Helping a Petunia bloom

Making the right dog-and-family match is one of the most challenging, critical, and rewarding parts of dog rescue work. We’ve been incredibly lucky to place our past fosters in great forever-homes, and last week we felt that same rush again, only when Love-A-Bull placed Pocket Petunia and her foster home.

After a night in our home (we played emergency foster), it was clear that Petunia needed something different. We knew we were not setting her up to succeed. The crate-and-rotate routine we had to enforce brought out Petunia’s less charming qualities. At the top of the list: some stress-induced dog-reactivity, and a compulsive desire to fingerpaint with her own waste after eliminating in her crate (which she did every time she was crated).

We knew right away that these issues were likely caused by the strict and stressful regimen we were imposing on the poor girl, who had just finished a long journey and had no clue what was going on. She needed more freedom and more space, which we weren’t able to offer under such time constraints.

When Petunia and I met Jenn, we had a sense that Petunia would succeed with her. Jenn has two other young, active dogs who play nicely with others and could (hopefully) show Petunia the ropes. She has two young kids who love to help out with enrichment activities for new foster dogs. Jenn was willing to work on the crating issue and has concrete floors in her house that are easy to clean up, plus the patience of a saint to deal with frequent clean-up.

Still, we prepared her for the worst. We told her there would likely be many crate accidents and that dog integration could take weeks to do successfully.

Boy were we thrilled when, after 24 hours, we got this email:

“Hi Aleks,

How are you?  We are doing great. I’ve never seen a dog smile so much.  Her little body is going to lift off when she gets going wagging and flashing that humongous grin.  The integration is done.  We took our first walk this morning.  I had a couple of friends help me walk her and my two youngsters.  We walked 2 miles on this great nature trail and by the end, I was walking all 3 of them with grins and wags.  No growling, no aggression of any kind.  They respectfully smelled, ran circles and then got into the walk.  Eventually, I let my two off leash to splash in the creek and even with just Petunia still on the leash, no issues at all. She had a great time and loved the water.  All 3 rode in the back of the car together and since then, they have been a threesome.  Oh!!! AND, she has only gone to the bathroom outside today.  I have her on a schedule and if I stay out there long enough, she will smell around, find the right spot and when I start praising her little tail wags so hopefully we are making new connections.

She continues to eat like a horse.  I got one of those training meat logs and we just had a session.  No big training, just a little sit and focus on the treat.  We do this with all three dogs and they all line up and sit still to get a reward.  I like this because it showed me that even with high value treats, she does not have food aggression in close proximity to the other dogs.  I’m still trying to help adjust her tolerance.  You can see that she is still trying to figure out what she should react to but it is coming along wonderfully.  

I can’t thank you enough for the wonderful support system you guys have.  Please let me know if I am missing anything.  Thanks Aleks!

Jenn”

Two days later I hopped in the car for a visit to little Petunia and her amazing foster family. I got a little teary meeting this brand-new Petunia — happy, confident, playful, with not a care in the world.

Thanks, Jenn and Petunia, for reminding us of the power of the right match!

Stay tuned for more updates on the adventures of Petunia as she looks for her forever-home . . .
For updates on the other recent cross-country arrivals into our rescue program, subscribe to our Love-A-Bull blog!

He’s Back: when cupid’s arrow misses

Nutty Brown is back.

Yesterday, we were feeling so good about his new forever. Today, we’re feeling so thankful for his adopter’s realization that he wasn’t the right dog, and his foster’s happiness at getting him back.

Returns happen. Those of us who work in rescue often cringe and curse when the news hits, but in the long run we’re usually happy that things worked out the way they did. In Nutty Brown’s case, his adopter was simply looking for a different dog.

Finding the perfect fit with imperfect information is a really hard task. Often we know the dog really well, and as hard as we try to screen the applicant, some critical information slips through the cracks. Other times we get a really good understanding of the adopter, but the dog is new to us or the adopter’s environment brings out behavior that we hadn’t seen before. Still other times, mismatches allow potential adopters to learn things about themselves that they hadn’t anticipated in the application process. As much as we’d all prefer a perfect match each time, returns can almost be a blessing in disguise: they allow us a more perfect match the next time around.

When I talked to Nutty Brown’s adopter on the phone yesterday morning, he kept saying “He’s a really nice dog, but.” And he is a really nice dog. But. Nutty Brown is just starting his life as a house pet. For four years, he lived outside on a chain with little food and shelter and virtually no human interaction. For years, his life was just him and that dirt lot and that tree. He’s got a lot of catching up to do.

It’s amazing, really. He’s come so far. He is house broken, he plays well with dogs, he walks nicely on leash, and he craves the human touch. It’s hard to believe he’s the same dog.

