Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Nuts and Bolts: Chew Toys

Dogs need to chew.

Our foster mutts, being mainly adolescent puppies and young adult dogs, especially need to chew. Kongs are and will always be my #1 favorite dog toy, but they don't satisfy the need to gnaw. So I have spent many months experimenting with chew toys, because that arsenal of rawhides and fake bones is all that keeps our furniture (sorta) safe.

But chew toys are expensive, and not all of them are safe, and some aren't really "chew toys" at all, depending on the vigor and determination with which your mutt destroys things. And so we have this post.

Not Chew Toys: Ropes, tennis balls, soft rubber squeaky toys. All these toys can be great fun for dogs, but you should always supervise a mutt who has them, because they're easily torn apart (yes, even the tennis balls -- I've met dogs at the park who could shuck the green coating off a tennis ball faster than I could peel a banana, and then split the ball inside with one precise chomp, creating not one but three spiffy little choking hazards). Rope toys in particular seem to get shredded into dental floss really quickly in my house... and then whoever did the shredding tries to eat them, potentially resulting in some very expensive vet bills.

Also not chew toys: pig ears and dried jerky treats. They're fine treats (within reason -- pig ears have a lot of calories!), but they just don't last long enough to be worth the name. Tendons are borderline, but I've never had one last longer than a minute and a half so I don't think those are really chew toys either.

Chew Toys: Everything else in this post.

As a blanket statement, given all the concerns about the safety of imported pet foods and treats (which, as of this writing, have recently flared up again with respect to chicken jerky treats from China), I would personally look for toys made in the U.S. or Canada (and, where relevant, from animals raised in the U.S. or Canada) and avoid anything made in China.

Antlers: A relatively recent arrival on the chew toy scene, these are deer and elk antlers sawn into standard lengths. Most of the dogs I've given them to have been intrigued by the antlers but not hugely possessive of them, so I'd consider them medium-value toys on average. I stopped providing antlers after hearing one too many horror stories about dogs cracking teeth on them; they are very hard, and probably ill-advised for a vigorous chewer who likes to really crack down on her teeth. But for a less intense chewer I think they'd be fine. They last a long, long time.

Cheese Chews: Rock-hard plugs of yak milk preserved via traditional methods using salt and lime juice, these are sold as "Himalayan Chews" or "Churpi Chews." The label claims that these are cheeses traditionally eaten by the people of the Himalayas, which leads me to believe these people must have teeth made out of diamonds and kryptonite, because these suckers are hard.
The cheese softens after a little while, allowing the dog to scrape it off and eat it... and make a fair amount of mess, if your mutt's not a super neat eater. Dogs seem to value these more than just about any other chew toy I've tried (although some prefer rawhides) and may quarrel over churpis if they're resource guard-y about food. They don't last quite as long as antlers, but on the other hand I've never heard about them cracking teeth, either.

Hooves: Dried cow hooves (theoretically sometimes other animals' hooves too, I guess, but I've only ever seen cow hooves for sale). I have no experience with these. I heard too many stories about dogs breaking teeth on hard hooves and cutting open their gums on sharp ones and decided it wasn't worth the risk. YMMV but I've honestly never heard anything good about using hooves as chew toys.

Nylon and Polyurethane Bones: Nylabone, Hartz, and other companies make these in a variety of shapes, sizes, and textures. There are varying durability levels so that you can choose a bone tailored to your dog's chewing intensity.

I feel like kind of a bad owner-person because Whole Dog Journal doesn't like these fake plastic bones, but I sure do. Yeah, they're all made of chemicals and synthetic stuff. Yeah, some dogs will reject them because they probably smell and taste artificial, being made entirely of chemicals and synthetic stuff. But none of my mutts has ever turned down a fake bone and they last a long time and they don't break teeth, and generally they're not valuable enough to fight over so I can leave them lying around the house all the time.

So I guess you have to decide for yourself whether you're okay with your dog ingesting tiny scraps of plastic and choose accordingly.

Real Bones: Actual bones should be divided into two groups: baked bones (this includes the clean white sterilized ones) and raw or lightly boiled meaty bones (made at home from raw bones; as far as I know, no one sells boiled bones commercially). These are all bones from large mammals -- pigs, cows, bison and so forth.

Baked bones are too hard for your dog to chew safely, pose some risk of splintering when broken, and, in my opinion, are not safe to give to your dog. Raw or boiled bones are safer but should be further subdivided into marrow bones and knuckle bones. Marrow bones can still be too hard for vigorous chewers and should be taken away once the marrow's gone (although you can then re-stuff them with other fillings and use them like Kongs); knuckle bones can be eaten until they get small enough to pose a choking hazard. Both types last a moderate amount of time, make a pretty big mess (which may be a raw meat mess you don't want in your house), and are valuable enough to spark fights between resource guarders.

Rawhides: Rolled and/or compressed pieces of animal skin (usually cowhide, sometimes pigskin) shaped into knots, braids, circles, and all kinds of crazy designs around major holidays. May be flavored, bleached, or dyed (or painted with titanium oxide to turn them a nice pearly white -- avoid those!).

I look for treats made from thick sheets of undyed, unflavored rawhide. I avoid sticks and gimmicky shapes made from compressed scraps (most of these are dyed and many are artificially flavored, giving me even more incentive to skip them) because you don't know what's in the binders -- companies are not legally required to disclose this information, and given the kinds of crud manufacturers are willing to shove into pet food, I shudder to think what they're using to make the toys. If I can't read the ingredients on the label, I ain't buying it.

And even with all this work, Pongu's still bored with rawhides. He used to love them, but I guess he hit his saturation point months ago; now he has no interest in them whatsoever unless he's taking one away from a foster dog. Oh well. More for them... in the crate.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Stella Goes Home

Last Sunday we did our second adoption event with WAGS -- the last event before I flew to my parents' home for the holidays, and Stella's last chance to find her own home before Christmas.

For a while, it didn't look like she would get one. Several people stopped to ask about her, and one couple who considered her last week came back for a second visit, but in the end they all passed her by. Some had small kids, some weren't quite sure they were ready for a dog, and some just decided on a different cute puppy in the room. (In one case, this caused me to breathe a quiet sigh of relief -- the prospective adopter had been candid, even proud, about using what I would consider excessive physical corrections to train a previous dog, and I would not have been comfortable adopting Stella out there. Fortunately, the adopter decided to pass first.)

But then, just as I was starting to give up hope that Stella would find a real home for the holidays, one last family came into the adoption center. The younger of their two sons saw Stella wearing her bright orange vest, pointed at her, and asked "Is that dog for adoption?"


I asked Stella to Sit and Down for them, and the two boys came over for a closer look. Although Stella was a little nervous about the crutches (she'd never been in such close proximity to walking aids before, and she was already tired and stressed after a long day of being patted by strangers), she performed admirably on cue, and was cautious but friendly when asked to interact with the kids. The younger boy asked her to Sit, and she did.

And oh, how his face lit up when Stella did what he asked. I could see the magic happen. "Mom! Dad! This dog listens to me!"

After that it was mostly just trying to figure out whether this would be a genuinely good fit, puppy love aside. The parents had been looking for a larger dog, and there was a bit of hesitation when they found out that Stella was most likely part pit bull, but the kids were totally won over and they carried the day.

(This picture is not great because (a) I have zero photography skills anyhow; and (b) Stella was so uncomfortable about being crowded toward the crutches that I just took a couple of lousy shots and called it a day, rather than continue to stress her. So that's why she looks slightly nervous in this photo.)

Stella cried some and tried to come back to me when it was time to go home with her new people, which leaves me feeling a little more heart-achy than usual this time, but I'm confident that she'll soon bond strongly with her new family and hopeful that she's found her perfect home. The boys were realistic in their expectations (dogs will shed, there will probably be some potty accidents as she gets adjusted to her new home) and enthusiastic about training her, and she is a smart puppy who will thrive on the attention and continued teaching.

So that's the end of our journey with this magical little monster. Now the plan is to take about a month off to finish my current nerdbook and work more intensively with Pongupants the Fearful, and around the end of January we'll welcome in the next mutt for a crash course in civilization.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Stella's Training Updates 12/14/11

Couple of quick videos while I'm home sick from work:

Stella and Pongu doing recall drills at the dog park (and Pongu twirling around unnecessarily because he is a big showoff who likes to show off).

