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 for 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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Introducing Ben!

Pepper, my childhood dog

Pepper, my childhood dog

I grew up with dogs…or rather, a dog. One at a time only. My parents did not want the added expense and nor did they really have the time for more than one dog. So we had Pepper. And then we had Teri. And they were content with that.

Ever since I got Dahlia in 2008, I’ve wanted a second dog. I’ve spent ages imagining that two-dog life, looking at dogs, thinking about what I wanted.

And then hesitating.

We weren’t in the right place. We lived in a duplex in the city. We had no yard. Our landlord wouldn’t allow two dogs. He barely allowed one. We had to talk him into it and even then I think he caved because (a) he was too old to care anymore, (b) the place was falling apart around our ears (seriously, our new landlord, who bought the place in 2013, redid the bathroom while we lived there and we found out the toilet, which was sinking into the bathroom floor, was sitting on about half an inch of rotted wood), and (c) he was guaranteed to have people living there for a number of years instead of the constant turn-over of drunk college students (serious about this, Princeton Review named the university the top party school in 2014-2015 — WE’RE #1!!).

So a one-dog family remained for over 7 years.

Until things started to change. This April we bought a house. One major stipulation I had for the house was that the yard had to be fenced in. I really wanted to adopt a second dog and having that fenced in yard would make it easier to do so.

But then I hesitated some more.

There was a lot to set up in the house. Dahlia had been an only dog for so long, how would she react to another dog in the house all the time? Especially a younger, more active one. And then there were the financial concerns. Buying the house actually set us up better than it did before. Besides tax write-offs (yay!), we also are paying significantly less per month in mortgage/taxes than we were in rent and by bundling we dropped our car insurance by about $1000 a year. So we’re in a much better place to afford a second dog.

And so on June 23, I bit the bullet and just did it (with my husband’s permission of course). I sent in an application to Glen Highland Farm. Yes, the same Glen Highland Farm that we have vacationed at for the past three years. I wanted a Border Collie or maybe a Border Collie mix. To be honest, at that moment, I wanted Ben.

Ben's petfinder picture

Ben’s petfinder picture

I had seen Ben on a Petfinder page perhaps a month or so ago. He was cute as a button and just looked like a great dog. He, admittedly, reminded me a little bit of Dahlia. But he was located in New Jersey, just a little further than we really wanted to travel to meet a dog, especially if we had no idea how he’d fit in with our family. So I let that one go, just another one of my “petfinder dream dogs” who I knew would go to another home. And who was, a short while later, listed as adopted.

As it turned out, Ben was adopted. He was adopted out to a family who was supposedly very active recent retirees who had former Border Collie experience and who turned out to be anything but that (late 70s, medical issues that meant the man in the couple had trouble walking, not active at all, and they had never owned a Border Collie). Needless to say, Ben was snapped back up by the people who had been fostering him for the shelter.

At that point, it all gets a little odd, like this was fate. Which is not surprising considering Dahlia’s entrance to our life seemed to be the work of fate as well (two transports I was supposed to be doing got canceled/postponed and I was freed up to do Dahlia’s). Ben’s foster family had adopted dogs from Glen Highland Farm. They ended up calling them up to see if they could somehow list him on the courtesy part of their website. The decision was to list him on the main site with their contact info and a note that he could be brought up to the farm if someone was interested in him.

And then Glen Highland Farm, headed up by the amazing Lillie, and the foster family, decided he would flourish at the farm and were going to bring him up.

Enter: Us. I chatted with a lovely woman from the rescue on June 25 to clarify some things on my application and make sure that they knew what we were looking for. And then I chatted with the ever amazing Lillie on June 26 about potential dogs. One of the ones suggested: Ben. She asked the foster family if they could come up Saturday with him and then asked if we could meet them there at 12:30pm.

We did, and fate just came together. While we did meet one other dog, it was clear from the beginning that Ben was meant to come home with us. Dahlia and he trotted around and sniffed things and peed together. They looked remarkably alike. They didn’t play but they seemed pretty comfortable around each other.

Ben bears a striking resemblance to Dahlia.

Ben bears a striking resemblance to Dahlia.

So he came home with us. And suddenly we were a two-dog home.

Dahlia has gotten used to his presence fairly quickly. There have been a few warnings from her telling him to back off, which he heeds and then spends the next little while ingratiating himself to her. He has not once given her any warnings.

Birds!

Birds!