And yet. He is still working on understanding boundaries, rules, and some social skills. He gets nervous and overwhelmed easily in new situations and doesn’t know how to manage it. It’s nothing serious, but it takes a lot of patience and love, and a little bit of knowledge or a willingness to learn.

As it turned out, Nutty Brown’s adopters aren’t much interested in this type of behavioral work. They want a dog who is ready for any experience, welcomes guests with a tail wag and a polite smile, and doesn’t worry about too much. This is perfectly acceptable, and they deserve a dog just like that. There are zillions of them in the world. It’s just that Nutty Brown isn’t yet one of them.

We would never judge a family for its preferences and its ability to be honest about its boundaries and capabilities. In fact, we are thankful for great adopters and an atmosphere of openness and collaboration that allows great matches to be made.

And for now, the search for Nutty Brown’s true forever goes on.

A bit of fostering inspiration for our new friends

We don’t normally post on weekends. But we’re also normally not featured on the front page of WordPress.com, which drove a lot of unexpected traffic our way this week.

We got barrel-fulls of kind, thoughtful comments from lovely new readers, many echoing a very common sentiment we’ve heard before: “I don’t know how you foster; it must be so hard to give them up.” No doubt, it is hard. But it’s also one of the most fun, challenging, inspiring, and rewarding things I’ve ever done.

So here’s a quick rundown of a few of our favorite past posts that address this issue specifically. Dare we hope it’ll inspire somebody to jump in?

About us

How to Save a Life

One year blog-a-versary: The stats

One year blog-a-versary: In photos

Resolutions

And new friends may not have seen the fostering guest post series we did last fall, in which we interviewed a handful of stellar foster families who we admire about their own experiences. This series is certainly eye-opening, and offers some diverse and beautiful perspectives on the ins and outs — and hows  and whys — of fostering.

Q&A with us – Love and a Six-Foot Leash (Austin)

Q&A with Heather – Handsome Dan’s Rescue (RI)

Q&A with Josh – Animal Haven (NYC)

Q&A with Kate – Bully Paws (VA/DC)

Q&A with Chris – Animal Compassion Network (NC)

Q&A with Jen – Homeward Bound (Albany)

Q&A with Amy – New Leash on Life (Chicago)

Q&A with Laurie – All Paws (St Louis)

Welcome new friends, and enjoy!

Resolutions

Who’s thinking about fostering their first dog this year? In January of 2010, we were. It was a year if big hopes and big dreams for us. Buy our first house. Start a new job. Foster our first dog.

And we did it. And we loved it. And we grew addicted. We’ve done it time and time again.

So why not give it a try? There are rescues and shelters out there with needs to suit almost everybody’s lifestyle. Even if you can only commit to a few days, or a certain size, temperament, color, breed, energy level, and astrological sign, there’s a dog (or a cat!) out there whose life you can save by opening your home and your heart for a short while. Who knows? Loving lonely, homeless animals while they search for their forever might be the most satisfying thing you’ve ever done.

Here are the faces we’ve been honored to love this year. What will your first face look like?

Fostering made easy(er) – the Tiedown

There are a few tools in our fostering toolbox that we can barely imagine living without. Kongs and other food-dispensing puzzles are one; baby gates are another; and the holy tiedown is the third. If you took these tools away, we would first cry for a very, very long time, and then we would drive ourselves crazy and possibly even quit fostering. Well, we probably wouldn’t quit, but we would drag our feet a bit and probably drink a lot more.

The tiedown is an especially valuable tool to us since we live with one fussy dog who doesn’t necessarily appreciate energetic young dogs bouncing and pouncing all over him, but we insist on fostering anyway. Our tiedowns keep Chick happy, fosters out of trouble, and us from having to supervise closely every minute of the day.

A tiedown is essentially a short length of leash, cord, wire, or rope that is attached to something heavy or permanent on one end (such as a sofa or a piece of furniture), and to a dog’s collar on the other end. The device limits the dog’s zone of activity to a few feet, and really cuts down on the number of bad choices the dog can make. While on tiedown, our foster dog can’t try to play-wrestle with our Chick, can’t pee on the rug, can’t drool all over our new sofa, and can’t tackle visitors when they come over to visit. If introduced and trained properly, the tiedown can be a happy place to solve a puzzle, have a snack, or take a nap.

Dora the Explorer took to her tiedown instantly, but in order to reinforce a positive association, we were careful to feed her all of her kongs and other food puzzles in her crate or on a mat by the tiedown for the first few days. Now when Dora sees the tiedown wire come out of its drawer, she waggles her little butt so hard that her tail almost whips her in the face — she knows it’s kong time. Detailed information about the various uses of tiedowns is available from the East Bay SPCA here.

