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!

Foster guest posts wrap-up

Well folks, our foster superstar guest post series has come to a close. We are so proud to be among such great company on our fostering journey, and we hope that everyone enjoyed reading this thoughtful and diverse set of perspectives. 

To wrap it up, we thought it would be fair if we shared our own thoughts on fostering by completing the same interview – with ourselves – that we asked our peers to share over the past two weeks.

So here goes – our very own overly wordy and heavily commaed non-guest post about dog fostering!

Why did you begin fostering dogs? 

It’s hard to cite one clear moment, idea, or experience that led us into the world of fostering. There are a lot of practical reasons that fostering seemed like the right choice: I have always envied multi-dog families, but our life’s instability (frequent moves, career uncertainty, obsession with travel) would have made it impractical to adopt a second dog. Fostering was a good way to enjoy the satisfaction of a multi-dog home without the decade-plus commitment.

But the more significant reason was my love of the redemption narrative. I have a great appreciation for the classic story of underdog overcomes the odds and proves society wrong. I love these stories when they are about people, and I love them when they’re about animals. Bringing foster dogs into our home allows us to be a part of this narrative and witness the beautiful tale of redemption in our own home.

Who was your first foster dog?

Lollie Wonderdog was a perfect example of the redemption story. She was a three-year-old pit bull type dog who was found in a dumpster, skinny, filthy, and covered in bruises and scars. In the shelter, she didn’t seem to have much of a chance, and yet – she quickly made her way into the hearts of shelter workers and became a favorite. Her skinny physique and scarred face didn’t lead her immediately into the arms of a loving adopter though. She needed to come into our home, rest a while, and learn how to be a dog before her perfect family found her.

I cried the day Lollie Wonderdog was adopted. I was sad to see her go, but more than this I was overwhelmed with the beautiful new trajectory of this brave and loving dog’s life – a trajectory that would not have been possible without foster care. Lollie – now Lily Fireworks – lives with a delightful family and two lovely children. She goes on hikes, bike rides, and adventures, and has already mastered basic training and is working on her PhD. Her mom, a Naval nurse, dreams of having Lily certified as a therapy dog so she can work with injured veterans returning from war. We all think that Lily could speak very powerfully to others who have been through hard times and have a long road ahead.

What has kept you going? 

The need keeps us engaged, and the simple fact that we have the time and ability and we know it makes a world of difference for the dogs involved. But there’s more. For some people, fostering is addicting. I am one of those people. I am not sure which I love more: making a great match, or picking out and getting to know a new foster dog. With each dog we successfully care for, we learn more about dog behavior, personalities, integration, etc. With each one, we feel more confident in our ability to give the dog what it needs and place it in an appropriate home. It’s a self-reinforcing loop.

Why do you think fostering is important?

Our guest bloggers over the past week and a half have already stated so eloquently why fostering is important, so there is little for me to elaborate on. We wrote a while back about all of the dogs who would not have had a chance without foster care, and we think these anecdotes speak better than any broad explanations ever could.

What is the most rewarding part of fostering to you?

An extra warm little body to snuggle and a new honey-brown set of eyes to look adoringly at us is a pretty big reward in itself. Other than the obvious benefit of caring for a precious life that may have otherwise met a sad end, we experience a thrill every time a new person tells us that our work and our dogs have made them confront their prior assumptions about pit bulls and dogs who look like them. Our foster dogs have changed minds – including the minds of some of the kind families who have adopted them or their sheltermates. There is no better reward to us than that.

What is the hardest part?

I have recently become self-conscious about sugar-coating the fostering experience. From time to time, I get an email from a big-hearted individual who feels all alone in the frustrating, scary, or hopeless situations they have found themselves in with a foster dog. It’s not all fun and sunshine — we have been there too.

We once had to euthanize a foster dog due to troublesome behavioral and possible neurological issues. That was devastating.

We once had a foster who was not compatible with our own Chick, and we had to live for months in a segregated house, swapping dogs back and forth using baby gates. This dog could not be left in our yard because of its tendency to scale the fence and run off after squirrels, so our Chick’s life quality diminished for the time that this foster was with us. These months were trying for all of us.

