Fostering and adopting dogs is not for the faint of heart. (Indeed, raising puppies and young dogs of any kind can be a bear.)
It can be a challenging journey full of hysterical fits (mostly the dogs’), sleepless nights and piles of hole-y socks and chewed book spines. Then again, there are those pooches who, when guided by skilled humans, take to their new homes, mostly without incident, causing little trouble and settling in like sweet, babes. (We’re talking about you Miss Fern.)
Alas, I can’t say that I’ve ever adopted nor fostered a critter like that. My dogs have always come with issues and special needs, but what’s life without some messiness? And to counterbalance the messiness, there is belief.
I’ve always felt that creating a strong, loving and reliable bond with a dog (especially one who has encountered difficulty in the early stages of development) requires belief. Belief and faith in one’s dog, and belief in one’s ability to deal with the complexities of another living, breathing creature.
It also takes STAMINA. And oh so much PATIENCE.
I figure it’s useful to work on cultivating these qualities whenever possible, and when the rewards are this great, it seems obvious why fostering and adopting is such a beautiful way to remind oneself that life is full of ways to connect with a deeper purpose. We only need to remain open to the possibilities…
And that brings me to Lila, our Foster Doggie (still seeking a great forever home). Along with big brother Theodore, Miss Lila (named after the painter Lilla Cabot Perry) has been knocking around our place for the entirety of the winter, and it is not an exaggeration to say that there’s rarely a dull moment with this one year old, Black and Tan Coonhound/Plothound Mix in the house.
I’d forgotten what a puppy spaz attack looks like. It’s been 8 years since Theo blessed me with his version. (More about his rescue story HERE.) And, well, let’s just say that a number of not entirely flattering nicknames have come about after watching Lila tear around the house like the cartoon version of a Tasmanian Devil.
When I look back on the greatest challenges of working with Theodore fresh out of the shelter, I’d say the most trying obstacles were his extreme separation anxiety and the sheer amount of activity he required in order to stay calm.
Lila, on the other hand, has little separation anxiety but arrived with tremendous sensitivity and fear regarding anything loud or unfamiliar. Combine the two (which pretty much occurs on every single block of New York City) and poor Lila just wanted to run for the hills. She was also incredibly difficult to housebreak, and it didn’t help that we later discovered that she had a raging bladder infection that went undetected by the shelter for what the vet assumes was a very long time.
None of this was surprising considering that she essentially spent the first year of her life in a shelter, where a dog run was her only consistent ‘home’. And it is worth noting that she too, is a dog that requires a great deal of exercise.
What pleases me to no end, however, is observing how powerful the most basic techniques can be when working with a new dog: Structure + Exercise + Clear Direction + Consistency are a most magical combination. I’m happy to report that after three months out of the shelter she has no less than fifteen commands in her repertoire and has made tremendous strides overall.
What Lila needed most was someone she could trust. And with dogs, trust is built through clear communication and positive interactions. When we first brought her home, I didn’t try to pet her or hug her. I simply worked with her on the basics: Sit, Down, Come, Stay, Heel, Watch, Leave It, Place, Touch. The more I required of her, the more she relaxed. Over time, we practiced ‘hugging’ and ‘petting’, but treats were always involved. Early on, Lila didn’t yet know that it could be comforting to be petted.
Now that Lila has me, as well as a small group of trusted humans and dogs she adores (including Theodore’s Other Favorite Human, and our close friends Kiersten, Sumin and their doggy, Fern, all of whom have generously contributed so much of their time, training skills and energy to this little one) she’s now coming into her own.
As Spring awaits, Lila is already beginning to blossom into a most wonderful dog.
Just weeks ago, the mere sound of a gate closing, or a truck rumbling by, or the sight of a man wearing a hooded coat would create paroxysms of fear, but now, Lila just walks on by. Several days before the big, East Coast snowstorm, the first attempt to apply booties to her paws looked something like a wrestling match with a shark. But by the time Manhattan was hit with a foot of snow (and the paw burning chemicals that accompany winter storms) she happily offered up her paws for nail clipping (AMAZING!) and didn’t make a peep when the booties slid on. (How we love and rely upon counter conditioning!)
In the first month of her residency here, there were a number of nights that featured far less sleeping than waking hours, since housebreaking was a top priority. Now, it is not unusual for Lila to doze until 11:30 am before she is ready to greet the day. Most adorably, she now seeks to be petted on occasion and appreciates cuddles from those she knows, and she no longer automatically shies away from strangers. Instead, she’ll sniff politely and allow herself to be touched if approached in a non-threatening manner.
