Jack Rabbit, Foster Teacher

I was thrilled when my best friend Sarah told me she decided she wanted to foster a dog. It would be an exciting experience, as Sarah’s never had a dog before.  She brought home her first Homeward Trails foster dog on Friday night!

Jack Rabbit is a whopping twenty pounds of all legs. At only about a year old, he seems to have his house manners perfected (he was adopted as a puppy and recently returned because of a divorce). I would honestly say he is close to ideal for a first time dog owner. House broken and crate trained, Jack minds his own business while he’s in the apartment and spends his time either sleeping or prancing around with a toy.

Because Sarah and I are so close and I’m the one with the doggy experience, I immediately assumed the role of FosterAunt. Like any good Auntie, I showed up to the first time meeting him with many gifts in hand: a kong, an antler, and a stuffed elephant. He loved all of them!  He actually plays with both by himself – especially the antler – keeping him busy for long periods of time.

Like with any new dog, Sarah and Jack are still getting to know each other. Sarah is eager to learn about caring for dogs so I am telling her everything I know about basic training, interpreting behavior, etiquette for meeting other dogs, etc. She’s being patient and understanding when working with him, and he is teaching her what it means to be responsible for something another living thing.

I’m sure he’s going to get scooped up in no time, and she’ll learn the bittersweet heartbreak of having to say goodbye. But then hopefully down the road she’ll get a new one, realizing again the satisfaction of saving a life and making a bond with a new dog.

For now, we’re all enjoying have a dog around again!

For a First Time Foster

For the longest time I was one of the only one of my friends to have a dog, but this weekend that changed. My best friend got approved to foster, and she brought her first dog home on Friday! My friend Sarah has never had a dog before, let alone a foster – so she is learning a LOT.  It’s almost hard for me to help her because there is just so much I want to explain to her.  So I turned to the real experts: you all! On the Peace, Love, & Fostering Facebook page I asked the question, “If you had to tell ONE thing to someone fostering/owning a dog for the first time, what would it be?” As I expected, you came up with thoughtful responses that were all great advice for a first time foster (or any dog owner, for that matter). Check out the wise words of wisdom:

–  Have patience. Lots and lots of patience. :)

– Patience.

– I recently fostered for the first time, an adult (not quite senior) male beagle. This is my advice: Don’t be surprised if it takes a dog a long time to get used to you. Some are shyer than others. Also don’t let the shyness fool you. :)

– It’s so worth it

–  Stay positive and give it time. Dogs are SO sensitive to negative energy; don’t get discouraged if things aren’t perfect right from the start. Give the dog time to settle in, and in the meantime, keep being kind and encouraging.

–  Educate yourself (with updated info) and learn as much as you can about dog body language and how they learn. It’ll come in very handy in helping you understand your dog/foster better.
–  Have patience! And don’t be afraid to ask questions!
– Read Patricia McConnell’s Love has No Age Limit. It breaks it down in an easy to digest way!
–  The anticipation of sending them off to their forever home is so much harder than the actual event.
– Patience!!!! It took mine 6 months before she would show her belly and truly be petted.. the first time she did I cried, I knew then she felt safe and loved. She was my foster failure! But my others were great and well worth it
– Exercise, exercise, exercise! A tired dog is a good dog :)
– Learn from your foster. Let them be themselves. My other foster failure.. Lol came to me from another foster home. They stated they cld not handle her. I got a 3 page letter about chaquita and not much of it was positive but I was going to let her, chaquita,.show me who she is. She was/is NOTHING like the dog described. She is my baby!!!
– Everyone is adjusting…not just you
– Routine and time. Dogs love routines, it will help them adjust and be less stressed. Also, it’s so tempting to get a new foster (or a new dog in general) and want to show them off and do everything and train everything. Don’t. They need time to just BE. Keep their world small for at least 2 weeks. Not too many visitors, not too much excitement, not too many road trips, etc. Let them learn to trust you (even if they are not a scaredy dog they need to learn to trust you!) and get used to their new environment.
– Don’t be afraid to stand up for your dog, even if it upsets other people. One of our dogs is reactive, and I needed to learn to give a firm NO to people who wanted to bring their dogs over for a greeting.
– You will sacrifice your time, your home,your health and your sanity and it will all be worth it.
– Training, training, training. And don’t be shy to ask for help if you’re not sure what to do next!
– Exercise, exercise, exercise. Exercise body and exercise mind. Tired dogs aren’t worried or bored. A tired dog is a happy dog.
As you can see, there are a few recurring themes. I think it is pretty clear that one of your best resources as a foster home are the people around you who have done it before! I’m so lucky to have this community of support, and I’m also thrilled to be here for my friend as she begins on the journey.