We once had a foster who fit so seamlessly into our home and who our Chick adored with such intensity that we found ourselves questioning our decision to not adopt ourselves. That was heartbreaking as well.

Our own Chick is not 100% awesome with other dogs, and introducing him to other dogs takes time, patience, and finesse. With almost every foster, we have lived for days or weeks in a state of constant vigilance, monitoring behavior like a hawk, using baby gates all day long, and slowly, slowly building a positive relationship. This is always exhausting and hard.

Have you experienced any benefits that you hadn’t expected before you began?

The community we have developed since we began fostering – both online through our blog and in person through our local rescues and shelters – has been indescribable. Working with dogs has allowed us to meet and make friends with people who we would not have met through other channels of our life, and we feel nourished by these relationships in a way that we had not expected.

Keeping an online journal of our fostering experience – our blog – has been even more satisfying. The positive feedback that is so generously showered upon us by friends and strangers compels us to keep going and do more when we otherwise may not have had the strength. Inquiries from individuals who consider us to be knowledgeable give us little boosts of confidence when we are feeling uncertain. Generous advice from our own mentors and peers helps us always feel supported and loved.

What advice do you have for individuals considering fostering for the first time?

I could write several essays on this question alone. In fact, I probably will do this in coming months. But a few thoughts to start with:

First, look honestly at your life and think about what you can handle – how much time do you have? How confident are you in your ability to work with different kinds of dogs with different types of needs? What sacrifices are you willing to make? What do you need out of this experience to feel the fulfillment that will feed your desire to do it again? There are no right answers to these questions, but taking on too much can be exhausting and discouraging, while taking on too little can feel boring and under-engaging.

Second, take the time to get to know various shelters and rescue groups in your area, and find one that is compatible with your needs and abilities. If you are worried about money, find a group that will pay for food and basic supplies. If you are not confident of your training abilities, find a group that will hook you up with at trainer or take the time to match you with a dog who won’t be above your skill level. If you desperately want to take part in the final adoption decision, make sure the group you select will allow you to play a role.

And third, consider who your support network will be. We have found ours through our fellow dog-fostering friends around the country and through our blog. Many people find theirs through their own rescue in their own town. Others yet find a network through other means. There is no right answer here either, but fostering is hard work, and trying to do it in isolation can be exhausting. You will be grateful for your peers and mentors, and you will cherish those relationships more than you realize.

Who was your most memorable foster and why?

Not too long ago, we pulled an overweight, elderly pit bull dog who had a serious neurological condition and was not socialized with other animals. Something about her sweet little face and her pathetic look of resignation in her kennel compelled us to bring Little Zee home despite (or perhaps due to) her poor odds. We thought it would take us months to get her adopted. Two weeks later, we had three strong applications for her adoption.

This experience knocked us off our feet. We were tentatively confident about our ability to show Zee for the wonderful family pet she could be, but we thought that finding the family who would appreciate her qualities would be like finding a needle in a haystack. We braced ourselves for months or longer of fostering her. Boy, were we wrong. We vastly underestimated the appeal of a dog like Zee. She is an elderbull with a neuro condition and needs to be carried up and down stairs, sure. But she is also among the sweetest, cuddliest dogs we’ve ever come across with the softest fur, the most beautiful eyes, and the most vigorous passion for napping. Turns out a lot of people are looking for a dog like Zee.

Many things about fostering Little Zee were memorable, but what we will always be thankful for is the powerful reminder she gave us that we should never underestimate a dog’s potential based on its stats. Dogs are amazing beings and will never cease to impress me.

What is your favorite foster adoption story?

When we found Little Zee a home, we were just three weeks away from our move across the country. We knew we couldn’t bring home a new foster until after we get settled in Austin. But the next day, I defiantly came home with Curious Georgia in the passenger seat of my car. It was crazy. But it was perfect.

