the art of being

In our little dog fostering world, there are very few steadfast rules. When we picked up our first foster (Lollie Wonderdog), we kind of made it up as we went along, trusting our intuition to help us be good foster parents. We haven’t read much instruction or philosophy on good dog foster parenting so we can’t say for certain that our approach is the best one, but it feels right to us: first, teach the dog how to just be.

When a new dog enters our home, the only thing we can be sure of is that its most recent experiences have been new, stressful, and probably a little bewildering. These animals have been removed from any stability they once knew and have no idea, when they enter our home, that it will be a good, friendly, safe, comfortable place. So our first task is to help them learn how to just be. And we take this simple little primary mission very seriously.

Just be.┬áIt’s hard to explain what we mean by that. But there is definitely a bit of magic that goes on during the first few weeks of a dog’s time with us. In truth, there isn’t a process. And yet, those magical first few weeks set the tone for the rest of our time together. Somehow, it’s the time in which our foster dogs learn how to be house pets.

We spend no time on tricks and very little time on basic commands, but we do help them learn how to function in a household. By being around us in a low-pressure environment, they first learn how to relax. Period. Then, they learn how to not panic if one of us leaves the room. They learn how to eat in our presence and without our presence. They slowly begin to learn which furniture is dog-friendly and which furniture is not. We help them understand what a toy is and isn’t. They learn to get excited at meal times and when a person grabs a leash off its hook. They learn that barking or mouthing gets you no attention, but a nice, calm presence often does. They learn how to appreciate a good round of chase in the yard or a nice snuggle on the couch. They learn that begging for food is futile.

They learn how to politely initiate a game with a person. Just this weekend, Stevie learned how to properly return a ball to us to play fetch. This involved no formal training and no commands, but a consistent pattern of reinforcing the good behavior (dropping the ball at our feet) and ignoring the bad behavior (teasing us with the ball, running a few steps away when we look at her). That’s the beauty of this important, formative time. None of it involves commands or training. Just simple, no-pressure, consistency. Lots of patience, lots of rewards, and lots of love.

Of course. No dog is perfect, and most dogs have had a hard time with some element of our basic concept of how a good house dog behaves. Still, after a few weeks (and the length of time varies from dog to dog), we usually feel pretty good about a dog’s ability to just be, and we sometimes move on to obedience and commands. But truth be told, we didn’t teach Gonzo a single trick or new command during the entire 3 months he was with us. We knew there would be time for that later. But we did help him better understand how to be a good dog. After his time with us he knew not to get up on the furniture unless invited, he knew where to lay down to wait for his dinner, he knew not to steal shoes and run around the house, and he knew that climbing up on a person for a movie was likely to gain him a nice snuggle and some ear rubs.

And here’s the deal: I would be willing to bet that few dogs get returned by their adopters because they don’t know how to shake or roll over, but that many do because they don’t know how to interact with humans and behave acceptably in a house.

And avoiding that tragedy is the business we’re in.

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26 responses

  1. The saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” – pretty much says it all. I’m pretty certain Miss Stevie Wonder is smiling!!

  2. I think your philosophy is right on. Tricks are easy to teach once you bring a dog home if you want to, but most adopters want a dog that’s calm and well behaved right away. I think that when a dog is familiar with boundaries and impulse control, it makes them happier too because they know what their place is and what’s expected of them. Moving from shelter to house to house again can be tough on a dog if they don’t have clear expectations.

    I’m glad Stevie is doing so well! :) Nemo loves fetch too! Maybe it’s a brindle thing? ;)

  3. I love Stevies smile and crazy limbs. I always say we were spoiled when we got Havi. I am not so good with training, and hse knows only about three tricks and still kinda jumps on people when they come over the house. But her foster parents made her so adoptable because she was just Havi. She curls up at your feet, she knows to wait for food, she knows not to bark, and that life isnt scary. I am eternally grateful to her foster parents.

