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.
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.