Stella's recall is good enough that I can call her from the opposite end of the park past other dogs who are playing, but not good enough to break her out of play if she's already engaged (unless she's playing with Pongu, because he will immediately break off play to run over when called, and then she has nobody to play with. I toyed with the idea of making a clip of this because it looks much more impressive, but that would be cheating; it's not her recall that's so great, it's his). She is pretty consistent about coming to me, probably around 80% response rate, but doesn't exactly bolt over at top speed.

So not a SUPER AWESOME FANTASTICO recall, but not half bad for the amount of practice she's had. I wouldn't expect to get a break-out-of-play recall for another month or so (and from what I've seen, most dogs never get there...). For the time she's had, she's doing really well, and while her adopters will certainly want to continue working to improve her performance, she's got a decent foundation.

And here we are doing leash walking drills in the hallway. Plz ignore my elephant butt sweatpants and general raggedy appearance. Like I said: home sick from work.

Out on the street Stella isn't as reliable about maintaining position and swerves from side to side occasionally, and she is still shy and prone to flinching if someone makes a loud noise or moves suddenly, but her performance is continually improving and she's getting pretty good at the stop/sit when the handler stops.

She's small and easy to walk anyway, which is one of the reasons I left Heel as such a low priority on her basic commands list, but there ain't a lot left on the Obedience 101 syllabus, so this is what we're doing now.

Monday, December 12, 2011

2011 in Fosters, From Pongu's POV

(I'll do a real retrospective at the end of the year.)

First Adoption Event with WAGS

Yesterday I took Stella to an adoption event with WAGS Rescue & Referral, a local rescue that does a fantastic job of placing Southern dogs and puppies in adoptive homes around here.

Stella was not real excited about getting dressed up for the party.

But she went, and she handled herself admirably amid the bustle and chaos of dozens of volunteers and dogs and prospective adopters all trying to find their perfect matches. Most of the dogs were newly arrived just that morning from a transport that had brought them up from North Carolina, and while some of the puppies had adjusted well enough to play around in their X-pen, a few of the dogs still looked slightly shellshocked. Others were overwhelmed by the noise and crowding.

Stella was too, at first, but by the end she was sprawled out and totally relaxed. She was able to do her more familiar tricks on cue, too. (Down was a little harder for her, and I had to revert to lure prompts, but given how many dogs are reluctant about getting into a vulnerable Down position in a strange area, that's understandable.) I was impressed. That's a huge step for her.

(These pictures aren't very good, partly because I'm a terrible photographer anyway and partly because I felt like I had to snap them on the sly, as it felt a little rude to just go taking pictures of people without asking their permission. But it maybe conveys a tiny amount of the bustle -- it was actually a lot more crowded than this looks!)

Several people were interested in Stella, but she didn't go home that day.

So she came home and played dysfunctional Fetch with Pongu, who as usual capitalized on whatever weakness he could find in the Temporary Dog's game to make sure that he, and only he, got all the treats.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Misc. Updates 12/9/11

It's been a rough week for Team Stupid.

Both the mutts came down with giardia last weekend, probably from the dog park. So they've been pooping up a storm, especially since I let it go on for a couple days figuring it was just indigestion. This wasn't a particularly good period for my sanity, insofar as two monsters with troubled bowels + spousal unit who unreasonably refuses to bolt out of bed and down three flights of stairs into the freezing cold every time an ominous squeak echoes from the living room = me making A LOT of potty runs at all hours of the night. And I mean all hours, as in making at least one run per hour for three nights on end. It's a wonder I didn't break my neck running bleary-eyed and half-asleep down all those stairs with a wailing dog in tow.

By the third night, which was by far the worst one because (a) Stella kept pooping and peeing in her crate with no warning and getting it all over herself; and (b) I had to be in court first thing the next morning to argue a first-degree murder case, I was pretty much out of Sanity points. 3:15 a.m. found me typing a surrender email to Karen, the rescue coordinator, after mopping up yet another puddle of liquid poo in Stella's crate. I'm not proud to admit it, but it's true: I was on the brink of giving up. As awesome a dog as Stella is, I just didn't know how much more I could take.

Luckily Karen talked me off the ledge. She asked me to hang onto the dog just until the end of the week, and if I was still insane on Monday, Stella could have a berth in a no-kill adoption center. It wouldn't be a home, but it'd be a place where she could sit until she got a real one.

That glimmer of hope on the horizon, coupled with the relief of having some support if I just couldn't hack it on my own, got me through the rest of the week. (It helped that opposing counsel no-showed on that murder case, too, because it would not have been pretty if I had litigated that in my state of total delirium.) And by the end of the day, after a vet visit and a couple of powder packets emptied into the dogs' porridge, things were back under control.

So I missed a day and a half from work, which sucked, and I came perilously near screwing up in court, which really sucked, but crisis was narrowly averted, thanks to Dr. Greiner at Queen Village and rescue coordinator Karen's intercession and the ever-reliable laziness of opposing counsel in this city. <3 u guys.

Anyway, the monsters now appear to be constipated, which is not great but is a hell of a lot better than the way things were before. They can't go to the dog park until their treatment is done (and I'm not sure it's a brilliant idea to take them back afterward, either, since getting the giardia diagnosed and treated cost several hundred dollars and I'm not eager to just get them re-infected again), so now it is the Crazy Bumfight Show in my house constantly.

CONSTANTLY. Our coffee table, it is doomed.

Meanwhile: Pongu missed his freestyle class this week because of the giardia, but I sent in our registration for the World Canine Freestyle Organization, so hopefully soon we will be registered dorkbutts and can then work on achieving our dorkbutt titles.

It's just as well though since this whole week has been spent working on the exercises recommended at our consultation with Leslie McDevitt on Saturday, so we wouldn't have had time to practice any new freestyle moves anyway. At Leslie's suggestion, Pongu's Prozac dosage has been upped to 30 mg/day, and every day we work through Karen Overall's relaxation protocol and practice breathing exercises, like so:

We're on Day 6 and so far Pongu is acing the relaxation protocol (although he's just doing it in the living room, since we've just started) but is mightily confused about the breathing thing. I haven't worked with him on capturing behaviors before -- we've only done shaping and luring in the past -- so this is totally new and it hasn't quite come together in his head. But he's smart, he'll get it soon. And none too soon, since his fearfulness is beginning to shade into fear-based aggression. He's discovered that ferocious barking and lunging makes people go away... a lesson I need to counteract swiftly, before it turns into biting.

For her part, Stella is (or was, before the diarrhea interlude interrupted training) working on Stay. She has a pretty good Stay indoors; we'll take it on the road soon so I can make a more impressive clip to show prospective adopters.

And that's where we are for now. On Sunday Stella has an adoption event with WAGS Rescue & Referral (who took her brother, Jackson f/k/a Hugo) where hopefully she will charm her way into a permanent home. If not, we'll continue her education in being a properly civilized mutt monster.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

All About Stella

It's now been four weeks since Stella came to live with us, and I think we have a pretty good picture of who she is and where she belongs. It's probably time to start seriously looking for this foster pup's forever home... so in this post I'll try to get all the basics in one place.

Stella is a seven-month-old hound mix puppy from rural Georgia, where she was found in a roadside ditch, half-starved and covered with fleas. Her brother, Jackson (formerly known as Hugo), was found alongside her and was also transported to the Philadelphia area, where he was adopted by his foster family after just a couple of weeks. Owing to the crappiness of her early life, Stella can be timid in new situations; she's come a long way in the time that we've had her, but she will probably never be an especially bold pup. Once she warms up, though, she turns into a playful little comedian.

Stella weighs about 35 pounds (a compact 35 -- she looks smaller), is spayed, and is up to date on vaccinations. She's an extremely sweet, gentle, people-oriented puppy who likes to play with sticks and balls and other dogs. She makes little chirpy raptor noises when she's frustrated or wants attention, but is not a big barker -- she'll bark if she thinks an intruder is coming, but otherwise barely makes a "whuff."