  4. I totally agree with you! If you can make your fosters good companions by teaching them how to walk well on a leash, listen, and be calm (when needed), then it won’t take much work for their forever families to teach them a few tricks! That photo of Stevie is priceless. :)

  5. I think you have more going on for you all than you think. All of the things you just talked about are something that is really hard to get across to people, the art of just being. This was probably one of the first things my own dogs learned. Some things took longer for each dog, but overall they are comfortable with life and what it might throw at them. And it was not through any formal training or tricks really. Those two things we often don’t start till a dog is over 6 months anyway. I guess it’s probably just something I did naturally. I’m glad you put it into words though for others, as I feel this is vital for any dog to have a hope at being a “good” dog. You are better with words than I. Thanks for another great post
    Anna
    http://www.akginspiration.com

  6. this is a great post! i’ll have to bookmark it if i can ever convince my husband to foster.

    one thing i’ve noticed after living with a high anxiety dog (that would be basil) is that having a consistent schedule is so important. i imagine even more so in the beginning. when we moved and our schedule changed, basil would bark and bark when we left the house to go to work. but after a week or two he figured it out and would ‘watch’ us leave and then go lay down. being comfortable and knowing what to expect (to an extent) seems to allow for better ‘minding of manners’.

    man, could stevie look more relaxed?!

  7. What an important post. It’s so important to view things from the dog’s perspective when they come into a new home, especially from a shelter. Show the dog how things work in your household and set clear guidelines. Set them up for success. (Hmm… this might apply to kids also. :) )

    I love that saying: just be.

  8. So, so true. Any dog can learn a trick or two, but learning how to be – how to relax, enjoy, respect – is what makes dogs adoptable. You are doing the dogs and their future families a great service by helping them understand this! Yay (again) for you!

  9. We agree 100%. We have mostly taught our dogs house manners rather than tricks because we felt manners were most important

    Kari
    dogisgodinreverse.com

  10. Awww…what a Most Happy picture! Mom wishes she could snorgle Stevie’s belleh.

    This was a super terrific postie and I think it’s a good thing for peoples to remember when they’re adopting a new doggie, too. It reminded me of this Most Wonderful article in The Bark magazine: http://www.thebark.com/content/art-training . Mom says she wishes she had read that article when they first adopted me cuz she prolly woulda taken things a whole lot slower.

    Wiggles & Wags,
    mayzie

  11. Yes, yes, yes. Any dog who comes to Silverwalk has moved away from some comfort zone, whether it be a home, a shelter or a hoarder; it was something they knew as familiar. Yes, they just get to “be” – they learn to crate for meals, they learn to be with other dogs in a pack, they are allowed to just be w/only “training” as you described, Aleksandra. I need to keep my voice soft as many react to a harsh tone. Yes – the article from the Bark (a fav mag) is now sent to my inbox so I can keep it as a reminder. This is an AWESOME post – thank you.

  12. Our vet said it can take up to two years for an anxious rescue dog to settle down and learn “to be.” We’ve had Our Best Friend for two years, and while he’s not the same dog he was, he STILL has a long way to go. We’ve learned you can’t expect too much too soon. I’m sure Stevie (as well as those before and those after) appreciate your patience.

  13. It’s not only a great lesson for fostering; it’s a great lesson for life.

    Americans are famous for their self-improvement ethos. We never see to be able to rest and just be content. And we inflict that same trait on our dogs.

    We all need to learn just how to be comfortable in our own skin.

  14. I agree with you. It’s most important for a dog to learn manners first and foremost! Admittedly, we HAVE taught our foster commands and tricks though. For us, it helped her build confidence and form a bond with people, and it’s fun/rewarding too. I think also for us, we do not have a “resident” dog, so we treat each foster as if it’s our own. To each foster family its own though… there is no “right” way to do it!

  15. Absolutely. I totally think you have the best approach. Many of the dogs that enter foster care are ones that have never been able to experience what it is like to be a normal dog in a normal house. That’s the entire purpose of foster care, I think, to give them a chance to relax and figure out how things work. It’s a lucky dog that enters your home.

  16. Thanks Alex, great post as usual. Since I am 10 days in, I am so conscious of trying to get the boy settled and comfy here. I haven’t tried any new tricks yet, just trying to reinforce good behaviors. his foster mom was so awesome with him; I hope that I can continue her good work. This affirms that I am doing the right thing and not pushing him too quickly. Someone told me they must start training within 2 weeks of arriving but he still needs to chill a bit I think. (by the way, this is Kara)

  17. Pingback: Stevie Wonder, Spin Doctor |

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