Ben very much takes things as they come, bonding quickly and loving pretty much everything. He is a very positive dog, with no fear (not of walking over grates or thunderstorms or children or other dogs). Everything is “the best thing ever!” to Ben. He loves watching the birds in the trees and squeaking his toys and can entertain himself for long periods of time with those things.

Ben and Dahlia

Dahlia and Ben play a bit of chase

And he loves enticing his big sister to play. That’s right, there have been games of chase that Ben initiates almost every day since he came home, something that brings tears to my eyes. He’s bringing some more fun to Dahlia’s life!

He’s incredibly smart, fairly  driven, and just a joy to be around, even if it means our lives have changed quite dramatically. It’s strange having a young active dog in the house when we’re used to a dog who takes short walks and then relaxes for hours on end. Dahlia sleeps through the night, doesn’t want to bother going out until 8am or 9am, and is so easy that sometimes I simply forget she’s there. Ben does not allow that. He does have an off switch, but he needs the proper exercise and mental outlets to get to that off switch. He is definitely not the dog for everyone, but he fits in with our family like he’s always been there.

Ben on his first night with us.

Ben on his first night with us.

Ben starts agility training soon and I can’t wait to see how this little man does. He has the potential to be a really amazing agility partner and an even best friend. Like we keep telling Dahlia, we aren’t splitting our love for her; we’ve just opened our hearts up to more love. And I think Ben is slipping right in there with great ease.

Welcome home Ben. We look forward to many happy years with you!

 

Two dog home

Two dog home

How I lost my best friend and found a new one all in one day.

If you follow us on Facebook, you might have seen that I put Luce to sleep last Friday. Luce was my first dog, my first competition dog, and my savior. She taught me so much about dogs, about training, about creativity and patience and forgiveness. And unconditional love.

She was 12 1/2 and it was showing not just in her arthritic body, but in her brain. She wasn’t my dog anymore. She was so senile that she’d bark and bark and nothing could make it better. She didn’t greet me anymore. It just wasn’t my Luce anymore when I looked into her cloudy eyes. I couldn’t watch her like that, so I scheduled her an appointment right before my therapy appointment, and I held her in my arms as she went to sleep. And then I held her in my arms some more while I sobbed in privacy over her empty body.

There will never be another dog like Luce. There will never be another dog who will be able to teach me as much as she did.

My best girl.

My best girl.

I had sworn before she died, for months and months, no new dogs. Three is plenty.
I had especially sworn no more pit bulls. They’re too much trouble. The dog/dog issues complicate things with sports. They all blow out their knees. The social stigma is wearing. The legal crap is always that threat hanging in the background.

But somehow I found myself at the shelter where I adopted Luce. I wandered through their kennels without seeing anything that I liked (lots of cute small dogs there– unusual!)

And then I drove to the shelter in my county, not expecting much. They’re small. Not much to choose from. And who knows if a shelter will even adopt to me with my intact dog and my Steve who I knew would hate any dog at a meet-and-greet and they’d just have to take my word for it that he would settle with time and I could handle it.

So with all of that in my head, I walked into the kennels, and there he was.

Luce put him there. That’s the only way.

McLovin

McLovin

45 pounds, the size a pit bull should be. Cute as a button. Young. And more interested in me than in what was going on outside his back kennel door.

So I went up front and asked. Will you adopt to someone who has an intact dog at home? She said all of our dogs and spayed or neutered before they leave, so that is not a problem. Logic! Yes!

So then the next scary question– I know one of my dogs will hate him at the meet and greet but that he will also settle down with time and space. Would you still adopt to me? She said as long as when my dog did his jerk stuff that the dog I was interested in didn’t want to eat him in return, they’d be ok with it.

I said can I meet McLovin?

So I did some paperwork and then they brought him up to one of the getting to know you rooms and this dog is freaking perfect. He’s goofy and floppy. He likes to play ball. He likes to tug. He likes me a really lot. He likes to play but he’s not bouncing off the walls.

They offer to let me take him for a walk outside, so we do that and he’s distracted by all the cool stuff going on, but a “puppy puppy puppy!” from me brings him right back to my side.

What a good dog. And he’s just nice. He’s even-keeled. He likes other dogs (and hopefully will continue to), he’s fine with cats, he loves people of all shapes and sizes.

I put him on hold for 24 hours so I could think about it, but really I didn’t need to. I had already fallen in love. This dog, he’s nothing like Luce but he immediately settled into that pit-bull-shaped hole in my stomach. He’d already taken up residency in my heart.

