Friday, May 27, 2011

Nessie Comes to Visit

Nessie was adopted and moved on to her forever home after only ten days with us. Her new owner lived right down the block, so even after she was adopted, we still saw her all the time. She took to her new family immediately and was very happy there, but it was nice just to stop by, see how she was doing, and say "hi" in passing.

Apparently she felt the same way.

One morning, a couple of weeks after Nessie got adopted, I went up to the roof deck to water my garden. On the other side of the glass door, I was greeted by a familiar face staring and a familiar tail wagging.

"HELLO FRIENDS!!" (wag wag)
It took a second for my totally uncaffeinated brain to register what I was seeing, but there she was: Nessie. On our roof.

I'm still not entirely sure how she got there, but the most likely answer is that Nessie slipped out of our neighbor's fenced-in deck through an unlocked door, ran across the connecting roofs (an odyssey that would have required her to make two fairly athletic jumps), and somehow got over the fence into our deck. I cannot fathom how she figured out that she could reach our house, but she did.

So I let her in, gave her a rawhide to keep her occupied (she promptly plopped down in Pongu's dog bed to chew it, which did not endear her to him, and then stole his rawhide and ate it too), and waited for her people to wake up so we could take her home.
Pongu was not terribly thrilled to see Nessie come back.

After about an hour they came and got her. Nessie was obviously happy to see her new people and eager to go home, so it wasn't that her visit meant she wanted to come back and live with us. She just wanted to stop by and say hi, as we had so many times with her.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

When Do You Speak Up?

The other day a new guy came to the dog park. He had a medium-large mutt with him, mostly black with a white-and-beige belly and chest blaze. I'd never laid eyes on either the guy or his dog before, and I didn't pay that much attention when they came in, since my own mutt was at the other end of the dog park when they entered. I never even got a clear enough look to determine whether the new dog was male or female.

I did notice that the dog looked a little uncomfortable as it came in through the gate: stiff-legged posture, tail slightly upright and wagging in short sharp jerks, chin lifted, mouth closed. But a lot of dogs are uncomfortable right at the gate, especially if they're new to the park and getting mobbed at the entrance. Often they shake it off (literally) and are fine once they get inside. This dog didn't strike me as overtly aggressive -- I got the impression that it was more anxious and uncertain than anything else -- so I just made a mental note to keep an eye on it if it came near Pongu and resumed watching my mutt puppy.

Moments later, a spate of snarls, yelps and barks erupted from the far side of the park. The new dog had gotten into a disagreement with another dog. Like most canine disagreements, it sounded worse than it was -- despite all the snarling, neither dog was biting, both were running alongside one another, and it wasn't clear to me whether they were on the verge of fighting or were just making "scary noise" play. The new dog kept trying to rest its chin on the other dog's back or shoulders, but the other dog was dodging away instead of snapping back.

Sensibly, both owners intervened before the dogs' rowdy not-quite-play escalated into a fight. But it was how the new guy intervened that astounded me.

Most of the owners who come to our local dog park practice positive training methods. While misbehavior isn't tolerated -- owners are generally quick to step in if their dogs are getting snappy or hump-happy -- most owners simply interrupt undesirable behavior and reinforce desired behavior with praise or rewards. You don't often see people using the older, punishment-based methods to "train" their dogs.

But that's exactly what this guy did. He called his dog over, then yelled at it angrily, grabbed it by the jowls, and shook its face while lifting its front feet off the ground. A few seconds later, he hauled the dog off to the side of the park by its collar, lifting it high enough that, from some 20-30 feet away, I could clearly hear the dog coughing and choking. When that didn't achieve the result he wanted, he took his dog out of the park.

And neither I nor anyone else said a word. I just watched it happen, sitting on my bench and holding my own dog out of the way until the conflict was resolved. It all happened very fast, but there probably would have been time for me to speak up if I had tried. I just didn't.

Would speaking up have been the right move? I still don't know. It seems unbearably presumptuous to tell someone how to train his dog, just as it would be presumptuous to tell a stranger on the street how he should raise his kids. Different approaches work for different people, and there may always be unique, complicating issues that are not obvious to an onlooker. And I'm not anything close to a certified dog trainer; I'm just an enthusiastic amateur who sometimes fosters rescue mutts. I don't have any special credentials or expertise to tell other people what to do.