This is Jack (also known as Jack Rabbit, JackJack, or Jack Kennedy). He is about one year old and twenty pounds of total mutt. Stop by tomorrow to learn more about him and how his first weekend went!

That Time I Failed

Like I mentioned yesterday, I’m taking a break from fostering. But just because I know I need a break doesn’t mean that my house doesn’t feel extra empty and the spot at the end of my bed doesn’t long for a furry body to occupy it – so when the opportunity came up to dog sit for another foster, I jumped at the chance.

The writeup of the dog Mylo described a sweet but energetic eight month old Target dog mix puppy. I figured I could handle some leash pulling for a few days, and Mark was thrilled at the thought of a dog who would play ball with him. I was to watch Mylo for only two days while his foster family was away. Easy peesy.

We picked up this goofy, bouncing puppy on Thursday evening. He came with us to Mark’s apartment, and we marveled at his adorable antics. He settled down nicely, which was a relief because I was starting to get the feeling that he would be bouncing off the walls for the next 48 hours. When I took him out to go to the bathroom he barked a few times, but it was dark and I figured he was just doing dog-in-a-new-place things.

When I took him back to my house, he began to act differently. He had a problem with my dad, and became increasingly reactive each time they saw each other. To Mylo’s credit, my dad is a pretty tall guy with a big beard – probably not a type of person he’s been in contact with much before.  This really frustrated my dad because he didn’t understand why Mylo was acting that way and I think, quite frankly, he took it personally. It was difficult keeping everyone separate in my house, and soon I found myself totally overwhelmed with an on-edge dog and an agitated dad. I was at a total loss of what to do, quickly realizing that I have no idea how to handle a reactive dog.

We hid out in my room that night, and the next day I took Mylo for a run in hopes that the new day would be a fresh start. Mylo is a phenomenal running partner, despite being a puller when you walk. However, it seemed he hadn’t totally forgotten the previous night of stress, and was still acting a bit out of character.

Long story short, Mylo continued to display behaviors I wasn’t comfortable with handling. I was freaked that I didn’t know how to combat it, or even manage it, and I decided to leave Mylo in the caring hands of our shelter workers for the second night instead of bringing him back home. I just kept wondering what if something escalated and he gets himself into trouble on my watch?

Leaving him there was horrible. I felt so, so guilty that I had failed him and couldn’t even get it together enough to stick it out for one more night.  As a dog person, especially someone who is so active in this online community, I felt like a quitter. I continually give advice on here about how to work with dogs – building confidence, socializing, basic training – and yet I didn’t have a clue how to help this one.

Mylo is now back in the comfort of his own foster home, and he’s getting into a training program.  He’s a young dog who needs guidance and structure, and I don’t blame him for that. He is sweet, loving, and has so much potential – he just needs to harness some of his energy and brainpower. I’m not worried about him.

While everything turned out fine in the end, the experience has left a big gaping hole in my confidence. I feel so defeated. What happens next time I bring a dog out of the shelter, whose personality I don’t know, and they end up having some sort of issue that I don’t know how to handle?  I know I quit this time around – but I can’t shake the feeling of what if he was one I signed up to foster long term and I quit on him?

Even Mark thinks that I wouldn’t have been able to keep Mylo long term because of how tough the living situation would have been with my dad. I agree, and now I know how those people who give up their dogs feel when they think there are no options. But the truth is, there are options.

Fostering a dog can be tough work, but you have to remember you are not alone. Often times the rescue or shelter you are working with will have trainers available to help with behavior improvement and social skills. Jasmine’s House has a wonderful trainer Meghan from Canine Lifestyle Academy who will do anything she can to help fosters with their dogs. Our shelter’s trainer recently started a Foster Dog Alliance class for anyone who has a foster dog, no matter what rescue group they are with. There are people out there who want to help you and your dog succeed.

Safety is of course everyone’s top priority, and it’s important to recognize when things need to be changed in a situation. Perhaps in the long term Mylo would have succeeded better with someone other than my family, like he is doing now with his current foster – or perhaps we could have worked through it. We’ll never know because he was with me for such a brief amount of time. At any rate, he certainly was a wake up call that fostering is not always a “walk in the park.” Sometimes you are going to have harder dogs than others, but no matter what dog you have – you are not alone.