The one exception to her general quietness is that Stella can get VERY vocal if she is crated out of sight of her people. Being in the crate doesn't seem to bother her at all if she can still see you, but if she can't... well, imagine a dog who yodels with the lungs of Pavarotti, the muscial talents of William Hung, and a dash of sex-crazed alley cat thrown in for good measure. Yeah. Like that. Stella prefers to be a constant companion and will shadow you everywhere if she can; if she can't, she gets worried. I wouldn't say that she has full-blown separation anxiety (she doesn't hurt herself, soil the crate, or break anything), but she does wail impressively for a minute or ten until she calms down. I expect this will go away as she becomes more secure in the knowledge that her people will always come back, but in the meantime, if banshee dog wails would be a dealbreaker, now you know!

Stella is good with other dogs (generally very submissive, although some of this is likely due to her young age) and, although curious about our guinea pig, is not inappropriately obsessed with him, so I think she could likely live with cats or other small pets. Except birds. Stella has it in for birds. And squirrels. And sticks...

Noisy young children are too scary for Stella, but she should be fine with older and calmer kids who have been taught how to interact appropriately with dogs. She is easily overwhelmed by loud noises and big crowds, and would be best suited for a calmer home with an owner who was prepared to continue confidence-building exercises and lifelong positive training. Stella loves learning. She would also do really well with an older, calm dog to act as a role model and play partner.

Stella is trained to both a clicker and the marker word "Yes!" She is generally polite (doesn't pull much on leash, rarely jumps on people in greeting, and is easily encouraged to sit politely and wait for attention instead). Command-wise, she knows Sit, Down, and Spin, and has a fairly good recall (although it's actually kind of hard to test this because she doesn't like to go far enough away for me to have to call her from afar). She is currently working on "Say Hi" (wave) and Stay. She's a smart dog and highly motivated by both food and toys, so training is super easy.

(needs work, but she's getting it!)

Housetraining is a work in progress, and her adopter should expect to continue teaching her to hold it indoors. Stella has no problem going potty outside and will do so promptly; it's the not doing it inside part that hasn't quite clicked. With close monitoring and judicious use of a crate this should not be too difficult, but she's definitely not a dog you'd want to leave loose in your house all day at this point.

Being small and short-haired, Stella doesn't shed very much. I certainly wouldn't call her no-shed, but compared to resident mutt Pongu she drops hardly any hair at all. I honestly think she sheds about as much as the guinea pig does (but before anybody gets too excited about that, let me hasten to add that guinea pigs probably shed a lot more than you're imagining...).

And that is Stella in a (rather large) nutshell! She is a delightful little dog who will make someone a really special companion. If you're interested in adopting or would like more information, please contact me via email at liane(dot)merciel(at)gmail-dot-com or by commenting on this blog.

Don't you want to give this little mutt a home?

Monday, November 21, 2011

Stella Goes There and Back Again

Last week, Stella went out to New Jersey to pay a visit to the rescue vet, who relieved her of some lady parts, stitched her back up, and sent her home real high on drugs.

Anesthesia did not agree with her. Stella made many merry messes on that white towel (...and the condo foyer downstairs, so that the good people of Starbucks got to watch me mop dog pee on the other side of their giant window for 10 minutes...), then made a big ol' puddle on the living room rug when I took her out of the box for a few seconds to change it.

This, THIS is the face of smugness. Or real good pain meds. Whichever.
But she recovered, and last Saturday she went to the prospective adopters' for a trial sleepover. Alas, they returned her the next day with many regrets. The couple had nothing but nice things to say about what a good and gentle dog Stella was (and she didn't even poop in their house! much!), but they discovered that they just weren't up for handling two young, playful dogs in a small house with no yard. For which I can hardly blame them, seeing as how the chaos drives me temporarily crazy too every time a new foster mutt arrives. I genuinely do not know how people with more dogs handle it.

Anyway, that means Stella is back on the market. I'm not pushing her hard yet -- I have a hard time doing that in good conscience right now, given how iffy her potty training is -- but once she stops crapping up my house every chance she gets, it'll be time to go all-out on advertising the little monster for adoption.

In the meantime, we continue to work on Fun Games!!, aka "training." So far she has Sit, Down, Come, and Spin, as demonstrated in this clip of her doing mixed drills:

...and it's time to start working on something new.

MEANWHILE, Pongu and I have an appointment for a behavioral consultation with Leslie McDevitt, author of Control Unleashed, in a couple of weeks. I am grateful to my freestyle instructor for making the suggestion and hopeful that it will help us get Nervous McNerdypants a little farther along the road to competition. Because the Prozac doesn't seem to be doing much of anything anymore, and Xanax, while super helpful in keeping Pongu functional in class, makes him too wobbly to dance well.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Why I Foster Southern Dogs

There are never enough homes to go around in animal rescue. Foster or forever, they're in short supply, and the deluge of needy animals -- while a fraction of what it was 30 years ago -- is still unending. There are still plenty of irresponsible people in the world who don't spay or neuter their pets, who want to have "just one litter" to show their kids "the miracle of life," who get animals without much commitment and discard them once they prove to be messy or noisy or destructive. And then there are people who, as a result of death or divorce or job loss, have to give up beloved pets to the uncertainties of the shelter world.

So there are lots of animals who need homes. None of us can take them all. And deciding which ones to save is always a difficult decision.

I adopted Pongu from a local shelter, but I foster Southern dogs. Most of our mutts have come from rural Georgia; Gremlin was from North Carolina. One of these days I may pick up a foster pup when I visit my parents in Alabama.

There are several reasons for this.

One, those are the dogs who seem to be in the most serious need. Animal abuse is a horrific crime that happens everywhere, of course, and local dogs are not immune. But there is not a culture of casual neglect and disregard in the urban Northeast as there is in the places where these dogs come from. People do not habitually keep their dogs chained outside all day long here, nor do they regularly dump pregnant mothers or entire litters of puppies by the roadside. They take basic precautions so that their dogs aren't constantly dying of illnesses that could be cheaply and easily prevented, like parvo or heartworm.

Up here, shelter dogs are kept in reasonably clean conditions and are walked, visited, trained, and played with by dedicated volunteers and staffers. If they need veterinary care, they generally get it. They don't sit in dank, flea-infested cages with bleach burns on their feet (from their kennels being hosed down with disinfectant solution while the dogs are still inside) and poop matted to their fur and no air conditioning in 100-degree summers. But our Southern dogs have been rescued from exactly those conditions.

Two, the dogs in the Northeast already have a strong support network. PAWS and the PSPCA do great work, and I give them money whenever I can, but they already have a small army of volunteers and fosters, such that any dog I might want to foster is likely to be spoken for promptly. (I actually tried for a couple of months to get started as a PAWS/PSPCA foster, but every dog I applied for was already taken within hours.) Not only do I feel like the dogs don't need me as badly, I feel like the organizations can get by without.

In the rural South, there is no such safety net. Rescue operations tend to be tiny and run on shoestring budgets by volunteers who pay for everything out of pocket. They have no grants, organized fundraisers, or government support. In these groups, every penny counts. The difference that my individual contribution makes is a lot more obvious here.

Three, the population of dogs is different. In the Northeast, the culture of responsible pet ownership is sufficiently widespread that, as Sue Sternberg put it, "we have educated the educable." It's rare to see entire litters of puppies show up in city shelters; mostly what you get are adolescents and young adults, 6 to 18 months old, abandoned by their owners when they got big and stopped being cute. And, overwhelmingly, they are pit bulls, because those are the dogs favored and massively overbred by people who want tough-looking dogs to guard their houses/drug stashes, intimidate other people in their neighborhoods, and use as fighting dogs. The family pets are spayed and neutered in the Northeast. The breeding dogs are what's left.

These dogs make hard fosters. Because of their sketchy breeding, many of the good traits of the pit bull breed may be weakened or lost. Many of their owners intentionally breed for aggression, both against humans and against other dogs, and sometimes they succeed. On top of that, these dogs generally have no training whatsoever -- which is true of almost all rescue dogs (because, as a rule, people who care enough about their dogs to train them do not dump them on the street), but it's a lot easier to live with a quiet 30-pound mystery mutt in a small condo than it is to handle a rowdy, powerful 65-pound pit in the same space. And as if all that weren't enough, many people simply can't or don't want to adopt pit bulls, so they tend to stay in foster care a long time. Months to years is not uncommon.

