A Hard Transition: Lollie Wonderdog’s story

We’re so excited to share this very personal, intimate story from our dear friend Jen, adopter of our very first foster, Lollie Wonderdog (now Lily). We try our best to portray each of our foster dogs in a fair and honest light, while highlighting the positives more than the negatives. It’s both how we naturally see our dogs, and a better way to find their forever-homes than focusing on their “areas of opportunity.”

In the case of Lollie Wonderdog, we did this too. The truth is, Lollie/Lily was always a wonderful dog. But, a lot of readers will understand what I mean when I say that she is a lot of dog. She has a big personality. She is full of passion, and as a result, she was somewhat reactive. Not aggressive, just excitable and explosive — reaction types that can, unfortunately, lead to the same result as aggression in some cases. In the coming weeks we’ll be exploring the concept of reactivity and dog communication — but for now, we want to share this account of Jen’s first weeks with Lily. We think this is so important because it’s a glimpse into how challenging a dog’s transition can be into a new home. Many families adopt a dog expecting the dog to fit seamlessly into their life right away — but that’s asking an awful lot of the dog, who has just lost everything familiar and been plopped into all new surroundings with new people and new rules. Some dogs take this in stride, while others have a harder time.

We realize now that our environment was great for dogs coming out of a shelter — our home is calm, we don’t have any kids running around, and our neighborhood is quiet with relatively little car and pedestrian traffic. It’s a great place to recuperate from a stressful journey. But on the flip side, it’s a fairly low-stimulation environment compared to the homes of many of our adopters — we learned this through hearing about Lily’s transition.

I commend Jen for sticking with Lily and working so hard to acclimate her to her new home, family, and neighborhood. And I thank Jen for typing up her experiences for us to share — she writes with great frankness. We hope that rather than discouraging folks from bringing home a dog who needs work, Jen’s tale will help folks who are in similar situations feel less alone. Please keep in mind that Lily’s transition into her new life was the most challenging of all of the eight dogs we’ve placed into homes. And you should also remember that despite her rocky start, Lily is now studying for the CGC, and is on track to become a “warrior companion” dog at the Bethesda Naval Medical Center.

Without further delay, here’s Part 1 of Jen’s story:

My heart broke when I read that Nutty Brown has been returned. It hit me right in the gut. All I could think of was that it could have been the same for Lily . . . She was so close to being an adoption return.

About 2 months after we adopted Lily, she nipped my son. She didn’t hurt him, but I freaked out. I frantically told Aleks: I couldn’t do it anymore. I needed to find another home for her. I was desperate and heartbroken.  Might Aleks take my kids and I keep Lily? I didn’t want to let her go, but I was worried about whether it might happen again?  My son, being a 10 year old boy with some impulsivity issues, wants to love her and squeeze her and hug her ALL the time! Try as I might, I was worried that I would turn my back and he might not follow the rules and stress Lily out. Lily had had a difficult time transitioning from quiet Foster Casa to the madness of two working parents and a herd of kids! It had been weeks of frantic barking throughout the house, barking through the night, running out the front door at any opportunity and setting off panicked “ there’s a loose pit bull in the neighborhood hysteria”, and lunging at other dogs on the leash.

I had fallen for Lily….Her big brown spots, her giant tongue, her white spotty tail…and I felt like I had failed her.  Lily’s transition from foster home to our home was a difficult one.  Unaccustomed to a loud street, she barked at all the cars going by ALL THE TIME.  We have huge floor to ceiling windows with views of the street with a non-stop dog walking parade past our house that she barked at ALL THE TIME…It was a nightmare! Lily would look out one window, bark and race from window to window, running through the house at top speed….She’d throw herself against the windows barking at dogs, birds and squirrels! Oh, the squirrels drove her nuts! And walking her was a nightmare, she would bark and lunge at other dogs, nearly rip the leash out of my hand going after squirrels…I came to dread walking her and tried to do it early in the morning or late at night to avoid the madness….