On the other hand, it seemed abundantly clear to me that what this guy was doing was not likely to work. By punishing his dog after it answered his call, he was punishing the recall, not the original misbehavior -- not the wisest move, particularly in a dog park where one's dog has already shown some anxiety and snappiness. And there are the other concerns about punishment-based training, too: the harm it does to the dog-owner bond, the potential for provoking real aggression from a dog that feels trapped, and so on.

So... at the end of the day, what do you do? When do you speak up?

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Rainy Day Games: Find the Food

What do you do when it's raining and pouring, or 105 degrees out and muggier than a sauna gnome's sweatpants? Can't go for a walk or run. But the dogs still need exercise, and letting them roughhouse indoors is generally not a great idea. So what are some alternatives to the Smashed Furniture Game?

Many dog trainers will attest that mental exercise can be almost as tiring to a dog as physical exercise. (This is why a 20-minute walk in a novel area can exhaust your dog as effectively as a 45-minute walk in a familiar old neighborhood: there are so many new and fascinating smells to process, corners to explore, bits of half-eaten tourist cheesesteaks to furtively grab...) And when you're stuck inside on a rainy day, it's easier to challenge your dog's brain than her legs.

Training is a great rainy day activity. Distraction chews are also handy. And then there are silly little rainy day games like Find the Food.

Find the Food is incredibly simple.

1. Chop stinky food into small pieces.

I like to use Wellness Pure Reward jerky treats because they're smelly enough to work well for this game, but dry enough that they don't stain or make a mess. Also, they are easy to chop into small pieces. I quarter each one to make little squares of about half an inch or so.
Healthy, convenient, stinky. What more could you want?
Dry biscuits don't work so well for this game because they don't smell strongly enough (also they are usually too big, so you can only play a few rounds before your dog has eaten all the biscuits he needs for the day). Really high-value treats like turkey hot dogs or chopped chicken are a waste for this game -- save those things for training -- and anyway that stuff is a little too messy to strew casually around your house.

2. Hide stinky food.

I put the dog(s) in another room while I hide the chopped-up treats. You could use a crate or even a tether too. The main thing is just to not let the dog(s) see where you're hiding the food, so they can't cheat. Usually I hide four or five pieces per round -- this is enough to create a pretty good Easter-egg hunt without too much risk that I'll forget where I put the pieces and lose track of any food the dogs don't find. (So far, I've been spared any consequences of my own forgetfulness because Pongu never misses a bit.)

One piece goes on top of a wall moulding...

...and another is tucked behind a table leg. (That's not a bug on the wall in the background, it's the first treat!)

When introducing a dog to this game, I will put the food in easy-to-find places that are mostly just on the floor. Gradually I move to slightly harder hiding places: perched on wall mouldings, tucked under the edges of rugs, hidden between a pair of shoes, up on a bookshelf, and so on. As the dog becomes more comfortable with the game, she'll learn to trust her nose even when she can't immediately see the food, and will be more willing to push or manipulate objects to reach the treat.

You can also rub the treat on the floor to make little scent trails to super-hard locations. (I only do this when my husband isn't around. He isn't a fan of me rubbing dog food all over the living room, go figure.)

3. Release the hounds!

And sit back and watch as they sniff out all your hidden prizes.
Pongu finds a Clue.
Pongu is good enough at the game now that he usually sniffs out all five treats in two minutes or less. See? Totally part beagle.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Pongu vs. Nessie, Round Two: Catch the Toy!

One of the games I sometimes like to play with my dog(s) is Catch the Toy.

Our house, predictably, is strewn with a constant litter of dog toys. At any given moment there are usually a couple of empty Kongs rolling around, an eviscerated Kong Braid toy (Pongu is especially partial to the geckos), a well-gnawed Nylabone or two, and maybe the deflated carcass of a Tuffie whale or sea mite to round things out. Pongu goes through toys like a chain smoker does cartons of Marlboro Reds, so there's always a whole lot of something lying around.

We play Catch the Toy in the middle of this mess. I throw a random toy down the hall. The dogs have to chase that toy down, as opposed to all the others scattered in their way, and bring it back to me for a treat. Wrong toys get no treats.

