Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Quick Episode From The Dog Park

This is a fun sequence that I got at the dog park this afternoon.

Our dog park has a communal water bowl that is fed by an underground pipe. From November through March, the pipe is turned off to avoid the risk of it freezing and bursting. So there's no water in the park, except for some rainwater that accumulated in the top of this overturned garbage can in the past couple of days. There was about an inch's worth of water when we arrived.

Soon after we arrived, the dogs got thirsty from running around like maniacs. Crookytail figured out that there was water on top of the barrel and how he could lean against the outer rim to reach it. Independent problem-solving puppy! (He was the only dog at the park who figured this out, too. Lots of other dogs got thirsty and checked the empty water bowl, but none of them found the puddle on top of the garbage can.)

Then Pongu observed him and demonstrated an ability to learn via observation by going to the barrel himself and imitating what he had seen Crookytail do.

Today I am pretty impressed with the intelligence of my mutt monsters.


We went back to the park again the next day and the mutt monsters did the same thing again. There were many more dogs at the park on the second afternoon, and several of them seemed curious about why Crookytail was in that corner of the park, but none of them tried to imitate his barrel-climb even though several were large enough to have done it easily.

This was something I had wondered about on the first day: most of the dogs who noticed Crookytail were too small to reach the top of the overturned garbage can, so I thought maybe that's why they didn't try. But it appears that even when the dogs are big enough to imitate his behavior successfully, it doesn't occur to them to do so.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Misc. Updates 1/24/12

I've been neglecting the blog again while finishing up my current nerdbook (the Pathfinder Tales novel Nightglass, which is pretty much done except for the epilogue -- of course, when I say "done" what I mean is that the first manuscript draft is done; the long haul of revisions and copyedits still lies ahead) and working on my newest dog project, the WAGS wiki.

I'm dumping most of my opinions regarding best fostering practices and what I've learned while doing this into that wiki, in the hopes that it will prove useful to foster parents, prospective foster parents, and adopters of rescue dogs. It's definitely very much one of those things that should come with a "views expressed herein are not necessarily those of the parent organization" disclaimer, and I'm not even sure anyone is really going to read the damn thing (no exaggeration to say it'll be as long as a novel when it's done. I have written novels, I know whereof I speak), but whatever, I'm doing it.

So that eats up most of my writing-about-dog-stuff energy, and that's why the blog has gone relatively neglected these past couple of weeks. But things proceed apace with Crookytail's integration into the house.

Team exercise from Friday:

Also I've been using Crookytail as a demo dog for some of the clips I'm making for the WAGS wiki. Crookytail's a pretty good demo dog: he's just slow enough to demonstrate that sometimes you have to wait the dog out for the manners exercises, but performs reliably after a couple seconds of delay. Pongu's not as useful for these demos because he knows all the games so well that he does them even before I prompt, so it's actually kind of nice to have a half-trained second mutt in the house.

Manners exercise ("Nothing in Life is Free," Level 1):

Manners exercise ("Nothing in Life is Free," Level 2):

The main difference between Level 1 and Level 2 is that in the more advanced version, the dog actually has to move away from the thing he wants (here Crookytail's meal in the crate) and toward you in order to get the ultimate reward. This is hard for many dogs to grasp, and they will waste a lot of time pawing at the crate and ignoring you at first. But it pays off in the end because it teaches the mutt monster (a) better impulse control/more patience; and (b) that You-the-Person are the source of all good things and that politely paying attention to you is the way to accomplish everything in the world ever.

Training two dogs at once:

Version 1 (easier): crate one dog (Crookytail), work with the other (Pongu)

Version 2 (harder): put one dog on a Stay (Pongu), work with the other (Crookytail)

Notes on the video:

0:20 -- Pongu totally blows me off when I ask for a Front (he's uncomfortable about the camera again -- that's why he's scratching on the mat when I first look at him -- and thinks we're doing a Stay drill, where he's supposed to ignore the distractor [which he thinks is the camera] and maintain a Stay. He figures this out a second later but THANKS FOR MESSING UP ON TAPE, DEMO DOG).

0:36 -- one of the foundation mini-games you can play for building better recall is throwing the treat away and asking the dog to chase it, instead of just handing the treat over directly. This encourages the dog to move away from you and then immediately re-orient back toward you and return (which builds toward a recall) so you can play another training game. So that's what I'm doing here.

0:46 and 0:57 -- in the alternative, you can reinforce a correct position by feeding the dog in exactly the place where you want him to be. This is particularly useful for (dur) position exercises like Heel and Stay. Also, when you're doing a two-dog exercise, always remember to reward the dog who's maintaining the Stay in addition to the dog you're actively working.

