When Hope is Born

IMG_7097The moment I met her I knew she was special. Or maybe it’s that I could feel how special she was.

It’s not that she gave me an enthusiastic greeting. In fact, she really didn’t even raise her head. She was tired, sick, and, well, I can only tell you that I felt she was heartbroken. It’s not something I can explain easily, but the feelings rolling off this sweet dog hit me full force.  So far, in her young life, I believe the world had done nothing but let her down.

39750197_2331274450235193_2842965249814953984_oFirst I felt how exhausted she was. And then I felt her aches and pains followed by waves of uncertainty and resignation. But then I felt a little flicker. Something in those soft brown eyes reached deep in my heart. I think it was longing. This good, good soul longed for simple things like comfort and safety. She didn’t dare envision anything more.

She was found by some very wonderful and caring women at the Tulsa Botanical Garden office. She had found her way to them and then just plopped down in the dirt, not able to raise the energy to take one more step. They saw to her immediate needs by giving her water on a steamy summer’s day, and then a bowl of food. They applied drops to her shoulders to rid her of the hundreds of ticks that were draining her body. They gave her the first relief she had likely known in months…or even years.

They messaged me through our non-profit Dalmatian rescue for the help they knew she needed beyond what they could provide in the short-term. I looked at the photos coming across my phone of a dog that appeared completely drained and defeated. She was by no stretch of the imagination a purebred Dalmatian, but this dog pulled at me through her images. I loved her before I ever gave her that first reassuring pat.

Her name became Tansy, a nod to her rescuers who also tended to the beautiful flowers at the Botanical Gardens. Her veterinary exam quickly revealed that the legions of ticks she endured had left her with an unwelcome gift in the form of ehrlichia, a tick-borne disease. Her aches, pains, and lethargy had a catalyst…one that now identified, we could and would chase into submission.

Tansy settled into our veterinarian’s kennel to begin her journey to good health. And there, she told me she felt safe. She had everything she thought she needed. A space of her own, soft blankets, people who stopped in to give hugs, fresh water, and good food twice a day, every single day. And with that, a few of the cracks in her tired heart began to fill.

Then, a week later, I returned with a leash. As soon as I slipped it around her neck, she habitually turned toward the door that led out to the kennel yard. But this time, I urged her toward a different door, the door that led out of the hospital.

Sweet Tansy immediately stopped. Her eyes clouded with concern, her head and tail drooped low. Again I could feel her. This place was safe, she didn’t want to leave. The unknown…the “what next”…had never been her friend. She had no reason to trust anything on the other side of that hospital door.

I coaxed her, I encouraged her, I made her so many promises. Slowly, reluctantly, she followed me to the parking lot and allowed me to help her into my car. Her protest was quiet, her resignation to whatever was to come escaped her in a long, deep sigh as she laid her head down staring blankly into the back of my Jeep.

I concentrated hard, trying to send her feelings and mental pictures, just as she had done for me. I thought about my house with all of the soft dog beds and dog-friendly furniture. I envisioned our big backyard and how beautiful the view is at sunrise when dewdrops on every strand of grass sparkle like precious gems. I thought about the resident dogs out romping and playing, then coming inside to stretch out in the air-conditioned comfort. I thought about how our dogs didn’t have a care in the world.

Could she hear me? Did she feel the peaceful images I was trying to send to her? I could see her in the rearview mirror, head still down, unmoving, but maybe I did feel some little glances my way. A little desire to trust blooming in her own mind.

We arrived home and she glanced around tentatively as she peered out of the open car door. As she stepped to the ground she sniffed a bit, taking in more information than any of us can imagine with each small inhalation. We walked to the house and I could feel her uncertainty mounting. There was not much I could do for her beyond offering my own calm demeanor as her guide.

Once in the house she was met by a few of our calmer dogs. Oh, poor girl. She wanted nothing to do with their inquisitive sniffs or their wagging invitations. She sat quickly in a “please go away” gesture. Her back curved, her ears pressed in worry to the sides of her head, her lips ruffling slightly in protest if any of the dogs tried to come toward her face.

“Too much! Too much!” the feelings cried. And so I listened. I let her scurry into a large crate covered on three sides by a blanket so she could have refuge. I gave her some fresh water and a little snack and then I let her just be. She needed to process. She needed to just be a spectator.

The other dogs in the house…and there are quite a few…came to the front of the crate to meet the newcomer. They were met with furtive glances and quiet, grumbling protests not born of aggression, but rather of fear. “Not yet,” the feelings said. “Please let me be invisible.”

And so, after initial curiosity was satisfied, the other dogs of our household, both our own dogs and our foster dogs, moved on. There were toys to be chewed, birds to be chased, and sunbeams that begged for nap partners.

IMG_7108One hour passed, two hours, a visit outside by herself, and then straight back to the crate. Her idea, not mine. “Not yet.”

Three hours, four hours passed and I left the crate door open. “Up to you,” I thought.

That evening, with all of the other dogs snoozing around the living room, I heard a little rustle. From the corner of my eye I saw her tiptoe out of the crate for a brief look around. Then she slipped back into the safety of her little cave. “That’s fine,” I thought. “At your own pace, in your own time.”

She slept the whole night in the open crate. Her trips to the yard were still solo and protected from prying noses.

But that next morning I saw it – that undeniable little glimmer called hope.

She stepped quietly out of the crate and into our midst By now, my dogs, who are very accustomed to newcomers, were not so curious about our new friend.  They went about their business, weaving Tansy into our routine with little fanfare.

But to Tansy, every part of our routine was amazing. There was food on a regular basis. First she ate nervously, as if someone would surely come to steal her share. Then she ate with focused gusto, no longer glancing over her shoulders with each bite.

Time outside was cherished. The yard was safe from people shooing her away. She could lounge in the shade of the porch or she could lie in the soft grass for a nap in the sun. And when she was ready, the door to the inside was always open to her, welcoming her back to the house.

IMG_7125There were treats, belly rubs, soft brushes, cushy beds. Routine was pure Heaven to this dog who had known nothing but uncertainty. And just as her little space at the vet hospital had become her safe place, so this new place became her haven as well. She started to trust the routine and all of the little things the other dogs knew as constants.

She also started feeling physically better as the medicine chased disease from her body. Her coat softened and filled in. Her ribs were no longer so easy to count. Her eyes no longer darted away, but held a gaze, steady and soft.

And then, one day, I pulled out the leash again. With a deep breath I asked her to trust me. In the car, I could feel her old nemesis uncertainty welling up and I did my best to reassure knowing that only experience could bring true peace.

As we pulled into the drive of the tree-shaded home, a woman walked out, a warm smile spreading across her face at her first glimpse of Tansy.

And the feelings! Oh the feelings. For once, Tansy moved out ahead of me and went straight to the woman. Sitting politely, directly in front of her, Tansy raised her head up to look straight into the woman’s face.

Together, we all sat out in the backyard, Tansy meeting the quiet, kind man of the home as well. She moved between the two, enjoying their attention. She met their dogs with careful curiosity instead of concern. Inside the tidy house, she relaxed calmly at the feet of her new friends.

Not wanting to turn her world suddenly upside down again, Tansy returned home with me that day with plans in place for her ultimate transfer to the couple I had now chosen as her new family. After a few days, I packed up her medicine, wrote out her care instructions, packed a bag of food and a favorite toy, placed a new tag on her collar, and loaded Tansy into the car for a very important ride.

This time, instead of turning her back and lying with her head down between her front legs, Tansy sat looking forward. What was that I felt from her this time? Expectation?

As we once again pulled into the shady drive in front of what was to be her new permanent home, Tansy’s feelings manifested in the form of a thumping tail. Was recognition possible after just one visit? I guess when you visit the right place, it most certainly is.

This time, there was no hesitation as she hopped from the car. She headed straight for the door that was immediately opened by the gentle woman with the wonderful smile. I knelt down to whisper the words I promise to every foster dog that leaves our care for a new home, “I have picked this home just for you and it’s a good one. You will be safe and loved, but remember, I’m always here for you if you need me, whether it’s in a day or in 10 years. I love you. Be happy now.”

Then, as I turned to leave, she gave me her own gift as she looked directly at me, her own eyes bright and shining with feelings that can only be described as trust and hope. Beautiful, newly born hope.

Good for you, Tansy. Enjoy your happily-ever-after.  I think I’ll always be able to feel you in my heart, no matter where your journey with your new family takes you. And right now, finally, the feelings are really, blissfully good.

Sunrise wag

One More Glance.

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I look in the rear view mirror and see his wide smile filling the frame. Another happy car ride for you. You have no idea that life is about to change.

A car ride! This is the best. Of course, any time I get to spend with her is the best. Except maybe that time she took me to the funny-smelling place where I took an unexpected nap and woke up missing some pretty important body parts. But that aside, car rides are great!

I’m babbling to him. I’m telling him about all of the good things that are about to happen. “Bruce! You’re going to have your own person to love. You’ll have a real home. You’ll be king of the castle…the only dog. All of the toys will be yours. All of the treats…yours. You’ll be allowed on the couch. You’ll have a yard! You’ll love having your own yard, won’t you boy? Right, good boy?” I think my dialogue is more for me than him. Does he notice the little warble in my voice?