Pongu and Nessie wait for a new game to begin
I never actually taught Nessie the rules of this game because it's not a training exercise, it's just something I do in the morning before I've had enough coffee to think of a real exercise. Also, I figured she'd pick it up easily enough on her own, since the basic idea is so simple and it's easy for dogs to distinguish the "live" toy that's moving from all the "dead" toys that are inert.

Well, I was half right.

Whenever I played Catch the Toy with Pongu and Nessie, they would both immediately run after the moving toy and try to catch it. Nessie always got there first because she's twice as fast as Pongu. Then she would flip it into the air and chase it again, or do the terrier head-shake and whip it around from side to side, because she didn't know (or didn't care) that she could trade the toy for a treat.

This drove Pongu absolutely bonkers. He wanted the treat. He knew how to get the treat. He probably would not have minded so much if Nessie had just traded the toy in, eaten her treat, and started a new round of the game, but her refusal to move things along just frustrated him beyond all endurance.

So he started trying to take the toy from her. First he tried just grabbing it and yanking it away, but that didn't work too well since most of the time he either couldn't get it away from her or Nessie turned it into a game of tug-of-war, which was enormously fun for her and enormously enraging for Pongu.

The next strategy he hit upon was grabbing a different, non-rewardable toy, and playing with it in front of her with great exaggeration, as if to say "this toy is SO AWESOME, it is way better than your lame toy, pssh who would want that toy when you could have THIS ONE which by the way is SO MUCH FUN, just look how much fun I'm having!"

Nessie fell for it every time. She'd drop her toy and go after his, whereupon Pongu would snatch away the reward toy and run it back to me for a treat.

Pongu: 2. Nessie: 0.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Dog Parks and Foster Dogs

Should you take foster dogs to the dog park?

As with so much else when living with dogs, the answer is a clear, resounding... "maybe."

Under the right circumstances, and for the right dogs, dog parks can be a wonderful opportunity for a foster dog to burn off excess energy, improve her social skills, and increase her profile in the neighborhood -- all of which improve that dog's chances of finding a great forever home.

Nevertheless, it's crucial to recognize that not every foster is a good candidate for the park. Dog parks do present a certain set of hazards, and they do demand a degree of social savvy from both humans and canines. Those who are lacking can get themselves in a lot of trouble.

Dog parks allow all sizes and breeds of dogs to play together
If there's even a shred of doubt, I'm inclined to think that foster dogs should stay home. A foster dog isn't really your dog; it belongs to the shelter or rescue organization, and so I think foster parents have an obligation to make conservative decisions about their care. After all, it's the rescue who will be on the hook for vet bills if your foster dog gets hurt or injures another animal, and it's the rescue whose reputation will be damaged if your foster behaves badly in public. As foster parents, we're ambassadors for rescue, and it's incumbent upon us to present ourselves and our dogs in the best possible light. Among other things, that means not bringing iffy dogs to the dog park.

So how do you decide whether you should take your foster to the dog park?
Know Your Park

If you aren't already very familiar with your local dog park, stop by for a few visits, ideally during the same time of day that you'd plan to bring your foster. Take some time to observe the dogs and people. Are the facilities reasonably clean and secure? Do the dogs play well together? Are the people attentive to their dogs? If a dog displays aggressive or reactive behavior, how do the people intervene (if they do), and do the dogs seem responsive to their instructions?

Additionally, if you are fostering a small dog (less than about 25 pounds), check to see whether your dog park has a separate section for small dogs. Many do. If yours does not, you might want to talk to owners of small dogs to see whether there are informal playgroups that your foster pup could participate in. Otherwise, it may be best to give the dog park a pass, as small dogs can easily be injured by accidental trampling or buffeting, even when a larger dog had no malicious intentions at all. Again, it's just a matter of being cautious with a dog that isn't really yours.
A rainy, muddy day means fewer dogs, and is a good time to introduce a foster pup -- if you don't mind bathing her afterward!
 I'm fortunate: Seger Dog Run, our local park, is supported by a close-knit community of conscientious regulars who generally have polite, well-behaved dogs (and who are quick to remove their dogs at the first sign of a personality clash). Altercations are rare and swiftly dealt with. In hundreds of hours spent observing the dogs at this park, I have never seen a serious fight.

This is not true of all dog parks. Another city park attracts so many untrained dogs and irresponsible owners that I'm amazed anyone brings their pets inside. It's downright unsafe for people at times, let alone dogs. Fortunately, such parks are uncommon... but it's still a good idea to scout out your park before arriving with a foster.