The day she told Isaiah to back off, it all came to a head. Aleks and I traded many frantic emails that day. I just couldn’t pick up the phone and say that I couldn’t handle this dog, that I was ready to give up… All I could think was “where would she go?” If she went back to the shelter, surely she’d be overlooked. I realized in talking to Aleks, that the problem wasn’t Lily, it was her humans! I either needed to recommit to taking care of her, or hope for a better home for her. As a huge, muscular pit mix, we realized her chances for a good home were slim. We decided to start to really work on things . . . 

First, we had to change her environment. We bought some “frosted” film to put over the lower parts of the windows so Lily couldn’t see out. An amazing barking reduction! After all, she can’t bark at what she can’t see, right? A trainer explained it this way: Lily thinks her barking is scaring off the dogs.  She follows them from window to window barking and eventually she “scared” them away (when really they went walking down the street). After we covered the windows, we started some serious retraining to reduce the barking at other dogs.  Whenever I saw a dog walking by, I opened the front door and sat with Lily watching the dogs go by through the storm door.  When the dog came into view, I “jackpotted” Lily.

Essentially, from the second the dog came in our view, I fed her a constant stream of “super” treats. For Lily, this was pieces of chicken, string cheese, hot dogs — the good stuff. If her mouth was full, she couldn’t bark.  The second the dog went out of view, the treats stopped, we closed the door and went on our business.  On the weekends, I could do this 7 or 8 times a day, maybe more. I was great fun to be around! Weekends would find me ripping the front door open, ignoring the neighbor walking by and frantically stuffing hot dogs in Lily’s mouth. I smelled fantastic!

Pretty soon, Lily was anticipating treats instead of getting upset when dogs walked by the house, and our frantic window barking was fading away. Then it was time to work on seeing and meeting dogs out in the neighborhood . . . “

. . . to be continued

49 responses

  1. Thank you so much for having the courage to write about the harder times as well as the awesome, wonderful, slobbery, zoomie happy times! Fostering can be (less so in blogville) a very lonely place and sometimes people feel like they are the only one struggling. Lily is a wonderful example of “a lot of dog”. I hope this reaches people who are struggling with an energetic, reactive dog in their household — it is a great resource!

  2. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you for sharing this. I often thought I was alone with my struggles with my girl–a big, powerful, pit mix. I remember calling my dad saying I wasn’t sure if I could do it, but couldn’t imagine her life if I took her back to the shelter. I swore I wouldn’t give up on her, and, thankfully, she didn’t give up on me as I was not being the leader she needed. Like Lily and her family we have learned a lot, but after 4 years I still haven’t gotten her to stop barking and running through the house when dogs go past the house. I am SOOOOO going to try the “jackpot” as dogs go by. Thanks again.

  3. Acclimating any dog (regardless of breed) is more work than not, especially with reactive dogs. The rewards are sweeter in the long run because the humans made a deliberate decision to teach themselves first and then work with their dog. Having had a few reactive dogs myself (none of which were pit bull terrier mixes) and having had one of them also nip my kid, I can so identify with this post. And, the learning never stops, does it? I’m looking forward to the next episode!

  4. Thank you, thank you, thank you for writing about dog reactivity! I think it’s such a tough subject to write/talk about – I know I thought “my dog is broken, what can I do…” the first time he displayed some reactive behavior.

    But now, I know he reacts the way he does because he lacks confidence and is scared. So, we take great measures to set him up for success, have high-value treats at the ready, and watch his cues for when he’s getting uncomfortable.

    I look forward to reading the blog over the next few weeks to see what insight you can offer into this topic!

  5. What I love most about this is that love and effort are so obvious in it. The vast majority of people, when presented with anything other than a textbook dog, lack the perseverance and the ability to get above their dog’s level of “thinking” (i.e. their dog’s view of the world). Without being too negative, it’s not an exaggeration to say that most people just can’t seem to “outsmart” their dogs — and thus, we have a shelter crisis in America whereby millions are needlessly euthanized every year.