Pongu's posture at the end of his Stay is pretty terrible. We need to work on that.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Day Two: Pongu's a Jerk

It's now Day Two with Crookytail, and we're beginning to settle into the Two-Dog Routine. The mutt monsters are almost -- almost -- friendly enough to start playing with each other, although thus far their attempts at Biteyface and Paw Slap aren't quite getting off the ground before devolving into Pongu's insecure "I'm the boss! Me! I'm the boss!" posturing and Crookytail's reassurance that "okay! You're the boss!"

(lookit that little dork glancing back up at 0:26 to make sure he didn't Break The Rules by snarking. Whatta nerd. But I <3 him, because it's exactly this nerdy mindset that ultimately makes Pongu so trustworthy. He might be a scheming malevolent jerkface, but he's always checking in to make sure he's still within The Rules.)

So this morning I'm trying to do nerdbook edits and I want the dogs to shut the hell up and entertain themselves with no input from me for a while. Also, as part of my ongoing campaign to make them quit being pains in my ass, I'm still trying to encourage them to relax in each other's presence. Therefore I give a plastic bone to each of them so they can chew next to my computer while I'm working. (Note that Crookytail has the yellow bone and Pongu has the white bone.)

This goes great at first. Hooray, (relative) peace and quiet.

Then Pongu gets up and gets his scheming face on. Crookytail continues to chew obliviously. Pongu wanders into position all "no, what, I'm totally just scratching my back, no reason for you to get concerned, just keep enjoying that nice bone..." He's not very subtle though, he keeps glancing back at his intended target to see if Crookytail has dropped his guard yet.

At this point I step away for thirty seconds to refill my coffee. When I come back, OH LOOK WHO HAS HOARDED UP ALL THE BONES AND WHO HAS NO BONES.

So I redistribute the bones -- Pongu can keep the yellow one, Crookytail gets the white one -- and peace and harmony reign again among the happy members of Team Stupid. At least as long as I'm standing right there.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Crookytail: The First 24 Hours

Last night we picked up Crookytail. He came to us by hitching a ride with Beth, a super pleasant and professional driver with Dorothy Hall Desjarlais's HOPE Transports. (The "underground railroad" moving Southern shelter pets to Northern rescues is so well established that there are several transport services making regular runs up the I-95 corridor. Transport costs around $125 to $150 for most dogs; cats can often ride along just for some gas money.)

The transport's arrival was accurate down to the minute (actually that was a little freaky, considering we got the ETA a solid twelve+ hours earlier, and no other commercial or governmental entity I've ever encountered has been that crazily precise), and at exactly 9:31 p.m., Crookytail walked across a frosty Home Depot parking lot and into our lives.

He was bigger than I'd expected. In retrospect, I'm not sure why I thought a 45-pound shelter dog would be smaller than Pongu (50 pounds), given that every single foster dog we've ever gotten has been underweight on arrival. Crookytail is no exception. His brindle fur hides it, but this dog is way too skinny. You can feel every knob on his spine, and his hips stick out like woah.

Also like every other foster dog we've had, he was initially terrified and overwhelmed by coming to the city. I had to carry him up the stairs to get him inside the condo (which is one good thing about all the mutts being underweight when they get here: at least they're not that heavy) and then Pongu promptly freaked out for about three hours about OMG THERE IS ANOTHER DOG HERE WHAT THE HELL!! and OMG THIS DOG IS A BOY!! For a nutless wonder, Pongu sure is hypercompetitive about having another male in the house.

Fortunately Crookytail isn't, and is on his best behavior because he's still a little intimidated about being in a new strange place, and is very adept at dog body language (some dogs aren't, especially if they've been isolated from other dogs since puppyhood, and that can cause some real big problems). So he immediately started going into appeasement mode, and after some snarking and snarling, Pongu settled down into his usual level of jerkface nerdrage.

And that is where we are right now. Crookytail is a polite, quiet, well-mannered houseguest. As usual for the mutt monsters, he doesn't appear to have had any formal training, but so far he's been pretty easy to get along with and he hasn't pooped in the house yet, so we'll get to the rest in due time.

Priorities for Day One: (a) get Crookytail comfortable going up and down the stairs and walking around the neighborhood for potty breaks; (b) get both dogs more accustomed to each other and defuse any possibility of serious fighting. (Trying to prevent Pongu from being a jerk to the new dog is impossible; in a month or so they'll be solid friends, but for now I just don't want to deal with fights.)

