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/
-- 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.