    High five to Jen, Aleks, the kids, and Lily! High five to common sense, love and being committed!

    I look forward to reading the next chapter.

  6. Oh I am SO looking forward to these reactivity posts! We’re dealing with a bit of that in Cooper right now, he’s fine off the leash (in dog parks, doggie day care, in the back yard with friends’ dogs, etc), but when we’re out for a walk he goes ballistic if he sees another dog. Share you wise ways with us, sensei!

    Heartbeat at my Feet – a foster blog

    • this is moose too. unfortunately, at adoption events with other dogs, it means that we’ve heard many times, “oh he doesn’t like other dogs?” it makes me sad because he is GREAT with other dogs. just likes to “talk” to them when he is on a leash. we’ve spent so much time with him on this reactivity. there are a couple of great posts on “two pitties in the city” and their socialbulls series about reactivity on leash that are great too!

  7. This is such a great story! I can’t wait to read more. The first thing I had to come to terms with when I got my girls was that any bad behavior of theirs was a reflection of a failure of mine. That’s not to say that I feel like I’m a failure or that we should when we are trying to work with our dogs but just to realize that it is up to us to make sure they are cared for, happy, and confident. When we do that – life with them is amazing! I’m so glad you stuck with Lily!

  8. Wow this is so great! As anyone on our walks will tell you or our trainer, Havi is Miss Reactivity. Im so excited to learn along with everyone through Lily’s acclimation.

  9. This is such a beautiful post about the challenges of reactivity. So many people feel like they are the only ones who are failing the dogs they love, but this is such a common challenge – especially with rescues. It’s a manageable issue – if people are willing to commit the time and find the right tools to address the issue. Lily has scored again, lucky girl, in finding with a family willing to figure out how to help her be her best self! I wish every dog were as fortunate. Thank you, Jen and Aleks, for sharing this part of Lily’s story!

  10. I agree with everyone else – this is great reading!! Not only does Jen write with humor – but she makes it interesting and easy to digest. Lily is so lucky to have a mom and family that are willing to get her over her issues – not everyone is willing (or able) to take the time and make the effort. You go, Jen (and family)!! Can’t wait for the next installment. And Aleksandra – kudos to you for not abandoning Lily and Jen but instead, offering sound advice that obviously helped tremendously.

  11. This is wonderful story of commitment. Animals are not appliances with on/off switches. They require as much work and care as any individual. Some have easier temperaments, others need work. Needing work is not a sign of weakness or badness or something inherently wrong. What seems to gets missed too often is the work that is needed. Thank you for your commitment to Lily and to your family. I look forward to hearing more of this story!

  12. Aleks thanks for this series. It’s good to hear other stories; both to know you aren’t alone and to get new ideas. Thank Lily’s mom for me too!

  13. LOVE. THIS. One of the biggest things I’ve noticed from fostering Bax (and I guess Z & others) is the pressure that I didn’t create “the perfect dog”, and his adopters would return him at any sign of him being a “maintenance dog”. The truth is though, there are a ton of adopters out there like Jen who are willing to put the work in. And the people who don’t give the dog the few months it may need to fit in and settle down are not being at all fair to the poor dog. Unfortunately we get a decent numbr of return adopts after even less than a week because “the dog was having accidents” or “the dog wasn’t adjusting” – probably related to the stress of change. People seem to expect them to transition flawlessly, something impossible for even a human to do!

  14. This is wonderful… thank you for sharing. I’m sure it will help many fosters/adopters know that they aren’t alone in working with dogs on issues like these. From my trainer aspect. I LOVE that treat jackpots were used as a way to counter condition Lily! Love it when dog owners learn the power of positive reinforcement!

  15. I’m sure this has been asked before, and possibly answered, but what kind of harness is that? And where can I get one?? I imagine it works wonders on dogs that tend to pull. Thanks!