She sure has a lot to say today. Usually she just listens to her books when we ride together. Blah, blah, blah, Bruce, blah, blah, blah, good boy, blah, blah, treats. She sounds kind of funny…WAIT…WHAT? WAS THAT…SQUIRREL! Was that a squirrel? Hey She-person…SQUIRREL!

Here it is. This is the address. I peer out of the window of my Jeep at a tidy little house with a small park next door. This looks good. I feel good about this. I take a deep breath and turn to Bruce, “Ready big guy? Do you want to go see Keith?”

Blah, blah, big guy (I love it when she calls me that). She sounds cheery. Too cheery. Something’s up. She-person smells kind of…what it that…nervous? Excited? Kind of like we all smell when we’re waiting for our breakfast at the place where I live with all of the other dogs. Excited, and a bit worried like maybe today they’ll forget to feed me this time. But they never do. They never forget.

I get out of the Jeep and open the rear passenger door. Bruce is right there to deliver a big sloppy kiss across the middle of my face. “Bruce! Ooooh….that was a messy one, big guy.” I wipe the saliva off my face with my sleeve, hoping there’s not a giant mascara smear to go with it. Bruce is a ninja when it comes to delivering those enthusiastic tongue washes. I snap the leash to his harness and let him jump out of the car.

Wait for it…wait for it. HAH! Got her. She’s so easy…and she acts all grossed out, but I know better. Ha ha ha ha. Got her good. I made that one extra drooly. You’re welcome She-person. Oh! My leash! Yay! A walk!

As we head across the front lawn to the house, Keith meets us at the door. He’s a tall, quiet man whose resting face has a gentle smile, unlike my resting face, which I’m told looks a bit angry. Who knew? I’m going to work on that. A resting face with a faint smile is so much more pleasant. It’s one of the reasons I feel so good about Keith. He’s calm, quiet, and easy-going.

Oh hey! It’s that man I met at the place where I live with all the other dogs. He’s nice. He took me for a walk yesterday and he knows all the good places I like to be scratched. How cool to get to see him again. This place smells like him all over. I think this is where he stays. We go inside and She-human takes my leash off. Permission to explore granted! Let’s get busy nose!

It’s a great sign. Bruce seems to remember Keith and seems very relaxed here. He’s off snooping around and Keith seems equally relaxed about it. It’s a nice home, but not too fancy. That’s good. I like homes where no one freaks out if the dog jumps on the couch or sloshes a bit of water when he laps with that wide grinning mouth. Oh hey, Bruce’s resting face is a smile too.

The humans follow along with me as I follow my nose. So many new smells! Oooo…this is a food room. I like the smells in here for sure. And this door seems to have a whole other world behind it. I press my snout hard to the base of the door and snort a bit as I inhale everything concealed on the other side. It smells wonderful! Someone needs to open this door for me. Oh, thanks He-human Keith…

We follow Bruce who immediately finds the kitchen and then the door that leads to the backyard. I tell Keith I’d like to see the yard, so he opens the door and Bruce rushes out with a quick swish of his tail. He’s in his glory trotting quickly around the perimeter of the fenced area. He stops to sniff, hike his leg, and take a quick back-scratching roll. Then he finds a spot a bit away from us and relieves himself. Well, I guess he’s not nervous. All systems seem to be working just fine. Make yourself at home Bruce. Finally. Make yourself at home.

Oh…grass! This is wonderful grass. And this huge tree! Oh, I know squirrels live in this tree. They have a real surprise in store for them if they come out right now. I’m pretending I’m not watching…but I’m watching. Oh yeah, I’m watching. This is great. I’m going over here to leave a little present. You know…the kind She-human seems to love to collect in little plastic bags. Humans are so weird.

After a few minutes, we call Bruce and head back inside. I tell Keith that everything looks good to me. He smiles and says he’s very excited and that he thinks Bruce will be a perfect fit. He’s really missed having a dog in the house since his old pit mix passed away at 17 glorious years of age. I agree…this feels like the perfect fit. I squat down to talk with Bruce for a moment.

“I love you, Bruce. Be a very good boy for Keith. This is your perfect home, big guy.”

With a quick kiss to his nose, I stand and turn for the door. In more than 25 years of fostering dogs and placing them in new homes, I’ve found it’s best to just go quickly. No prolonged goodbyes, no emotional hugs. Just turn and go, Nancy. You’ve done your job. This is the home Bruce deserves.

She-human and the nice man she calls Keith are talking again, so I’m taking the opportunity to sniff some more. I found a bag sitting by the door that smells exactly like my delicious food. And hey, there’s a plastic bag-not the kind they put my outside presents in, the carrying stuff kind of plastic bag-I think I smell my favorite toy in there and…yes! Some of those chewy things I love so much. Does Keith have a dog? I smell a dog, a very old dog, but I haven’t seen him. I don’t think he’s still here. But that is definitely my food and my stuff. What’s up with that?

I come back over to She-human and she gets right down in easy tongue-to-face range. Silly human! Her eyes seem a little bit wet…not the leaky kind of wet, just the shiny kind…and she’s saying another word I hear a lot from her…love. I understand that word because it makes me feel all good inside and usually comes with hugs and scratches in all the good places. I love you too, She-human. Then she says something about the nice he-human, Keith. I like Keith. His face smiles a lot like mine.

Then, kind of suddenly, she kisses me on the nose and turns to head out the door. I try to go with her, because I guess it’s time to go back to the place where I live with all of the other dogs. But Keith takes hold of my collar and says something about a treat, so I turn to see what he’s offering. I’m always up for a tasty treat.

I march quickly toward my Jeep. Don’t look back, I think. If he’s watching, you’ll just make it harder for him…and yourself. But I just can’t resist one fast glance over my shoulder. Through the glass storm door I can see Keith smiling down at Bruce, his new dog. Bruce has his back to the door and his tail is wagging wildly as he looks up into Keith’s face. Perfect, I think. It’s the best gift a foster dog can give me. No fuss and worry when I leave.

As I unlock the car door and climb inside, I whisper to the Universe knowing Bruce will somehow hear me. “Have the best life, big dog. Be happy, be safe, but know I’m always nearby if you need me. Always.” With that, I practice my new resting pleasant face and drive away.

Keith wasn’t bluffing! He did have a very nice dog biscuit for me. I crunch it up in two quick chomps. And then I remember…She-human. I turn to look through the door that seems like you can walk right through it, but trust me, you can’t. I’ll only make THAT mistake once. She-human is in the car, starting to pull away without me. It’s funny because I’m actually not worried. Something here feels pretty right.

I raise my most excellent nose into the air and sniff deeply. There it is. That’s her scent. I store the memory of that smell in a special spot deep in my mind. I will never forget it. And somehow, I think I’ll get to see her again from time to time. I think…no, I know. I know she’ll always be nearby. Always.

love-you-bruceBruce was a foster dog at my boarding facility, Pooches, for a long time. He showed up in our parking lot a tired, thin dog wearing a ridiculously thick collar with a heavy, industrial metal clasp hanging from it. It was obvious that Bruce had lived his life on a chain somewhere. Perhaps a guard dog, maybe a pet forgotten in a backyard.

We took him in. We helped him get healthy. We learned to trust each each other. We learned to love each other. Bruce was a very popular guy with everyone who worked at Pooches and everyone who met him on our daily walks. But he and I had something special. He was my big guy.

Bruce and I walked together nearly every day for about three and a half years. To some it seemed his perfect home might never show up…not many people line up to adopt middle-aged, 80 pound pit bull mixes. But I knew it would happen someday.

Bruce’s happily-ever-after finally arrived. It was a great day when I left him in a new, happy home. Oh sure, I miss him. I miss our walks and those big sloppy kisses, too. Every time I pass by the kennel run that was his at Pooches and see a different dog there, my heart tugs a bit. But then I smile knowing that Bruce has a real home and his very own person now.

Love you big guy. Have the BEST life.

scary-nan-and-bruce

This is our scary face. I think I’m scarier than Bruce.

 

Good Dog. Seriously. Say It.

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Photo by Jim Thomason

I have a lot of pets. And many of them are pet peeves.

Ba-dum-dum. Thank you, thank you. I’ll be here all week.

But seriously folks, I do have a lot of pet peeves, especially when it comes to the animals that share our world. And hey, one of my first pet peeves is that I don’t call them “pets.” I’m going to admit it. That word annoys me.

Pet is something I do to greet my dogs, to comfort them, to calm myself. It’s an verb for me, not a noun. Using the word pet to describe my dogs actually seems demeaning to me. My dogs, horses, chickens, unintentional house mice, etc., are my companions. They are my animal family. They are not furry/feathered humans, nor are they little slaves sent here to do my bidding. They are animals who are willing and kind enough to abandon a lot of their natural instincts to try to co-exist in our crazy, human-focused world.

That’s pretty amazing to me. I think it deserves a little respect.

Oh, and don’t even get me started on the term “fur babies.” Nope. Let’s not go there.

Today’s pet peeve, however, actually focuses on how we speak to our animals, how we choose to try to communicate with them. As a professional dog trainer (fancy certificate, letters after my name and all!), I get a lot of calls about “bad dogs.”

“My dog is stubborn.”

“My dog won’t listen.”