By contrast, in the South, most of the dogs are descended from hunting or working breeds: golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, foxhounds, beagles, coonhounds, German shepherds, and so forth. Although many of them are also pit mixes (because dog fighting is, unfortunately, not unique to urban poverty), the percentage is lower, and often these dogs don't look or act like stereotypical "pit bulls," so people who might have been leery of adopting a big, muscular, dog-aggressive pit have no problem falling in love with a small, cute, sweet mutt whose main pit bull trait is having a lot of patience with kids.

As a group, these dogs tend to be temperamentally "softer," are easier to rehab (often they don't even really need rehab, they just need a sense of security and some basic training), and are easier to place. Thus, in the same amount of time it might have taken me to save one hard case, I can save multiple easy dogs.

The combination of all these factors means that I feel I can do the most good, and address the most severe needs, by fostering Southern dogs. And so that's what I do.

Will Young's "Come On"

Watched it for the first time this morning, and it is already possibly my favorite dog video ever EVER.

It's circulating rapidly among dog sport aficionados, and it's pretty easy to see why. A lot of dog videos are cute, and a lot are funny or sentimental, but not too many show off the spiffy things a smart, athletic, well-trained dog can do. GO DOG NERDS GO!!

(and of course I like it in part because even though freestyle is where the gimpy dogs who can't do agility go, it's still cool. So naturally it inspires me to keep working with my janky-legged nerdypants dog, and I am posting it everywhere. <3 <3 <3 )

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Some Dog Books I Like

Here is a non-exhaustive list of general-interest dog books that I like. I'm mostly posting it just so I have the link handy to give out as needed. I am always on the lookout for new-to-me good books, so if you ask me in a week or a month or a year I may well have additional titles to rec. But for today, this is a starting point.

All-Purpose Basics:
-- The Adopted Dog Bible, Kim Saunders/Petfinder.com
-- How to Behave so Your Dog Behaves, Sophia Yin
-- Love Has No Age Limit, Patricia McConnell
-- Do-Over Dogs, Pat Miller
-- Successful Dog Adoption, Sue Sternberg (<-- this is the most controversial book on my list by far; Sternberg has very stringent ideas about how stable and tolerant a dog needs to be in order to be a good prospect for newbie owners, esp. newbies with kids. But there's a lot of good stuff in here regardless of your views on her temperament test, so I'll give it a rec.)

All of these books, except for Sophia Yin's, are geared toward adopters of shelter/rescue dogs, but they are all very good and useful for newbie owners of any dog. I strongly recommend that anyone who is considering getting a first dog read at least one of these books BEFORE bringing the dog home.

Basic Training:
-- My Smart Puppy, Brian Kilcommons and Sarah Wilson
-- Train Your Dog Like a Pro, Jean Donaldson
-- The Power of Positive Dog Training, Pat Miller

If you can't get to a good training class, or your dog is not suitable for a training class, or you just feel like spending a lot of time drilling the basics for fun (and it is fun! it is a lot of fun!), those are all good starting points that go into a little more depth than the books listed in the first category. They also do a good job of laying out the foundations (attention games, Doggie Zen, "Watch Me," etc.) and explain the hows-and-whys of positive ("clicker") training, a very powerful tool indeed.

Deeper Understanding:
-- Dog Sense, John Bradshaw
-- The Other End of the Leash and For the Love of a Dog, Patricia McConnell
-- Bones Would Rain From the Sky, Suzanne Clothier
-- The Intelligence of Dogs, Stanley Coren

Clothier's book is on relationship building and philosophies of training, the others are mostly about the science of dog genetics, perception, and behavior, and how this influences our interactions with our assorted mutt monsters.

Rescue and Shelter Work:
-- One at a Time, Diane Leigh and Marilee Geyer
-- Lost and Found, Elizabeth Hess

If you want to know what it's like to work in a shelter, why animals end up in shelters, why some of them get out and others don't, and the peripheral issues that affect shelters (irresponsible owners, puppy mills, hoarders, differing cultural views on the value of dogs and appropriate treatment of them). Frequently depressing, occasionally inspiring, will pretty much guarantee that you never buy a backyard bred or puppy mill dog ever ever EVER. May cause you to start fostering or volunteering. And that can only be a good thing, even if you have to walk through some heartache to get there.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Misc. Updates 11/9/11

All my whining and moaning about Stella's tummy issues aside, she is doing a wonderful job of getting used to the noise and chaos of the city. Stella no longer pancakes on the ground when I take her out for walks. She used to go flat and refuse to move when I tried to get her out the door; twelve days later, she no longer bats an eyelash about going outside, and doesn't even need to be bribed.

A few days ago I decided to start taking her to our local dog park. These visits had to go on hiatus after just a few stops -- Stella's getting spayed next week, so no exercise for a while, and there are rumors of kennel cough going around the park, so it's probably not a good idea to expose a pup of Stella's age -- but before we stopped, she was starting to relax and play a little more.

Improving Stella's confidence will be an ongoing project for some time, and it's something that her eventual adopter should be prepared to continue. We've made enough progress now, though, that I have begun teaching her the basic commands (Sit and Down so far, the diarrhea put a crimp in my plans to teach Stay) and working on loose-leash walking. In a couple more weeks, with any luck, Stella will be ready to go on to a real home.

Meanwhile, Pongu's going to start his freestyle class tonight. I am nervous for my little goofymutt and expect that he'll be stressed and unable to focus in this session, since it will be his first time in a new environment. But I'm hopeful that he'll recover quickly and be able to participate soon, and I am further hopeful that I'll learn some things to improve my training skills and help him out at home between classes.

It's a small class -- only three other dogs! -- and I don't quite know what to expect, since I've never taken a class dedicated to any specific dog sport before. But I guess we'll find out soon.

Diarrhea Porridge

The last few days with Team Stupid have been all about the glamorous side of fostering. Which is to say: poop. And pee. But mostly poop. As anyone who's fostered mutts for more than 48 hours can verify, you lose any squeamishness about potty matters real fast in this gig.

It turns out my unfounded optimism about Stella's housebreaking progress was, predictably, unfounded. Pretty much as soon as I hit "publish" on last week's blog post, the fates decided to punish my hubris by delivering unto me (or, more correctly, my carpet) one doggy pee puddle per day. I think this dog must have a bladder the size of a thimble -- I'd take her out of the crate, she would promptly and enthusiastically pee outside, hooray!, treats for all!, and then I'd take her back inside and 90 minutes later, pee puddle on the carpet. WTF DOG DIDN'T YOU READ THE DOG BOOK, YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO BE ABLE TO HOLD IT SIX HOURS.

Then, because peeing on the carpet was getting stale, Stella decided to liven things up by peeing in the condo's downstairs hallway instead of waiting for me to open that one last door so she could go outside. You know, because that's exactly what I need to further endear myself to the neighbors.

But wait! There's more!

You might be wondering: this blog post opened with promises of poop! Where's the poop! And the answer is: also on my carpet, starting last night. Stella dropped a deuce under the dining table immediately after I brought her in from a potty waddle. But at least that one was easy to clean.

So I scrubbed the carpet and hosed it down with Nature's Miracle and put the little poop monster in her box for the night. Stella cried about being in the box, and then she woke up around 3 am and cried some more about being in the box, and then she woke up around 4 am and cried some more about being in the box, until finally I trudged groggily out to the living room to sleep on the couch so she would shut the hell up. Pongu was delighted. Me, not so much. But I did finally get to sleep a few hours...

...until I was unceremoniously awakened by the sight, sound, and above all smell of Stella unleashing a torrential diarrhea bomb all over the interior of her crate. And promptly stepping in it. And, as I let loose my best slow-mo action-movie "NOOOOOOOOO," tracking it all over the damn place, including all over herself, and spilling it through the side of the crate onto the floor underneath.