If your local dog park is safe, friendly, and clean, then it may be appropriate to bring your foster.

Know Your Foster

The foster dog must be comfortable, and have some bond with you, before you take it to a dog park. I would never bring a foster to a dog park until I'd lived with that dog for at least a week and we had gotten to know one another fairly well. Not only must the dog recognize you as a safe person and be inclined to listen to your commands (in case trouble breaks out, you want the dog to immediately follow your guidance, or at least not be resistant to your interventions), but you need to know just how far you can trust your foster. By the time you're considering taking the dog to a park, you should have encountered plenty of other dogs in controlled circumstances while out on walks, and you should have some idea of how your foster responds to strange canines.

There are some dogs who should NEVER be brought to a dog park. Aggressive dogs, sick dogs, and females in heat have no business in a dog park, for hopefully obvious reasons. Puppies under four months of age don't have all their vaccinations and immunities up to speed, and should stay out of any place where they might be exposed to contagious diseases. Coccidia and giardia are, unfortunately, common in dog parks, and while these bugs rarely present a serious problem to healthy adult dogs, they can be nasty to young puppies. Similarly, dogs who are recovering from severe stress should stay out until their immune systems are back to full strength.

Other dogs are iffy cases: intact males over a year old, dogs who like to play rough (lots of high-impact body slamming and vertical paw boxing), elderly dogs, dogs who tend to guard their toys, and dogs who get along with certain genders, sizes, and/or breeds of dogs but not others -- all of these dogs can play nicely at the park, with close and careful supervision, but a foster who displays any of these signs should probably stick to playdates with approved partners. For these dogs, a public park is just not worth the risk.

But if your foster dog is in good health, up to date on her shots, and greets unfamiliar dogs of all shapes and sizes with tail-wagging friendliness and play bows... then you've likely got a green light to the dog park.

Evenings are another low-traffic time suitable for introductory visits.
During your first few visits, try to pick low-traffic times. Rainy days, late mornings, early afternoons, and late evenings tend to be less crowded. Fewer dogs means less chaos, so it's easier to keep a close eye on your own animals. If those visits go well, then you can relax into bringing your foster during busier hours -- and, who knows? He may just catch someone's eye while he's there.

Above all, always be cautious, and always be attentive. And have fun!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Pongu vs. Nessie, Round One: Tattling on the Couch Sitter

Pongu and Nessie-the-foster-dog did not get along. This was 100% completely Pongu's fault. Nessie was never anything but a saint toward him, but Pongu could not and would not countenance another dog staying in his home and taking up the attention of his person.

He never got violent about it. Pongu was much more devious than that (plus he knew that being snippy would get him in trouble). But every waking moment that Nessie was in the house, Pongu was furiously plotting her downfall.

(Of course, we don't really know what he was thinking. There's considerable dispute over whether dogs can even feel so-called "complex" emotions like jealousy. But if you lived with these two dogs for more than fifteen minutes, I'm pretty sure you'd have to agree that, at the very least, Pongu was clearly capable of jealousy. And his expressions certainly suggested fiendish plotting.)

One afternoon, while the Spousal Unit was in the shower, Pongu stood at the bathroom door and began whining in his best "come-quick-Timmy's-in-the-well!" Lassie impression.

Pongu never does this, so the Spousal Unit was duly concerned and hurried out to see what was the matter. Perhaps the stove was on fire! Or the freezer had malfunctioned and was leaking poisonous goo all over the floor!

Helpfully Pongu trotted toward the living room, leading SU to... the nice comfortable white couch. Where the dogs are not allowed. And where Nessie was sprawled out full length, relaxing.

And at once Pongu turned to SU, his expression clearly conveying: "See? SEE?! This dog is breaking the rules! GET RID OF HER!!"

Nuts and Bolts: Crates

Let's talk about crates.

While crates are extremely useful even when you're only dealing with your own dog, many people get by just fine without them. I did. Pongu whined and scratched and was so noisily pitiful whenever I put him in his crate that after the third day I just let him sleep on a towel next to my air mattress. (We were poor and furniture-free in those days, which was one of the reasons I was so cavalier about not crating him: even if he had been inclined to destroy my stuff, I didn't own anything he could chew.) The primary crate I use for foster dogs was a donation from a couple at my local dog park, who never used it with their dog for similar reasons.