  16. I am going to have ot try the jackpot thing with our boy dog, especially with the nicer weather coming. We live on a cove right next to a public park with a walking track, it’s a great neighborhood attraction with pros and cons. Pros: I don’t have any excuse not walk the dogs 🙂 Cons: Buddy launching himself at the front storm door or windows to bark like crazy is a little unsettling to say the least. I am looking forward to reading how she is handling meeting other dogs on the walks.

  17. Thanks for sharing, Jen! Props for committing to training Lily instead of returning her, even after the scare with your son. We took in our 2nd dog a month ago as a foster-to-adopt, and the dogs didn’t get along as well as I’d hoped. I wanted to keep the 2nd dog but ask the rescue to take our 1st dog. Instead, we are working on a better recall with dog #1 – maybe hot dogs and string cheese will do the trick!

  18. I am so looking forward to these posts. Izzy became about 8 months ago and we thought we were on our own. I’ve done a lot of reading and have consulted with our trainer and we’ve seen huge strides. Not to mention getting on board with the pack walks like Lily does! Its great to see something you’re doing work. Gives you the confidence to keep moving forward with your training.
    While no one wants a dog that’s difficult, I’m so grateful that Izzy found us as we’ll be with her through it all.
    We’re going to try the jackpot thing, but she’s not very food motivated. The tennis ball does it for her and yes, she still barks with it in her mouth.

  19. Wonderful writing and great topic. I worked in verterinary hospitals for a long time before transitioning to working with kids and I can attest the with many reactionary breeds it is the owner rather than the dog the need retraining. Thank you for the thought provoking post – I can’t wait to read part II.

  20. Thank you for sharing your story. Things aren’t always perfect and easy and happy. Sometimes dog ownership is tremendously hard and involves more tears than laughter. As much as we want to focus on the positive aspects, I do think it’s important to be honest. Dogs aren’t born knowing how to live in our worlds and how we want them to behave. Pretending it’s all good times can be very misleading. Even the award-winning obedience dogs can have their struggles.

    That isn’t to say dogs aren’t worth every single moment of frustration. Quite the opposite! In my opinion my relationship with my dog is richer and deeper because of her early issues. Working through things like this brings you closer together as a team. The first time your dog looks at you instead of lunging at the end of a leash is a moment to treasure forever.

  21. This is SO much like our story. The emotional struggle of not knowign what to do is so difficult. I can’t wait to hear the second half. I also realized that it wasnt Maize who had to change but I had to change to make the enviornment better for her.

  22. This is a very helpful article and I thank you for sharing your story! I am looking forward to the rest of your story and the continued thread of reading dog behavior.

    I am working with a foster pibble on leash walking and dog reactivity on walks. That last sentence is SOOO true. The second little LouAnnie looked at me instead of lunging (at: insert inter here!) was such a fantastic moment. Keep building on the positive. 🙂

    Thanks Jen and Lily!

    BTW Courtney, That looks like an Easy Walk Harness by Premier

  23. A big, big shout out to Jen for writing this AND living through this. I had the same problems and I almost gave Petey back. But I knew if I did he would be dead in a few days. Plus, my previous dog was a sharp pei which is a completely different personality.

    Petey was completely feral and had never been in a house before. He was absolutely WILD. He would HURL himself at anyone who looked at him on the street (he’s overly friendly) but let’s face it, that’s scary. He chewed up EVERYTHING I owned. He would EXPLODE whenever we got out of the elevator he was so happy to be returning to his home.
    I was lucky in that I got 1/2 price for basic puppy training at Biscuits and Bath ( a dog spa/training place in NYC) since he was a NYC Animal Control rescue. And I found a great dog walker (anyone in NY can contact me for her name & #). And when I left him alone he got to chew on stew bones.