Georgia wasn’t doing well at the shelter, and even by taking her for just two weeks, we were buying her some time and opening up a spot for another shelter dog to go into foster care. What came next seemed like a perfectly orchestrated symphony: Curious Georgia and I went strolling in our neighborhood and ran into ML, one of the wonderful people who had initially been interested in Zee. ML and Georgia hit it off like I’ve never seen: within two minutes of meeting, Georgia was snuggled comfortably in ML’s lap, face pressing gently against ML’s shoulder.

It was love. Foster dad and I watched in awe – fingers and toes crossed – while ML and her hunny sent love letters to Georgia, glided flawlessly through the application and adoption process, and charmed her socks off (and mine) at her home visit. Even their kitties approved. Just five days before we left for Texas, Georgia was adopted.

I’ve heard a lot of great stories that illustrate why even a seemingly insignificant effort can make a world of difference. Stories are stories, but every time I look into Georgia’s honey eyes, I will be reminded of how big a difference just that little extra effort can make.

Foster superstar guest post: Handsome Dan’s Rescue

I admit, I was saving this guest post for last, because in some ways it’s the most touching to me. My dear friend Heather and her hunny Mark have been fostering dogs for just a few years, but they’re of the rare breed of rescuers who never shy away from the hardest cases — in fact, they seek them out. They run the only pit bull dog rescue in the state of Rhode Island (“Handsome Dan’s Rescue“), and are always looking for the beaten-down, hopeless dogs that the rest of the world has turned its back on. And these dogs pay them back in love 100 times over. Some of the stories in Heather’s post are less happily-ever-after than previous guest posts, so you may want to grab a kleenex for this one. But I promise, you’ll enjoy the ride.

Heather and Mark with their own Handsome Dan, and former fosters Betsy and Gozer

Why did you begin fostering dogs? 

We began fostering dogs about four years ago.  We contacted a rescue group who had put out a plea for a foster home for two dogs who had found a way to escape from a dog fighting operation.  The two dogs were picked up running in a field, fearful and covered in open tears and puncture wounds consistent with dog fighting.  The video plea showed photos of the pair being loaded into the car of the kind person who pulled over to the side of the road to help.  The dogs were rushed to a vet clinic, given medical treatment, and over time recovered enough for a move to foster care.  We were touched by the photos of the dogs snuggling with vet techs and tentatively socializing with other dogs.  We contacted the group to see if we might be able to give one of the dogs a place to stay until he recovered enough for adoption.  Thankfully, both dogs had already been placed, but the foster coordinator quickly suggested another dog who needed us.

Three days later we picked up our first foster dog, a fluffy black puppy named Gunther who was adopted in a matter of days.  For us, Gunther was way too easy.  Everyone wants a fluffy puppy, and we were looking for more of a challenge.  So in to our lives walked Lady, a senior pit mix with incontenience issues – and love overflowing for anyone who so much as looked in her direction.  Being an elderbull with “potty issues,” we assumed she would be with us for months.  But in only a couple of weeks, a loving couple found her on petfinder and adopted her.  It was too soon — I was not ready for Lady to go. And so it started, our career as a serial foster family, replacing the bittersweet loss felt as each pittie went home with the hopeful face and need of the next in line.

Lady

What has kept you going?

The need.  At various points either Mark or I has felt that we needed to take a break, but then there is just one more dog that we can’t let die alone in a shelter, maybe never feeling loved or that he or she mattered.  At times, fostering has taken a toll on our finances, our house, and our patience — especially the dogs we seek out, which are frequently those rescued from abuse or neglect, those who were never properly trained, and those who for various reasons need a lot more time and patience than your average dog.  But it’s the enormous need that keeps us going.  The realization that we are literally saving lives, one by one, sweet and valuable lives that would have been extinguished without us.  For example, we pulled a recent foster, Loretta, on the day she would have been put to sleep in our municipal shelter.  She sat in that shelter, unnoticed, and would have died that way.  But once in our care, she earned her CGC in only seven days out of the shelter.  We got so much out of our time with her, we were so lucky to have hosted her, advocated for her and shared her story and sweet disposition through a few simple pictures and paragraphs so that she could find her home and the life she deserved – the life they all deserve.

