Costumetastic!

I never realized all those times I dressed up my foster dogs that I was really on to something: adopters love dogs in costumes! Silly outfits give a dog the appearance of having a sense of humor, and who doesn’t want a funny dog?  Animals also stand out so much more when they are wearing a costume. This is most valuable on adoption sites where you have hundreds of little thumbnails to go through and the ones you’re likely to click on are the ones that have lots of color or something else unique about them.  Ever wonder how to cure “black dog syndrome”? Stick a rainbow collar on them!

These shelter adoptables have been my costume guinea pigs with a new batch of outfits I just ordered. Photographing dogs in costumes is a tough feat – especially when they are shelter dogs with lots of pent up physical and mental exercise (“fabric! yay! time to chew!”). You have to be very quick with your camera, and get a patient person to help you. Then, if you’re lucky, you’ll get some halfway decent shots amongst the chaos.

Then sometimes you get the as-close-to-perfect-as-you-can shot, and those make it totally worth the patience. Seriously – who can say no to a dog wearing a tuxedo, pig outfit, dress, or monkey suit?

In case you’re wondering, everyone’s looking for forever homes but the piggy.  Tig the Pig has already been adopted – hooray!

Happy Friday!


Lessons from AFF: The Joys of Enrichment

I’ve always been a fan of kongs and toy puzzles and nose work, but I never truly realized how they fit into the bigger picture of enrichment. Enrichment is so essential to a dog’s happiness and mental well being because it allows them outlets to use their doggy senses. I learned that it doesn’t only encompass the taste and smell senses in the form of food games, but also visual, hearing, and touching exercises. Enrichment can be fun, easy, and cheap – and for what a dog gets out of it, the extra effort is one hundred percent worth it.

In shelters, dogs are often so bored, overwhelmed, and stressed that they can quickly start displaying negative behaviors that are unfortunately sometimes a poor representation to the dog’s true personality. Enrichment activities help to postpone or prevent the onset of these behaviors by stimulating the dog’s senses and wearing them out mentally.  The dogs then in turn show better to adopters because they are either preoccupied working on their puzzles and therefore not barking, or they’re just so tired from all their work to get the treats or whatever that they’re mellow in their kennels.

At Animal Farm we learned about all kinds of different enrichment activities.  The most well known ones are the kinds involving food that are supposed to be tricky and keep the dog busy for a while, including frozen stuffed kongs, busy buckets, and ice treats. Frozen stuffed kongs are self explanatory, but remember that you can stuff them with all sorts of different foods and treats (just make sure you’re not feeding your dog three meals in the process). Busy buckets are small pails that you fill with different things to do, smell, and taste. The point is to stuff them very tightly so that it’s a challenge for the dog to get each fun object out – try to flip your busy bucket upside down without anything falling out! Ice treats are also pretty self explanatory. Fill a bucket with different bones, balls, treat toys, etc. then add a little bit of kibble – fill with water, freeze, and you’re done. All of these toys can include your dog’s normal meal contents to make dinner a fun and difficult exercise! Busy buckets were a total blessing with our energetic housemate Birdie; they would keep her quiet and still for more than thirty seconds!

Smell is also, as expected, a very good way to engage dogs. In shelters, simple PVC pipes with holes drilled in them can be a world of smells for a dog. Fill it with something smelly, like dirty hamster shavings (gross for humans but jackpot for dogs), and close the endings to create an interesting activity for the dogs. You can hang them around their kennel or you can put them in the exercise yard where the dogs are walked to give them something to investigate while they get their potty break. Even short, simple activities like this can make a big difference in a dog’s mental well being.

I could write forever about other ways to help make a dog’s living environment – home or shelter – more positively stimulating, but all of this and more is on AFF’s website. There you can find a plethora of information about enrichment, including step-by-step instructions and explanations about the benefits. Remember that these are not just beneficial for shelter dogs, but for your own pets as well! All dogs can use an excuse to work their sniffer, tongue or noggin. A tired dog, whether mentally or physically, is a happier dog!


My Time at Animal Farm Foundation

Tucked back in the rolling hills of Dutchess County, New York, Animal Farm Foundation is a not-for-profit group who believes in equality for all dogs. They advocate specifically for “pit bull” dogs – the ones most likely to be discriminated against at this time – but their work goes further than that as they share sheltering best practices that help shelter dogs and the people who work with them. They’ve got a team of knowledgeable trainers who work with their adoptable dogs on the farm or where they’re needed elsewhere, as well as dedicated educators who travel around the country to share the idea of equality for “pit bull” dogs and progressive thinking when it comes to getting dogs adopted.