    So kudos to all who put in the time, effort and love. It’s a lot to expect of a dog to just plop into one’s home and curl up happily forever

  24. Ditto, ditto, ditto! So looking forward to the next update!!! I decided to foster last Nov. and took in a little guy who had been a stray, neutered late, attacked by other dogs…..etc. etc.. He got along great w my dog right away but continued to be so reactive. Of course! Everything else was still new and threatening!! I almost returned him when he bit my adult daughter who got in the middle of a fight between him and her dog after she made the mistake of not keeping them strictly apart even after they seemed to ‘like’ each other.
    We have been going through the same issues – walks are a royal pain still, he still lunges….. But he’s slowly getting better and I know we can do it. I’ve adopted him after having an evaluation done by a trainer who specializes in Pitties and we go to one-on-one sessions with her weekly. I am glad I made the decision to keep my little boy and I know it’s not going to be easy, but I also know he’s trying hard to do his best. Jen, hang in there!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  25. Oh Jen, I feel you! I am so glad you are able and willing to share your Lily story with us.

    My husband never had a dog in his life, we got one from the shelter in October, she was sick, very sick! which made her very calm, and dear hubby was happy we got a calm puppy, she was only 5 months old. I knew something was wrong, when she got better, her true self came out. Sheis super happy, hyper all the time. She loves to cuddle, and she LOVES doing zoomies throughout.the house and yard, and she really wants to eat the kitties, just a little lick or two and she would be satisfied. Hubby has beendoing really well during the training process, we have a smart pup on our hands, but she is stubborn. For 5 months we have 2 problems we cannot seem to fix, play biting our hands and clothes which turns to too rough play, and jumping up on everyone!

    My mom suggested at one point that we just have too much dog and she thought my husband couldn’t handle it and we should try a different dog. I refused! I love her, and so does hubby, she just needs work and rules, and we need to follow through and learn ourselves.

    Anyway, thank you so much for sharing, I can’t wait for more! 🙂

  26. Thank you so much for this post!! As much as I LOVE all the pitbull blogs that are out there, I always sit at home and wonder why my dogs can’t be as perfect. We’re currently working with our Devo on his less than acceptable behaviors. I got to a breaking point and just couldn’t tollerate it anymore. A couple weeks in and we’ve already seen so much improvement. He wasn’t raisied the same was as the other two and lacked a lot of essecial skills. I can never give him up. He is part of our life but in order for our live to continue to grow we had to make some changes. Can’t wait to read the rest of this wonderful story.

  27. I am so impressed with the love and honesty of all the devoted foster and adoptive parents here. Please keep up the amazing work and continue to share your unique journeys!

  28. I’m so glad there are people like Jen in this world. Jen- you are amazing!
    I think so many people would have given up, and then like Jen said…where would Lily go?!
    Can’t wait to read the rest of the story!

  29. I am so thankful Jen is willing to share her story with your readers. As everyone before me has said, this is a wonderful topic to cover, and one that people don’t often like to openly discuss. I have a rescue pit I got at a young age and even after going through puppy play class, basic obedience, and regular play dates with close friends, she still shows re-activity when on leash around other dogs and people. I often blame myself and think I must have done some thing wrong, but it is nice knowing that a lot of us have to overcome this setback and help learn our dogs to be confident without feeling threatened. I could never imagine giving her up, and working through it is absolutely the only option, so I am really looking forward to learning more about Jen’s efforts and tactics. I think we all want our dog’s to be the best canines they can be because of this breeds particular bad rap and I love that pit owners really do go that extra mile to help curb that. These dogs truly are worth it!

    Thanks Jen for being so brave, loving, and never giving up hope on Lily, she is so lucky to have ended up with you all as her forever home!!

  30. Thank you so much for sharing this! I have a reactive pibble, too. He’s never aggressive at all, but he sure likes to bark a LOT! Thanks for giving me a new idea on how to work with him! YAY!

  31. A wonderful story that I look forward to following, thank you for sharing the experience and to Jen for not giving up on Lily and taking the difficult but more rewarding route.