“My dog is out of control.”

I listen. I ask questions. I imagine what I will find when we finally meet. And I’m usually spot on.

What I generally find on  visits with “out of control” dogs is a complete lack of clear, meaningful, and consistent communication. So what I’m telling you is that 98.9% of the time…it’s not the dog’s fault.

And more than a lack of dog training know-how, I have found that it’s actually a mindset issue. As humans, we still feel the need to be very large and in charge when it comes to our animals. And when other people come around, it seems humans often go into hyper-militant mode, as if to suggest that their dogs behave like perfect little angels every moment of the day…except right now. You should see how people act when an actual dog trainer steps into the mix. It’s as if everyone suddenly has something to prove.

“Sit. Bo-bo, sit. SIT. SIT. BO-BO SIT. Sit down. SIT. YOU SIT RIGHT NOW. Bo-Bo…come here. SIT. COME. NO. NOOOOO. SITSITSIT.”

Kind of makes me want to toss an “h” in that sit somewhere.

And then I get asked how to “correct” that. “How do I make him mind?” “See how stubborn he is?”

OK. I can’t give an entire dog training 101 here (because hey, I don’t give that away for free! Bills to pay, people. Dog food to buy), but what I can do is help you get your head in the game. The right game.

First, dogs require constant feedback when they are learning. That means as good as you are at telling them when they are wrong, you need to be equally as good at telling them when they are right. Equally good. Tell them when they are RIGHT. In fact, spend more time doing that than you do telling them how wrong they are.

I’m going to let you think about that one for a moment. Here’s a gratuitously cute puppy photo you can ponder whilst you chew on that paragraph…

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Ok…all done pondering? Great. So here’s my next free tip: Let’s change your vocabulary.

Sometimes changing your mindset is as easy as changing the words you choose. Here are my new training words for you:

  1. Instead of train, use the word teach.
  2. Instead of command, use the word cue.
  3. Instead of correct, use the word redirect.

Let’s start with those three and see how it goes. Teach, cue, redirect. Doesn’t that feel better already? Just switching to those words and paying attention to their meaning, their undertone, could make a world of difference in the relationship you have with your dog.

This is not a battle. Dogs have no hidden agenda to overthrow the world. They repeat behavior that gets them attention. They avoid things that are unpleasant (and we wonder why they don’t always come when called…). Let me give you some real-life examples.

I visited a home with an “out of control” dog. The dog was said to have horrible manners when guests came over. The dog wouldn’t listen. The dog jumped all over people.

“He knows better. He’s just being stubborn.”

The moment I hear that stubborn word, I wonder which being in the house it really describes. And then I giggle to myself. Usually to myself.

So I asked my client to show me the dog and let me see how they were dealing with the situation. That’s when I got the SIT-SIT-SIT-NOOOO-NOOOO-DOWN-SIT-OFFFFFF-NOOOOOOOOO routine. I listened to the tone of their voices. I saw the chaos escalate. I saw the humans growing frustrated and more excited. I saw the dog doing the same.

And even when the dog wasn’t actually trying to jump on me, the humans were still barking commands.

So when the dog came toward me and kept four feet on the floor, I quietly said, “Yes! Good boy.” Then I offered the dog a little treat.

I backed a few steps away and invited the dog to follow me. I had his attention now because I was speaking softly, I wasn’t stressed. He liked that. He followed.

When he came to me, I asked him to sit. He did. I said “Yes!” I gave him a tiny cookie. I praised him. Then I backed away and did it a few more times. Pretty soon, every time I cued the dog to “come,” he ran to me and slammed his butt to the ground with his tail wagging happily.

I praised him. And looky there, I used all three of our new vocabulary words.

I taught the dog what I expected instead of just waiting for him to screw up.

I helped the dog learn a cue, one indicating what I expected, and also a word that marked the moment when he did something right. “Yes.” I captured behavior I liked.

And I redirected the dog. The dog was jumping on people because he was friendly and wanted attention. I showed him a proper way to earn attention. He listened. He learned.

Here’s another example. I visited a family who had a dog that would not come when called. The dog would play keep-away, staying just out of reach. The family was frustrated.

So I asked them to show me.

We went out in the yard. The dog chased a bird. When he ran to the other side of the yard, one of the humans said “Fritz, COME!”

Now, don’t think for one second that dogs don’t understand the tone of our voices. They do.

When this person said “Fritz, COME,” the sharp tone me want to back away slowly. Seriously…why do we have to change everything about ourselves when we go into dog training mode?

So Fritz, who was still on the lookout for that bird, did hear his person say COME. And he did look back at us. That glance back was the moment of truth…what would happen next?

Well, the owner repeated his command even more sternly, “FRITZ! COME! COME!” It sounded angry to me. It sounded angry to Fritz too.

“FRITZ. RIGHT NOW. COME HERE RIGHT NOW. FRRRRRRITZ!”

Fritz didn’t come. In fact, he glanced away (which is actually dog-speak for “hey, human, chill out! Let’s all calm down).

“See? He’s stubborn.”

Huh. Ok.

“Let’s try something different,” I suggested.

I went to within a few feet of Fritz. In a happy voice, I said, “Fritz, come!”

The moment Fritz looked at me, I said, “YES! Goood boy! Good!”

Guess what? Fritz came right to me. Because I praised him in the moment he acknowledged my cue by looking at me, I gave him a reason to want to come to me. We communicated. I was teaching Fritz that the cue “come” would be followed by something good/fun/rewarding/calm/happy.

Fritz liked that. I wasn’t scary. I was nice. That made Fritz feel good and want to be near me.

So Fritz’s dad, who was also a really nice person when he dropped his alpha dog trainer persona, gave it a whirl. When Fritz heard the cue “come” and glanced at his person, he was praised. Oh hey, Fritz liked that and came RUNNING on cue.

Just capturing that one little questioning glace back and giving Fritz the promise of good things to come, made all the difference in the world.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? The true key to good dog training is to be a teacher, not a trainer. And to give clear praise when praise is due. And perhaps most importantly to recognize when praise is due. Be in the moment. Your dog is.

OH if only I had a dime for every time I’ve seen people continually telling their dogs what NOT to do, but never capturing that moment when the dog is actually doing what they want. I would be a wealthy, wealthy retired dog trainer.

Think it through. Go talk to your dog. Talk. Don’t holler, yell, get all stern and scary. It’s not about intimidation. It’s about building communication.

Now get out there and play with your dog. Oh, and here’s another gratuitously adorable puppy photo as your reward. Good human. Goooood.

yoga-dog

(Bo-Bo and Fritz are not actual dog names. But the stories above are quite true. So true. Very true. Let’s just let all of my training clients wonder if it’s them…)

All That Matters.

Brother DakotaI get yelled at.

I get called names.

I get cuss words thrown at my face, and I’m sure behind my back.

I had one man try to intimidate me physically. (For the record, it absolutely did not work.)

I’m told I’ve made children cry. (Umm…no, that would be the parents who make premature promises.)

And all of this because of my chosen “hobby.” Or passion, more accurately.

Jim and I rescue and re-home dogs. If you’ve been reading along, you know that. Formally, together with a good friend, we are the Dalmatian Assistance League, Inc. But we don’t limit our love to only our spotted dogs…we’ve opened our home and hearts to any number of dogs in all shapes, sizes, colors, and breeds. It’s our thing. It’s a life we love.

Of course with taking in a good number of homeless dogs, comes the need to find new homes for said dogs because, as I always say, it’s a fine line between rescuer and hoarder. We want to stay on the right side of that line.

1924925_10208602696168516_4029565097214493627_nSo when we foster a dog, it’s our job to get to know that dog really well, to work with the dog to teach it some manners (manners may or may not include sleeping in our bed and learning to take food gently off of an offered fork), to teach good potty habits (outside being preferable), and to provide socialization so we know how our dogs react in different situations and to different people. All of this is to prep a dog to find a perfect “happily-ever-after” home.

And then there is the people part of this whole process. While we are getting to know the dogs, we are also beginning the process of screening homes for each of them. Honestly, the dog part – complete with accidents in the house, shoes and furniture chewed, non-stop barking in the crate training process, mounting vet bills, etc. – is far, far easier than the people part.

For me, anyhow. (And I’m betting 99.9% of all people involved in animal welfare feel the same.)

So here’s how it works. We take in a new foster dog and start the “getting to know you” process. After a few days, we post the dog on a website called PetFinder, as well as on our Facebook page. Soon, the people part starts to roll in.

We get inquiries about our dogs. We send them adoption applications and answer any and all questions they may have. I always, ALWAYS explain that our placement process is based on “best match” for each individual dog. Best match means that I take what I know about my foster dogs and compare that information to the answers given by prospective homes on our adoption application.

We can weed through applications fairly quickly this way. For example, a four-foot fence won’t work for a dog that can jump everything but a six foot fence. A dog who is scared of little children won’t fair well in a home with a toddler or two. An elderly dog may not be a good match in a home with a six month old Rottweiler. You get the idea.

And to that end, the questions on our adoption application are fairly open-ended. We need an accurate picture of your home, your hopes for adding a dog, your family dynamic. Then we can work with you to hopefully find a good match. Or not.

Some people really, really have issue with the “or not” part.

