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