Aaaand... so far it is going quite well.

This is Crookytail (not) coming up the stairs after the first potty walk of the morning. Note the averted eyes and hunched posture: he's pretty uncomfortable here. It took about fifteen minutes to get upstairs.

And this is Crookytail trying it again this afternoon. He's not exactly racing up and down full speed (although we may get there eventually, since doggy wind sprints on stairs is one of my cheapo get-'em-tired-quick rainy-day exercises), but he's moving, and I can pretty much walk with him at a normal pace now. All hail the power of bribery and cajoling.

On the encouraging-muttly-friendliness front, here I have both dogs eating medium-value treats (Zuke's carrot bones) together. Neither of them is a resource guarder so I don't have Crookytail in his crate and they're pretty close together. The treats are good enough to hold their interest but not valuable enough to trigger fighting, and they last long enough that the dogs have to sit in each other's company for a while. I want them to build up pleasant associations with having the other dog around and encourage each to relax in the other dog's presence.

So again, it's going pretty well (especially considering where we were last night...), although about a minute after I made this clip, when Crookytail turned his back for a second, Pongu abandoned his bone, stole Crookytail's, ran off with it doing a hunched ninja hustle so no one would see him, and tried to smash it into little pieces. He wasn't eating the bone, he was just chewing it really fast and spitting the chunks everywhere to ruin it for the other dog. Then he did the same thing to the other bone (his original one) when I gave that one to Crookytail.

Yup, that's my Pongupants.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Choosing Crookytail

I spent most of this weekend recovering from an emotional hangover.

Last week was pretty rough. My previous post on the difficulties of choosing a foster dog was a direct result of agonizing about exactly that decision over the course of several days.

Most of our foster pups have come from Liberty County Animal Control, a high-kill facility in Hinesville, Georgia. Liberty County AC is closed to the public; only rescues can pull from there, and all rescues have to go through the amazingly hardworking Meike Wilder, the sole county-approved liaison. As a result of this incredibly restrictive policy, dogs that weren't reclaimed by their owner or pulled by the local humane society had no chance of getting out alive in past years. The kill rate at Liberty County AC was 98%.

However, as a result of Meike's tireless efforts, devoted support team, and the monthly transports provided by Karen Talbot's MOMS Rescue, which transports dogs and cats up I-95 to receiving rescues in the Northeast for no cost, the kill rate at Liberty County AC has dropped to 2%. In the latter months of 2011 (and all of 2012, as of this writing), no adoptable dogs were euthanized there. Sick and severely injured dogs, who previously would have had no chance at all, have been able to get expensive veterinary care as a result of caring individuals' donations. The team has become so incredibly successful that some of their dogs find rescue placements within minutes of being posted on Facebook.

This is wonderful for the dogs of Hinesville... but because they get pulled so fast now, all the dogs that would have been suited for my foster situation were claimed before I had a chance at them. Liberty County AC is a relatively small facility, and generally there are only one or two dogs at a time that might work for us. It makes choosing a lot easier: there's one obvious answer, and that's it.

But this time those dogs were taken, so I looked further afield. My search led me to the once-troubled Robeson County Animal Shelter. Located in southern North Carolina, Robeson County is the poorest county in the state. Dogs and cats are rarely neutered or spayed, and entire litters of puppies arrive at the shelter almost daily. On the Friday of the week that I chose my foster dog, thirty-eight young puppies -- all under twelve weeks of age -- were surrendered to RCAS. Nine separate litters. In one day.

The previous administration running RCAS was notorious for abusing the animals, so much so that the allegations appear in the county's Wikipedia entry. Under the guidance of its current manager, Lori Baxter, and adoption coordinator Sara Hatchell, RCAS has made an incredible turnaround, utilizing social media very effectively to save hundreds of dogs and cats. Nonetheless, they're only human, and the tidal wave of animals deluging the shelter continues unabated. Through the Herculean efforts of their support team, seventy-three dogs left last week... and eighty-odd came in. Many-upon-many of those dogs would have been great foster pups for us. Which makes it a LOT more wrenching than pulling from Liberty County.

You can't save them all. Everyone in rescue knows this. There are too many animals and not enough homes, and while we all work to reduce the number of unwanted pets and increase the number of people willing to adopt them, the equation doesn't move fast enough to help the pets sitting in shelters today. Changing society takes decades, and these dogs' time is measured in days.

So you choose. You choose, and you know the rest of them will need a miracle to go anywhere.

I chose Crookytail.