I turn down more homes than I allow to adopt one of my dogs. I don’t do it because they are not potentially good homes for a dog (though admittedly some people seeking a dog aren’t even equipped to care for a goldfish), I turn them down because they are not the right match for one of my dogs – the dogs Jim and I know really well.

When I inform someone that they will not be adopting the dog they fell in love with from a static photo on the Internet, I get some interesting reactions. I try very hard to let people down gently and explain why I do not feel my dog is a good match for their situation. Some people are very understanding and accept my redirection toward a different dog…or perhaps a nice houseplant.

Others, however, immediately make it their life’s mission to change my mind. They plead. They promise to change whatever it is that got them rejected (you’ll place your toddler in a new home until he/she reaches the age of 18?). They assure me that I’m quite wrong and that they CAN make things work with the exceedingly active puppy they have their hearts set on despite the fact that they have no fenced yard and work a 12 hour day.

One woman recently yelled at me as she informed me they HAD to have my puppy and if I require a fenced yard, I should spell out the rules for adopting right from the start. I tried to nicely explain that my rules are different for every dog I place. There is no one definition for a perfect home. Plus, if I toss my open-ended questions aside and make it really clear exactly what I’m looking for, people…ok, SOME people…will simply lie.

Yes, they will give me the answers I want to hear so they can adopt that dog with the cute black patch over his eye. Shocking, I know. People lie.

And then some of them tell me how messed up my system is. How terrible I am. How I should be jumping at the chance to place my foster dog with them because their home is surely better than no home at all.

Um. No. No it’s not. MY HOME is better than no home at all. My foster dogs are not in danger. They are not suffering. They are not lacking anything. What they are is waiting for the chance at the very good, very perfect life each and every one of them deserves. And if that means I have to upset a few humans along the way? Well, I just don’t care.

I really, really don’t care.

Go ahead. Yell at me. Tell me I’m crazy. Call me a b*tch (umm, yeah. It’s been known to happen). I’ll smile through it. I’ll wish you luck in finding the right dog. I’ll turn the other cheek. I can do that because when I get it right, when I do find that match made in Heaven, it makes all of the rough stuff dissolve away. It makes everything worthwhile.

Pepper and Kane

Photo used with permission.

I’ve had some great placements lately. Summer brought a little flood of puppies in need, Dalmatian and otherwise. It has been a busy few months and some of my applicants have been unusually “inventive” and, shall we say, pushy. But on the flip side of that coin, many of my applicants have been absolutely amazing.

One woman inquired about a specific dog and I told them she was not right for their family for various reasons. They thanked me for my honesty and asked if I had another dog that might be right. And I did. And she is. And now a darling five year old boy has the best friend of his young life. The dog he will remember with a happy heart forever. Best match.

Cinder and dad rev

Photo used with permission.

Another young couple wanted to get their first dog together. No, no fenced yard. An apartment, in fact. But they were both active hikers and runners…did I have a good fit for them? I did. And she is spectacularly happy with them. Best match.

And then there were the guys who lost their beloved Dalmatian of 15+ years. Their hearts still very tender. Were they ready for a new friend? Did I have one special dog that might be their new beginning? I did. And he is. And when this precious puppy met his new person, he never looked back at me because I got it right. Very right. Best match.

Dakota and LouisSo here’s the deal. You are more than welcome to apply to adopt one of my foster dogs. Jim and I have taken in some GREAT dogs. You can ask all the questions you like. You will answer the questions I have on my application. I will likely ask you some more questions. I’m going to be nosy. I’m going to check your references. I’m going to want to see your home. I’m not alone in this process, most good rescue groups will do the same.

And then I’ll tell you whether or not I have a dog that would be a good fit for you. If I tell you no, you can accept that, you can listen to my rationale, you can choose to accept my help in finding a better match for your family. Or you can get mad at me. By getting mad, you only confirm for me that you were truly not the right match. I thank you for that, and trust me,  your angry words slide right off me.

Because when Jim and I select a home, when we have no more questions to ask, it’s usually very right and it’s a lasting, forever kind of match. We owe that to our foster dogs. They’ve already had their lives disrupted in one form or another, we want to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

“Best match” is apparent when a dog greets his new owner for the very first time like a long-lost friend. Best match is when the foster dog that slept with his head on my shoulder the night before, gives me a quick kiss goodbye and trots off looking up adoringly at his new human. Best match is getting a photo of a precious five-year-old watching cartoons with his new dog stretched out contentedly by his side.

You can like me, or not. You can listen to me, or you can be angry. This isn’t a popularity contest. In the end, it’s about a wagging tail in a safe, happy, perfect home. And we’re always willing to wait for the right one.

That’s all that really matters. Plus, the really cool people we meet far outweigh the negative-Nancy types (Oh WHY does my name have to be in that phrase?).

Now, on to the next dog!

JIm and buddy don rev

 

 

Sleep-In Sunday. Who Needs It?

sleep Kaine 2

I’ll admit it. I was a tiny bit giddy when I tucked myself into bed last night. It was Saturday night and I had NOTHING to do Sunday morning. Nothing. Nada. Nil.

And so I drifted off to sleep with visions of a lazy morning dancing in my head. I would sleep in. Not the 7:00 am kind of sleep-in. Not even the 7:30 kind of sleep-in. I was going for the gold. I was shooting for 8:00 am sleep-in glory.

That rarely gets to happen.

It still rarely gets to happen.

Several factors conspired against my lazy, stay-in-bed Sunday. If you know me at all, you might think that some of those factors were the members of my four-legged family. You would be right, but in their defense, it was the two-legged inhabitants of the farm who really stirred the pot.

“Stirred the pot” may be an unfortunate phrase choice, because the two-legged creatures I am referring to are our little flock of chickens who decided that a rainy, gray, perfect-for-sleeping morning was, instead, the perfect morning to crow repeatedly (that would be Cluck Norris testing his new-found skills as a young rooster), and run hither and yon across the yard. In front of the windows. The bedroom windows. Where the dogs WERE sleeping with me. Until they were not.

windowBarking, pawing, and whining incessantly at the windows became the new order of the day. I tried desperately to press my eyelids tightly shut and pull the blankets over my head in an effort to block the dogs, who were ping-ponging across the bed as they vaulted to the windows and back to me in a HEY-DID-YOU-KNOW-WE-HAVE-CHICKENS frenzy.

Yeah. I know. Chickens.

And then the lead two-legger came in to crash my slumber party once and for all. He released THE hound. Yep, I believe his words were, “If you’re not going to come see him, he’s going to come see you.”

With that, approximately 115 pounds of soggy Kainan, our resident wolfdog, landed squarely on my abdomen.

Chicks in yardOh, and did I tell you that the aforementioned human two-legger also happened to be the one who let the chickens out of their coop at 6 am? On sleep-in Sunday? On a cloudy, rainy, perfect-for-snoozing day? Yeah, I’m not pointing any fingers, but that’s what happened and his name rhymes with hymn. (That reference is going to make all kinds of sense here in a minute and you’re going to look back and you’ll surely think I’m quite clever…)

But the sound that REALLY got me out of my fog and into the day had nothing to do with rogue chickens or bouncing dogs. It was the pitiful, complaining, wail that echoed from the garage, down the hall, through the living room and straight into my pillow-muffled ear canals.

PUPPIES!

Oh yes! My eyes suddenly popped wide open. It was my first morning to wake up to our two tiny spotted charges. Our new little foster babies.

In the garage, you say? Yes. I know. It goes against everything that is Nancy and Jim (hey, that rhymes with hymn…). Our dogs and our foster dogs are in the house. Everywhere in the house. They own the place.

But these tiny babies are special. They are two of the survivors from a litter of Dalmatian puppies that came down with the dreaded parvovirus (parvo).

In a nutshell, parvo is a highly contagious virus that attacks a dog’s intestines and destroys the lining that allows them to absorb nutrients and fluids. While there is prevention for parvo – all puppies and dogs should be vaccinated for it – there is no cure for it once a dog or puppy has contracted it. So the only course of treatment is to provide supportive care while the virus runs its course and hope like heck the puppy can rally. It is an aggressive disease and can be deadly.

We learned all too well about the deadly part this week.

Jim and I, along with our good friend Lawanna, run the Dalmatian Assistance League, Inc., a nonprofit group dedicated to the welfare of our beloved Dalmatian dogs. We educate the public about our favorite breed of dog. We rescue homeless Dalmatians. We foster them. We provide care for them. We find them wonderful new homes. And we love them. Each and every one that passes through our lives.

About a week ago, while on a trip to California for my cousin’s wedding (BEAUTIFUL!), I received word about a litter of 10 Dalmatian puppies that had contracted parvo. One puppy had already died, and other puppies in the litter were starting to fall like a line of teetering dominoes. The litter owners, who had not really planned to breed their dogs, but ooops happened, were overwhelmed and out of resources. Treating one case of parvo can be costly and is a 24/7 proposition. Treating an entire litter was devastating.

Long story short…with lots of texts and phone calls, Jim and I started arranging assistance for the puppies, hoping that a little help would go a long way. Sometimes you can nip parvo in the bud. Sometimes you can’t.

This was one of those “you can’t” times.