And hallelujah, she’s a champ at the dog run! We waited for well over a month before introducing her to the pleasures of communal dog play, and by then she was willing and able to respond to commands, even when other canines competed for her attention.
When I call out, ‘Lila, TOUCH!’ she’ll come running at a full clip, and touch her cold, wet nose to my palm, in exchange for a treat, and I immediately release her to resume play with her new friends.
Yes, the pride does swell, when I see how much this kid has grown.
So, in honor of Lila’s third full month out of the shelter, I’ve put together a list of the:
Top Ten Truths of Raising a Rescued Dog
Upon reading, this may appear to be a list of negatives, but it’s really a compilation of some of the things that make raising a dog unpredictable, and silly and absolutely ridiculous…all of which pale in comparison to the benefits and rewards. It’s crucial to retain a sense of humor in the face of dog poop, temper tantrums (yours and the dog’s!) and sleep deprivation. But armed with a lighthearted perspective plus the aforementioned BELIEF, there is nothing you and your dog can’t do.
Sidenote: I have no doubt that this list will sound very familiar to so many of you dog lovers out there who have raised pups and rescued dogs of your own!
1 ) Over the course of 2.5 hours, you can walk briskly from one side of Manhattan to the other, stopping for a vigorous game of ball along the way, and yet, once home, a noisy spaz attack ( while Theo’s Other Favorite Human is on an important conference call ) is inevitable.
2 ) The best toys are rarely the ones contained within the doggie toy bag. No squeaky, bouncy, chewy, fluffy toy can compete with the clothes hamper or the dresser drawers, the contents of which hold the most intriguing and delicate playthings. The doggie toy bag, too, when gleefully ripped to shreds, provides a delightful diversion. For a minute. Maybe two.
3 ) Corollary to #2: Your dog-proofing is never as inviolable as you think it is.
4 ) Even though she is physically tethered to you, a not-yet-housebroken-dog will pee indoors, on your newly cleaned wood floor when you are least equipped to address the issue, ie. when YOU need to pee, (and in fact, are in the process of using the bathroom) and yet you took her out for a bathroom break moments before.
5 ) The sight of mounted policemen clopping down 7th Avenue upon their imposing steeds requires an immediate response from the foster dog who has never seen a horse before, which, from her perspective, goes something like this: Freeze in place. Don’t move a muscle. Inhale rapidly. Take treats voraciously while horses pass. Marvel at how Big Brother Theodore doesn’t seem phased at all. (More about NYPD’s Mounted Policemen at our blog HERE.)
6 ) Since walks cannot be taken without ample treats/treat dispensation, your nice winter coat will sport doggie treat and slobber stains. And lots of them. There is nothing you can do about it but soldier on, and look forward to the day when dressing to look sharp (which will correspond with needing less treats on walks) trumps dressing for practicality.
7 ) Corollary to #6: Your footwear will also be overwhelmingly practical. Which is to say, not so much attractive yet comfortable and warm for those 1-2 hour walks/play sessions designed to wear out the foster dog.
8 ) You will be tired. A lot of the time. Because an untrained dog will make you tired. And sometimes VERY CRANKY.
9 ) You will have the ambition to be as productive in other aspects of your life (not including dog training) as you were before the foster dog came along. You will soon come to understand that, until life normalizes once again, the foster doggie has another plan in store.
But best of all:
10 ) If it is your mission to raise a well adjusted, well behaved companion, and you are willing to put your heart and soul into the endeavor, then you too will evolve. You’ll grow more patient, more compassionate, and certainly more skilled in clear communication with dogs.
And yet, there is one unavoidable truth about raising a rescued dog that cannot be ignored and is truly a negative.
As I watch Lila evolve and come into her own, ever confident, her quirky, lovely, spunky, personality shining through, I am reminded that there are so many dogs like her in the shelters. They are dogs with tremendous potential who have been adopted out to people unwilling or ill equipped to care for them, and then, sadly, returned multiple times (as Lila was). They are misunderstood, negatively and yet erroneously labeled to their detriment, lonely, bursting with love to give, and longing for a safe, secure, home and their very own adoring humans.
It is beyond heartbreaking.
We dream of the day when we can strike that truth from our list…
For more information about adopting Lila, feel free to email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org. We’re sorry, but only experienced dog owners will be considered.