Loretta enjoying the life she deserves

Why do you think fostering is important?

The dogs in our shelter are just sad faces among so many waiting and wanting a little attention.  To adopters, they are an unknown, a risk.  By opening our home to just one at a time, we get to know the individual and can share that with potential adopters making them more comfortable in choosing their new companion.

What is the hardest part?

The ones we can’t help.  The ones who are too far gone.

A recent foster Clover is one such story: I got the call late on a Sunday afternoon.  A woman in a neighboring town frantically telling me that two days prior she had noticed a pit bull puppy curled up under a bush in an adjacent yard.  Assuming the dog belonged there, she ignored it until noticing it again hours later in the exact same spot.  She knocked on the door of the house and asked if their dog was OK, explaining that she had not seen it move all day. What dog?  The dog must have wandered into the yard, or was put there.  The woman scooped up that trembling puppy and brought it into her home.  Extremely underweight and unstable on its feet, the dog needed to be carried inside.  The woman kept the dog for a couple of days, thinking that the nutritional supplements she picked up at the pet shore and some good food would do the trick.  It didn’t.  She realized that the dog needed more than she could provide so she called Handsome Dan’s Rescue and I answered.  After hearing the story I asked the woman to bring the dog to me right away, within an hour Mark and I had the puppy at Ocean State Veterinary Specialists, an emergency 24 hour hospital.

We named her Clover on the way to Ocean State.  She would need a lot of luck to make it through the night.  Besides being emaciated, she was trembling, and could not stand on her own.  He head bobbed from side to side.  She had a blank stare and some sort of mysterious trauma to her eyes.  The vets told us that they would need to run tests to find out what was wrong, but for now, at this time on a Sunday night, they would do the basics, vaccinations, blood work, Parvo and Heartworm tests, and we would take her home, feed her from a dosing syringe and try to get her to sleep.  We did.

The next morning we took her first thing to our partner vet where tests were done to find out the status of her liver and kidneys.  The results would take 24 hours.  We brought her home and she started to eat, a little chicken baby food.  We were hopeful.  She spent most of that day in a ball in my lap.  I talked to her, stroked her, and told her she was loved.  I had a previously scheduled photo session with my dog in the afternoon, so not wanting to leave Clover home alone I brought her along in her little cat carrier wrapped in blankets.  The photographer was kind enough to take a few photos of Clover, which I thought we could use on her petfinder profile, certain she would pull through.

Sweet Clover

The following morning Clover and I were back at Ocean State.  She would need an ultrasound.  I left her there in the morning, then got a call by noon.  Things were bad.  She was in kidney and liver failure, mild anemia, and the bobbing of her head indicated serious neurological problems.  They said they may be able to stabilize her, with weeks of inpatient treatment, but would not likely be able to keep her healthy and we would surely not be able to adopt her out.  And the extent of her neuro damage was unknown.  She never even had a chance.

I made the trip once again back to Ocean State, this time to say goodbye.  We took sweet little Clover to a shady spot in the grass just outside the vet hospital.  I held her and told her I loved her and how lucky I was to have spend these few days with her.  I told her that she would feel better soon, and that she would never be in pain again.  Clover went off to sleep in my arms.

We will never know how Clover ended up under that bush, but I believe that it was not an accident that she found her way to us, and we are very lucky that she did.

Any advice do you have for individuals considering fostering for the first time?

Don’t do it alone.  Research reputable rescue groups in your area and find out what support they give, their process for choosing animals, their adoption process and fees, what is financially covered and what types of insurance they carry.

Who was your most memorable foster and why? 