Pink 2Once back in town, I met the puppies for the first time at a veterinary hospital that was willing to work with our rescue group to try to save some lives. Three puppies had already left for new homes (and were receiving care from their new owners), one, despite supportive care from the litter owner, had already passed away. We were left with a plastic tub full of six puppies, five of which were showing symptoms.

I won’t give all the details, but of the six puppies, five required hospitalization through the course of the week and in the end, we lost three of them. Overall in the litter, five died, five survived.

It was heartbreaking and hopeful all at once. It was a yo-yoing, emotional, glass half full, glass half empty kind of week. At times, especially in the mornings when I awaited my daily update from the veterinarian, it felt like a cracked glass draining fast kind of week as I received news of loss despite their very best efforts.

But then there was the morning when the remaining puppies made it through the night. That was followed by the call when I could actually hear the puppies complaining loudly as they vied for attention in the background. Then there was the news that the two puppies remaining at the vet were drinking water on their own and holding it down. Soon came the news that they were finally hungry…in fact, hAngry. Finally, we had good, glorious, turning-the-corner kind of news.

These kids were ready to be sprung from the vet and Jim and I were ready to welcome them to our home to recover. Oh…wait. We were anything BUT ready.

Even though they were doing better, the puppies would still be shedding the virus and though our adult dogs would not be affected, we could not let our home environment become contaminated. Parvo can live in your yard for years. It is one stubborn little bastard.

So Saturday morning erupted in a flurry of preparation so we would have a comfortable quarantine space for our new adorable charges. Though parvo is spread through contact, it is not airborne, we still needed to have a good plan and set-up for keeping the puppies isolated.

Hymn, um, I mean Jim, cleared a space in our do-you-really-use-all-of-these-tools garage (and he does. I guess he really does) while I ran out to gather/buy supplies. Supplies included a tarp for the floor, rubber gloves and gowns to wear when handling the pups, blankets, a crate, a puppy pen, oh, and a portable air conditioner. Oklahoma is hot, hot, hot. Recovering puppies needed to be comfortable.

We got everything set up in record time. I went to the puppy hospital, met with the wonderful Dr. Sellers, got all of my instructions, and then loaded a little crate into my Jeep, two sweet, curious faces peering out of it.

13568795_1372346229461358_3022580120059058848_oThe pups settled into their new recovery space nicely. They both immediately lapped up a big drink of water (yay…dehydration is one of the big killers with parvo) and then discovered the pile of new toys we had waiting for them. It was a great feeling to see two puppies who had just a day ago been so ill they could barely raise their heads, pounce on squeaky toys and settle in to gnaw on puppy chew bones.

And so these spotted charmers were the determined little alarm clocks that finally broke through my Sunday slumber fog. They were my reason to bolt out of bed and start my day just a wee bit earlier than I had planned. And I didn’t mind. Not one bit.

It was perfect.

13592266_1372345986128049_2484418169794870042_nGowned and gloved, I sat holding each puppy, thankful for a great veterinarian, thankful for a litter owner who did not give up, thankful for that Jim guy who would never turn his back on a puppy in need.

In our set-up, we had added an old radio in the garage to keep the puppies company. On this Sunday morning before the 4th of July, one of the few stations we could find that would actually tune in was featuring the “Big Country Sunday Morning Gospel Show.”

The old-time hymns (see that…hymn, rhymed with Jim…I brought it full circle!) brought a grin to my face as I sang along to my little patients. Patsy Cline and I crooned “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” I harmonized with the Statler Brothers through “Amazing Grace,” followed by a rousing rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” that reverberated through the garage as two happy, returning-to-healthy puppies squirmed in an enthusiastic attempt to lick my nose.

You know what? Sleep-in Sunday can happily be damned. My cracked glass is now full and runneth right over. I have puppies to hug.

 

There is a fund raiser underway to help cover our mounting expenses for the puppies. If you would like to contribute to the puppies’ care fund, you can find information here: gofundme.com/dalmatianrescue. Donations in any amount are greatly appreciated. All funds go directly to the Dalmatian Assistance League, Inc.,  a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Good thoughts, prayers, and words of encouragement are equally valued. We thank you!

 

 

Terrible, Terrible Twos

the chaseI can’t say they didn’t warn us. They did.

“You won’t really know what you’ve got until he turns two.”

Those simple words from our wonderful friends at Freedom’s Song Wolf Rescue have stuck with me for the last 18 months. Now they’re proving a bit prophetic.

And what they meant was, with wolfdogs, you really don’t know whether they will think more like a wolf, or more like a dog until they mature. For some, I guess, the wolf side of the brain can prove to be a bit of a challenge. It’s possible we’re finding that out.

I  can’t say that I didn’t see it…and feel it…coming. Over the past several months I have seen a shift in our wolfdog Kainan’s attitude from time to time. It was subtle at first. You had to pay attention. And it was easy to write it off as just a little incident.

Since joining our family as an adolescent wolfdog in August of 2014, Kainan been remarkably easy-going. Though he dwarfs all of our other dogs – now easily outweighing the largest by about 40 pounds – he has been an affable boy, romping and playing like a gentle giant with dogs half his size or smaller. His current most devoted playmate tips the scales at a mere 38 pounds.

He also defers to our 10-year-old, “top dog” Dalmatian, Howie. He bows down to Howie on a daily basis, groveling at his feet and licking under his chin in absolute submission to the older dog. Howie is very large and in charge in Kainan’s eyes. This behavior is not because Howie is an “alpha dog” who has forcibly rolled Kainan over and asserted his dominance. That theory is tired and outdated. Kainan’s behavior toward Howie is healthy, voluntary submissive behavior and it’s a good thing.

But in recent months I have noticed it, I’ve seen a little shift. Dogs that were once included in Kainan’s merry little circle of playmates, are now excluded. If you know the subtleties of dog to dog communication, you can see the change in attitude a mile away.

Kain and Bernie

“Good play” with Bernie

I think I first noticed it with Bernie, our pit-mix boy. Bernie was one of Kainan’s initial best buddies. They would romp and play like big, goofy puppies. Until one day I saw it.

I looked outside and saw Bernie sitting in the very back corner of the yard, sideways to the house. His body was curved, his back rounded, his head dropped low, his ears pinned back in a worried expression. I could see he was licking his lips and glancing sideways toward the house and then looking quickly away. These are all signs of stress, all signals to another dog that he is no threat, that he is not challenging, and he wants no trouble.

Having never seen Bernie display this behavior, I quickly looked to see what was causing his concern. There, standing tensed and focused between Bernie and the path that leads to the dog door, was Kainan. His ears were pricked sharply forward. His head was dropped level with his back. His body was tensed and in a partial crouch as if ready to spring. His eyes held a hard focus on the worried dog across the yard.

I immediately went out into the yard and called Kainan to me. He did not respond quickly or very willingly. I had to go to him. His focus was intense, but just by breaking the moment, the spell, I was enough distraction to allow Bernie to run to me and then into the house.

What the heck had I just witnessed?

Time to pay closer attention. We had dropped our guard. We had been lulled into a false sense of security by silly, adolescent Kainan. Now mature Kainan had moved in and it was time to take notice.

Kill the wolfdog

“Kill” the wolfdog.

For a bit, I saw nothing further. He was Mr. Frolic. He had a little pack of girls comprised of three Dalmatians, one husky/malamute, and one mixed breed dog who raced and wrestled with him nonstop. Even with his huge size advantage, he was gentle with his girls. In fact, more often than not, he chose to be the prey, allowing them to chase him down, tackle him, and “go for the kill.” It was hysterically ferocious and comical.

And so my guard slipped back down.

Then it happened. Our little whippet girl, Lacy, dainty and all legs and speed, popped out of the dog door with a bunny-like hop and Kainan grabbed her. He reacted as if by instinct. Grab the prey.

Jim was just inside the house and was out the door to break things up in an instant. But it still happened. And our little Lacy got some puncture wounds in the process.

You could explain it away. Lacy moves very erratically and very quickly. If she popped out right on top of him…well…you can almost understand what happened. But still.

So we watched. We redirected Kainan when we felt his focus was inappropriate. We kept a close eye on Lacy.

And then it happened to Nora, our senior Dalmatian. We’re not sure what caused the incident, but Kainan went after her. Again, Jim was there quickly. Nora was not badly injured.

But still.

We had a problem. And it was a problem we always knew might surface. Wolfdogs are not dogs. Wolfdogs are not wolves. And there’s the tricky part.

You don’t know what you’ve got until they turn two.

I have watched the well-educated, experienced people who run Freedom’s Song. They too live with wolfdogs. I know that not all wolfdogs are social to people. We are very lucky that Kainan is. He is quite friendly and very appropriate around people.

I have also never seen him act aggressively when we see other dogs. He has been out and about with us to a few places where we have encountered other dogs on leash and he has been fine. We don’t let other dogs rush up to him, we don’t ask for trouble, but Kainan has consistently remained calm.

Now, this behavior at home, well, it actually makes sense to me. This is his space. This is his home territory. We have asked him to share it with a number of other dogs. And we have dogs come and go from time to time as foster dogs come in and eventually leave for homes of their own. It’s a busy place, and can be a stressful situation for some dogs, but we are generally good at finding balance and keeping the peace.

