Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Perfect Circles

About a dozen years ago, I started fostering dogs who needed help getting adopted.

My first fosters were "cage break" dogs from Animal Friends in Pittsburgh.  I wanted to volunteer in a way that exploited my ability to train, and it was a bit too far to schlepp into town every day to work with the critters in the kennel.  Plus, I could see how frustrating it would be to teach a dog manners at the kennel gate, break him of jumping up, introduce him to the mutual pleasures of a loose leash -- and then have another volunteer undo every bit of it on his next walk of the day.  Penelope unraveling her weaving everydamned night, except for no good purpose.  More like the rowdy suitors breaking in and pulling the weft in their drunken revels.

Over a short period of time, the rules applied to volunteer dog-walkers became more restrictive. Dogs were not to be corrected. Someone might see it and get all butthurt. The poor goggies. Lost their homes and now some old meanie is making them do stuff.

The foster coordinators -- there were several in serial during this period -- and a couple other animal-care personnel understood that the party line about cookies and unicorns and fairy farts was not going to work on a lot of the dogs there, so they were -- unofficially, mind, never on paper -- absolutely good with sending dogs out of the facility to actually learn something.

So I started doing two-week (sometimes longer) cage breaks for the thugs -- mostly big, stupid, rude adolescent males with no clue about boundaries and manners.  Just about immediately, I started getting the cases that were otherwise going to be the subjects of a meeting of the euthanasia committee. In a couple weeks of living in a home and being held to account for their actions in a constructive way, they'd shed the kennel-induced anxiety, learn proper dog-manners from Lilly, Mel and Pip, get good and tired out, learn some basic obedience, be housebroken or re-housebroken, and generally start being real live dogs. I also once took in two little starved feral hoarder survivors, tamed and trained and fattened them up until they were real live dogs.  I'd write up a detailed, careful evaluation of each dog, with recommendations for the kind of home he was suited for and followup for his adopter.

Then I'd return him to the kennel and never hear of him again. Never knew whether the adoption counselors did dick-all with the reports.  Not so much as a phone call or a post-it note in my volunteer cubby telling me that my foster had been adopted.   But I could be sure that, before each dog left the kennel again, an army of soft-hearted and rule-hobbled volunteers re-taught him to drag a human down the sidewalk while gagging into the collar, climb and claw a person's body in "greeting," fence-fight with each dog in the kennel row, and play keepaway instead of fetch in the play yard.

Not much job satisfaction in that. And despite being larded up with t-shirts and tote bags, job satisfaction is really all that a volunteer gets for her trouble.

My first foster dog, ever. Shelter called him Karbo, which I don't think is even a name.
No idea where he went. He'd be about 13 now.
Since he was evidently part Doberman, I doubt he's still among the quick. Would have been nice to know, though.
I offered a free private lesson for each of "my" dogs' adopters, with a nice certificate that I included with the dog's write-up. Never had one contact me.

I found out that the adopters never got the nice certificate. Because the official policy was, Animal Friends did not recommend trainers who were not "all positive."  By which they meant, they only endorsed those who mouthed the politically-correct mantras of behaviorist delusion. Didn't matter what the person actually did with the dog, mattered what she said she did, and which magic words were employed. Notorious dog-beaters such as myself were reserved for the role of git 'er done, but we were to enter and leave by the servants' door and expect no credit for actually, you know, training the dog.  I was never to expect a referral from Animal Friends, not even for a dog I had spent weeks training in my own home who was now in danger of being returned by his adopter -- not even when I offered to do it for free.

The PTB at this shelter genuinely imagined a regimen of rehabilitative savage beatings when the dog was out of sight, and they were okay with that, as long as nobody knew and the horrid but highly-effective dog-beaters stayed in black ops mode

So, obviously, fuck that.

Rudy (far right) was my last shelter foster. He was a perfect dog once removed from the screaming kennel.
About ten minutes after he came into my house, I vowed that he'd never go back to a cage.
Pip, Mel, and Lilly thought he was swell.
My friend and colleague Jack adopted him, and he became Jack's unlikely SAR dog and constant companion.
Jack outlived Rudy by only a couple years.
I miss them both. I'm glad they were, and are, together.

Then came Tyler.

Tyler was an English shepherd, or English shepherd-y farm collie, at a pound in central Ohio. He'd been a stray, and was a long-termer there when he came to the attention of the English shepherd community. His time was just about up at the pound; he'd only lasted as long as he did because the staff adored him; he dodged a scheduled date with the needle at least once.

Someone from Michigan decided she wanted him, but not enough to drive three hours to get him. The breed discussion lists and the rescue transport lists made it happen.