Saturday I loaded up my three idiots and drove them down to the shelter, where the shelter staff took them from me one at a time and introduced them to McLovin. None of them loved him immediately, but they parallel walked them for a bit and tried again once everybody had settled down. They were good at knowledgeable about what they were doing, and even Steve was tolerant and unworried by the end of his intro.

And so I own another pit bull.

In love all over again

In love all over again

His name is Trek now, and eventually I’ll register him as Siren’s Improbable Journey. I hope that he will play flyball and rally obedience. I hope that he will be a rockin’ hiking companion. He’s already a great cuddle buddy.

It’s amazing to me how he just slipped into my life like he’s always been here. It amazes me that I could fall in love again so quickly.

I never thought of myself as a “breed” person. There are tons of breeds of dogs that I like and would like to own someday. But it looks like I might always have to own a pit bull. It looks like the breed might have chosen me.

Do’s and Don’ts for getting a sport dog from a shelter

It’s no secret that we here at TU are big fans of shelter dogs as both potential sport partners and awesome pets. We’ve written several posts on the subject before: here’s Ten Reasons Why Your Next Sport Dog Should Be a Rescue, and here’s Jen’s post on how rescues and shelters should go about marketing dogs for sport homes.  Michelle has also talked about going in with a plan when you’re going to adopt from a shelter.  However, it occurred to me recently that while we’ve always encouraged shelter adoption, we’ve never actually given any practical advice on how to go into a shelter and come out with an awesome sport dog.  We’re going to correct that right now with a short list of do’s and don’ts for people who are looking to adopt their next sport dog.

Don’t lead by saying you’re looking for a dog to do agility* with.

*or your sport of choice

Here’s the thing: most dog people don’t do dog sports. It’s easy to forget this if your weekends are wrapped up in trials and training and classes, but truly: dog sports are a niche thing. You’d be surprised how many dog owners have never even heard of dog sports. As a shelter worker myself, I will tell you that shelter workers are no exception: even when they are familiar with, say, agility, they may not have enough specialized knowledge to know what makes a good sport partner. When you say “I’m looking for an agility dog”, what your average shelter worker may hear is “I’m looking for a super high-energy dog”. If you’ve spent much time in shelters, you probably know that most shelters are chock-full of super energetic teenage dogs who have a surplus of anxiety and a surfeit of manners: these are the dogs who are surrendered because the owner “just doesn’t have enough time to meet their needs.” If you come in asking for an agility dog, you will often be introduced to a dog who is bouncing off the walls with shelter stress and pent-up energy. Captain Wall Bouncer might be a terrific sport partner; however, it is also possible that he’s just an anxious dog who had a bad start and who is going to need a ton of remedial work before you can even think about, say, developing toy drive or handler focus.

Do go in with specific criteria in mind.

A better approach than saying, “I want a [sport] dog” is to tell the shelter worker who’s helping you that you do dog sports, and you’re looking for a dog who has [x] qualities. This means, by the way, that you should have a sense of what qualities you’re looking for before you go in!  What you’re looking for will depend on several things, most notably what specific sports you play; if you’re looking for a nosework dog, you might go in looking for a dog who likes to work independently and is into find-it games, but if you’re looking for an obedience dog, you might be more interested in a dog with a lot of handler focus.  Your list of criteria will be specific to you, the sports you play, and your lifestyle!  However, there are also some basic qualities you can look for that can help set you and your future dog up for success in sports: when I polled the TU members in preparation for this post, here are some of the criteria we came up with:

  • Confidence: is the dog comfortable in new environments? How do they do when presented with new distractions and challenges?
  • Biddablity/handler focus: is the dog interested in you (in the absence of treats and toys)? If you engage them in basic training or play, are they interested in engaging back?
  • Structure: there are a lot of good books and websites that will help you get a sense of how to evaluate a dog’s physical structure. Here’s a post on Susan Garrett’s blog that will give you some preliminary pointers.  For me, I tend to look a lot at shoulder and rear angulation, gait and topline, but everyone’s got a different list of things that matter to them.
  • Drives (food, play, hunt, toy): you won’t get a perfect picture of this in a shelter setting, but if you’ve got some time to play with the dog you’re interested in, you should be able to get some sense of how they respond to food, toys, find it games, tag and so forth.  The shelter workers can give you good input here: remember, they’ve known the dog for longer than you have, and they can probably tell you if he’s generally into toys, treats, etc.
  • Ability to recover: if the dog is startled or if something happens that she doesn’t expect, does she bounce back quickly or does she stress about it for a while?