So I got to spend my morning grumpily lugging a furry little diarrhea bomb down the sunny streets of Bella Vista with my face unwashed, teeth unbrushed, pajamas unchanged, and disposition decidedly un-improved. And then I got to go to the store to grab some stuff for diarrhea porridge, which is all the foster furball will be eating until her pudding poop improves.

And here we come, at last, to the substantive portion of today's blog post: a recipe for what to feed your dog when its doodies look like the worst froyo flavor in the world.

6 cups chicken or beef broth
1 1/2 cups uncooked white rice
2 pounds ground chicken or turkey (you can also use chicken breast or boneless thighs, cooked and shredded into tiny bits)
Couple of scoops of canned pumpkin (I've never measured but it's probably in the ballpark of 1/2 to 2/3 cup)
1 1/2 teaspoons powdered eggshell (for calcium, if you don't have any handy you can skip this, as diarrhea porridge is hopefully not a longterm diet)

Cook the rice in 4 cups of broth until done, then add chicken/turkey, eggshells (if using), and 2 more cups of broth. Simmer until almost all the liquid has been absorbed and the porridge is super mushy. Stir in the canned pumpkin so that it's evenly distributed, remove from heat, cool and serve.

This is a blandissimo diet that should be suitably gentle on a stressed dog's digestive tract. Canned pumpkin helps with both doggy constipation and diarrhea so I like to throw a little in there on top of the usual boiled-chicken-and-rice blandness (plus, you know, beta carotene and other good stuff). Schedule permitting, I break the dog's meals up into many small meals instead of the usual two-meal breakfast/dinner schedule -- this gives the dog the chance to occupy itself with a bunch of frozen porridge Kongs all day (because you better believe an un-potty-trained diarrhea machine is staying in the crate most of the time, so it needs something to do in there) and makes each potential poobomb slightly smaller.

The recipe makes a pretty big batch of porridge. Hopefully Stella's tummy upset will be resolved long before it runs out.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Sad Dog in the Box

It's now been five days since Stella came to stay with us, and Pongu seems to have decided that the newest addition to Team Stupid is his favorite so far. He clearly likes her more than he did any of the other foster mutts, except Gremlin toward the end, and it took Pongu much longer to warm up to Gremlin than it did for Stella. (Of course, Gremlin was a lot growlier.)

Stella went to the vet yesterday and we learned that she does not have ear mites. The black gunk in her ears is some kind of fungus/yeast crud instead. Still means I have to squirt her ears twice a day with one bottle o' goop and clean them out every other day with a second bottle o' goop. FUN. But at least this stuff is less contagious, so I don't have to do Pongu too.

I haven't started formal training with Stella yet. We're still on basic life manners: potty training, walking down the street without freaking out (I'm not even really focused on loose leash walking or attention games yet, I'm just trying to get her to go through doors and past other people without putting on the brakes and pancaking), waiting patiently for dinner instead of whirling around in glee like a beagle-tailed dervish.

Everything is going well. There haven't been any accidents since Day One, and Stella seems to have more-or-less grasped the concept of "pee outside NO NOT IN MY HOUSE GODDAMNIT," although I have learned to be cautious in my optimism about these things. But she is learning very quickly. She can now mostly go through doors without too much coaxing, although she still stalls a little on the last glass door that goes out to the street. Dinner manners... well, that's a work in progress. But she's making progress, which is the important thing.

Still, it's been a reminder that 90% of fostering is about patience, humor, and humility. I think it's been extra jarring this time because I've been working pretty intensively with Pongu on intermediate-to-advanced freestyle stuff... and then I come back to Stella, who is so clearly overwhelmed by processing everything in her new environment that I backed off teaching Sit after the first day. She is a sweet, sweet dog -- and really funny once she relaxes enough to clown around -- but it causes me a little mental whiplash to go from one mutt to the other.

And it's been a reminder, too, that while every foster pup goes at her own pace, the basic pattern stays the same.

Crate wailing, for one thing.

It's been my experience that foster dogs go through two, sometimes three, stages with respect to crates:

(1) Sanctuary!! (Optional) - The dog is so shaken up by the chaos of moving that it's just incredibly relieved to have a crate as a designated "safe spot." Dog huddles in crate and occasionally ventures forth to explore, but mostly sticks close to home base. Not all dogs go through this stage -- confident ones may never feel like they need a hidey-hole -- but Stella spent her first couple of days here.

(2) Sad Dog in the Box - Dog begins to feel more comfortable in the new place and affectionate toward its new people, and decides: I like you! I want to be with you! nooooo don't put me in the crate nooooo I want to sleep under the bed too whyyyy

So this is what you get: a Sad Dog in the Box. (At this point many people with just one resident dog give up and let the dog out of the crate. Not an option with fosters, alas. But you'd be amazed what they can do with earplug technology these days...)

...obviously, this is where we are now with Stella. (Pongu's all "yup you are definitely stuck in there! Welp, sucks for you.")

(3) Resignation/Acceptance - As the dog learns that it's not going to be locked up in the crate forever (and, indeed, spends less and less time confined in there as potty reliability improves), the wailing gradually goes away and is replaced with quiet resignation (although Gremlin continued to give us guilt-trip stares and pointed sighs forever).

So I know that eventually the mournful songs of the Sad Dog in the Box will fade off into memory... but for now we get nightly serenades, and every day around 10 pm I get to be really grateful that the new owners of the condo next door haven't yet moved in.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Pongu and Stella: Friends at Last (Day Two!)

It took a day and a half for Stella to relax enough to solicit play and Pongu to warm up to her enough to engage (and he still isn't that warm, although he will tolerate her presence as long as she doesn't try to get up on the couch where Only Pongu Is Allowed), but it looks like the pancake dog has officially been welcomed into Team Stupid.

Now I get to have constant bumfights next to my computer while I'm trying to work again. Hooray.

Afterward Stella was totally pooped out, and when I put her back in her crate, she just snored all night long. I have never seen a dog snore that loudly for that long. I tried to tape it but the camera didn't begin to do justice to the loudness of her snores (also Pongu was not excited about me paying attention to Other Dog again and photobombed me nonstop).

It's only been two days, but I want to keep this dog. If I keep the dog that means no more fostering, though, and that would make me sad. :[

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Stella: The First 24 Hours

It's now been almost exactly one day since Stella came into our lives, and that seems like a good time to note some preliminary impressions. Some of these may prove mistaken as we get to know her better; some may remain accurate.

In person she looks more like a pit bull mix than I had expected, which I'm concerned may make it more difficult for her to find a home. Whether she is a pit mix or not is almost immaterial; what matters in the great lottery of adoptability is how she looks to the average eye. Owing to the real and perceived issues surrounding pit bulls, many people simply will not (or, because of lease restrictions, homeowners associations, and the like, cannot) consider adopting one. It's not fair, but it's a factor.

Hopefully outweighing that, however, that she's young, cute, and unusually sweet. If you were looking for a dog to embody the opposite of the stereotypical "pit bull temperament," it would be hard to find a better match than Stella. We'll never know for sure, but it's not hard to imagine that Stella and her brother ended up in that roadside ditch because they'd proven to be total failures as fighting dogs, just as beagles in rural areas often wind up at the pound because they're no good at hunting. Dog fighting is sadly common in the area Stella came from, and she's clearly got about as much talent for fighting as she does for juggling flaming chainsaws.

I call her the "pancake dog" because her default move when she doesn't know what else to do or is confronted by an overwhelming situation is to flatten herself on the ground like a pancake and freeze. Stella does not have a lot of confidence and is completely unsocialized to many of the everyday sights and sounds of the city (delivery guys on bikes, women in heeled boots, umbrellas, motorcycles...), so I've been seeing a lot of doggy pancakes these past few hours.

When she isn't pancaked out, however, she's a snuggly little mutt who solicits attention constantly. Every now and then I get a glimpse of a clowny side to her personality, but so far she's mostly been gentle, subdued, and forever seeking reassurance. Her ideal home would probably have an older, more confident dog that Stella could use as a role model -- she's clearly a born follower who looks to other dogs for guidance in how to react to things. Unfortunately, the older dog in this house is Pongu, who is still in full-on "oh my god what are you doing in my house get OUT you stupid little interloper" mode. He doesn't even want to play with her, which makes Stella sad.