When introducing a new foster into our household, it is critical for us to ensure that the getting-to-know-you phase between our own Chick and the new dog goes as smoothly as possible. We take this phase very slow — in the past it has taken us anywhere from two days to a month to fully integrate our foster with our Chick. We have a regular routine that involves parallel walks, side-by-side obedience, baby gates, and finally the tiedown. Some organizations and advocates warn against using tiedowns in dog-dog interactions, and with good reason — if used incorrectly or not supervised properly, a tiedown can lead to teasing, abuse, frustration, and fighting. If you’re considering using one to smooth your own dog-dog integration, first make certain that the dog on the tiedown will not be pestered or bullied. This is critical.

Our home includes a near-guarantee that Chick will never approach a dog he doesn’t already know well to bully, play, snuggle, or otherwise engage. He does not like strong come-ons from other dogs, and is very nervous in new canine company. Chick’s strong preference for being left alone by other dogs means that a tiedown works beautifully for us — it allows Chick to slowly warm up to another dog’s presence without the risk of the other dog coming on too strong — an event that sometimes flips on Chick’s reactivity switch.

We begin with plenty of parallel walks, limited sniffing, and supervised interaction through a tall baby gate. We know it’s time to move to the next phase when both dogs consistently display happy, calm body language, a willingness to lay on either side of the gate calmly, and maybe some occasional face-licking through the gate. Next, we move our foster dog to a tiedown and allow Chick free-range status. Chick generally spends the first few short sessions across the room on his own dog bed, avoiding any interaction at all. Still, we offer much positive reinforcement for calm behavior by both dogs. If the foster is able to settle down and be calm in Chick’s presence, we start bringing Chick closer to work on puzzles, eat snacks (only ok if neither dog is a resource guarder), or do obedience. Chick is usually able to roam the house freely shortly after, walking a wide circle around the overenthusiastic foster without so much as blinking.

Eventually, Chick becomes comfortable enough to settle in within a few feet of the foster, and the foster dog is calm enough to accept Chick’s presence without needing to sing a song or breakdance. Because of Chick’s distaste for rowdiness, he does an exceptional job of teaching fosters what behaviors make him stay close and what behaviors make him run away. An illustration of this process with a previous foster, Stevie Wonder, is here.

Once we feel confident about the budding relationship we take the foster off tiedown but leave on a leash as a dragline that we can grab or step on if needed. Eventually, the dogs learn to be together. The whole process can take a while, but if done correctly should be drama-free. BAD RAP did a great post about tiedowns as part of a series on dog fostering. We loved this post, which is available here.

In our new house we decided to install a “real” tiedown instead of relying on leashes and doorknobs, which can certainly fail or be damaged. The process took about 30 minutes and cost about $10. Here’s how we did it.

First, we went to the hardware store and purchased a heavy-duty eye hook, a 3′ length of plastic-coated wire, two leash-type clasps, and a ferrule and stop set.

Next, we drilled a hole in the wood door frame between our living and dining room, and installed the eye hook.

Third, we attached both leash clasps to either end of the length of wire using the ferrule and stop sets.

Finally, we attached one end of the tiedown to our new eye hook, the other end of the tiedown to our new Dora the Explorer, and we put down a dog bed and a nice stuffed kong. Voila!

A few stray thoughts:

-Be sure to purchase hardware that’s rated at a high enough weight to contain your dogs. We bought hardware and wire that can handle a load of at least 150 lbs, even though our dogs rarely weigh more than 55 lbs. Better safe than sorry.

-Take plenty of time to get your dog accustomed to the tiedown before introducing another dog into the scene. Some dogs will get it right away, others will be unhappy. Approach training a tiedown just as you would approach any other form of training: reward good behavior, ignore bad behavior, and do it in short increments.

-Never leave a dog on tiedown when you’re not home. You don’t need to have your eye on the dog every minute, but you should be nearby and checking in frequently.

-Have fun, be careful, and let us know how it goes!

 

Why they’re so good

People often ask us: how are your fosters all so well behaved? How do you teach them to be so good?

It’s simple, really. They are good because we don’t give them opportunities to get in trouble. From the minute they walk in the door, our foster dogs are kept on a short leash — quite literally at first, and then figuratively later on. Naturally these clever little rascals still find ways to misbehave here and there, but for the most part if they never have the chance to make any poor choices, then they’re left with only good choices to make.

Yesterday’s pesto extravaganza is a good illustration. I was busy in the kitchen, which might have given Dora plenty of opportunities to run around the house finding mischief.

Looks like you've got this pesto under control. Maybe I'll go find some trouble to get into.

But instead of letting her do that, I blocked off the kitchen door so that she had no choice but to hang out with me in the kitchen/laundry rooms, where I could keep an eye on her.

A hamper and bookcase stand in for a baby gate in a pinch.

I picked up all items of interest like shoes, a trash can, and a low bowl of tomatoes (which Dora likes to play catch with), and gave her a dog toy smeared with peanut butter to keep her occupied with authorized activities.

This peanut butter ball is so fun it makes me wanna play bow!

