Friday, August 31, 2012

April Arrives

On Wednesday night I picked up foster dog #14: an 18-month-old black Lab/border collie mix named April.

April comes from Tennessee. One of the employees at a branch bank there kept seeing a little black dog hovering around the building. Eventually he realized that the dog was living there and fed her for a while until she and her puppy could be caught.

Life isn't easy for strays, and April was very young (she probably had her puppies in her first heat), and despite her best efforts, only one of her pups -- Scarlett -- made it into rescue. April was a good mommy: on the morning of her transport into Philadelphia, when a volunteer gave her some chicken for breakfast, she ate one piece herself and carried the second piece over to Scarlett's crate and pushed it through the bars so her puppy could have it.

The Tennessee rescue held onto these dogs for several months, but there just aren't a lot of local adopters in that area, so when it became evident that April and her pup weren't going to find homes where they were, that rescue reached out to Wags to take April, Scarlett, and another mother-daughter pair of yellow Lab mixes. This Wednesday, they arrived in the Philadelphia area. Scarlett went home to her waiting adopter, and April came to my place to do a foster stint.

She was very depressed on arrival. The day April came here was probably the first time she'd been separated from Scarlett. In addition to the usual confusion and transport stress that all the fosters undergo at first, April just seemed apathetic to everything. She didn't want to play, she didn't want to eat, she just laid down flat on the floor of her crate and didn't seem much interested in anything.

Crookytail, however, wasn't about to let her stay sad.

His early attempts to cheer her up were not entirely successful. I made this clip after Crooky had been doing the same thing for about 15 minutes. At first April ignored him entirely. By this point, she was tentatively interested (she approaches and sniffs at him around the 10-second mark, which is more engagement than she had shown up to that time) but she still wasn't up to playing. Her body language remains slow and somewhat stiff throughout the clip, she keeps her tail tightly tucked between her legs (when she first came off the transport van I wasn't even sure she had a tail), her weight is shifted to her back legs, and all in all she's just not into it. When Crookytail gets too insistent (0:33-0:35, that over-the-shoulder chin lean and scruff grab -- very rude!), she snaps back defensively.

But Crookytail does not give up. Undaunted, and now more respectful of April's personal space, he keeps flinging himself on the ground and rolling over to show that he's not a threat to the smaller dog. (You will never, ever see Pongu self-handicapping like that, although Crooky does it routinely when he's interacting with puppies and smaller dogs. Crookytail is willing to give up his dignity to have a good time. Pongu most assuredly is not.)

And by the end, it's starting to work. In the very last seconds of the clip you can see April relax a little: her tail comes out and wags, her ears come up a little, she shakes off the stress, and she flashes a smile.

20 minutes later, I threw out some toys:

Dog Mob immediately seized upon the opportunity to fling them around. Crookytail's still trying to engage April (note his little war dance with the green squeaky snake, which is his favorite toy to parade around in front of new dogs) but seems to have mostly decided that it will work better to play with Pongu for now and show April via demonstration that toys are fun!

April, who's both more curious and less pressured with this new dynamic, starts showing a little more spirit: her tail is still down but it's no longer tucked between her legs, and she waves it a little bit occasionally. Her ears are positioned higher. She's showing some interest in the toys and sniffing around the periphery of their games; she's not ready to jump into the middle of things yet, but she knows that Dog Mob is having fun and she's thinking about playing with them.

Toward the end, she makes much bigger and looser tail wags, is curious enough to start investigating the guinea pig pen, and gives me many big smiles.

Then they all collapsed in exhaustion.

By the next morning (today), April was actively playing:

She still isn't completely relaxed -- she snaps at Dog Mob a couple of times to get more space when they start ganging up on her, and her tail is tucked between her legs for most of the interaction -- but she's choosing to engage Crookytail again and again, and she's clearly eager to play pounce-and-wrestle games.

Overall, her mood appears to have improved a lot over the two days since her arrival. April is now eating, playing with toys, and displaying more curiosity about the world, including the guinea pigs:

She jumped into the pen once, but after being corrected with a "No!" she immediately stopped hassling the pigs, got out, and has behaved appropriately since then. Her interest in them appears pretty normal/safe to me, and I think it's fair to consider April's current behavior to be representative of her actual personality, so I'm stamping her as "cat safe" for potential adoptive households.

And that's where we are going into Day Two. She's come around enough that we can probably start formal training tonight or tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Tulip (Unexpectedly) Goes Home

Tulip's stay here proved unexpectedly short.

She spent most of her brief stay here just getting over culture shock. Early on Saturday morning, Tulip would completely empty her bladder in submissive urination as soon as I unlatched her crate. The first time, she actually darted past me, tried to hide under the couch, and sprayed pee everywhere while rolling onto her belly under the couch. So that was cool, definitely had a lot of fun doing the cleanup from that little sprinkler show.