So now it appears that Kainan has a little circle of friends that he prefers…I call them his gang. And it also appears we have some dogs that he does not want in his circle. So who makes the rules? Wolfdog or humans?

Calm before the pounce

Still good play…I promise!

Well, it has to the be humans, but we have to have respect for Kainan’s view of the world as well. As I tell every training client who has dog to dog issues in their home, just because YOU like a dog and want to add it to the family does not mean your dog is going to like it as well. Humans don’t like every other human they meet…I don’t. And I certainly wouldn’t want to be asked to live just any other person that comes along.

But humans ask their dogs to do that all the time and then seem appalled when the dogs don’t agree with the decision.

So what to do?

Well, I jokingly say that Kainan is currently grounded. He is not allowed to play unsupervised with all of the other dogs loose as he once did. We have supervised sessions several times a day with Kainan loose with all of the dogs, and then we give Kainan his own space with his little gang.

Fortunately, our world is physically set up to handle this new routine. We have sturdy dog runs that allow access inside the house and to outdoor space. We have two dog yards. We can allow Kainan to play with his little gang, while keeping the other dogs separate and safe.

And we are dedicated to doing a lot of work with Kainan. Jim and I have worked out a plan for reminding Kainan the benefits of offering desired behavior. We are focusing on spending a lot more one-on-one time with him. We are working to teach him a strong recall – no matter what the distraction in the world around him.

We’re also giving him constant feedback when he is loose with all of the dogs. My own belief, backed by a recent online course presented by Dr. Ian Dunbar, advocates giving dogs like Kainan consistent input. If he’s playing nicely, he gets lots of praise and reinforcement. If we see that he’s starting to be a bully or he’s starting to get too rowdy, we call him, we interrupt the action. He gets told “uh-uh,” and redirected. The moment his behavior shifts back to calm and loose, he is praised.

If he crosses any tiny line, it’s game over. He is removed from play.

There is no hitting. There are no shock collars (and BOY are there a lot of people who love to go there…that’s a topic for another day). There are no harsh prong collars. There is no physical punishment beyond limiting his freedom.

There is feedback. Lots of meaningful, timely feedback. And we are patient. And we are fair. And we are learning.  All of us. Kainan is as much our teacher as he is our student.

We love Kainan and we are committed to his welfare and his well-being. That means it’s our job to understand his way of thinking. It’s our job to help this home and life work well for all of us. We don’t want to “dominate” Kainan, we want to provide leadership. If we are good and fair leaders, then everything else can fall into place.

We will make wise choices too. We may have to rethink what types of dogs and how many dogs we can foster. We can do that. Our own dogs come first.

We hope this is just a phase for Kainan. He is not one tiny bit aggressive. In fact, one stern look from me or Jim sends him sprawling to the ground in an apologetic pile. He is just mature now (and yes, neutered, but that doesn’t change who/what he is!), he has instincts, and he is testing the boundaries of  his world. We hope that with fair, positive-focused training, Kainan will be work through his terrible twos to be able to be free-roaming with the other dogs again soon.

But if he can’t…if living with a number of other dogs is just not right for him…we will deal with that too. We will make sure he has always has a great life that is fair to him, while also fair to the other dogs that share our home. We made that commitment to Kainan when we took him in and we will always stand by it.

We know he is new territory for us. We still have a lot to learn, and so does Kainan. But I know it will work out. Everyone is OK. Kainan is happy and being very compliant. Oh, and he really loves turkey hot dogs for his training treats.

This too shall pass. He is still very much our big, fuzzy, lovable guy who, 9.5 times out of 10, gets along great with our furry family.

But oh the terrible twos. I’m so ready for three.

Kainan and shadow 2

Merry Monday. Wonderful Wednesday.

MerryAs I was making the drive to work today in the predawn gray, I couldn’t help but scan the roadside. It was a habit several months old. It was going to be a hard habit to break.

It was my daily routine of keeping watch for Merry and Nick, two stray dogs that have been living on their own along our country roads near Mounds, Oklahoma. I’ve been watching for Merry since late summer (original story here, follow-up here). Nick joined the party just over a month ago when he apparently fell head over heels in love with Merry. They made quite the pair – a frustrating pair because, despite repeated attempts from numerous people in the area, they constantly eluded all who tried to rescue them.

And SO many caring people were trying to help them. Almost every time I stopped to try to sweet talk the dogs, another car would stop, another person would tell me about how they had been feeding them and trying to catch them. It seemed everyone within three square miles, and even beyond, had been keeping an eye out for the dogs.

At times, it seemed a little futile. When Merry was traveling solo, she would recognize my Jeep, as well as the cars of her other “regulars.” She would perk up, come close, even wagging her tail a bit as she stretched her neck out to accept food. Then she’d dance nimbly out of reach. Merry was a streetwise young lady. She knew how to survive.

When Nick started roaming with Merry – the two were rarely more than a few feet apart – things changed. Nick seemed even more fearful and uncertain than his partner. The moment I tried to step out of my Jeep to offer the dogs a snack, Nick would immediately retreat, glancing over his shoulder suspiciously. When Nick ran, Merry ran. She was a loyal girl.

Loyal to a fault. Loyal to a cold-of-winter-lots-of-predators-out-here fault.

The dogs’ pattern stayed pretty consistent until about a week ago Monday. It was then that the two dogs started coming an extra mile south to actually visit our house. Yes, they actually came straight to our doorstep.

I would like to tell you that our mad animal communication skills brought Merry and Nick to us, convincing them to trust us. But that would be a lie.

In reality, I’m fairly sure our latest little Dalmatian mix foster dog, who popped into her heat cycle just after we agreed to take her, was the grand attraction at Tails You Win Farm.

imageWhile Nick was obviously devoted to Merry, he was also unable to resist the scent of another lovely lady. The weird part of this new development was their routine. Nick and Merry visited our house every day between 2:00 and 3:00 p.m. Our security cameras don’t lie. You could almost set your clock by them.

Of course our foster dog was always safe and secure in the house where the temptation of intact boys could not reach her. But sequestered as she was, Nick still knew she was here and remained hopeful that he might add another lovely to his little harem.

Jim and I decided this was just the break we needed. While out for a run one day, Jim had met Tony, a man who had a large live trap he was using to see if he could catch the strays. Jim called Tony and offered to let him place the trap by our house to see if we could lure the dogs in during one of their treks up our long drive.

On day one, the dogs somehow managed to grab the bait without springing the trap. Day two, the dogs visited while we were still home. Our dogs raced into the yard, sounding the alert, and sent Nick and Merry scampering back toward the road.

This bring us to Merry Monday.

It was about 4:00 in the afternoon and I was racing home from work after receiving a text photo from Jim showing several of our horses on the wrong side of our pasture fence. I hurried to the farm in case our little herd decided not to cooperate for Jim and his bucket of feed. Thankfully, I didn’t see one horse out of place as I pulled through our gate. What I did see as I rounded the curve to the house? Two dogs huddled together in the live trap.

TrappedTWO for ONE! Nick and Merry couldn’t resist the temptation of the latest bait I placed in the trap and somehow went after it in tandem.

Relief. Oh what a loaded word that was on Merry Monday!

I was relieved we caught both dogs. I was so afraid we might catch one and not the other. That would have been a tough situation.

I was relieved that these two dogs would never have to spend another day fending for themselves, finding meals where and when they could.

I was relieved that Nick and Merry would never have another night out in the cold where dogs easily become prey for coyotes.

I was relieved I would never find either dog on the shoulder of the road after a run-in with a car.

All of the worries I had pushed to the back of my mind flooded out and flew away at the sight of those two scared dogs who had no idea their lives just took a huge turn for the better.

Jim was beside the crate, feeding the dogs yummy treats through the wire as he worked to calm them and gain their trust. Growling and cowering just moments before, Nick was now eagerly accepting scraps, licking every last bit from Jim’s fingers. Merry was quiet and stressed, but seemed approachable.

The magic of Merry Monday did not stop there. Jim called Tony, the man who loaned us the trap.  Tony had been working with an area veterinarian to try to catch the dogs. Dr. Corrina Tressler, of Green Country Animal Hospital, also lived in the vicinity and had been on the lookout for the dogs. A few quick phone calls later we learned that Dr. Tressler would welcome our little couple at her hospital.

HOORAY! Merry and Nick had a temporary place to stay where they could receive excellent care. All we had to do was get them there.

Working slowly and cautiously to avoid startling the dogs and potentially allowing them to escape, we opened the trap and got a slip lead on Merry. She was scared, but easy to handle and came out of the crate. One down, one still to go.

Nick was no longer growling, but he was also clearly not convinced  he was ready to trust these humans no matter how enticing the bribes, so he pushed himself into a ball at the back of the trap. At the same time,we weren’t yet convinced that we could just reach in to slip a lead on Nick, so we just loaded the whole heavy trap, dog and all, into the back of my Jeep.

Merry and I hopped into the back to stay close by Nick, the dogs really did not want to be out of each other’s sight, and Jim chauffeured us on the eight mile trip to the dogs’ “hotel.”

On the ride there, I noticed Nick starting to relax, accepting my fingers petting him through the wire crate. It was becoming clear that Nick was falling into the “all bark and no bite” category.  He may have put on a bit of a show initially, but he would soon prove that he was just a sweet, silly boy.