I like to keep a little jar of treats handy and toss one in the dog’s direction when it’s practicing desired behaviors (sitting quietly and watching, laying down on its bed, playing quietly with a toy), and ignore the dog when it’s being naughty (jumping up, barking). To prevent the self-reinforcing behavior of jumping on the counter, it’s good to keep tasty snacks out of reach. Dogs who are big counter-surfers may benefit from a tiedown to help them learn to settle and keep them out of your dinner.

I am a good girl who never jumps up on the counter, and I would like to help you build your pesto, please.

By rewarding positive behaviors and avoiding or ignoring negative ones, we have generally had good luck “extinguishing” the bad habits and promoting the good ones. Dora took to our little game very quickly, and learned that laying on her blanket means that treats would fall into her paws now and then.

Ok mama, it looks like you don't need my help building the pesto. I'll just be here on my mat relaxing like a good girl.

So far, Miss Dora has been easy. She loves to snatch an occasional cherry tomato, cork, glove, or balled up piece of paper and go prancing triumphantly around the house with it, but she readily gives it back when asked, and hasn’t shown very many other bad habits. Thanks for easing us back into fostering so gently, Miss Dora!

For more info on adopting Dora the Explorer, click here or contact us at info [at] loveandaleash [dot] com.

Humbled by these hearts of gold: a visit to BAD RAP

When we decided on the Bay Area as our homebase for our two weeks of travels, I knew I had to put a few dog-related visits on our agenda. BAD RAP was on the list.

Early in our work with pit bull dogs, there was a time when BAD RAP was our main (only?) source of reliable and trustworthy information on pit bull rescue, training, temperament, etc. We’ve learned volumes since then and expanded our list of good sources, mentors, and sages a lot since then, but BAD RAP is still one of our all-time favorite dog orgs. So it was with a skip in our step that we walked up the driveway to meet founders Donna and Tim and kennel manager Nancy for a sunny visit on their lawn in Oakland.

In a lot of ways the BAD RAP barn was just how I imagined it: warm, sunny, friendly, stylish, and brimming with engaging, clown-like pit bulls of all shapes and colors.

The barn, where adoptable dogs live, was built by Tim, Donna, and a team of friends.

Former BADRAP resident Teddles, Donna and Tim's Honky Tonk, and adoptable Patsy Pup

Tim with Teddles. Former Vick dog Teddles lives the good life in his forever home now, and pays occasional visits to BAD RAP to hang out with his old friends.

Adoptable Patsy Pup's personality is as big as she is tiny.

Patsy Pup clowning around.

The list of impressive things about BAD RAP is not short, but one of the programs they run that’s dearest to my heart is their compassion hold fostering. I’ve always held a special place in my heart for those who do this difficult, draining, selfless work. Occasionally — or more realistically, whenever their partner animal shelter asks — BAD RAP takes in a dog who is too old or too sick to be adopted out and is going to be euthanized. Where most others — even those with hearts of pure gold — would say no, Tim and Donna say yes. The week before we arrived, Tim and Donna said yes to this beautiful eldergal.

This sweetie was found wandering the streets, near death’s doorstep. Her initial vet check and her swollen glands suggest an illness that may not be treatable. The shelter couldn’t keep her, but BAD RAP took her in, no questions asked. When we visited, she had been with them for a few days. She had gathered a bit of strength and while we sat in the sun and chatted, she slowly investigated each grassy nook and cranny of the yard, basking in the sunshine and occasionally sauntering over for some ear scratches or to sneak us a quick tongue to the face. Possibly for the first time in her life, she was content. Last we heard, there was no word yet on the state of her health or how long she would be a guest of BAD RAP. But one thing seems clear — these last days, or weeks, or months, or years, will be golden ones.

As always, we were humbled by Donna and Tim’s depth of knowledge about policy issues. Since we visited California just before our move to Austin, we talked for a while about the political landscape in Texas for pit bull dogs. We knew that a state-wide breed ban had been proposed in the legislature last year, but since nothing moved during the once-per-two-years session, we had let our concerns dissolve. But Donna diplomatically reminded us that idly waiting for the situation to devolve would be a poor choice, and that there was plenty of proactive work that could be done to preserve — and dare I dream, improve — the status quo. We discussed some of the nuances of how socio-economic dynamics play into politics in Texas, how the strange political landscape in this unique state makes a formidable challenge for pit bull advocates, and how the steadfast discriminatory policies of one large shelter in one major city set the tone for the whole state. Such interesting stuff.

We left feeling simultaneously hopeful and discouraged. Excited for the work left to be done, but overwhelmed with the options of where to begin. It’s only fitting that we would walk up that driveway enchanted by individual dogs, and walk back down that driveway enchanted by the big picture. BAD RAP has a way of doing that to all of us.

Thanks for a great visit, Nancy, Tim, and Donna!

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