Don’t go in looking for dogs of a specific breed

When I’m looking for dogs, I’m personally much more interested in temperament and personality than breed. That said, I know there are a lot of people who like particular breeds and breed mixes and specifically seek them out when they’re looking for dogs: to each their own! However, thinking about breed can actually get in your way if you’re looking for your perfect sport dog at a shelter.  If you’ve spent any time at all in shelters or browsing Petfinder, you probably have figured out that a) most (though certainly not all) shelter dogs are mixes and b) the stated breed on the Petfinder listing or kennel card is usually just somebody’s best guess. Some shelters are better at guessing than others; that said, I have worked at several pretty great shelters, and still, I can tell you that in my experience, breed designation usually goes down something like this:

Scene: Several shelter workers stand around squinting at a random medium-sized brown dog who’s just come in.

Shelter worker #1:  He’s got kind of a …. Labby-looking head, right?

Shelter worker #2: Sure, why not?

Shelter worker #3: He’s kinda short, though. Let’s say Lab-dachshund mix.

Shelter worker #2: Sure, why not? [*writes it down]

If you go to a shelter, you will usually see a ton of dogs listed as lab mixes, shepherd mixes or pit mixes: the National Canine Research Council did a study that indicated that these are the most commonly designated mixes across shelters in the US.  However, the NCRC also did a bunch of blood-based DNA testing to see how accurate those breed guesses are, and whoops, not so much: it turns out that on average, they are only right about 18-20% of the time.  Here are some interesting posters the NCRC put out after that study was released: they show dogs who were identified as lab, shepherd or pit mixes and what the DNA testing indicated they actually were. [Note: these files are PDFs]

Lab
Shepherd
Pit bull

[Side note: my shelter has these posters hanging up all over the place, and we are still like, “Yup, looks like a pit mix to me!” when new dogs come in. Sigh.]

Anyway, the point of all that is this: if you go into a shelter and you say, “I am looking for a border collie or border collie mix” instead of saying “I am looking for a dog with [x] qualities”, the shelter worker is not going to think “OK, this person is looking for an intelligent dog with herding instinct who is handler focused and good at teamwork”.  The shelter worker is, instead, going to start making a list of every black and white dog in the shelter, and you are going to see a bunch of black and white dogs rather than a bunch of dogs who have the characteristics you want.  If you say, “I am looking for a dog with [x] qualities”, the shelter worker may bring you a border collie; they may also, however, bring you some awesome little non-black and white muttsky who has all of the characteristics you’re looking for and who you never would have seen if you’d asked to only see border collies.

Do bring toys and treats along when you’re meeting dogs

Bringing along toys and treats is a great way to test if the dog you’re looking at is biddable and wants to engage with you. If you’re a person who uses tug toys a lot in training, it will be useful to bring a tug along to see if the dog wants to play with you; it’s not a perfect metric, as some dogs are too stressed by the shelter environment to play, but if a dog gets excited about the tug right off the bat, that’s something to put in the plus column. Same thing with treats: lots of times, if you have good, tasty/smelly treats, you can do some basic luring and shaping with the dogs you’re looking at, and that can give you some good information about the way the dog learns and how motivated she is by treats. Note–bring the good stuff along: if you bring some dehydrated liver or some string cheese, you’re probably going to have better luck than if you use the stale Milk Bones that the shelter has sitting around.

Here’s a caveat, though: before you bust out your toys and treats, ask the shelter workers if a) the dog is a resource guarder [some extremely sweet dogs get verrrrrry intense about new toys, and this can really be exacerbated in a shelter environment] and b) if the dog has any food intolerances [nobody will be very pleased with you if you feed a dog a treat and later on they come down with hives]. Better to be safe than sorry!

Do try playing/working with the dog in as many contexts as you can.

Shelters have different policies on how potential adopters are allowed to interact with their dogs, but by all means, try to interact with them in as many different contexts as possible.  Take them into a quiet side room if one is available; take them on a walk; play with them in a fenced yard; interact with them near other dogs; walk them through a people-filled lobby and see how they do.  The shelter I work in right now is very liberal about the things potential adopters can do with our dogs: they can go on car rides, they can go on outings and hikes, they can do sleepovers, etc. Other shelters I’ve worked in have let potential adopters ‘check out’ a dog for a few hours and take them on a hike.  Find out all the things the shelter is willing to let you do, and then try to do all of them! Knowledge is power: the more information you have on how your potential dog acts in new situations, the better you’ll be able to determine if the dog is the right fit for you.