I may have failed with Mylo, but he helped me become more prepared for the next dog I foster (including making me realize I’m sticking to ages 3+ from now on!).  This stuff isn’t easy, but it’s so important to pick yourself up and keep going after a fostering set back. If we all quit after one tough go around, there would be no more foster homes left. Yes, that’s how many of us have had, “Holy crap, what am I doing??” moments. I owe it to Mylo to use my experience with him to become a better foster in the future.

Finally Happy

The exciting moment came. I woke up one morning and had the exciting realization: Otis is a totally different dog now than he was when I took him back four months ago. This is always a victory for foster families, often one that sneaks up on you out of the blue just like it did to me. It happened with Baxter as well, and it was just as gratifying.

My home is the first one for Otis where he can be completely comfortable. In his entire 1.5+ years of existence, he had always been living with something to be scared or anxious about. Because he is now able to be himself and do things he wants to do without worrying, he is opening up enormous amounts with every day that goes on.

It’s the type of thing you don’t notice because it’s happening right before your eyes. The thought hit me last week when I brought Otis into a meeting with me at work (yes, I can bring my dog to work and into meetings with me – I’m lucky!) and he spent the first ten minutes happily greeting everyone by going around the circle delivering sniffs and tail wags. He wasn’t staying right by my side, he wasn’t drooling uncontrollably, and he wasn’t miserable being surrounded by people other than me. He was happy.

I noticed it again later that week when he was in my house and spending an alarmingly large amount of time, get this… out of my sight! Instead of needing the security of me, “his person,” to be comfortable, he was out wandering the house, hanging out with my brother or checking in with my mom and dad. He was embracing his free space and expanding his limits. He was happy.

I notice things every day now that show how much Otis has grown. He wags his tail more when we’re out in public, he is more open to greeting strangers, he doesn’t cower at the site or sound of new things, he enjoys being home without me, he is relaxed, he is partaking in normal dog things like using his nose, he is extremely food motivated, he investigates more on walks, he will try new things like running up the slide at a playground… the list goes on. Even two months into his stay with me, much of that list was nowhere near do-able for Otis.

These small victories mean so much more than just a testament to his progress. They mean Otis is truly ready for a forever family of his own. He has made it clear that he will not always be the shy, withdrawn dog that he once was when I met him. He still has a ways to go, I think living with a stable family for years to come will bring out the best, happiest side of this pooch. Hopefully this is the end to his worries. “God bless the broken road,” right?

On Being 22 and a Foster Mom

My decision to foster came in steps. It wasn’t a black and white “okay, let me go pick out my first foster now” thought. It started slowly with a shared foster, and has turned into two full time fosters since then. Those of you who have dogs, foster or forever, certainly know what I mean by full time. I am a parent to these dogs, as crazy of a concept as that is. Sure, it’s temporary, but that doesn’t mean the daily commitment to them during their time with me is anything less than if they were mine forever.

I am the only one of my friends who has a dog. I am the only one who has to factor a dog into my social schedule, who has to accommodate plans for a dog on weekend trips, who has to account for foster expenses in my “fun” budget. It’s a commitment that I feel like I’m constantly trying to balance with living my life as a twenty-something. Sometimes it feels like a double life – with one half being a life my friends can hardly comprehend. I don’t blame them, seeing as it’s a far cry from the life of an “average” (whatever that means) 22 year old. Rescuing and fostering dogs can be difficult, and sometimes I do wonder what the heck am I doing… am I giving up too much of the only time in my life I have to be young and care free and responsible for no one but myself?

This is where a few saving graces come in the picture, the first being my parents. While many college graduates move out of their parents’ house faster than you can say, “Congratulations,” I am beyond thankful that I am in a position to be staying with mine. I can very honestly say I don’t think I could handle – let alone particularly want to try – fostering a dog if living by myself at this age. My parents help me immeasurable amounts when it comes to balancing my dogs and my friends.  They will watch my foster dogs pretty much whenever I ask them to – regardless of whether it’s because I need to stay late for work or if I want to grab drinks with a friend. They are so much like grandparents in the giving-mommy-a-break category, and now I know why mothers to human babies relish that free time so much!

Dogs like Otis (so, relatively easy and low maintenance) help a lot too. This is where the importance of being picky about who you foster comes into play. As much as I would love to help the ones that need it most, I realize I am not in a position to give them as much training and special attention (beyond cuddling) as they might need. The best advice I’ve ever heard about fostering was something along the lines of, “Choose dogs that fit your lifestyle – take the easy ones if you want to; don’t take the problem cases if you can’t. This is your time that you’re volunteering and you are already saving a life no matter what dog you decide to take in, so make it easy on yourself if you want to.”

