined that none of the puppies would be considered for the breeding colony, and the orders came to spay/neuter the entire litter. Because the surgery- an inverted vulva procedure- was a tricky and complicated one, my vet was uncomfortable doing it himself, so they made arrangements for Dierdre to spend a week in Tampa at the guide dog school, where the head vet would perform the surgery himself. Another puppy raiser in our club drove Dierdre to the other coast for me the same weekend she was taking her own puppy for his In-For-Training time to be returned to the guide dog school. That Monday, Dierdre was spayed at the same time as they performed her procedure, and when I came on Friday to retrieve her, she was practically right as rain.

Despite having had some major work done, Dierdre was her usual wiggly self when she saw me, and I had to restrain her enthusiasm so she wouldn’t jump up and potentially tear her stitches.

Dierdre was placed on house arrest and crate rest while she healed, and she was Not Amused. Dierdre, of course, thought she felt fine and needed no such special treatment. She was also not a big fan of the Cone of Shame.

The Cone of Shame

The Cone of Shame

The effort seems to have paid off, as most of Dierdre’s accidents have stopped, she is able to hold her bladder for normal amounts of time, and her latest urinalysis came back clean. Yipee!!

Washout: Crookytail’s Story

In January 2012, we added a second dog to the permanent crew here at Casa de Dog Mob.

His name in the shelter was Tye. He’d been picked up as a stray in Robeson County, North Carolina, emaciated and so filthy that his white coat was stained a dingy yellow with grease. The shelter had him listed as a shepherd mix, or maybe an Aussie mix; it was suggested that maybe, just possibly, he might make a good sport prospect.

At the time, I was struggling badly with Pongu’s fear and anxiety. We were training in Rally-O, but our instructors cautioned me repeatedly not to expect too much from my fearful dog. He might never be able to set foot in the ring, they said. For this dog, it would be enough if he could do the work at home, and maybe occasionally in class. Trying to push him beyond that might be dicey.

I really wanted to trial, though, and so in the back of my mind I was looking for a shelter dog who might work as a sport prospect. I saw Tye, and I thought: one of my instructors runs Aussies, and they are fabulous. My cousin runs Aussies, and her dogs are beyond amazing too. I wonder what I could do with a dog like that…

So I pulled him, this dog named “Tye.” He was supposed to be about a year or two old and 45 pounds — a good size for a sport dog, I thought, small enough to be light and nimble but large enough for me to live with. I told myself he was a “foster,” but from the beginning that was a lie.

Whether or not he had any potential as a sport dog, I was primed to foster fail before he ever came to PA. We had just placed one of our longer-term fosters, a sweet little pit/Beagle mix named Stella, and while I thought it was a good placement, I never heard from that family again and I didn’t know them as well as I’d gotten to know most of my adoptive homes, so there was always a nagging little bit of doubt and regret about whether Stella was really happy there. I was not about to go through a difficult goodbye like that again.

We brought Tye in and I promptly renamed him Crookytail, which was the first concession to myself that I planned to keep this dog. Usually I don’t bother renaming the fosters; unless I know what name the adopters plan to use, I rarely even bother teaching them their shelter names. But Crookytail got a new name, and not only that, but a vaguely insulting one, which meant he was destined to stay with us. All the permanent pets in this house get snark names. That’s how we roll.

From the first minute he came off the transport van, Crooky was a perfect gentleman. He was quiet, patient, careful, well-mannered. He never once had a potty accident in the house. He put up with Pongu snarking at him and biting him in the face for the smallest infraction, and never offered any resistance at all. The only thing he ever wanted was to love and be loved.

On his sixth day, I had him microchipped and registered the chip to our address. Crooky wasn’t a foster. He was staying.

I immediately embarked on the project of training him up to be my Super Awesome Competition Dog. I had dreams of doing everything with him: Rally, obedience, agility, nosework, trick work, you name it. And in the beginning, Crookytail showed flashes of real brilliance. He had a natural tuck Sit that was a thing of beauty: lightning fast and ultra precise. He slammed into Downs with speed that a Malinois would envy. His attention Heel was so attentive that Crooky, raptly gazing at my face, once walked into a light post with enough enthusiasm to bloody his lip.

But for all I thought, back in those early days, that he’d surely set the world on fire, we ended up fizzling instead.

The RL1 is the only title Crookytail ever earned in the ring.

Crooky had brief spurts of enthusiasm, focus, and speed. What he did not have was a high level of intelligence, sustained drive, or any resilience whatsoever for being wrong and trying again. He understood that Sit was a thing I wanted sometimes, and Down was a thing I wanted sometimes, but he never did figure out how to tell which one was the right answer in any given situation, and he quickly gave up guessing. It’s been almost two and a half years since Crookytail came home, and to this day, he cannot reliably distinguish the verbal cue “Sit” from “Down.” Or anything else.

Complex tasks proved to be entirely beyond him. I got Crookytail as far as his Novice Trick Dog title, and then I gave up for a long, long time, because even the relatively easy tricks required for the Intermediate Trick Dog level — carrying a purse, picking a card from a deck, or nosing the correct pail in a scentwork shell game — were too much of a stretch for Crooky’s abilities. It took almost 18 months before he finally added enough new tricks to his repertoire to qualify for the ITD. (By way of contrast, Pongu finished the entire five-step progression, from Novice Trick Dog to Trick Dog Champion, in 13 days.)

Physically, too, he didn’t develop in the way that I had hoped. Crooky turned out to be around six to eight months old when we adopted him, not one to two years. That meant he wasn’t really a 45-pound dog. He filled out to 60 pounds… and he didn’t stop there. He grew to 70 pounds. 75. 80. 85. Instead of being slightly smaller than 65-pound Pongu, he ended up being significantly larger. And, by the time he reached maturity, slower and more ungainly.