As for the rest, it's about the same as usual. We're starting from zero on training. Stella is not housebroken, has no idea how to walk on leash, and knows no commands. Stairs and glass doors are mysterious and frightening. Like all of our shelter mutts so far, Stella is a bit of a Velcro dog and doesn't like to be away from her people (she wailed like a banshee and peed all over the place when I tied her out in the hallway for a couple of minutes so I could get Pongu and introduce the dogs on neutral ground), but she's not as vocal about it as Gremlin or Pepper, and she seems to calm down faster. So it is probably not crucial that she go to a home where someone will be present all the time, although that would likely be her preference.

And that's where we are on Day One.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Stella the Pancake Dog

This morning we picked up our next foster dog, Stella the Pancake Dog. Stella and her brother were found as half-starved strays covered in fleas; quite probably their owner had dropped them off at the side of the road and driven away. She was listed as a 20-pound hound mix by the rescue, and while that's on the small side for our household and I wasn't too sure about the wisdom of keeping a potentially very vocal dog in our building (as hounds are known to sing when the mood strikes), she otherwise seemed like a good fit. So we volunteered to take Stella, and her brother went on to rescue with WAGS.

Just getting the pup proved to be a mini-adventure. This morning Philadelphia woke up to the rare calamity of October snow -- only the third time in recorded history we've had snow in October here. I don't know what the other two were like, but this one was a sleety, hail-y, slushy mess that destroyed visibility on the roads and felt like driving through half-frozen Crisco.

The weather change was so sudden that this is what my garden looked like this morning. The last strawberry of the season, frozen solid on its stem.

We eventually made it to the meetup point, a rest stop in Delaware (which was itself slightly confusing because I initially thought it was the rest stop near Newark, then was told that it was "near the Pennsylvania state line," then finally figured out that indeed these two things were both true and referred to the same rest stop, since Delaware is so small that a spot in its center is near the PA state line, especially by the standards of someone coming from a full-sized state), and picked up the little furball.

The caravan was jam-packed with dogs -- mostly young, mostly small to medium sized, all in desperate need of help. Stella wasn't nearly as bad off as some of the others (one poor mother dog looked like a black-furred skeleton with teats, although at least all her still-blind puppies were fat and healthy), but she was still underweight, underconfident, infested with ear mites, and badly in need of a bath. I think she might have a touch of pinkeye, too.

But she was and is an extraordinarily gentle, friendly little dog (although not that little -- closer to 30 pounds than 20, I'd say, which is a much more comfortable size), and by the time we got home she had already begun to bond. So here we are. We'll see what the next weeks bring. Miticide would be a good start...

(Stella does not much care for the cold, and wonders: "what is this horrible place you've brought me to!" She's a Georgia girl, after all.)

An End to the Raw Food Experiment, For Now

After several weeks I'm calling an end to the raw food experiment, at least for the time being. Pongu just didn't like eating it. I did the slow transition from cooked to "rare" to raw, but he never especially liked the rare and he got real finicky when it went to raw, often picking at his food and spitting out bits he disliked (including his assorted pills), instead of hoovering it down and looking around hopefully for more, like he did and does with the cooked food.

So since the science doesn't really support the superiority of a raw food diet over home cooked (although plenty of people swear by it, and it did seem like there was a very slight improvement in Pongu's coat and breath while he was eating raw food), we're switching back. I do plan to keep using the meat grinder so that I can cook the food for shorter periods of time instead of boiling bones for days on end, and maybe I'll give raw feeding another shot later on, but for now this is it.

It's timely, too, since the next foster mutt just arrived...

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Woops and Misc. Updates 10/13/11

So the raw food plan hit a snag: turns out my food processor can't grind up chicken wings. I thought it could because it pasted a brace of quail no problem, but apparently chicken wings are just tougher or shaped wrong or something. Oh well.

I ordered a Northern Tool food grinder (the 16-pound model) after reading recommendations from Whole Dog Journal (although the article was from 2003, hopefully Northern Tool's quality hasn't gone down in the intervening years...), which should settle the wing grinding issue. But until it gets here, it's back to powdered eggshells and cooked bones for calcium.

Other updates:

-- Sat in on my first-ever Y2K9 training session yesterday: a canine freestyle and tricks class. It looked really fun and well taught; I am SUPER excited (and, yes, still a little intimidated!) about enrolling Pongu in a freestyle class next month. Thanks to his janky pigeon-toed back legs, formerly-broken front foot, and general floppiness, Pongu will never be a serious agility competitor (plus he's terrified of scary obstacle things, so there's that too). But freestyle he can do, so that is what we're gunning for.

It's pretty awesome (and intimidating!) to have a group of hardcore dog sports enthusiasts right on our doorstep. I saw some of the Advanced Agility class on my way to the freestyle class and omg those dogs are faaaast. Crazy fast. I don't see dogs that fast at the dog park, that's for sure.

I also met a jaunty little jumping bean of a JRT who made me reflect on what a great flyball dog Gremlin would have been. She did the exact same kind of improbably high jumping from a standing start -- she could hit shoulder height consistently without any training. And once she got healthy, she was crazy fast too. It's hard to believe we used to think Gremlin was a low-energy dog... although, to be fair, she was. At first. Until she got her strength back.

Anyway, it's really cool and inspiring to see all the dogs who are so damn good at their chosen sports, and to see what a wide variety of sports are taught and practiced at the club. HOORAY, can't wait to get started.

-- Took Pongu to the vet for booster shots, discussed whether to up his Prozac dosage. It's been about five weeks now and he's definitely showing improvement, but it's not quite where I would like, and I don't know whether this is because the medications aren't sufficient or he needs a different kind of medication or he's just always going to be like this, and this is as good as it'll get.

On his good days, Pongu is noticeably less reactive to startling noises, doesn't cower from people who reach out to pet him (although I still block them, because WHAT THE HELL PEOPLE, DON'T GRAB MY FEARFUL DOG), and seems calmer and more relaxed. He seems more able to have fun and just "be a dog." On his bad days, he's just like he was before Prozac. There are more good days than bad days, and I haven't noticed any detrimental side effects (big plus!!), but I still find myself hoping for more.

We might talk to a specialist at Penn next; our regular vet said that would be the best course if Pongu doesn't show much more improvement on his remaining course of Prozac, since as a general practitioner she doesn't feel super confident about prescribing other psych meds. But for now we'll keep on keepin' on, at least until the pills in his bottle run out.

-- Training goals for this week: back away, circle on hip cues (both directions), getting into/returning to heel position. First two are just modifying or improving things Pongu already knows, the latter is totally new and is something I don't even actually know how to teach yet. Research project!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Transitioning to Raw

I'm making a gradual transition from home-cooked "dog stew" to raw feeding.

I don't know if this will become a permanent thing -- with an immunosuppressed person in the house, and the occasional not-completely-healthy foster dog passing through, it may not be feasible to feed raw foods all the time -- but Whole Dog Journal's consistent advocacy of raw feeding convinced me to give it a try, and a couple of weeks' experimenting with Pongu does seem to show some improvement in his energy level and general demeanor. Of course, that could be the Prozac kicking in too; it's hard to say exactly what's making the difference. But it seems clear that there IS a difference, and so I think it's worth keeping on with everything.

The transition hasn't been an overnight thing. I started with some whole ground rabbit and chicken from a butcher in the Italian Market who provides meat to other raw feeders, but Pongu rejected that batch. Maybe he doesn't like rabbit, or maybe he felt there was something "off" about that food. (I found a sharp piece of wire measuring an inch and a half long in the ground rabbit -- thank god Pongu found it first and spit it out instead of swallowing it -- so it is not hard for me to believe that there might have been subtler problems with that food as well. Needless to say, I won't be buying meat there anymore.)

So I stepped back and, following WDJ's advice, made a batch of lightly cooked "rare" dog stew, let Pongu get used to that for a few days, and started alternating meals of lightly cooked dog stew with completely raw food (that I ground up myself in a food processor, being now completely paranoid about purchased ground meat-and-bones). I've also been using the Primal frozen pheasant nuggets, because that's an easy way to mix some raw food into a lightly cooked meal.