After that I body blocked her to prevent escapes and just mopped up puddles inside the crate. Still not great, but much more manageable.

By Sunday morning, after several sessions of me approaching the crate, dropping treats through the bars, and working up to unlatching and opening the door while scattering more treats, Tulip had greatly improved and was hardly urinating at all. She was still leaking a little, but it was far less severe, and the rate at which she was improving suggested that she'd be fine in a week or two.

Similarly, early leash walks were... an adventure. Tulip grew up as an "outside dog" living in a trailer park. Moving to Center City Philadelphia was a major change for her. Whenever she saw something new and scary -- bicycles, cars, people in sunglasses walking toward her, a chalkboard coffeeshop sign, an awning flapping in the wind -- she would panic, shoot to the end of her leash, and do a double backflip. When she saw another dog, she would race toward it seeking comfort, and she'd do a sudden somersault when she hit the end of the leash headed that way.

I spent a lot of time being very grateful that I'm better at handling a leash now than I was two years ago, but even so, Tulip kept me on my toes.

She showed quick and steady improvement with her leash walking skills throughout the first couple of days, but between that and the submissive urination and general adjustment issues, I expected I'd have her for at least a couple of weeks to smooth out some of the rough edges before she went to a forever home. While I was sure these problems would prove transitory, they can be annoying, and perhaps even overwhelming to an inexperienced owner. I didn't want Tulip to get off on the wrong foot in her new home.

The home she got, however, was more than happy to take her immediately, even after being warned that she'd need some time to relax. The family had had a dog before, so they had an idea of what to expect, and they were willing to work through Tulip's temporary discomfort. And who am I to say no if someone wants to spare me another 10 days of mopping pee spills?

So off she went, after only two days.

All signs point to this being happily-ever-after for Tulip. She's a lucky dog; she had several inquiries before she even got off the bus, and this seemed like the best fit for her. The family was so eager to meet her that they arrived at the adoption event before it opened and were waiting there when she came through the doors. In person, it was an even better match than it was on paper.

As ever, I'll miss her, but just a little. It's always good to see a foster dog so happy to go home.

And, because they fit as well here as anywhere, a few last pictures of Tulip before she left.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Collecting Tulip

Last night we took a drive down scenic, glamorous I-95 to collect our latest foster dog, a starvacious beagle mix named Tulip.

Just as we got near the Delaware border, what did we chance to see but a CAR THAT WAS TOTALLY ON FIRE.

(sorry about the blurry quality, my camera wasn't eager to focus in the dark and I didn't have time to reset it)

Happily it didn't look like anyone was hurt -- the car's driver was standing on the side of the road about 50 yards away with the most amazing look of dumbfounded despair on his face -- and happier yet, we got there right as it happened, so we dodged the hourlong traffic pileup that soon accumulated behind the scene. And then we proceeded to a weirdly hard-to-access hotel parking lot, where we collected a small, skinny, homeless mutt named Tulip from the transport van.
Tulip was scared and sad the whole way back. It's a big culture shock for these little pups; Mab and Etta adjusted so quickly that I'd forgotten how stressful the trip can be for some dogs. Tulip reminded me.
She pancaked in the parking garage, on the street, and on the stairs. I had to carry her most of the way home. But she made it, and on the doorstep she met Dog Mob. Tulip was polite, anxious, and deferential; Pongu was a pushy dick, as ever, while Crookytail was enthusiastic about having a new puppy friend!!
Once Tulip conceded that he was Number One Dog (which she did immediately), Pongu grudgingly let her into the house, albeit while hovering around to threateningly remind her not to have any designs on his privileges. He's so insecure.
Once she got inside, though, it didn't take Tulip long at all to relax. And, oh, what a bright smile she has when she lets it out.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Etta Goes Home

Etta went home on Friday.

There isn't much more to say about that, just happiness that this little mutt beat the odds and won the so-arbitrary lottery of shelter dog outcomes and found a most wonderful family of her own.

She did that thing foster dogs do when they know they've found their place: she snuggled up to her new people like she'd known them forever, and she walked out of my life with no regrets at all.

Another of those moments that makes all of this worthwhile.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Etta's Continuing Adventures

Etta's adventures with Dog Mob continue.

She's joined in their group practices, sometimes successfully and sometimes rather less so.

This was right after Etta had come out of the box and had tons of energy to burn, so she was bouncing around all over the place and could not settle down for the group Sit. I like to imagine that the other two are saying something like "settle down dude, we're trying to earn some treats here and you're screwing it up!" and she went "derp! sorry!" and then sat down.

Crisis averted, chicken patties for all.

This morning Etta went to the dog park for the first time. I was a little hesitant about bringing her, because she does still have her spay stitches in and she's supposed to be on exercise restriction, and sometimes Dog Mob gets pretty crazy at the park.

