Goodnight, sweet Blue

Yesterday, we said goodbye to Baby Blue. We gave her a big breakfast, took her on a long walk, let her play with her favorite toys, and allowed her up on the couch for a while. Then I loaded her up in the car, bought her a cheeseburger at the drive-thru, drove her up to the shelter that had tried to save her, gave her a treat and a big hug, and held her in my arms as she went peacefully to sleep.

We didn’t know it was going to turn out this way, but we knew that the odds were against us.

Blue’s timidity and behavior at the shelter made her a little too questionable for a traditional adoption, so in order to get to know her better and further evaluate her, Blue was placed with us, an experienced foster home. We wrote gently about the uncertainty of fostering Baby Blue a few days ago, but didn’t put it as bluntly then. Probably because we held out hope that we could work miracles. Now the truth is before us, as plain as it is painful. Baby Blue was not adoptable.

I’ve had a lot of ideas before about the hardest part of fostering: maybe the hardest part is falling in love with a dog and then having to say goodbye when its forever-family comes along. Maybe it’s realizing that your new foster is more of a handful than you had expected. Maybe it’s picking one from the shelter and knowing that the one you didn’t pick may not make it.

Turns out this all pales in comparison to the real hardest part of fostering: realizing that no matter how much you want to help, you can’t fix every dog. Loving a dog, but coming to terms with the fact that it is too troubled for this world. Trying to snuggle her fears away, only to realize that no amount of snuggling will ever be enough to make her feel safe. Recognizing the signs of insurmountable fear or inability to interact with the world.

When a dog bites.

After Blue came into our home, it became heartbreakingly obvious that she had not been properly socialized as a baby and held a deep-rooted suspicion of people, especially men.

A lack of socialization can be addressed through positive training and rehabilitation and does not necessarily make her unadoptable. When she was confronted with an uncomfortable situation, sometimes she would try to hide, other times she would bark or growl, and sometimes she would lunge and snap. This type of fear aggression can also be worked with and does not make her unadoptable. But sometimes, she would nip or bite with no obvious provocation at a person who was being still and not making any noise. A few incidents like this over her first week with us made her unadoptable under our shelter’s policy.

These incidents were also the crux of the problem. Without easy-to-decipher triggers and varying red flags from Blue, we had only the vaguest idea of what was causing her behavior.  We consulted behaviorists and dog pros who agreed that this particular behavior was extremely difficult to work with and that she may not be a safe adoption candidate.

The foster/ownership equation-changer.

If Baby Blue were our own adopted dog, this story may have turned out differently. We would have seen trainers, doctors, and behaviorists. We would have worked hard with her to earn her trust and help her explore the world in a non-threatening way. We would have to make some serious adjustments to our life, in an attempt to create a safe, stress-free existence for her. And even then, we might have come to the same conclusion that we did as her foster parents.

But as foster parents, our responsibility is not only to help prepare a dog for adoption, but also to help evaluate dogs for their suitability as family pets, so that we are helping to place safe dogs into society.

Given the severity and complexity of Blue’s issues, we did not feel that we could confidently introduce her to potential adopters. We also questioned the effect that another major life change would have on Baby Blue, who clearly was so stressed by novelty that she felt the need to take extreme measures to protect herself, even from the kind, non-threatening people who move slow, speak softly, fed her, and shared her home.

The breed issue.

Through blogging about Baby Blue’s issues, I’ve heard so many stories from others about their experiences owning or fostering fearful, reactive, or aggressive dogs. Those stories have varied as much as the types of dogs they were about. We’ve heard about aggression issues with labs, poodles, bloodhounds, shepherds, boxers, and little fuzzy mixed-breeds. A dog’s likelihood to bite has little to do with its breed type and everything to do with its unique, individual combination of environment, history, genetics, temperament, and management by humans.

Unfortunately for her, Blue drew some short straws in early life.

Compassion holds.

When we first came to this realization about Baby Blue, a close friend sent us a beautiful story from BADRAP about fosters who do compassion holds – take care of a dog temporarily who is either too sick or too troubled to be adopted. Compassion holds allow the dog some solace and peace from the big scary world in the dog’s last days, weeks, or months. People who do compassion holds are angels. I can’t imagine anything more selfless than giving your own heart in this manner. After semi-unexpectedly ending up as Blue’s compassion hold family, I have all the respect in the world for these good people. The full piece is here.

So goodnight, sweet Baby Blue. We wish we could have built you a beautiful world that makes you feel safe and protected. We have comfort in knowing that today you’re running happy and free amongst the stars and constellations.

dog scratch fever

Poor Baby Blue. Since last Friday, she has been an itchy, enflamed, bumpy mess. The backs of her ears? Pink and flaky. Her belly? Covered in a red rash. Her back? Scattered with raised bumps. Even her paws are affected. She licks them so much that they get tender and she limps when she walks around on the mulch in our yard.

Most likely, the culprit is allergies, with maybe a good sprinkle of stress thrown in.

So yesterday we started her on a special low-ingredient allergy food (potato and duck!), got her some herbal allergy meds for dogs, some anti-itch shampoo, and now we’re playing the waiting game. If things don’t start looking up soon, she’s going to the very scary place called the vet’s office, before she scratches herself to shreds.