I just spent a week there for the internship program, and it was a week free of judgements – dog or human, free of breed/gender/history labels, and full of open-mindedness. Every day was packed full of learning about dog behavior, basic training, shelter enrichment, advocating for “pit bull” dogs, and so much more.

Each intern was paired with a shelter dog that they worked with for the week, and many also took their training dogs home with them at night as roommates. My situation was unique, as I was staying in a house with two other girls, so we had one house dog named Birdie. Birdie came from the Spindletop case. She was a bucket of energy, and so stinkin’ cute. At first I was taken aback by her affinity for constant movement, but by the end of the week it became quite endearing. Birdie was actually already adopted, but stayed the week with us to learn some manners.

And manners she learned. Each day we spent time discussing the basics of communicating with and teaching dogs in a positive way that sets them up for success and reinforces desired behaviors. These sessions included clicker training drills and shaping techniques. I never realized how fun and silly training can be until I was getting Birdie to voluntarily put her paws up on a box – an example of shaping.  We also practiced having the dogs always sit and give eye contact (offered behavior) before going through a door (reward), and waiting patiently before being allowed to eat from their food bowl. These simple things are expected from the dogs by each staff member, so the dogs learn quickly and soon they don’t even seem like rules – more like no brainer type stuff.

Practicing shaping with Eli.

While Birdie was our house guest, I worked every day with a different dog named Amarillo. Amarillo was also a Spindletop dog, and at about seven years old she decided she wasn’t in to all that much but a good butt scratch. While we (okay, mostly I) struggled with the basics like sit and down, Amarillo quickly excelled at leave it, easy tricks, and loose leash walking. I guess a girl’s gotta have some challenge in her life? She was a bit shy of the camera, so this is all I was able to catch of her bat ears.

In addition to the basic training we worked on, the interns also learned about other ways to improve the lives of shelter dogs using enrichment for the different senses. We spent a whole morning constructing enrichment activities, which I will talk more about tomorrow.

For me, one of my favorite parts of the trip was getting to know not only the Animal Farm staff, but also the other interns who came from all over the country to learn about the same things I did. Everyone’s shelter experiences were different, yet many of us had the same difficulties and issues. By the end of the week we were all encouraging each other as we shared how we will use the information from that week moving forward.

It was a very valuable experience for me; one I would recommend to anyone who wants to advance their efforts in helping shelter dogs, especially “pit bull” dogs. If you are interested, you can see more details, including the application process, on the AFF website.  If you’ve got questions, feel free to email me with any about the program or what I learned!


The Return of Pittie Trails!

You might remember the dog walking group we (three others and I) started last winter, Pittie Trails. We created it to both exercise and train our pups in a controlled environment with other dogs. We have group rules to help keep everyone safe and happy, but most importantly the dogs are not allowed to greet each other. This means that all dogs – reactive, excitable, shy – can have the opportunity to walk with us without feeling any pressures to be social. Plus, then no human parents need to be embarrassed!

After a summer hiatus, we had our first informal walk last weekend. We only had four dogs; three of which were working hard on their manners. We went to trusty old Rachel Carson park, our usual walk location. It was the most gorgeous day of the year and I think a good time was had by all!

If you’re interested in participating in Pittie Trails, the best way to stay informed is to keep up with our Pittie Trails Facebook page. We try to meet for a walk once per month. We’re still trying to find good trails (very few people or other dogs) in the VA and Baltimore areas – so stay tuned. Remember that we allow all dogs, no matter what size, shape, or social ability, so come join us!


What to Expect from PL&F

It should be no surprise this time around that I’m going to take a little break from fostering. Little, I promise. If you want any additional explanation for my reasoning, check out my post after Baxter got adopted or my post about fostering at my age. I’m going up to an internship at Animal Farm Foundation (!!) the second week of September, so I told myself I will wait until after that to even consider looking at potential fosters.  Granted, I’ve had some close calls in the few short weeks I’ve been without a dog so far, but it really doesn’t make sense for me to bring a dog home and then leave for a week. Therefore I’m waiting.

So, what can you expect on this blog between now and my next foster? I’m hoping to start a bit of a schedule, similar to our favorite Chix-a-lot Friday – except that mine will be in the form of Shelter Dog Wednesday! I get to spend time with an entire shelter full of wonderful, adoptable dogs just waiting for their time in the spotlight, so one will be here every Wednesday. Past that, I hope to talk about lots of other things dog, including fun events, a little bit of photography, Jasmine’s House adoptables – whatever I think you all will want to hear about.