The same day he arrived, Tyler experienced something he had never known before -- a complete stranger trying to yank a comb through his densely-matted coat.  It no doubt hurt like hell, and surprised him even more than it hurt.

So he snapped at the comb.

And was promptly and persistently declared vicious, "dominant," and an edgy, challenging dog.  According to this first adopter, a vet and a trainer proclaimed this about him.

She wouldn't drive him back to the pound, either, so he stayed a spell with a border collie rescue before catching a lift back to central Ohio.

And I drove out to pick up my first Anger Foster.

That's when I'm so pissed about the idiotic mishandling of a dog, and the bullshit spun by the dog's owners, or a pound, or best of all a "behaviorist," that I foster the dog to spite the jackasses and prove them wrong.

It generally works out pretty well. Many of my favorite fosters have been Anger Fosters.

The one whose owners invented neurological issues to justify the craziness they caused. The one returned to the pound for "viciousness" -- not according to the owners, but according to the child welfare bureaucrat who had manhandled a crying foster child in front of him and found out -- without being injured in any way -- why you don't do that when an English shepherd is on duty. The one secretly dumped at the Pittsburgh dog pound by the vulgar-rich owners when we weren't quite fast enough at finding a foster home for him and they couldn't be bothered to take him when they moved. The one presented (with five relatives) at the pound for death the next morning by the puppymiller who knew the gas chamber schedule and didn't want competition for sales. The one proclaimed incorrigible by the nationally-famous behaviorist. And, of course, every one of my Operation New Beginnings houseguests, the canine crime victims.

I gave Tyler a few days to settle in, then muzzled him and started gentle grooming on his matted coat.

He reflex-snapped at the comb (not me, the damned comb) once, as I expected. I corrected him firmly, a bit dramatically for the oh shit effect, and on we went.  Discussion over. Never repeated.

Took four or five days of short sessions to get his mats combed out and the worst of them amputated; ever after, he'd lie comatose on the patio while I groomed him. Nails, too.

He was polite and willing -- if initially pig-ignorant -- from the first, and quickly integrated into our dog pack. Pip enjoyed having a young guy to play with and push around and show the ropes. I enjoyed having time to really work with him (not that he needed much), and the knowledge that an army of dog walkers were not going to undo his training before he could be adopted.

I could never get a great shot of Tyler's face with the camera I had then.
He was too dark, with dark eyes.
Photos don't do him justice.
In a couple months, I was asking for this vicious dog to be placed in a home with children.

So he was.

He went to live with Deanna and her husband and three boys and his foster sister Pip's half-brother Indy.

Yes, English shepherd-land is a very small place. It's not that huge a coincidence.

And there, he was a "perfect dog" for them. Deanna's words.

Tyler's story -- the real story, not his misfortunes before coming to me, not the events that befell a dog-in-waiting at a foster home -- doesn't belong to me. His real story is the story of his life with his real family.  And it was pretty uneventful, which suits most dogs -- it certainly suited gentle, unassuming Tyler. Dogs mostly prefer not to live in interesting times, and Tyler had known enough drama.

Unfortunately, Tyler's real life was also short. He passed away in December, aged perhaps 11. That's very young for an English shepherd or farm collie.

I knew this because Deanna made a point to get in touch and tell me, because she knew I'd care.

There's one satisfaction that is denied to those of us who place dogs with families through rescue -- the canine circle of life. As a breeder, I can look forward to seeing Pip live on in her grandpuppies, great-grandpuppies, and on and on.  We have the satisfaction and burden of knowing that our breeding decisions now will determine what kind of dogs will be helping to raise children, wrangle stock, and seek the lost long after we have joined our own shepherds on the Big Hill. 

Our rescues are neutered. Their genetic stories end with them.  Their circles, their pond ripples, must emanate from their lives with their people, not the lives that biologically derive from theirs.

This summer, Tyler's family was ready for another dog.

Another perfect dog.

"Oh!" I told Lady's adoption coordinator when she told me that Deanna had applied for her, "Yes! That's the one -- that's perfect.  And she will get to go to a home with kids, too!"

Forgetting that the "kids" who were ten and eight and five in 2002 are now young men.

No matter. They are all still at home. They will all still be Hollee's (her new name) boys. And Dog willing, she could be the shepherd who closes one more circle, the one who looks over the first grandbabies. (No pressure, boys.  Take your time.)  If not -- even if so -- there will be another shepherd looking for a family some day, who can take over for her or help her.  Maybe he will first bide a spell at Brandywine Farm, while the genetic and cultural descendants of Pip and Mel and Lilly help him get on his feet and ready for his real life.