The fosters usually don't, though, at least not for their first few visits. Most dogs spend their initial visits just figuring out the lay of the land. Like new kids at school, they need to spend some time sussing out the cliques, deciding who's cool and who's best avoided, and tentatively making new friends. There are occasional dogs (usually socially inept adolescents) who just go balls-out immediately, but after living with her for a week, I was reasonably confident that Etta was not one of those. I expected she'd take a friendly but cautious approach, and indeed, so she did. She spent most of her time hovering around me and/or Dog Mob, with only occasional ventures out into the unfamiliar wilds of the dog park.

Hiding under one of the park benches, where she briefly ducked for cover after a park-goer came up to her in a direct frontal approach and tried to pet her on top of the head:

Gradually relaxing in the semi-reassuring company of Dog Mob:

By the time we were ready to leave, she was much more confident and full of smiles:

After a few more warm-up visits, I imagine she'd be happy to play at the park. She is a friendly and socially appropriate little dog, neither too pushy nor too shy, and she gets along well with all the dogs she's met so far. She just needs a little more time to get familiar with the park and its rhythms, and to get acquainted with a few more doggy friends.

She won't get it here, though. This little dog is going home tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Etta Gets A Name

It's been a few days now and Etta -- the little dog formerly known as Eldwin, Eldwina, and/or Eledwyn -- is rapidly improving. She's regaining her health and rebuilding her strength, and her energy level is increasing by leaps and bounds.

Best of all, she has a great home waiting for her.

I wasn't sure this would happen -- much less that it would happen so quickly -- because I pulled Etta from RCAS without a plan.

Whenever possible, I prefer to have an adopter ready and waiting for a dog before I commit to pulling that dog from a shelter. That way, I can work with the adopters to find a shelter dog that they like, then foster and train that dog for a set period of time until the adopters are ready to bring their new pup home. Everyone's expectations and timelines are clear, removing a lot of uncertainty from the process. This is, to be sure, a considerable luxury, and I don't always get to do it that way.

In this case, I had no adopter lined up for the dog who would become Etta. I had no idea how long she would be here or where she might go. But she was on her last day at the shelter, dogs were dying all around her, and I couldn't leave her any longer, so I pulled her anyway and blindly hoped for the best. As soon as I made the commitment to take her, I also asked my rescue group to list her on Petfinder, hoping that she'd draw some notice there.

And she did. Even before Etta arrived in Philadelphia, several people inquired about adopting her. Two days after she got here, she had a new name -- Etta -- and a wonderful home prepared to take her.

She's a lucky little dog.

On Friday she'll go home. In the meantime, I'll do my best to teach her some of the foundations she'll need to live happily and politely with people.

Training got off to a bumpy start, because initially Etta was too starved to concentrate in the presence of food. She would drive herself crazy trying to grab the lure out of my hand, and although she gave up on attacking my hand fairly quickly when it didn't work to get the treat, she couldn't focus on doing anything else.

I spent a couple of days trying to capture a Sit, but capturing is not an optimal method of working with a dog who has absolutely no concept of human-directed learning. In my experience, capturing can be very effective with a dog who's already familiar with clicker training, but it doesn't really work if the dog doesn't know what a click means yet. So we weren't making a ton of progress with capturing Sits, even after I used name recognition exercises to build up Etta's "click = reward" association.

Yesterday brought a breakthrough. Not on the capturing front (that still hasn't really worked out for me in this case), but in Etta's ability to focus on a lure. She'd finally gotten out of starvation mode enough to concentrate with food around. So I reverted to lure-reward training and within two sessions I had a pretty good Sit on verbal cue.

Socially, Etta's doing quite well. She's beginning to engage with Dog Mob a little more. This clip is from this morning; while she's still somewhat tentative in her interactions with Crookytail, she's definitely warming up to him. It probably won't be much longer before I have to start discouraging play instead of encouraging it, so as to keep her from straining her stitches. But for now, it's good to see her starting to make friends.
Finally, I've discovered that Etta loves running. Her adopters plan on taking her jogging with them, and while it will probably be a few more weeks before Etta is healthy enough to keep up over any real distance, I'm working on getting her comfortable with the idea. She still has her spay stitches in and isn't allowed to do any strenuous exercise, so we jog for only one block at a time, then walk two blocks. Jog half a block, walk two blocks. And so on. Etta is very good at keeping a steady pace and position on leash while jogging, and she gets SO happy when I call out "ready! ready! goooo!!" to signify that we're about to pick up the pace. She puts everything she's got into running, and she's always sad when we slow back down again.

Soon, I hope, she'll be able to run to her heart's content.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

"Little Dog" (Eldwin/Eldwina/Eledwyn)

Late last night, we picked up foster dog #12: a petite one-year-old shepherd mix that the shelter had named "Eldwin."