Any other do’s and don’ts you would like to add? Do so in the comments!

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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Happy Gotcha Day Dahlia!

Five years ago today Dahlia woke up at her foster home, ate a stick of butter, and then was transported to meet up with us. I still remember her foster Mom telling us the stick of butter story (she hopped up on the table and ate it while she was out) and that she was a “little bit farty.” She did not lie.

We fell in love with her anyway.

I cannot believe it’s been five years already.

Today, Dahlia presents to you, 10 things that she will never ever learn. Continue reading

Not Good Enough

pitbullpuppy2

What if this puppy grew up in rescue instead of with a family?

Someday I would like to adopt a second dog.  I don’t want to buy one, not even from a good breeder (that’s just not my style; I approve wholeheartedly of good breeders!).  I certainly don’t want to turn to some backyard breeder of untested mutts or, even worse, a pet store that sells puppy mill puppies of the latest “designer breed” mix.  I want a young adult dog from a rescue or a shelter.

To that end I spend a lot of time perusing Petfinder looking at dogs and puppies of all ages and sizes just for fun.  I like to see who is out there looking for a home and I like to sit and imagine how that dog might fit into my family, how he/she would look running around with Dahlia.  I know I’m not ready for that second dog yet, but I like to imagine what one would be like in my family (I swear this is not as odd as it sounds!).

I don’t peruse Petfinder that often, maybe once every couple of weeks, and often I go back and see the same dogs on that page, looking up at me with sad eyes, hopeful eyes.  I even see puppies week after week and month after month with their photos and sad stories and hopeful rescues posting about them on the site.

And I started to wonder.

Why?

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Needed: Retirement homes for old dogs.

Siren, going for the classic French look.

If you had told me that my first dog was going to be a Miniature Poodle, I never would have believed you. And doubly so if you’d told me that Poodle was going to be 15 1/2 years old when I brought her home. But I am one of those people who believes the adage that you don’t always get the dog you want, you get the dog you need, and so it was that I brought home an ancient Miniature Poodle from work. And I loved her. She was senile, not really housebroken, had congestive heart failure and weakening kidneys, but she was mine.

Who dumps an elderly dog? Well, an elderly woman who was no longer able to care for herself, much less a dog with her own laundry list of medical conditions and pill organizers full of pills. (No lie, she was on five different pills as well as eye drops by the time it was all said and done.) She had made arrangements in advance: her young poodle went to her groomer to place, and Siren went to her veterinarian. She lived in the kennel at work for awhile, and I would let her out with me at night (I worked nights by myself, and it was usually fairly quiet- paperwork, housekeeping, monitoring hospitalized patients, sterilizing surgical instruments and gowns). At first I couldn’t stand her- she paced and paced and pottied on the floor and paced some more. But with time, she got comfortable with me, and her pacing changed to wandering around looking for toenails to eat, and then settling in her basket to snooze.

She was not an easy dog. She didn’t deal well with being left alone, she was not at all housebroken, she didn’t see well, she didn’t hear well. But she loved life and she loved people, and I’d take her for carries around the neighborhood because she could only walk for a block or two.

Siren gave me a great gift: she gave me a love for old dogs. I love my young dogs too, don’t get me wrong, but there is something that feels really good to me about giving an old dog a place to live out whatever time she has left.

So a number of years after Siren, despite already having two pit bulls at home, I started trolling Petfinder for another old dog, and adopted Harv. Harv’s story was a bit more harsh. He was seized by animal control as a cruelty case (though I didn’t know this until after he’d passed). He was evaluated as adoptable, but nobody wanted an older black pit bull, so he lived in the shelter for over a year. He was finally at long last adopted, only to be returned a year later, a victim, this time, of divorce. And there he sat for another several months until I showed up. And even though I didn’t fit the general requirement that pit bull adopters need to live in the same county as the shelter, they let me take him home. (And I want to give a shout-out to the York County SPCA for housing and caring for a not very adoptable black, elderly pit bull until somebody showed up who wanted him. I would guess that in a depressing number of places, my old man never would have had a chance. But they were rooting for him, and so many of the employees and volunteers who were there when I went to meet him and then to pick him up were overjoyed that he was finally going home.)

How could I leave this face in the shelter?