Going home.


  1. This reminds me how long it's been since you've written anything. I miss it.

  2. Congrats to Deanna and family. Welcome home, Lady!

    A little over two weeks ago, we said farewell to NESR's Nicky the Noodle. I will be reading this over and over again.

    "Their circles, their pond ripples, must emanate from their lives with their people, not the lives that biologically derive from theirs."

  3. Glad to be able to read your blog again.

  4. Heather, I too, am a mean mean trainer that sets boundaries and requires manners. I too, am prohibited by the dog training police of much of Kansas City of providing help to homeless dogs. I too, have saved lives of those ready for the Euth Committee. I am so glad to read your blog and know that butterflies, cookies, unicorns, and fairy farts are fantasy dog training techniques that work great in the perfect world, but sometimes the real world needs real people to help the real dogs harmed by humans be whole again...thank you for the words of encouragement I bet you didn't know you gave....<3

  5. Oh, I SO understand this, and so CAN'T understand shelters being afraid of corrections on goofy, wild, untrained dogs, and can't understand them thinking that stuff is so wrong! (You sound like Gary Wilkes, who I saw in action, and who dismisses 'all-positive' training although he is a clicker trainer.)

    I am glad you no longer give dogs back to who knows what/where, and glad you now know what happens with them. I'm shocked that the shelter was SO dumb they did not give out the free training info!!!! Disgusting!

    My attitude is that when these dogs turn into 'teenagers' or 'adults' that have never been disciplined, yes, it may take a bit more 'oomph' and shock value, but TOO BAD - it IS a matter of life and death! If someone knew how to give a PUPPY a correction and limits, then this stuff would not have to be given later when it has to be firmer. Sheeeesh!

    And - yes, I have known several who want to make an imaginary story about why their dog is awful. Some can live with the dog, some just want a reason not to feel that they have to cope with it and train it, just trash it. Awful. One of the memorable dogs I worked with was a SWEET Husky/Shepherd owned by LOVELY people, and the dog (about a year or so old) had suddenly begun to chase after/lunge at all other people around her, shocking her owners. Vet told them the dog must have been teased and should be killed!!! I gave them ONE lesson on this easy, mild dog who had just decided that she was maturing and should be protective, and that was enough. The family was SOOOO grateful, and called me later and thanked me - their perfect dog was back to being perfect! So nice to have a good story to give us hope...

    Keep up your GREAT work!

  6. I am very lucky with our local shelter where I volunteer. The shelter manager has always had rotties and understands that the unicorn and fairy fart system of training (I love that characterization by the way!) doesn't work all that well, especially on adolescent lab mixes who have been tied out for the last 6 months of their young lives. And the kennel manager is young and open to suggestion. And both of them will happily give out my contact info to new owners.

  7. Lovely post, really.

    Most of the dogs at the shelter I volunteer at are handled well enough with click-treating and ignoring rude behavior (which is all volunteers are trained to do). However, I've seen other volunteers get bloodied and bruised trying to use those techniques with untrained, crazy adolescents. Dog-aggressive dogs are absolutely uncontrollable with sweet-talk and cookies.

    Hence the need for dog behavior rehabilitators like me, who behind party lines, use verbal and body-language corrections and a martingale collar. It's sad that often the qualities that make a dog great for people (affinity and enthusiasm) also make that dog dangerous with misdirected energy. I often wonder how much of the "pure positive" vibe is hopeful wishes on the part of the shelter, and how much of it is avoiding liability.

  8. So happy to hear "Her Dorkness" found a good home. Pat

  9. I don't know how I missed this. I'm happy for her, but somehow in tears.

  10. I should just pick up a kleenex box as soon as I start reading your blog... Thanks.

  11. Please keep writing. I just discovered your blog, and would love to read more of your stories/thoughts. I hope they don't all make me cry.

    I had to laugh at the idea of manhandling a child in front of an English Shepherd. I have an old Aussie who has always been protective of children, or anything young, of any species. He's the most gentle dog in every other way, and would never nip at a child, even when that child pulled his hair or ears. But watch out, even if you're just playing and the child squeals or yells.

  12. a reminder that i also have missed your writing. and crying is good for the soul, right?
    thank you for all you do, and for who you are.

  13. From Virginia, who like Lynelle, has missed your writing, and like Terrie K should just keep the tissues handy, and as an FYI to Redhorse: No, they won't ALL make you cry. Sometimes the visuals she paints with her words will make you laugh out loud. But keep that box of tissues handy...



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