This dog, called "Tye" in the shelter, is a medium-sized Aussie/shepherd mix slightly over a year old. According to the shelter workers, he's intelligent and has a confident, friendly personality resilient enough to endure weeks of kennel confinement without showing too much stress. He has unusual, handsome markings and his picture looks quite nice.

But no one wanted him. At the time that I was choosing, Crookytail was the longest-term resident at RCAS, having been there for almost two weeks (a long time, given their intake rates). His time, along with several others', was about to run out... and no one had expressed any interest in him whatsoever.

So, with hours to go, I pulled him. Not because I thought he'd be easy to place. Because I wanted this dog, and I couldn't stand to see him die.

Sometimes one just calls to you. Great if you're adopting, not so great if you're supposed to be fostering.

Crookytail finishes his quarantine and gets here on Friday. My odds of foster failure are high before he even arrives. And I'm still sick over the ones I left behind.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Agony of Choice

The hardest part of fostering, for me, is not mopping pee or scrubbing puke or throwing out the slobbery remains of my good work shoes after a chew-happy puppy mistook them for rawhides. It's not enduring a million little shark bites while trying to lure a Down with a treat in my hand. It's not even letting the foster pups go on to their forever homes -- while saying goodbye certainly causes a little heartbreak, it's overwhelmed by the happiness of knowing that your once-unwanted garbage puppy is now safe and loved.

No, the hardest part of fostering, by far, is choosing which dog to take. Which, out of the tens or hundreds or thousands of dogs on the brink of death, do you save?

I think that in many instances it is actually harder to make this choice as a foster home than as an adopter, largely because once you're involved in rescue, you have to learn and consider the calculus of "adoptability."

When you're picking a dog as a foster case, you are balancing three potentially conflicting considerations: (1) what you can accommodate in your own life and home; (2) what you can reasonably expect to place in a certain timeframe; and (3) who needs it most desperately.

A dog is "more adoptable" if it is small, non-shedding or low-shedding, young, cute, light- or uniquely-colored, purebred or close to it, sweet-tempered but not too shy, in good health, and reasonably well-trained. These are the dogs with the highest demand among the adopting public. Rescue groups compete over them because they're easy to place and therefore subsidize the cost of the harder cases. A litter of healthy poodle puppies or Bichon mixes is never in serious danger in any shelter system that has rescue contacts and/or Internet exposure.

However, the further you get from that checklist, the more a dog moves toward the dreaded "less adoptable" category. Bigger dogs are harder to handle, may be prohibited in condos and apartments that have size limits on permitted animals, and can be intimidating to people who prefer smaller dogs. Their pool of potential homes is therefore smaller (maybe much smaller, depending where you live).

Most adopters want puppies -- the younger and cuter, the better. Adults are at a significant disadvantage in the adoption lottery, partly because they're not as universally adorable and partly because there is a misconception in many quarters that a puppy is a blank slate, but a grown dog can't be taught new tricks. (This is COMPLETELY untrue. Puppies are not entirely malleable; their personalities are shaped by genetics and prenatal stresses even before they're born. Adolescent and young adult dogs learn the fastest, in my experience, which is one reason they make my favorite fosters. It only takes a month to make a biddable year-old dog look awesome.) I've said it before and I'll say it again: adult dogs are often the very best ready-made companions. But the adopting public hasn't come around to that view, as a whole, and so puppies continue to get snapped up first.

And if a dog is not so cute, or is scarred or gray-muzzled or just plain enough to get lost in a sea of similarly colored mutts, it's not likely to catch adopters' eyes as quickly (or at all). If it's sick or injured or lacks manners, it's going to cost more money to foster, because the rescue group has to pay for veterinary treatment and/or remedial training. If the dog is a mutt -- or, worse yet, an obvious scion of a breed that has a negative public image (Rottweiler, Doberman, and of course, above all, the long-suffering pit bull) -- fewer people will value him, and some may shy away altogether.

These are the dogs that break our hearts. They are good dogs. They are wonderful dogs. But there are so many of them, and so few foster spaces, and choosing always means calculating: do I take the dog that I can place the fastest, allowing myself to pull another death-row dog as soon as possible and subsidizing the costs of care for longer-term mutts? Or do I take the one who is most likely to be overlooked, recognizing that he may be overlooked in foster care as well?

Whatever you decide, ultimately you do decide. And one dog is saved. And you walk away, knowing that all those other hopeful faces will have to go home with someone else, or not at all.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Goodbye 2011, Hello 2012

2011 was a mostly good year.

I learned a lot about dogs and dog rescue. But I still have a lot more to learn -- a LOT more -- and much of 2012 will be dedicated to that.