It's been a little over a week and Pongu is now accepting raw food, albeit with some suspicious sniffs before he digs into each meal. I'll start completely raw feeding (which is to say, all the homemade food will be raw, but still accompanied by a scoop of high-quality kibble with every meal, just in case I'm missing something) this week.

Here's hoping it takes. Grinding up chicken wings and raw liver in the food processor isn't much fun, but it still beats the 24-hour crockpot endurance run to make cooked dog stew.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Pepper Goes Home

...actually, she went home a couple of weeks ago, but I've been neglecting the blog again and so this post is very much belated.

Regardless! Two weeks ago, Pepper found her forever home.

I actually had to make a decision between two qualified adopters who wanted her, which is the first time that's happened (previously, it's been all we could do to find one person who'd take the mutt of the moment), but then Pepper was unusually cute and unusually sweet, and was a miniature version of a very popular breed, and was still a puppy, so I suppose it's no surprise she was in high demand.

Couple A was in their late 20s/early 30s and lived in the city. Both work outside the home. No kids or other pets, but they were hoping to start having kids in the next few years. Couple B was in their 60s and retired to a low-key lifestyle out in New Jersey. Their kids were grown and gone with families of their own.

Both couples would have been perfectly fine homes, but since we had the luxury of choice, I placed Pepper with Couple B. A calm, quiet home with older people who could spend all day with her was the best place for a gentle and somewhat shy dog who disliked being parted from her people. And from the moment we brought her into the house, it was a great match... notwithstanding the fact that Pepper squatted and peed right in the middle of the living room rug within 30 seconds of coming inside. The adopters declared that they loved her anyway, and she seemed to love them too.

Yesterday I heard that Pepper was doing beautifully in her new home and was following her new person around as a constant companion -- which was exactly what they were hoping to have in a dog. Hooray!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Misc. Updates 9/19/11

Pepper's health:

- The tapeworms are gone (hallelujah!!). No sign of them since I gave her the deworming pills, and that was five days ago, so I think it's safe to say they've been vanquished. She's stopped eating grass, incidentally. I still can't say for sure that the grass-eating was driven by a desire to scrape out tapeworms, but based on my observations it is a tempting theory.

- On Saturday we took the mutt monsters out to Delaware so they could meet some new people (and so Pongu could run around in the grass). Pepper was supposed to be on exercise restriction, but I took my eye off her for a little too long and next thing I knew she was running around all over-excited with a giant crusty scab on her tummy and reddish blister juice seeping out of her spay incision. Oi.

I spent a good couple of hours feeling like the worst foster in the world and debating whether I should take her to the emergency clinic before her guts fell out (by this point it was about 11:00 pm and there was exactly one sober driver in the house), but it turned out that all the crusty blood made it look a lot grislier than it was. Once that was washed off, the damage wasn't too bad. Two of her stitches popped and one looked strained, but the remainder held up okay and Pepper didn't appear to be in any pain whatsoever (in fact she just wanted to keep playing the whole time, which did not help my sense of impending doom). Not good, but not as disastrous as I'd feared.

The incision continued to seep blister fluid until the next morning and then it was fine. I cleaned it and put some antiseptic ointment on it and made really truly COMPLETELY sure that Pepper was on exercise restrictions for the rest of the weekend, and... it looks like no permanent damage was done (fingers crossed!!). So that was terrifying and I will never ever give a post-surgery mutt any chance to jump around again, but I think we're gonna be okay.

Pepper's training at the one-week mark:

- I'm ready to consider Pepper officially "housebroken." She holds it inside and goes reliably outside. I haven't asked her to signal when she needs to go, but as long as her adopters maintain a regular schedule of walks, I think she'll be fine.

- Likewise, I'm ready to call her "leash trained." Pepper's not about to win any obedience awards for gorgeous heelwork, but she doesn't pull, she mostly paces herself to keep plenty of slack on the leash, and she is easily redirected away from greeting other dogs or investigating smelly trash. That's good enough for most people. If her adopters are willing to carry around a few treats and reward her for keeping pace at their side while walking, she can easily improve beyond that.

- She is 90% good on Sit (will do it with a verbal command and no hand gesture, sometimes lags a few seconds before responding, can focus through a low-to-medium level of distractions). I'll continue to work on speed and reliability but she pretty much has this one down.

- Goals for this week: Down, Stay, maybe a trick or basic targeting depending on how much progress we make with other stuff.

Pongu's health and training:

- Swollen, reddish toe on left front foot. I don't think a vet visit is warranted yet but I'll keep an eye on it to make sure the swelling goes down and doesn't get worse. He isn't limping at all.

- Prozac still having no discernible effect, good or bad.

- Goals for this week: backwards heel (walk backwards at my side), target touching an object at a distance. (I should have taught that one a while ago but Pongu is so neophobic and leery of new objects that I gave up on all the object-related training exercises for many months. We're getting to the point where he needs to be able to target objects to do more advanced moves, though, so it's time to take another shot.)

Friday, September 16, 2011

Pongu's Prozac Journal: The Xanax Episode (Day 8)

Yesterday I gave Pongu a Xanax half an hour before his obedience class, because (as noted in the previous post) this was something that another fearful dog owner (who, unlike me, is an actual certified trainer) reported doing with considerable success. So I figured, why not? The Prozac hasn't kicked in yet and the Thundershirt didn't help enough to let Pongu focus at all, so what harm could a Xanax do.

I should probably have dosed him a little earlier because, it turns out, this is how Pongu responds to 20 mg of Xanax:

0-30 minutes: no effect
30-60 minutes: whining, pacing, made a real big poop
60-90 minutes: TOTALLY HIGH. No fear of anything! Everything is fun! Let's play! Let's do obedience exercises! This is GREAT! I know all these tricks! I am so much better than any other dog in this class! Yes I LOVE jumping over stuff! I'm going to jump over everything! Five times! Oh crap my back legs are all wobbly woah what's going on *crash*
90-180 minutes: gradual comedown, legs still wobbly, really interested in sniffing every last blade of grass in the potty patch
180 minutes - rest of night: *snore*

So overall the Xanax was extremely effective in helping Pongu get past his fear and relax and even have fun in class, and I may well use it again, but I am definitely NOT using it anytime he needs to be especially well coordinated. By the end of class he was getting pretty loopy, everyone was all "why's your dog walking weird? are his legs okay?"

Then on the way home he decided that he was going to leap up an entire flight of stairs in a single bound and face-planted straight into the staircase halfway up. After that I made him go up and down the stairs on leash until the Xanax wore off.

I'm hoping the Prozac starts kicking in by next week. It would be real nice to have a dog who can relax in class and also walk a straight line at the same time.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Misc. Updates 9/15/11

Today's news from Mutt Town:

-- Health news: Pepper got spayed yesterday. Came through the surgery like a champ, was a little groggy and slow-moving when she got home that evening (to the point where two tipsy ladies having dinner outside demanded to know why I was mistreating my dog when we walked past, because clearly she was malnourished/abused to be tottering along so slowly... aaah, busybodies, always much improved by alcohol) but appears to be totally recovered energy-wise today. Having to keep her in the crate a lot to prevent her from bouncing around too much and straining her stitches.

I gave her the deworming pills this morning so hopefully we have seen the last of those gross terrible no-good tapeworms.

One thing I've noticed is that Pepper likes to eat immature grass seed heads. I wonder if they help scrape out the worms; I've definitely noticed more tapeworm segments in her poop when there's a lot of grass in the poop. It could be coincidental, though. Will be interested to see if she stops trying to eat grass as much once the worms have gone away.

-- Training progress: Pepper is no longer afraid of stairs and will take them up or down at a trot. She is still a little apprehensive about glass doors but doesn't collapse in front of them anymore; instead she's just careful to make sure that she's not walking facefirst into glass. Can't blame her for that!

Housebreaking is going very smoothly. She no longer insists on going to the Big Weedy Lot but is content to go potty anywhere she can find a reasonably sized patch of grass that other dogs are using. We aren't giving Pepper many opportunities to make mistakes in the house (go crate gooo!!), and so she hasn't made any since Day One.