If you only have one dog, and you can keep an eye on your dog all the time until you're sure he can be trusted, and your dog isn't terribly prone to chewing on furniture or making messes in the house, you can get by without a crate.

If you're fostering, a crate is an absolute lifesaver.

Most dogs in rescue networks have big question marks in their backgrounds. Many have never known a stable home -- or, for that matter, any kind of home at all. Some dogs have spent their entire lives on a chain outdoors or in a cramped puppy mill cage; to them, everything about living inside is new and confusing. They often aren't housetrained. They might not know the difference between a dog toy and a $300 pair of shoes... or an electrical cord for a plugged-in appliance. And, because most of these dogs are coming out of crowded, understaffed shelter environments (where stress and anxiety may create problems that the dog didn't have before going in), no one can tell you ahead of time if the dog knows these things or not. Crate training can save a lot of damage to your home, your patience, and the dog's confidence in the early days.

If you're dealing with a multi-dog household, a crate is even more important. It gives the foster dog a safe place that is immediately "hers" in another dog's territory. It allows you to separate the dogs for feeding, and to keep them separate while you're away from home. (No matter how good the dogs are together while you're around, it's unwise to leave them unsupervised until you can completely trust both or all of them -- and with an ever-changing foster rotation, that day may never come.) If they play together every waking moment, the crate may be the only way to grab a moment's peace and quiet for yourself.

Finally, as a foster parent, your ultimate goal is to help the dog get adopted into a suitable, loving forever home. Everything you can do to make the dog more "adoptable" helps, and crate training gives the dog one more point in its favor. And if the dog can't tolerate being crated, no matter what you do, then at least you know that and can match it to adoptive families accordingly.

Crates come in two main types: wire-sided collapsible ones and plastic-sided airline-approved crates. My personal preference is for the wire-sided type, which is easier to clean and easier to see into (so you can tell at a glance if your foster dog's getting into trouble), but either kind works. There are also fabric-walled crates, wooden crates, and crates that look like artistic sculptures, if you're not into wire or plastic.

Whatever kind you choose, the crate should be large enough for the dog to stand up, turn around, and lie down comfortably, but not big enough to tempt the dog to potty in one corner and sleep in another. Fill up some of the empty space with boxes or block it off if the crate is too large. Put in an old blanket or towel as bedding. If possible, the crate should be in a quiet spot in a frequently-used room (we use a corner of the living room that's under a flight of stairs), so it feels safe but doesn't feel like banishment to Siberia.

Our crate is under the stairs in the living room: a quiet corner, but close to the family.
Many dogs will go into the crate immediately, seeking it out as a den or safe place. If the dog needs a little more encouragement, scatter a few bits of kibble or dry biscuits in the back (so the dog has to go all the way into the crate to get them). Don't close the door immediately. Let the dog sniff around and explore it, and make it clear that he can go in and out as he wishes. Once that seems comfortable, you can close the door for a few seconds, then a few minutes, and so on.

Always feed the foster dog in its crate. This both helps the dog to associate good things with its "den" and serves the functional purpose of keeping dogs separate so they don't squabble over dinner. Similarly, when you hand out long-lasting treats like rawhides or stuffed Kongs, always give the foster dog its treats in the crate.

Don't keep a dog crated too long. A few minutes here and there over the course of the first days, plus mealtimes and bedtimes, is plenty. You can gradually increase the duration, but a dog shouldn't be crated for more than three or four hours at a time (consider a midday dog walker if you have to be away longer for work), and if possible, tire the dog out with a good bout of exercise before and after such long spells in the crate.

NEVER use the crate as punishment or for a "time out." Even if you're frustrated beyond all human endurance and need to get every four-legged furball in the house out of your sight before you strangle every last one of them a la Homer Simpson with Bart, NEVER send the dog to its crate in anger. Put on a smile, hand out the rawhides, send everyone to their assigned places with singsong delight... and then go punch a hole in the wall and/or pour yourself a drink. But never, ever do anything to make the dog think of its crate as a bad place instead of a safe warm den filled with treats and snuggle blankets and happiness.