Pongu's fearfulness proved to be much more deep-seated than I realized when I adopted him. I now know that the rest of his life will be an ongoing effort to give him the tools he needs to cope in life and manage the situations that he can't yet handle. In 2011 we consulted with several trainers and behaviorists who gave us many good suggestions, and began working with their recommendations. We will continue that into the new year... and forever after.

But it's worth reflecting on how far he's come in the past year. Windy days still make him nervous, but Pongu no longer shies from stationary objects on the street. He doesn't bolt at the sound of sirens or SEPTA buses. He can (sometimes) hold a heel for two blocks on end, and he can keep up with fast-to-slow pacing changes without losing position. He LOVES the dog park, which terrified him in puppyhood, and he has impeccable doggy manners. His recall and focus in the park, even in the face of all the fun he could be having with other dogs, make me proud. Dog people who met him a year ago and see him today are amazed at how much he's changed.

Pongu is by no means perfect, and his confidence directly depends on having me around, but I'm honored by the trust that my little spazmonkey puts in me and I will try to be worthy of it.

ADDITIONALLY 2011 was the year in which Pongu-e and I decided that canine musical freestyle was the dog sport best suited to my mutt's particular combination of (a) exceptional intelligence; (b) exceptional janky-leggedness; and (c) exceptional handler bond (read: total psychotic dependency). We joined the World Canine Freestyle Organization and started taking serious dog nerd classes. In 2012, my goal is to have Pongu earn his Beginner title in WCFO, which will require learning and performing at least two separate routines to a fairly high degree of proficiency. Pretty ambitious for this crazy little mutt, and maybe we won't get there, but it would be nice to have a title (any title!) to validate the work we've done.

Foster-wise, we took in and placed four mutts in 2011.

Nessie: Abandoned with her newborn pups in Georgia, 18-month-old Nessie hitched a ride to Philly and became our very first foster monster. She was a completely un-identifiable Yellow Dog mutt: an incredibly gentle, patient, tolerant lady who was in and out of here in exactly ten days -- an ideal first foster experience, and the dog who got me hooked on this gig. She now lives with the bike guy down the block. We see her once in a while. She has great adventures... although, thankfully, those adventures don't include popping up on our roof anymore.

Gremlin: The dog who almost died from being ugly. Gremlin turned up in rough shape on the doorstep of a North Carolina farm. The lady of the house took care of her for a while, but her husband wouldn't let her keep the little monster. So Gremlin went to the local pound, where she came within a day of being euthanized because she was so ugly no one wanted to adopt her.

Gremlin was a problem child. She was a poop monster, a jumper, a wailer and a spaz. Extremely loyal and protective, but not too bright. At first I thought she was a low-to-medium energy dog because she was so unhealthy when we got here, but when she got her health back, she got her real energy level back too.

We had crazy times. Gremlin made me up my training game a lot. She was the funniest foster dog we've ever had and possibly will ever have. It took over three months to place her, because she was so ugly that no one wanted her here, either, but she finally found a home with two friends of ours in Minneapolis. Yes, they drove all that way to get a gremlin.

She's doing wonderfully in her new home. I'm happy every time I get an update.

Pepper: Seven-month-old Pepper, a bat-eared black Lab mix, was found as a stray and taken to the pound in rural Georgia. She hitched a ride on the puppy caravan to New Jersey and from there found her way to us.

Pepper was an excellent dog almost from day one: affectionate, trusting, and very smart. She housebroke herself in a week, picked up tricks as fast as I could teach them, and was walking on a loose leash within ten days -- a huge change for a dog initially so overwhelmed by city life that I had to carry her bodily up the stairs the first time she came to our condo.

We only had her two weeks before she went off to live with a retired couple who had just lost their old black Lab. Pepper fit in perfectly there, too.

Stella: The foster monster I almost kept. Stella was a six-month-old hound mix (probably beagle/pit bull, if I had to guess) who was found in a Georgia ditch with her brother. We picked her up on Halloween and sent her home a week before Christmas.

Stella was adorable, clowny, and extremely people-oriented. She was a super quick study who went from knowing nothing to just about CGC-ready in six weeks, plus picking up a couple of tricks on top of that. Everyone loved her; even Pongu didn't completely hate her (not that this stopped him from repeatedly shoving her under the couch when she tried to climb up). Letting Stella go was the hardest foster parting I've had yet... but two dogs is our maximum, and keeping her would have meant fostering no more.

So let her go we did, and those were our fosters in 2011.

The goal in 2012 is to find, train, and place three to five more muttly monsters. I'm on the hunt for candidates...