Even his breed mix turned out to be wrong. He wasn’t an Aussie mix (which, in retrospect, I probably should have figured out from his very first shelter picture, but I wanted to believe so hard that I made myself do it), and he wasn’t a shepherd mix. As he matured, we realized that Crooky is an Akita/pit bull mix — neither one a breed I would have chosen for a sport dog.

Nevertheless, it took a long time for the dream to die.

I trialed Crookytail in Rally Obedience shortly after I started with Pongu. He did… okay. His scores in Level 1 were mostly in the mid- to high 180s, with one peak score of 198 and one NQ for urine marking a sign in the ring. He finished his RL1 title in a couple of months, albeit without an Award of Excellence to match Pongu’s perfect string of AOEs.

But it wasn’t fun for him, and it wasn’t fun for me. Crooky did not enjoy the pressures of the competition ring. He didn’t understand why he couldn’t play with the other dogs he saw at the trial venues, and he didn’t understand why I wasn’t happy with his clumsy-but-enthusiastic attempts. I couldn’t hide my disappointment from him, and it deflated him. He rarely failed outright — Crooky’s Q percentage over that time period was much, much higher than Pongu’s — but he never did particularly well, either, and it was clear that the ceiling of his potential was considerably lower.

December 2012: the last bling Crooky ever earned.

It didn’t take long for my patience, and his confidence, to collapse. When Crookytail finished his Level 1 title, I retired him from the ring. It had become a poisoned place for him. And for me, because I knew it was my fault he didn’t love the sport. If I’d had more patience, more understanding, more ability to find joy in what he was trying to give me… then maybe things would have been different.

But I don’t have that much patience. I get frustrated when we don’t make progress. I wanted a dog who could excel in the ring, and that’s not what I got, and the mounting weight of disappointment was crushing us both.

So I stopped it. That was more or less the end of Crooky’s career. I briefly entertained the idea of trying him out in agility, just for the chance to practice a sport that I didn’t think Pongu was capable of doing, but after two foundation classes, Crooky washed out of agility too. In five weeks of practicing that one exercise and nothing else, he never learned to wrap a cone and return to me. He would run out to the cone and just whack it with his paw, over and over again. Sometimes he’d do the wrap correctly, but over a month of trying, his accuracy never rose much above 50%. Every week we’d go back to class and it looked like we’d never done a minute’s worth of homework since the last time.

So I fired him.

And we haven’t really done anything since. In May 2014, Crooky was diagnosed with lumbar spondylosis, a degenerative spinal condition that is already beginning to impair his movement at the young age of 3. His condition is not that severe — it wouldn’t impede him in less athletically demanding sports like Rally or nosework — but it’s a shadow on the horizon, and another reason for me to write off any hopes of reviving Crooky’s career.

Today, as I write this, my relationship with Crookytail is not where I would like it to be. There is a chasm of misunderstandings between us. Crooky didn’t turn out to be the prospect I hoped for, and I am not the owner he deserves.

I want to be clear about this: the fault for our failures is entirely mine. Crookytail is a wonderful pet dog. He is the easiest, gentlest, most affectionate dog anyone could ask for. He isn’t an angel — we went through a rough patch when he’d bully other dogs, his recall remains a thing of sadness, and he pees on everything constantly outside the house (including strangers’ legs, to my perpetual consternation) — but he is a Good Dog. As I type these words, he is lying at my feet under the computer desk, content just to be in my presence but happy to leap up at the first indication that I might want to play with him.

Crooky doing his job as foster dog guidance counselor.

He has always been a Good Dog. All he’s ever wanted is to be a Good Dog.

But for a sport dog, that isn’t enough. And Crookytail cannot be a seriously competitive sport dog any more than he can change the color of his fur or the shape of his ears or the funny namesake crook in his tail. It’s just not in him. It’s not who he is.

I don’t want to say his life is so terrible. It’s not. We love him, we cherish him, we spoil him. Crooky has a soft bed, good food, drawers full of insanely overpriced treats and toys. He comes on vacation with us and occasionally learns a simple new trick like filing his nails or going up the stairs backwards. He is a valued guidance counselor to the foster dogs, a role in which he truly excels. My husband loves him profoundly, so rehoming is not in the cards for Crookytail; he will have a home with us until the last day.

It’s very sad, Crooky’s life. Horribly deprived.

It’s a pretty good life, I think. If nothing else, it beats crouching in a cage in North Carolina, yellow with filth and starved down to nothing but bones and a bellyful of worms. Now Crooky vacations on Nantucket and chews upon only the finest organic free-range chicken feet from the Fair Food Farmstand.

…very, very sad. And deprived.

But it’s not what I imagined our lives would be when I shot off the first email saying I’d bring this dog home. And I still carry around a lot of regret and internal recrimination that I can’t just be grateful for my luck in having this wonderful pet.

As a total dog sport junkie, having a dog who cannot compete — not in any sport, not at any semi-serious level, and not because of age or injury but just because this is who he is — is a small and lonely kind of sadness. You have this huge and important part of your life, a part that revolves around sharing it with your best partner dog, and… your dog can’t do it.

Most people, even most dog people, don’t really understand. He’s a good dog. Why can’t that be enough?

I don’t know. It isn’t. That’s all.

So this is where we are, my washout dog and I. Every day is a struggle to adjust my expectations and accept my dog for who he is. Someday, maybe, I’ll get there. Someday.