Wilson.  Wilson and his mother, Faith, were seized from an alleged dogfighting operation in Tennessee.  Both dogs were emaciated, infested with fleas, and filthy.  Faith was an severely overbred emaciated white pit bull and was heartworm positive.  PAWS New England, the rescue group we were working with at the time, stepped in and after several months of court dates and tons of legal fees were awarded both dogs.  Over the same months Mark and I followed Faith and Wilson’s story through photos and reports from our counterparts in TN.  We were going to adopt Faith as soon as she was clear to travel.  She deserved a home and love and the best treatment money could buy.  She was old and hurting and had suffered unspeakable cruelty but was loving with people and had shown no signs of aggression toward other dogs.  Then one morning I got an early morning phone call: Faith had died at the shelter before she had made it into foster care.  Without treatment, the combination of her heartworms and long-term neglect and malnutrition was too much for her.  She died in the kennel next to her son Wilson.

Wilson and his mama Faith

As soon as we were cleared to transport Wilson he made the journey up to our house in Providence.  The signs of cruelty on Wilson’s body weren’t hard to spot, and included a torn-up nose and numerous dramatic scars. And yet, he was the snuggliest little ball of red fur.  We could only guess at Wilson’s upbringing, but his life with an animal abuser left him very nervous around other dogs.  In a moment of poor judgment on my part, I pushed him too hard to socialize with another dog, and a small altercation resulted between the two. Unfortunately, I ended up with a wound on my leg, which sent Wilson into mandatory quarantine. He spent his quarantine in another foster home and was later adopted by a wonderful family with a young daughter in Canada. I never saw Wilson again, but I think about him often. I had wanted to adopt him at the time, but in retrospect I realize that he needed a more experienced home – exactly what he got.  Had the timing been different or had I given him the time and space he asked for, Wilson would have never left my home or my heart.  In the end, he wound up in his perfect home – but he will always be in my heart.

Wilson and Mark reading books

Of course, they haven’t all been the hard, sad cases. Happy-go-lucky Murphy launched himself into our lives like he launched himself into everything else, with enthusiasm as large as his big blocky head.  Just goes to show that it has nothing to do with “how they are raised.”  Murphy was found in a meth lab when police raided the property.  Murph was the lucky one, he was chained to the kitchen counter, his brother was found dead in a black trash bag.  Murphy was excited from the start.  He was jumping up on his rescuers ready to play from the moment they barged in the dark house.

Murphy made his way to our house for what we had expected would be some sort of rehabilitation, but no rehabilitation was needed.  Potty training 101, yes, but not even a meth lab start could stop this dog from happily meeting every dog and human he met.  Only two weeks after Murphy arrived at our home we had him in the car when we took drove into the Volkswagen dealer for some scheduled maintenance.  As we left the car and leashed Murphy up to walk to the service desk, one of the salesman spotted Murphy and complemented us on how well he walked on lead and how handsome he was.  When Ed found out he was a foster dog looking for a home he was sold, at that very moment.

Ed and his girlfriend Caroline drove to our house soon after for an “official” meet and greet and interview and a few days later Murphy was theirs.  The couple has since moved away but I stay in close contact with Caroline who shares pictures and stories about Murphy and his best friend cat sibling.  Murphy was used as a model on a bag of dog treats for a local company once, so we know we are not the only ones who admire his adorable mug!

Murph and his kitty, Layla

What is the most rewarding part of fostering to you?

Restoring hope.  We tend to gravitate toward the defeated dogs, the ones sitting quietly toward the back of their kennel runs with their heads hung low.  They contrast the majority who will run up to the front of their runs anxiously awaiting the slightest attention from passers by. You will find one or two at every shelter, the ones who have just given up.  There is something amazing about walking a dog like that out of the shelter, taking him home and after a good bath and big dinner, snuggling with him on your bed and softly assuring him that everything is about to change, promising him that things are going to be better from here on out. And for the vast majority of the dogs we have cared for, our promises have held true.

Heather and Mark are now fostering elderbull Bluegrass Jake, a lovely eight-year-old guy who has a chronic heart condition that needs treatment now, and will need upkeep for the rest of his years. He’s a big ball of love and is looking for a special adopter who will be able to give him the love and financial support he needs to live a fulfilling, healthy life. To donate to Jake’s medical care while in foster, click here to access the website for Handsome Dan’s Rescue.