Choosing more “ready to go” dogs makes fostering better for everyone around me. Otis is nearly perfect at home when I’m not there, which makes it easy for my parents to watch him and puts my mind at ease.  On the other hand, if you like a challenge – good for you! I commend those that take in the pups who need a little something extra, and hope to some day be able to provide the stability and training a dog like that may need.

While fostering dogs at my age can often be exhausting and confusing and scary and overwhelming, it’s also instilling a deep, deep passion in me that I will carry for the rest of my life. I’m learning that helping dogs is what I was put here to do, and starting it this early is teaching me discipline, responsibility, critical thinking, compassion, practicality, rationality, communication and maturity – not to mention creativity, writing and photography thanks to this blog.

Fostering is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done, and I wish everyone had the opportunity and the means to do it at least once in their lifetime.  What I’m getting back from it through my dogs is worth one hundred times what I am putting into it, even if it seems like I’m making big sacrifices to some people. Hopefully if I’m starting now I’ll have it figured out by the time I’m all grown up, right? :)

Clicker Training: “Kong”

Otis – like many other dogs that had limited exposure to the world as a puppy – is rather clueless about a lot of concepts. We take so many behaviors our dogs do for granted as “natural activities” that they’re just born knowing – like playing, sniffing out treats, working for food, etc. In reality though, dogs often need help learning these skills. Additionally, even though these behaviors might not come naturally to some pups, they can be so beneficial (see: Chick’s love of play on Love & a Six-Foot Leash).

I’ve written before about Otis’ mental block when it comes to retrieving food out of a Kong. If it didn’t just naturally come out, he’d stare at it then promptly give up. He got better when it came time to slurp up yummy, frozen peanut butter – but he just couldn’t figure out how to make solid kibble (or other treats, for that matter) fall out of the Kong.

This is where FosterGrandma and I stepped in. After my last post about Otie’s difficulties with food puzzles, you all gave me a ton of great suggestions about how to help him figure it out. I have yet to try, well, (oops – confession time) most of them, but what my mom and I did do with him was some clicker training. When in doubt with an insecure, unsure dog – clicker train!

Our intent was to teach Otis to use his paw to move the Kong and make the kibble fall out. He’s already been exposed to the clicker, so he knows to expect a treat upon it’s use. We started by clicking and treating any time he moved his paw towards the Kong. Then we clicked and treated any time he touched the Kong. Slowly he got the hang of it, and we were able to pair the verbal “Kong” cue with him touching the toy.

It got to the point that whenever he was stuck, we just said, “Kong” and it would help him get the kibble out. Then he started using it all on his own!

He hasn’t caught on to using it all of the time yet, but he’s better than he was before we practiced this command. Plus, now whenever he is stuck we can just remind him that “Kong!” helps to get the kibble out. Chances he realizes the connection? Not sure. But, for now, it is support to his pretty wimpy valiant Kong-tackling efforts.

Next up is to try the recommendation of sticking his absolute favorite treat down at the bottom so that he doesn’t want to give up on fishing it out, and we’ll see how he does. That and then only feeding him from the Kong so he’ll have to figure out how to get his whole dinner out or go hungry – though I’m a little nervous he would let himself starve, the silly pup! But that’s a project for another day. In the mean time, I’ll just be proud of his most recent accomplishment.

For more information on adopting Honey Bunches of Otis, go to his Adopt Me page to learn more about him and how to get in touch.

You’re Invited!

I have some exciting news! So exciting, in fact, that Otis wants to shout it out and make sure everyone hears about it.

Animal Farm Foundation, one of my favorite organizations dedicated to equality for pit bull type dogs, is going to be in Maryland this week giving free seminars to anyone who wants to listen! Sounds too good to be true, right?  See for yourself:

I don’t know about you, but I am really interested to see what these folks have to say.  In light of the recent court ruling that’s got everyone wondering “W-T-F do we do now?”, I invite you to come to this seminar to learn about the great topics AFF has planned regarding “pit bull” dogs (see flyer). If you are able to attend the Gaithersburg edition where I’ll be, make sure you say hi!

Otis thinks that you should go and hopes that you have a great time.

He also wants to remind you that if you know anyone interested in his devastatingly handsome smile, to let me know.

For more information on adopting Honey Bunches of Otis, go to his Adopt Me page to learn more about him and how to get in touch.