12522950_10208784371390283_7577128543902788784_nUpon arrival at the veterinary hospital, Jim and I decided we could let Nick out of the crate while still in the safety of the Jeep. It was time for all of us to learn to trust each other. Jim opened the trap door and I reached inside to slip a lead around Nick’s big bully head.

The leash seemed to flip a switch in Nick’s brain and he came straight out of the crate with a wide smile on his face and a wagging tail. Jim helped Nick hop into the parking lot and I followed with a still nervous Merry. Where Nick led, Merry followed, and Nick led with great enthusiasm. Suddenly Jim and I, along with everyone he met at the vet hospital, were Nick’s new best friends. Quite a change from the fearful, skittish stray we had been following for weeks.

Once inside, the dogs got a quick check-up, vaccinations, and heart worm tests. Nick received a clean bill of health, while Merry, not surprisingly after months with no proper care, came back heart worm positive. Not the best news, but with Dr. Tressler on her side, Merry would receive the costly treatment she needed to clear her system of the parasites and ensure her good health going forward.

12540767_10208784371550287_251190651360046121_nThe dogs were settled in comfortable kennels with soft blankets, clean water and bowls full of good food. It must have seemed like paradise to the road weary pair.

Jim and I left the hospital laughing and celebrating on a “rescuer’s high.” From the viewpoint of a longtime dog rescue volunteer, there are few feelings that rival the moment when you finally help an elusive stray get to safety . This was a day to celebrate. Merry Monday will go down in Jim and Nancy history as a favorite new holiday.

And now for Wonderful Wednesday. Today after work, I returned to the vet to visit Merry and Nick.

Nervous and unsure no more, I found both dogs resting comfortably in their kennels. When I let them out for a visit, they both greeted me like a dear best friend, taking turns hopping in my lap and covering my face with excited kisses. It was a grand welcome.

I shared some yummy treats with my new friends and I gave each a nice new chew bone to enjoy. They both returned to their kennels, relaxed and secure. Happy sure suits them.

Tomorrow, Merry, who has obviously already been a young mother, will be spayed and Mr. Nick will be neutered. Once Merry has recovered from her surgery, she will begin treatment for her heart worms. I have no doubt she’ll come through the lengthy process with flying colors. She deserves nothing less.

Jim and I are going to stay in close contact with the dogs and with Dr. Tressler. We’re going to help raise donations to cover their expenses. We’re going to work to help them find a great home – hopefully one home for both dogs. They are very bonded and would obviously love to stay together. There’s so much good ahead for these two.

So yes, through force of habit, I’m sure I’ll continue to scan the roads for Nick and Merry on a daily basis for some time to come. And each time I catch myself looking, I know I’ll smile and celebrate all over again. Thanks to so many caring people, Nick and Merry will now have their happily-ever-after.

We just have a couple more chapters of their story to write.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hope for Merry.

Merry 2It was November 11 when I first wrote about her.  Many kind people have asked about her since that story and I really don’t have much of an update to share.

She’s still out there living on her own. She still doesn’t trust. She still needs to come home with me.

I dubbed her Merry. I was so sure I’d have her sitting on the couch cuddled up beside me by now, but Merry is very streetwise. She knows how to play the game. Seek the humans out, accept food from the humans, but dance just out of their reach.

I generally see Merry once or twice a week. Sometimes I don’t see her for a couple of weeks. I watch for her every day. She’s always in the same area…within a quarter of a mile or so of our first meeting spot. She recognizes my Jeep now and will actually follow me as I pull to the side of the road to offer some food,  trying to entice the dog to come to me. But she always moves away, the initial interest shining in her gaze quickly clouded over by mistrust.

At first, I was just sure she must live in one of the sheds behind an abandoned house not far from her normal route. But Jim checked the sheds out and saw no sign that the young dog had been bedding down there. Now, with a light crust of sleet and snow on the ground, I revisited the ramshackle structures to search for paw prints and there were none. Her hiding place is still a complete mystery.

Yesterday, as I was turning on the road that leads to my farm, I saw Merry again. Actually, she saw me first and popped out of the weeds along the roadside, deliberately following my Jeep. Spotting her in my rear view mirror, I quickly pulled over, grabbed the dog treats that are always at the ready, and got out to offer Merry a snack.

I talked to her, I coaxed her, but she remained about eight feet from me, staring hopefully at the biscuits in my outstretched hand. Well aware of our routine, I gently tossed a few biscuits about halfway between us. She darted forward, grabbing two biscuits, and hopped back to what must have seemed a safe distance to her before crunching her treat.

A couple of other cars stopped – kind people wanting to help – but their good intentions always have the opposite effect. For each step forward I gain, the added people, each believing they will be the one to catch the stray dog, actually set me about 10 steps back. Last night I retreated to my car to take pressure off the dog and to allow another man to try to reach her. He got so close.

Eventually though, growing increasingly wary in the spotlight of our attention, Merry retreated completely, trotting quickly across the road and into the field. There her tan coat melted into the backdrop of tall, dry grass and she easy disappeared.

I leave food out for her, I know others are doing the same. While I am glad she is not going hungry, I’m also frustrated because she doesn’t have to learn to depend on just one person. With so many of us trying to help her, we’re also making it too easy for her to remain feral.

I’m not giving up, though. One of my dearest friends worked for four months to catch a chow mix dog that was living near a truck stop. She never quit believing she would eventually catch that dog. I will never quit believing that Merry is destined to come to me, that she should be relaxing on a soft bed in our home.

It’s very cold outside tonight. At least Merry has the comfort of a full tummy. I hope she has a warm, safe place to sleep.

Tomorrow we will start the dance again.

Christmas With Shelby and Friends

shelby bwWhen I first saw Shelby, he was taking a nap in a nice sunny spot. The temperatures were mild for December and Shelby looked perfectly content snuggled under a blanket his human had tucked carefully around him. The stout, copper-colored dog was snoozing so comfortably you almost didn’t notice the shopping cart he was tethered to, filled with clothing, blankets, and a plastic bag of dog food perched on top.

Shelby’s cozy form in the early light actually a painted a picture of serenity, though the dog was about the only creature enjoying a little peace and quiet at Iron Gate that morning. The rest of the place was buzzing with activity – volunteers preparing food and filling plates, a steady line of people passing through the serving line. Over in a far corner of the room, behind the swiftly filling rows of tables and chairs, was my station where Santa Bob (he just goes by Bob the other 364 days of the year!) and Jim were busy handing out little gifts and lots of necessities.

An amazing non-profit organization based in downtown Tulsa, Iron Gate’s mission is simple: Feed the hungry and homeless in Tulsa – every day. And that’s exactly what they do. Every single day, all year around, people in need can go to Iron Gate, in the basement of Trinity Episcopal Church, to enjoy a warm meal in a clean, safe environment.

Jim and I were first drawn to Iron Gate because it is also one of the pet food distribution points for Feeding the Pets of Tulsa’s Homeless. Every Wednesday morning, employees of our city animal shelter are stationed in the parking lot outside of Iron Gate handing out small bags of dog or cat food to anyone who needs it.

I was initially surprised to learn how many homeless or low income people do have pets. But the more time I have spent helping raise food donations for the group, the more it all makes sense. A dog is a loyal friend, not to mention a great little alarm system when a person has to sleep outside at night. Dogs don’t judge, they don’t question. If they receive affection and care, they give loyalty and love in return. In reality, homeless people often care for dogs or cats that are homeless as well – they are drawn to each other. They need each other.

Shelby’s owner told me how he found the dog injured and starving by a roadside. He worked to nurse the dog that no one else wanted back to health. Now he has a loyal friend and protector. Shelby was quite friendly in the setting outside of Iron Gate, but his owner assured me that Shelby took care of him just as much as he provided care for Shelby.

“No one messes with me or my stuff with Shelby there.”

I can honestly tell you that all of the dogs I have seen that belong to homeless people appear to be amazingly healthy.  I have found that the homeless are very devoted to their animal companions, so much so that they often put the needs of their pets ahead of their own needs.

One of the animal control officers that spearheads the Feeding the Pets of Tulsa’s Homeless program told me a story about a time he bought a sandwich for a homeless man he ran into outside of a convenience store. As he got into his truck, he saw the man immediately unwrapping the sandwich to feed bites to the dog sitting quietly by his side.

The dog ate before his human had a bite.

OK. See what happens when you get me talking…or writing…about dogs? I stray (yes, great word choice). Back to Christmas morning we go.

With lots of changes in my family and holiday routines in recent years, Jim and I decided that we wanted to start some new Christmas traditions of our own. So for our Christmas morning, we gathered up a bunch of goodie bags we had put together for kids, as well as some gifts for any dog friends that might show up, and headed downtown to Iron Gate to meet our good friend Bob. We expected a number of children to be at Iron Gate for breakfast, so we wanted them all to see Santa and receive something special for the holiday.

As it turned out – you can never predict who will show up at Iron Gate on any given day – there were very few children at breakfast that morning. But the place was packed with hungry people, and the regular volunteers created a cheery, festive atmosphere for their guests.