The weirdest part? Her skin was clear and pretty itch-free at the shelter where the food is cheap and the air is full of dander.

She’s not much better yet, but the wonderful staff at Big Bad Woof in town told us that it could take a week or more to start seeing improvements. I’m thinking about knitting her some mittens for the meantime.

when she’s happy, she shimmers like a star

Sometimes I catch Baby Blue experiencing a few moments of pure, unbridled joy. Her eyes twinkle, her ears perk up, and her whole body looks happy. It makes my eyes tear up, seeing the dynamic, expressive dog that she can be. In yesterday’s post we laid out the challenge before us and explained (as best we could) the confusion and fear swimming around in this little girl’s head. We wanted to put it out there, right up front. But we don’t want to portray her as a dog who lives her whole life in the past.  Sometimes, she is able to escape from the past, and have the confidence to trust and be joyful. In these moments — usually when she and I are relaxing alone together or playing a game — she really shines.

So far Blue oscillates between (a) the nervousness that we described yesterday, (b) a milder concern, in which she keeps a careful eye on me to make sure I don’t go away, and (c) the relaxed moments of happy dogness. So far she spends most of her time in the middle — in a mild state of concern — with moments of the more extreme emotions on either side. We’re hoping that as time goes on, the happy dogness will edge ahead and ultimately win the race.

After all, isn’t this the face of a winner?

Baby Blue: A short break from the levity and brevity

Ordinarily, we try to keep the tone and style of our foster dog blog as light and fun as possible. We strive to be totally honest, but keep things positive. There are so many sad stories out there already about the plight of animals and how the world and society have wronged them – you don’t have to go far to find these stories. Ordinarily, this is not a source.

But then we met Blue. Our journey with Blue has only just begun, but we can already see that it’s going to be a challenging one. We don’t know what this little girl has been through in her two short years, but we know that life has been scary and sad and given her reason to mistrust the world. We hope that with the right combination of care and training by us, and the right adopters down the road, Blue will live a happy, fulfilling life. We feel that the challenge ahead of us is a daunting one: the road of rehabilitation is long, and patient, experienced adopters willing to work hard with an emotionally wounded dog are hard to come by.

The other day I picked up her file from the shelter. Within, I found all of her records from animal control, the vet, and the behavioral evaluator. On those pages I found fragments of the story of Blue’s short life. Blue was picked up as a stray in bad shape. She was emaciated – weighing just 40 of the 55 pounds she now weighs. Her fur was patchy, with large portions missing. Her back legs were swollen and red, appearing painful to the touch. She had red sores on all of her feet and ankles. She had had puppies. She was described as timid. A little fearful. Quiet.

The good people at the Montgomery County Humane Society resurrected her. She was seen by vets, treated for a host of skin conditions, and put on a weight gain diet. She was walked by staff and visited regularly by dedicated pit bull-loving volunteers. She learned to cope with shelter life, but always remained a little shy. A little reserved. A little reluctant. She lived in this limbo for almost three months.

So we pulled her. We thought—once we bring her home to a stable, warm environment, we will be able to fix her. She will learn to trust and love.  Turns out it’s not so simple. The best way I can describe this girl right now is conflicted. Sometimes, she is happy and confident. Other times, she is anxious and panicky. Some people she trusts with all her heart, and other people make her need to cower, bark, and growl.  On the first day, she wouldn’t eat in my presence. Since then, she won’t eat unless I’m right by her side. She took to me immediately and has been nothing but love and snuggles since I picked her up at the shelter. With foster dad it has been the opposite. Initially, she could barely be within 15 feet of him without displaying tons of calming/fear signals, interspersed with barking and growling.

Luckily the love of my life has the biggest, kindest, most patient heart, and is working hard with her to teach her that he is not scary and dangerous. We met with a behaviorist over the weekend to talk about how best to proceed, and he reminded us of one of the most important and difficult parts of healing a dog like Blue: we can’t just snuggle her fears away, and it’s going to take a lot of diligent work and time. And even then, you can’t know for sure that you will succeed.

Experts say that it is usually possible to rehabilitate a fearful dog. Rescuers say they are the hardest ones to work with but also the most rewarding. Our brains say it’s going to be all new, exhausting, and that there are no guarantees. Our hearts say we’re willing to give it a try.

Introducing Blue!

We are very excited and proud to present our new foster darling, Baby Blue! Blue is a sweet, shy girl who — like many dogs — was overwhelmed at the shelter. Even though she is gentle, loving, and sweet-as-can-be, she had been at the shelter since early April, being overlooked time and again. Maybe it’s because there are so many beautiful, adoptable pit bulls at MCHS right now, including at least three other young gray ones like Blue!

We picked Blue up the other night, and it has been smooth sailing ever since. She is quiet, housetrained, mellow, and very people-centered. Everywhere I go in the house, she follows me. She is a bit tentative and shy and doesn’t trust as readily as some dogs, so we will be working on her confidence and trust over the coming weeks. Who knows what life dealt her before she was picked up, but we hope she knows that it’s all blue skies ahead.

We can’t wait to get to know Blue better and share her inner and outer beauty with you!

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