  32. Thank you for this, it has come at a perfect time! We adopted a 10 month old greybull (pit greyhound mix) about a month ago (we already have a 5 year maine coon and a 10 year old pit american bulldog mix). While our challenge isn’t as bad as Jen’s, I hope we can learn from her experience so that our new pup can be all he can be 🙂

  33. I ❤ you for sharing this story!

    I have three rescue dogs–all "hard luck" cases no one else would take. ANY dog you're bringing into your home–abused, neglected or an 8-week-old puppy from a reputable breeder–is going to come with some kind of baggage, simply because you're putting them in a brand new situation alone.

    I like to tell people to think of the last time they had houseguests for two or three nights–remember how routines got all messed up? People were in your bathroom when you wanted to use it? You're hearing footsteps you're not used to hearing? Someone ate the dessert you were saving? Getting a dog is like bringing a new housemate on board. He doesn't mean to do things that annoy you. He just doesn't know the house rules–and everyone hasn't settled into the new routines and dynamics.

    If you want to know how things are for your dog, think about the last time YOU were the houseguest for two or three nights. You want to be "good" but you don't know all of the house rules and idiosyncracies.

    I always tell people when they get a new dog, "In about a week, you're going to think that getting a dog was the craziest idea you ever had and you just can't do it. Hang in there. Everyone is still adjusting to the new schedules, routines and rules. And remember that your dog actually really wants to please you, but you haven't taught him how yet."

    Look forward to the rest of Lily's story!

  34. Hi everyone….
    Thanks for the love and positive response….I know that I am not the only one struggling with a “quirky” dog…But if you follow any of of the Pit blogs, it seems like they’re all FABULOUSLY, FANTASTIC , no issue dogs…That makes it all the more difficult to admit, that we had an issue….I’m so glad by sharing our story, it touched some of you, letting you know that you are not alone in this…I’m not saying my Lily is perfect now (She just ate a loaf of bread that she snatched off the stairs….Ahem, that’s a child training issue, “put the groceries in the house” does not mean leave the bag on the front stairs and walk away… Lily stinks when she eats wheat…woohooo…Gonna be a great night! )
    We’ve come a long way, and it’s okay to admit that you need help, and it’s okay to be a little envious of those “perfectly wonderful” dogs that walk calmly past you and their perfectly perky owners who don’t reek of hot dogs…..
    Thanks for your kind words, it reassures me that in our darkest hours with our Lilydog, we were not alone….:)

  35. I can’t wait to read on! It’s so lovely to read about committed adopters. Bringing any dog into the house–young or older, adopted or pure bred puppy–is a MAJOR commitment like having a child. And it’s so great to see this family get it. I’m sure they will be rewarded tremendously for their effort and dedication as most rescuers are.

  36. Love this post! I’ve been wondering how I can explain my girl to folks and am always embarrassed, but this is it —

    “But, a lot of readers will understand what I mean when I say that she is a lot of dog. She has a big personality. She is full of passion, and as a result, she was somewhat reactive. Not aggressive, just excitable and explosive — reaction types that can, unfortunately, lead to the same result as aggression in some cases.”

    I’ve put her in situations that she just can’t handle yet…yes, it’s my fault and I’m learning. Glad to know I’m not the only one that doesn’t have a “perfect” dog…but then again I’m certainly not perfect!! 😉

  37. Loved reading this and I agree with all of your comments. Also had to laugh at the “she is a lot of dog” paragraph. I’ve used the same phrase and sometimes people have no idea what you’re talking about but there’s no better way to say it.

  38. Loved reading this and I agree with all of your comments. Also had to laugh at the “she is a lot of dog” paragraph. I’ve used the same phrase and sometimes people have no idea what you’re talking about but there’s no better way to say it.

  39. Pingback: The Week in Tweets (29th March) | Some Thoughts About Dogs

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