"I promise I'll be worth it!" ~Bluegrass Jake

Foster superstar guest post: Josh & Lucy

I first met Josh when he emailed me about a tough fostering case he was dealing with. We had recently made the difficult decision to say goodbye to Baby Blue, and immediately bonded with Josh over the really heartbreaking parts of fostering. Since then, we have become good friends, sharing in the joys and triumphs of fostering rather than the sorrows. Josh is thoughtful, talented, and generous, and we are honored to bring you his perspective on fostering. 

What can I really say about fostering that hasn’t already been said, and much more eloquently, by Aleksandra? After all, she’s the queen bee of fostering – a source of constant inspiration (and information!) for me. I’m just super honored she asked me to talk about my experiences being a foster parent in NYC!

When I first started thinking about fostering, I will admit, it was for purely selfish reasons: I wanted a second dog, but my budget simply wouldn’t allow for it. I had adopted my pittie Lucy over a year ago, and I so badly wanted another dog for the two of us to love. Fostering seemed like the perfect solution – I got the dog at none of the cost!

At about the same time, I read Jim Gorant’s The Lost Dogs, and I knew after that that fostering was for me. I wanted to be like the people I read about, saving lives and defying stereotypes. I thought I knew what I was getting into – what I didn’t know is what I’ve ended up getting out of it.

My fostering experience got off to a rocky start, to be honest. My first foster was very fearful and problematic. I’m not quite ready to delve into the details of that experience quite yet (maybe sometime in the future on my own blog), but let’s suffice it to say that I spent a lot of time after that first one contemplating whether I was foster parent material. I was angry, sad, disappointed, and more. But a few weeks later, an opportunity arose to foster a new dog – so I picked myself up off the floor (literally, where I’d been sitting and moping with Lucy), and took her in.

Lola Bird

Lola Bird became favorite foster up until this point – an elderbull of immense class, resilience, and beauty. She had eyes that bore into you with compassion – making sure you knew that despite whatever she’d been through (which probably was a lot: breeding, violent abuse, neglect, abandonment) you were the one who needed the attention. She is destined to become a therapy dog – something I hope her new mom is pursuing.

In Lola Bird’s case, as with many others, fostering saved her life. At Animal Care & Control, she was a helper dog for SAFER evaluations, and because of that she met a lot of dogs – some healthy, some not so healthy. When she came down with kennel cough, she was put on the euthanasia list and we knew we had to act fast. Fostering is crucial for just this reason – it saves lives. Regardless of what kind of shelter you foster through, you will be directly impacting the lives of so many animals. You may only have one extra dog in your home, but think about all of the other animals that can now use that space in the shelter and consequently get forever homes, too! It’s a total win-win!

Josh with Lucy and Lola Bird

Becoming a foster parent, I’ve found, has sort of set an example for my friends, too. Since taking in my first foster, three of my friends have begun fostering as well. One more just emailed me to tell me she wanted to help, too! It’s also opened up a great working relationship with the shelter. I get to know their dogs very well, and stay updated on which dogs are coming and going. Because of this, I have proudly helped place ten dogs in their forever homes.

For all the pros fostering presents, it certainly has its cons, as well. The biggest one for me is seeing the dog leave. I’m thrilled to know that each dog goes to a great home that promises to love them for the rest of their life, but breaking that bond is hard for me. I’ve never been good at goodbyes, and it’s no easier saying goodbye to an animal than it is a human.

But most significantly to me, as a human, is that fostering has connected me to a whole new community of caring, supportive and helpful people. I never expected that my life would take this turn, and yet here I am, and here you are, with one thing in common. I may not have met most of you (and, despite how much I hope to, probably wont), but I do know that if I need help with one of my dogs that you all will be there. And I couldn’t thank you enough.

Josh lives, plays, and fosters dogs in New York City. You can follow his adventures in fostering and rescue on his blog and facebook page. He is currently fostering Bill, a special needs pit bull who is recovering from surgery and a hard life in Josh’s loving home. For more on Bill, click here. For info on Bill’s fundraiser featuring a fun raffle with lots of cool goodies, click here!

current foster Bill

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