And voila!, you have mastered crates, the #1 tool for fostering dogs without losing your mind.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Nuts and Bolts: Equipment

One of the things I'd like to do with this blog is note some of the things I've learned in the hopes that they might be useful to other doggy foster parents down the road. There's rarely One True Way to do anything in the world of dog training, but there are frequently practices that work most of the time for most of the dogs you'll encounter, and I think the same approach is reasonable when it comes to fostering.

In that spirit, here's a list of equipment that is generally a good idea to have on hand when you're getting ready to bring a new foster dog into your home. Most of these things are useful even when you just have one dog and it's your dog. They are damn near indispensable if you're trying to integrate a temporary second (or third, or fourth, or you-must-be-crazy) dog who may not have had the benefit of consistent training, or even know how to live with people inside a house. So here's my list of things that help maintain your sanity (and furniture) as you strive to get everyone acquainted and teach the foster dog what he or she needs to learn to become a well-behaved, "adoptable" family pet.

-- Crate
-- Bedding for the crate (I like to use old towels because they're absorbent, durable, and easy to wash, plus we got a bunch of really nice towels as wedding presents that turned out to be the wrong color for the house. But they're perfect for dog care!)
-- Collar with temporary ID tags (I use Pongu's old tags -- the name's wrong, but the number and address are right, and those are the important bits)
-- Leash
-- Food and water dishes (the foster should at least have its own food dish, if not its own water bowl)
-- Poo bags

Not Necessities, But Definitely Handy:
-- Kongs (two big Kongs for mealtimes, two medium Kongs for distractions)
-- Squirt bottle filled with water (for breaking up squabbles, discouraging barking, etc.)

-- Bitter Apple or similar chew deterrent
-- Rolls upon rolls of paper towels (...actually, maybe this should be a "necessity")
-- Nature's Miracle or similar enzymatic odor neutralizer
-- Your favorite multipurpose furniture/surface cleaner, and lots of it
-- A good assortment of dog toys and "distraction chews" (rawhides, pig ears, etc.)
-- Wet food (for packing into Kongs and freezing; I use home-cooked "dog stew," but canned dog food is fine too, the point is just to have something with a high moisture content that'll freeze solid)
-- Heartworm preventative
-- Frontline (flea/tick preventative)
-- EasyWalk or similar body harness
-- Training treats (Wellness makes a good line of these, also I use cut-up turkey hot dogs)
-- Clicker
-- Dry dog biscuits
-- Adult beverages. Not for the dog, for you. I'm partial to rum, myself.


This is Nessie, our first foster dog.

Nessie, an 18-month-old yellow mutt of mystery lineage, came to us through Whispering Woods Animal Rescue. She was originally from rural Georgia, where her prior owners dumped her at a shelter because, after being left unspayed and unattended, surprise!, she'd gotten pregnant. She had five healthy puppies in the shelter (all of which were also transported up to the Northeast and adopted), and once they were weaned, it was time for her to come up to Philadelphia too.

In some ways, Nessie was an ideal first foster dog. She was unfailingly sweet-tempered, patient in the face of Pongu's continual ear-gnawing jealousy, and a born people pleaser. Almost from the start, she was comfortable and confident in the city, even though it had to have been a huge change from the world she'd known before. Her temperament was exceptional: she loved children and was instinctively gentle with them, got along well with dogs of all shapes and sizes, and never displayed any hint of shyness or aggression.

Nessie and Pongu EVISCERATE a Kong Gecko
In other ways, Nessie was a little bit of a challenge. She didn't appear to be potty trained (although, happily, she was a naturally clean dog who picked that idea up fast). When we first picked her up, she didn't know any commands, how to walk on a leash, or seemingly even her name. But she was eager to learn, and in the ten days we had her, Nessie made amazing progress on all fronts.

Most importantly for a foster dog, Nessie was a charmer. She had a gift for winning people's hearts, and it's no surprise that, within days, she found a wonderful adoptive home by literally charming her future owner as she walked past him on the street.

Nessie goes home
We were sorry to let her go, but a little relieved, too -- another week or two, and we'd have been sorely tempted to keep her for ourselves.

Fostering Nessie was a wonderful, exasperating, educational experience. She made me laugh and she warmed my heart and she made me want to rip my hair out in frustration. I'm glad to have known her, and it's largely because of her that this blog exists.