Pepper now walks politely on leash 90% of the time. She prefers the right side, which I don't mind since I don't insist that the foster dogs heel, and sometimes swerves back and forth to investigate or avoid things that draw her attention. But for less than a week of not-very-intensive work, she's doing phenomenally. No pulling (except occasionally when she wants to greet another dog), very little lagging, with a little more practice she'll be a star.

I haven't done much work with commands yet but I suspect that Pepper will be a very quick study. She's already grasped that "Sit is the correct response when you don't know what to do" and could Down with a lure after one short session. My early impression is that she might just be the smartest foster dog I've ever had -- I'll know better once we can do more intense training sessions. I've been holding off on that for the first few days because she has enough to do just getting settled in, plus I've been uncertain of her potty reliability. But I think we're getting to the point where she can start some proper training.

-- Pongu's Prozac journal: no observable change after one week. Anxiety levels appear to be the same. He did try to chase after a stray cat a couple of nights ago, which was unusually brave of him (normally he's terrified of ANYTHING encountered after dark) and let me finally do a Premack principle exercise (instant off-leash recall --> hooray! we go chase the cat together!), but otherwise his general anxiety and terror of the unfamiliar seem undimmed.

I might try dosing him with a Xanax before obedience class this evening. Debbie Jacobs of Fearful Dogs has written about her use of Xanax to help her fearful dog Sunny through his obedience classes, and it seems like a thing worth trying. On the other hand, I wonder if I shouldn't try it at home first to gauge his reaction. Eh. Decisions, decisions.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Honeymoon Period

I'm starting to see some signs that Pepper's easing out of her honeymoon period after four days with us, which prompts this post.

When a dog arrives in a new environment -- especially if that dog is coming out of a chaotic, stressful place, as is the case for most shelter mutts -- it's likely to show inhibited behavior for a while. Basically, until the dog can figure out the manners and mores of this strange new land, it'll be a little more cautious and polite than usual, just as you or I would probably try to be extra-courteous when staying as the houseguest of someone we don't know well.

Once the dog gets more comfortable, it relaxes, and its real personality starts to shine through. Exactly when this happens varies from dog to dog. Shy or skittish dogs and those who have had a lot of instability in their backgrounds tend to take longer, but my experience has been that most of the foster dogs we get start relaxing within a few days and are completely comfortable in about two to three weeks. This is when you might start seeing some naughty behavior -- suddenly that previously-polite dog is raiding the garbage can, stealing your shoes, and making all kinds of trouble. Alas, the honeymoon is over.

But while it lasts, the honeymoon period is particularly relevant to foster care for two reasons:

(1) It operates as a "reset button" that allows you to impose new house rules and manage potential unwanted behaviors from the beginning, even before they manifest. Maybe the dog pooped in the closet and stole shoes at its old house, maybe it didn't. Doesn't matter. You can teach it from Day One that in this household, poop goes outside and chewing is restricted to dog toys (of which you should have a plentiful and interesting supply). For a few days, at least, you have a clean slate to make it clear what your rules and expectations are. Here's where canine limitations on generalizing actually work in your favor: shoes in your house are not the same as shoes in the old house, so it's not hard for the dog to learn to treat them differently.

As long as you're clear from Day One, the dog should be able to relax gradually into a structured, supportive environment where its normal doggy behaviors can be channeled into acceptable outlets -- and this is a great saver of time and trouble. Ounce of prevention/pound of cure, and all that. The honeymoon period gives you a chance to slip that prevention in there right at the start.

(NB: The "reset button" effect only applies to minor mischief and bad habits. Serious behavioral issues, like severe separation anxiety and crate soiling [where the dog isn't just clueless about potty training, but is actually accustomed to living in its own filth, as some hoarder cases and puppy mill survivors are], are NOT reset and may actually get worse as a result of a change in households. You can expect your dog to not bark at the UPS guy for the first couple of days; you can't expect him to brush off the effects of poor breeding or puppyhood undersocialization.)

(2) If you're only fostering the dog for a short period, you may not have enough time to get an accurate sense of what the dog's actual personality is like. This is especially true if the dog is stressed or shut down and thus displaying an energy/noise level higher or lower than its normal state of being. In some cases, mistaking the dog's honeymoon-phase personality for its real personality (or being ignorant of bad habits that only manifested themselves later) has led rescue groups to make inaccurate assessments and thus bad matches between dogs and adopters. This risk is one of the reasons that I strongly prefer to keep my foster dogs for at least a few weeks before placing them: I want to be sure that I have enough information to give prospective adopters.

My experience has been that our dogs don't drastically change their personalities past the honeymoon period, and don't even really display any major new vices, but to some extent this is probably influenced by good luck (we haven't yet had any real tough cases come through the foster program -- fingers crossed it stays that way!) and pre-emptive management. I try to use the honeymoon period to set them up for success, and so far it's worked pretty well. Not perfectly, by any stretch, but it's definitely been a help.

It'll be interesting to see what Pepper blossoms into.

Fostering as Finishing School

There are a lot of reasons to foster dogs.

The main one, of course, is because you value dogs and want to help them go on to good, lasting homes. But even though we all work toward that ultimate goal, there are a lot of different roles that foster homes can play in getting there. Some hold animals for set periods of time so that they can meet quarantine requirements for out-of-state transport. Some take sick or very young animals out of the stressful shelter environment so that they can be nursed back to health, or reared to an adoptable age, in a supportive home.

Our role as foster parents is more like... running a finishing school, with a dash of matchmaker thrown in toward the end.

The dogs we foster are mainly adults and adolescents from the rural South. Most of them grew up as strays or "yard dogs" and have little or no experience living indoors with people. Nessie had no idea how to walk on a leash when she arrived; Pepper was terrified of stairs and glass doors. Gremlin had never had any dog toys and, once she grasped the basic concept, mistakenly eviscerated one of the dog beds thinking it was a stuffed animal. The dogs we get are good dogs -- they're friendly, people-oriented, of sound temperament -- but they aren't potty trained, they don't have any manners, and they don't know any commands. They'd be happy to do what's expected of them, they just don't know what that is.

From that background, they get plunged into the heart of a major city -- a highly artificial environment filled with strange new noises, smells, and sights. The sidewalks are crowded with other dogs and people of every description: all ages and genders, all colors, many wearing unusual clothes or walking with unusual gaits, some high or drunk or mentally ill. SEPTA buses and police sirens go blaring by at all hours. There's not much grass, there's a lot of concrete, and all in all, it's an extraordinarily alien place for a dog to find itself in.

And yet adopters expect a dog to be able to handle itself calmly in this environment. They want dogs that don't bolt when a fire truck roars past, that don't growl when strange dogs rush up to greet them, that can behave politely to kids and friendly-but-clueless strangers who reach out to pat their heads without warning. They want a dog that won't make messes in their home, can Sit and Stay and Down on command, and maybe knows a couple of cute tricks to show guests on top of that.

Some of these expectations are realistic, some probably aren't. A dog who met all of them would pass its Canine Good Citizen test with flying colors -- and that's a level of training that is difficult to accomplish in the limited time we have with foster dogs. But it gives us something to aim for. At the very least, we can start them on the right path to get there, and we can give adopters some pointers to keep them on track (and, if necessary, gently adjust their expectations a little bit in the meantime). So the biggest part of our work, by far, is equipping dogs with the skills they need to navigate this strange new world.

Once the dog seems ready, we start working on the matchmaker phase. Not all dogs are suited for all people, and vice versa; the ideal home will be a match of compatible personalities, lifestyles, and activity levels. For the most part, this just involves observing the dog and making the relevant information available to prospective adopters, who can then figure out for themselves whether it seems like a good fit.

None of this is difficult, but it does take time... and time is the one thing that dogs in rescue can least afford. The flood of unwanted dogs and puppies is never-ending. Even in those lucky communities where animals do not have to be routinely euthanized for space, the sheer stress of being in the kennel environment for weeks or months on end can severely damage dogs' psyches, rendering them unadoptable. Accordingly, there is enormous pressure to place foster pups quickly so that more can be saved.

Our living situation doesn't lend itself to high volume or quick turnover, though, so instead I try to compensate by giving our foster dogs the most thorough education I can manage. One at a time is all we can do... but that one gets a lot of work. And in the end, if all goes well, that pup will be the belle of the ball.