Harv was an epic dog. I only had him for fourteen months until a brain tumor claimed him, but it seems like so much longer. He was the most wonderful old fart of a dog. We went to beginner obedience class and changed some minds over what pit bulls are like, though I think all he actually learned was sit and down. He was kind and gentle and loved everybody. He tried so hard to play with the other dogs but he was endlessly awkward about it. He spent a lot of time not really knowing what was going on, but he was Happy! He would run back and forth through the house and bite my butt while I was getting dog meals ready, and I could never correct him for it because it made me laugh so hard.

A lot of people have asked me how I could do that to myself– bring home an old dog I knew was going to die soon. You know, nothing is ever certain. I had a puppy die too. It’s different, I think, to bring home an older dog, and I think my relationship has been different with them, but I didn’t love them any less, and the time we shared… I wouldn’t give that back for anything.

They have certainly been high maintenance. Bringing home an elderly dog means bringing home a dog right in the midst of what is probably going to be the most expensive time of his life. Siren had her heart failure and she also had an ugly bout of pancreatitis. Harv, whom I swore I would not spend a lot of money on, developed excruciatingly painful glaucoma (high pressure) in one of his eyes, probably secondary to an old injury. I had his eye removed, since he couldn’t see out of it anyway. I could hardly put him to sleep for something we could fix! And then one of his teeth abscessed, so even though he was already having seizures from his brain tumor at that point, we put him under anesthesia and took that out, because again, it was something that needed to be fixed. Oh expensive dog!

A little rough around the edges, but happy til the end.

Training is a ittle iffy with an old dog whose mind is not as sharp as it used to be, but at the same time, training is one of the very best things you can do with an old dog. If you don’t use it, you lose it. Harv loved his food-dispensing ball, and it was good for him to have to interact with it to get his food. We did obedience class because I’m an obedience class junkie, but I am glad that we did.

I do think old dogs can be a bit less flexible about things, and they can get very attached to their routines. I think that’s simply one of those things that goes with old age. But at the same time, they’re mostly pretty darned content to just be. Harv spent a lot of time crashed out, snoring, on a dog bed. He didn’t really want for anything else. An occasional romp around the yard, some walks around town, his dinner, a bone to chew. He was good.

I have shared my stories of Siren and Harv with a lot of people, and my hope is that if I can keep sharing it, more people will consider giving a home to an older dog. There are so many oldsters in our shelters and rescues who are there through no fault of their own. Yes, it can be hard. Yes, it can be heartbreaking. But it is also an incredible joy to cherish and spoil an old soul, and to give a good old dog the comfort he deserves for the time he has left.

Adopting from a shelter: My plan

7816112236_e486a6148e_cNow, I will begin this with a bit of a caveat: In the end, I did not get my dog directly from a shelter.  I had a list of shelters in hand, ready to head to as soon as I was ready to adopt a dog.  I had been looking at dogs on Petfinder.com for ages.  And then I went on a transport and met a dog who was traveling from a shelter to a rescue and realized I had found the right dog (a wee bit too early for us, but I’ll tell that story in a later post).

So with that in mind, here was the list I had come up with prior to finding Dahlia:

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Adopting From a Shelter: Go in with a Plan!

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Chloe, a former shelter dog on her way to a new beginning.

You have finally made the decision.  You’re going to get a dog!  The first place you head out to is the local shelter and there you are confronted by dogs of all sizes and shapes.  Any one of those amazing dogs could be yours just for the asking!

A tiny older Chihuahua huddles in the back of his kennel, looking up at you with big eyes.  “That one!” you think.  “I would love a small lap dog.”

In the next kennel, a young pit bull jumps up against the bars when you get close, his whole body wiggling with energy, his tail going a mile a minute, flashing you that great big bully smile.  “That one!” you think.  “I love his energy.  I’d love to come home to that sort of excitement.”

In the next kennel, a small Border collie mix is turning in circles, barking madly.  She hasn’t even noticed your arrival.  “That one!” you think.  “She’s beautiful and has so much energy!”

In a kennel further down sits an old Lab, her muzzle grey, her eyes rheumy.  “That one!” you think.  “She’s so sad.  She needs me.”

Each of those faces, so very different from one another, are just some of the dogs you’re likely to come across in a shelter.  There are dogs of every size, breed, and mix in shelters in America.  There are purebreds and mixed breeds, puppies, adults, and seniors alike, all looking for a great new home, all hoping you’re going to be the one to take them home and love them for the remainder of their lives, whether it’s 16 years or 6 months.

I will say this about shelters: It is very easy to fall in love there.  But it is also very easy to fall in love with the wrong dog.

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