This is MY DOG PONGU, aka the Dog I Got By Mistake.

Pongu at four months

I adopted Pongu from the Morris Animal Refuge, where he'd been dumped by his previous owner's landlady after his owner moved away, leaving a bewildered four-month-old puppy with a malfunctioning left forepaw in his empty apartment.

On the day I met Pongu, I wasn't intending to adopt a puppy. He wasn't even the kind of dog I was looking for. I was on the hunt for a little foxy dog, ideally a Shiba Inu mix, and Pongu was labeled as a German Shepherd-Doberman mix who would likely grow up to be 70+ pounds. (As it turned out, that label was mostly wrong -- while Pongu's definitely some kind of Shepherd mix, it's more likely that he's got beagle in his ancestry than Doberman, and he topped out at a relatively petite 50 pounds. I couldn't know that at the time, though.)

But the sight of this terrified puppy cowering in the back of his cage while other dogs yipped and barked all around him grabbed me and wouldn't let go. I lost sleep over that little booger. I went back the next day and tried to run Sue Sternberg's temperament test on him, although I really had no idea what I was doing and didn't even realize that a puppy too frozen in fear to respond to half the tests probably meant problems ahead. It was soon apparent that Pongu was a very smart dog, but I was too clueless to recognize the signs that he was also super skittish and had a persistent limp.

I'm not sure it would have mattered if I had known. I went back again the next week with my husband, my sister, and my sister's dog Ditto, a pitbull who has no concept of "shy." And finally, in the company of another friendly dog, Pongu broke out of his paralyzed fear. He played and played, and smiled and smiled, and that was the end of it for me.

I adopted him the next day.

Pongu and Ditto at my parents' house last Christmas
Pongu is about a year old now. Regular visits to the dog park have improved his social skills immeasurably; months of work in canine freestyle ("dog dancing") have built up his confidence. He is still terrified of children, chalkboard cafe signs, and plastic bags that blow down the sidewalk after dark. Although he's gotten (slightly) less paranoid over time, he's still a textbook example of a one-person dog: supremely loyal and responsive to his one special person, deeply suspicious of almost everyone else.

As I type this, Pongu is sprawled under my desk chair, hugging my right foot while he sleeps.

This is my dog Pongu, the best dog in the world. He's not a perfect dog by any measure, but he is perfect for me.

Origin Story

This is where it all began.

In August 2010, shortly after getting married and buying our first condo, I decided to get a dog. What I really wanted was a cat -- dogs were too emotionally needy, too beholden to their people; it was kind of creepy, I thought -- but the new husband was so allergic he couldn't look at a picture of Garfield without his throat swelling shut and his head exploding, so a dog it would have to be.

Except I didn't actually know anything about dogs. I knew enough to avoid pet shops and I had a vague sense that adopting from a shelter was the Right Thing To Do, but I'd also been reading books by the Monks of New Skete, who advocated getting a puppy from a responsible breeder as the surest way of ensuring a physically and behaviorally sound, well-socialized companion. And my parents' black Labrador, who was not only an ideal family dog but a top-notch hunting dog, had been purchased from a breeder of champion field lines.

Meanwhile, the only shelter pet I had personally owned was a big mean bully of a guinea pig who'd made my other two pigs' lives a complete misery until the day he died. I called him Cownose. My sister called him Killer. Her name was better. I'd never have believed that a creature so amiably ineffectual as a guinea pig could be a homicidal maniac until I met Cownose, but... well, that was the first unexpected lesson a shelter animal ever taught me.

Funny in a guinea pig, not really what I was looking for in a dog. So I sent inquiries to a couple of highly reputable Shiba Inu breeders in Delaware and middle Pennsylvania.

And, because I still wanted to give a fair hearing to the other side, I bought a couple of books on shelter dogs while I was waiting to hear back. One At A Time was among them. I don't really remember why I picked that one in particular; it might have just have been that I needed to add another book for free shipping and saw that that one had high ratings.

Whatever the reason, I got it and I read it. And everything changed.

I cancelled my calls to the breeders. I adopted a shelter mutt. He wasn't physically or behaviorally sound, and he definitely wasn't well socialized, but we worked through all of that and after six months, when we'd made enough progress on his major issues (and mine) that I could finally come up for air, I looked around and realized how many more dogs were in need.

And that's how I got into fostering.