Santa Bob 2Instead of handing out our carefully prepared bags, we were given boxes of socks, blankets, gloves, woolly hats, and other essentials to distribute. And yeah, we raided the goody bags, gave out all of the candy, and sent toys and stuffed animals with anyone who said they had kids. Even a few people who perhaps didn’t have kids seemed to love receiving a toy or candy cane. Everyone loves a little gift on Christmas, right?

I will admit that the first 10 to 15 minutes in our little corner space were a bit overwhelming as people crowded around to see what we had, what might meet some of their needs. I was initially a bit of a deer in the headlights, but then quickly found my smile and hit my stride.

Clean socks were a priority. Blankets went quickly. Many hoped for backpacks and I was sorry we had none. What I found was, for the most part, the people were polite, did not try to take more than what would meet their immediate needs, and they were grateful. I was thanked time and time again for being there with them on Christmas morning.

Jim, Santa Bob, and I worked from 8 to 10:30 a.m., digging through boxes to find one more hat, one more pair of gloves, as we helped people prepare for our soon-to-change weather. Though Christmas day was mild and sunny, the forecast promised torrential rain and dipping temperatures over the course of the weekend, with sleet and snow predicted for the start of the new week. A rough prospect for those with no roof over their heads.

Back outside, in addition to Shelby, two other dogs had arrived and were tethered to a fence while patiently waiting for their humans to return from breakfast. They weren’t stressed, they weren’t barking or pacing. They were just waiting and watching. There was no separation anxiety among these three. Just a seemingly quiet understanding that their people would be back soon.

Jim and I were, of course, very prepared for canine guests that morning. All three dogs got new, brightly colored coats to wear. All received goody bags filled with biscuits, a toy, and chew bones.

shelby and toyThe dogs were lovely. They were friendly and happy. I enjoyed a little break with Shelby while his owner was still inside. Shelby was dressed in a makeshift dog coat fashioned out of t-shirts and some sort of tube top. I was pleased that Shelby would now have a proper coat to wear, but he seemed quite comfy in his eclectic ensemble.

Back inside the Iron Gate dining room, people were finishing up last bites of a generous meal, gathering their belongings, and stopping to say thank you for our time there. I assured each person I spoke with that there was no place I’d rather be that morning. And I meant it.

After things at Iron Gate closed down for another day, Jim and I, suddenly famished ourselves, stopped at a convenience store for for a breakfast sandwich to eat on the drive back to Tails You Win Farm. At home, we celebrated our own little Christmas, exchanging fun gifts, watching the dogs compete for the best new toy (whichever toy another dog had at that moment), and just spending a little rare time relaxing together.

We had a really great day.

Christmas has always been a favorite time of year for me. I grew up with huge family celebrations and  now, as my family has changed through the years, I’m finding new joy in re-inventing our holiday, finding meaning in new ways and places. I think the joy and purpose that Jim and I found in our first-time experience volunteering at Iron Gate will spill over to many more days of the year beyond the holidays. That’s a pretty special gift to receive.

Mother Teresa once said that it is Christmas every time you smile at your brother and offer him your hand. What incredibly wise and meaningful words.

Shelby and JimI’m sure Jim and I will be returning to work with the amazing volunteer group at Iron Gate again. I’m very sure it won’t just be during the holidays. I’ve already started working to gather some backpacks, some warm coats, and other useful items. And I know I’ll always have pockets full of dog biscuits and some bright dog coats to share, because many of my “brothers” have four legs and wagging tails and they deserve a Christmas too.

Today and every day.

 

The Greatest Gifts…And It’s Not Even Christmas Yet.

Charlie bed

Handsome Charlie

This has been a joy-filled week. My heart has that feeling in it that you get when you are just beyond happy. I’ve always struggled to find the words to describe it. It’s a fluttery, excited, feeling that just bubbles up  from your chest to put a smile on your face and a light in your eyes.

Heart bubbles. Yes. That’s the best way to describe the feeling. Beautiful, shiny, floaty bubbles (not to be confused with indigestion or burps…I’m a step ahead of my wonderfully, hysterically sophomoric friends on that one!).

I made a promise to myself last week that I was going to have an amazing Christmas. I decided that the best way to ensure the success of that mission was to put out into the world exactly what I hoped to receive back.

Some years I get so rushed and panicky about last minute shopping (because apparently I don’t learn from year to year that Christmas ALWAYS comes in December and it’s ok to start shopping a month or two early) that I end up on the grumpy and stressed end of the holiday joy meter.

But this year I decided that it was all going to come together and that everything would be great. So I put it out there. Everyone I ran into, or talked with, or purchased something from, or spoke with on the phone got a heartfelt Merry Christmas. And it felt good to put my wishes out there. And the goodness bubbled up from my heart to put a happy smile on my face.

Guess what? People smiled back. They exchanged greetings with me. And gifts started coming back to me. I got some GREAT gifts this week. I don’t necessarily mean the wrapped-up-and-tied-with-a-bow kind. I mean gifts you can’t buy or package.

Here, I’ll share a few with you.

First, I got a visit from a special guy that lived with Jim and me at Tails You Win Farm for some time, but then found a happy home of his own. His name is Charlie and he is a handsome spotted fellow with a wagging tail. I hadn’t seen Charlie in probably a year or more, so seeing him walk into my business with his new owner – just to say hello and thanks again – was a wonderful surprise.

I immediately fell to my knees to say hello. Charlie was a bit distracted – there were a lot of dogs coming in to board with us over the holiday – so for about 15 seconds or so, he accepted my attention with polite indifference.

And then he noticed.

When he finally really looked at and got a good sniff of the woman scratching his chest, his tail started whipping wildly from side to side and I got the most wonderful, enthusiastic doggy hugs and kisses. We all laughed as Charlie obviously said, “OH! It’s YOU! I know you! HI!”

That was a pretty great gift. But you know what the best gift of all was? It was when Charlie calmed down from recognizing me and immediately fell back close to his new human’s side, looking up at her as if to say, it’s great to visit Nancy, but I’m still going back home with you, right?

Oh yes, Charlie. You are most certainly going back home with your people.

Charlie’s body language was so clear and so endearing. There is nothing more wonderful than when one of my former foster dogs is thrilled to see me, but even more focused on his new people. That means Jim and I did our job. We found a perfect match and it is a joy to see.

Oh, there go those heart bubbles again!

The next gift I received was incredibly special. If you have followed along with me here, you know that Jim and I have a wolfdog named Kainan. We took him in when he was found stray and terribly malnourished. We quickly fell head over heels in love with him. He is now a very permanent member of our family.

20140901_103907But we were not his rescuers. Nope. Kainan was first rescued by two ladies who were out for a walk on an August morning. Because our connection was through a mutual friend, I never actually spoke with Kainan’s first angels.

This week, Judi, one of those wonderful ladies, stopped by to introduce herself and say hello. What a pleasure to finally get to hug and thank the person who didn’t look the other way when she saw this young wolfdog following slowly behind her, struggling and in desperate need of help. Meeting Judi was such a special event to me that deserves its own story. I can’t wait to tell you all about it.

A heart bubbling moment for sure.

11114095_10207000607237294_1910729615277641299_nThe next gift was, in part, a physical gift. A really special one. Earlier this year Jim and I took in a little speckled dog with huge, beautiful ears from an area animal shelter. Hannah was an absolute joy to have in our home. She was affable, sweet-tempered, funny, and loved to play with all of our dogs. It would have been so easy to  just keep her forever.

Ah, but we can’t keep them all – we have to repeat that statement to each other frequently – and we both had a feeling that Hannah really belonged to someone else. Almost from the moment she walked through our door, Jim felt that Hannah was meant to be our friend Sue’s new dog.

Long story short, we’ve known Sue for some time now and we have placed a couple of neat dogs with her through the years. She is a wonderful, kind, gentle person. Dogs who get to be a part of Sue’s family are beyond lucky.

Sue had recently lost a beloved dog and Jim and I knew it might be too soon to mention Hannah to her. So we just waited a bit and enjoyed Hannah ourselves. Then we tossed the idea of Hannah Sue’s way.

They met. Sue thought it over. They spent some time together. Sue’s heart was still healing and we knew this story needed to play out in its own time and own way. But through the process, we both just felt so sure that Hannah had come to us only as a stopover on her way to Sue.

Hannah ornament 2This week Sue, who has had Hannah for a few months now, stopped by with the most wonderful present for us. Wrapped in tissue inside a gift bag was an ornament – a white dog with speckles and huge, beautiful ears. A Hannah ornament!

I would not trade my Hannah ornament for all of the huge, lavish gifts in the world. This is my treasure. It’s just what I always wanted and continue to want. It represents another wonderful, deserving dog paired with another wonderful human.

Bubble, bubble, bubble!

What a week of amazing gifts. I thank each of the people who thought to come by to visit and share gratitude with me. It’s a busy two-way street for sure; I am beyond grateful to them as well. Jim and I could not do the rescue work we do if there were not quiet angels helping along the way, and fabulous happily-ever-after stories, because yeah – chant with me – we can’t keep them all. We can’t keep them all. We can’t keep them all.

Now the actual holiday is less than 24 hours away. I can’t imagine it getting any better than it already has been. But let’s put it out there one more time…

Merry Christmas to all!  I wish you bubbles…hearts filled with lots and lots of bubbles.