Which brings me to my next point. Who’s got questions? Who wants to hear about something specific? Who wants me to tell them about what? I’d love to hear your input on what you want to read about. I’ll do my best to answer with a post if I can.

Thanks for sticking with me during this brief doggy hiatus!


The Dogs That Steal Hearts

With so many dogs in the shelter, it’s easy to not get attached to many. Every once in a while, though, one comes along that just grabs your heartstrings between their paws and doesn’t let go. You become emotionally invested, and your every wish hangs on wanting this dog to find the perfect home. For me, in the past two weeks this happened with a dog named Ruby.

You may remember her from a post about taking her on tv. She is an absolute dream of a dog. I took her to an event on Wednesday night, and she wowed the crowd by being calm and gentle to everyone she met – and of course being totally gorgeous. I dropped her off at the shelter that night with my heart aching at the thought of her spending the night alone in her kennel.

While it’s scary investing so much love into a shelter dog, it’s also really refreshing. It helps you remember that every face back there is a loving animal with so much potential – a thought that is easily lost as you go about your daily job and fight for “homeless animals” as a whole, as opposed to each as an individual. These dogs show up, kiss your face, and remind you why you do what you do.

I know what you all are thinking: next foster! next foster! But Ruby is actually spoken for with at least one solid application – yay! Plus, I’ve got a visitor coming next week. . .


Note from a Shelter Worker

It’s a very different side of the fence, working at a shelter. On any given day you can experience both ends of the emotional spectrum.  You can lose and then restore your faith in humanity in a matter of minutes. You can leave feeling on top of the world because your favorite animal finally got adopted, or exhausted and defeated because in the hour before you left, the shelter received dozens of stray or unwanted animals. It’s an emotionally taxing yet incredibly rewarding job, one that not everyone is cut out for.

I work back in the administrative offices, so I don’t experience nearly as much of what I mentioned above as the kennel and office staff do. I commend them for the job they do day in and day out. But we all work in very close quarters, and often times we share the same emotions that come with working at a shelter regardless of title: frustration, happiness, sadness, anger, hope, compassion and love – to name a few. We’re like a family because we experience things the outside world doesn’t have to deal with.

We watch as someone gives up their 12 year old dog because they just don’t want it anymore. We keep our mouths shut when someone dumps a litter of underage kittens because they thought it would “be fun to have babies” then realized it was a bad idea. We watch as bunnies flow in after Easter, and we see time and time again puppy store puppies that didn’t grow up to be the cute and cuddly dog they were at eight weeks old. But we also learn not to judge those who use the shelter in times of struggle or when they’re doing the right thing. It is important to be polite to all who come in – even if they are giving up an animal – because when times get better for them, we hope then they will remember the experience and choose adoption.

The tough parts can be almost too difficult at times, but the rewarding parts of our job make it all worth it. Watching your favorite pit mix get out of the shelter after six months, seeing the “golden oldie” cats get adopted by senior citizens, making the perfect match for a family that is new at adopting… these are all things that keep us going every day. The best part? Taking your favorite dog (or cat!) out for a walk and watching them bound around in happiness can bring you out of any bum mood.

To some people it may be difficult seeing the animals in the shelter, but we know how much love and attention gets poured out to every single one. Of course it is not the ideal place for them, and we wish no animal would ever have to come here, but we do our best to keep them happy and comfortable while they are with us. We rely heavily on our volunteers, and appreciate them as much as the people who give the animals forever homes. Many of our efforts are supported by the generosity and compassion of those who have resources we need; we simply could not function without them.

So thank you to those who support your local shelter. If you volunteer with a rescue group you are still helping your local shelter because we rely so much on rescues pulling animals from us. There are also many other ways to volunteer and support, even past the money and fostering. Transports are needed to take animals to rescues, every shelter has an endless wish list including simple things like newspapers and old towels, volunteers are needed at special events – there is something for everyone who wants to help out. We know that many people cannot handle seeing the hundreds of faces of homeless animals, and we totally respect and understand that! We just want you to know there are many other ways to get involved as well. No matter what way you help, you are appreciated beyond words – by the staff, the volunteers, and most importantly the animals.

If you have any questions about animal shelters or the best way to get involved with your local organization, feel free to email me at peacelovefoster@gmail.com.