At the shelter, Eldwin was described as friendly but shy. Filthy and starved to a skeleton, this dog was picked up stray in Robeson County. He had no tags or collar, and his condition made it clear that he'd been on his own for a while. However, his sociability suggested that at some point he'd had a home, if not one that seemed to care about him very much.

Most of those observations seemed to be borne out when I picked him up. All the foster dogs are underweight when we get them, but Eldwin was frighteningly thin: a sack of bones wrapped in fur. He'd gotten a bath and trim at the vet before transport, so his fur was nice and shiny and his nails were short and neat, but it was evident that he'd been seriously deprived for a while before that. At the vet, Eldwin weighed in at 29.2 pounds. A healthy weight would be somewhere closer to 40.

And, most startlingly, "he" was a she.

For the time being, I'm calling her "little dog," since I can't really call her "Eldwin" anymore and there's no point in my teaching her a new name if the adopter is going to change it a couple of weeks later. It's not much of a name, though, so I'm hoping that one of the people interested in Eldwin commits to the pup soon and gives her a real name that I can use while working with her.

After only one day with this little dog, it's hard to make any accurate determinations about her personality, and any guesswork about her past would be just that. However, it seems likely to me that she had a home and was attached to a family in the past, but that family dumped her. At the vet, on the transport van, and in the car on the way home, Little Dog appeared to be severely depressed in a way that I tend to associate with dogs who know their people have abandoned them. Dogs do understand that, and they can get deeply depressed about it.

She never came out of her shell in quarantine boarding (in fact, the vet tech's and kennel workers' description of her shut-down behavior made me worry that she might actually be a severely fearful dog. Having gone through years of that with Pongu the Insane, I am painfully aware of how difficult it can be to live with a fearful dog, and I did not look forward to trying to place such a pup). She stayed morose on transport, and when I first picked her up, she was only mildly interested in food, despite her obvious starved condition. She spent the entire trip home in a state of apathy. It wasn't fear; it was more like resignation. It just seemed like nothing really mattered to her.

But once we got home, and the front door opened, she brightened up like magic. Suddenly the apathy vanished and she was all smiles. It was as if she recognized that this was a home, not just another institutional stop on an abandoned dog's sad journey, and she could tell the difference right away.

There are some things that are still strange to Little Dog. She was confused by glass doors (but not solid ones), initially hesitant about stairs, mightily bemused by the guinea pigs, and fascinated by our washing machine.

Whoever had her before did not take the time to train her at all. Little Dog doesn't know how to walk on a leash (although she's picking that up quickly), she doesn't have any idea what Sit means (and training that by luring is proving to be difficult, because she's so constantly hungry that she can't focus at all when food's in play; I'll have to use another method to get a Sit), and she has no manners whatsoever. Given the chance, she'll try to scavenge tasty tidbits from a garbage can. She has a tendency to jump on people when she's excited, although she isn't too persistent about it and she takes correction easily.

She's getting along well with Dog Mob. Little Dog seems to be well socialized to other dogs and, at least so far, seems fairly submissive (although she's also the smallest, youngest, and newest in this crew, and is dealing with a couple of mutts who are accustomed to pushing fosters around). She could probably live safely with cats and other small animals, as she's mildly interested in the guinea pigs but not inappropriately so.

Thus far, Little Dog has been very quiet. She doesn't bark and barely whines; the only noise she really makes is the thump of her tail against the walls of her crate when I approach. Early impressions can be misleading here, though, so I don't know if that behavior will hold up over time.

I don't know whether she's housebroken, as she hasn't had any accidents yet, but I'm assuming the answer is "no" and treating her accordingly. So far, so good.

Little Dog is still adjusting to the culture shock of going from rural North Carolina to Center City Philadelphia. She's making the adjustment very quickly, however, and from the glimmers I can see, her true personality seems to be playful, curious, and friendly. It's hard to gauge her energy level given her current poor condition, but it does seem like she'll be pretty active when she gets back to full health. She is not shy or fearful (at least not any more so than any normal dog would be under these circumstances); as she gets more comfortable, I expect to see her become more inquisitive and perhaps even adventurous.

We'll see how things develop over the next days. This dog badly wants a home; I suspect she had one before and lost it, and is desperate to find that place of belonging again. She seems to think she has it here, but she doesn't, not really, and the sooner I can get her off to a real home -- one that will love and cherish her instead of abandoning her to starve -- the happier she'll be.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Snickers and Twix

Guinea pigs can end up in rescue too.

Although most responsible owners know better than to buy a dog or cat at a pet store (and, indeed, the very presence of dogs or cats for sale tends to signal that you're shopping at an unscrupulous and therefore lower-quality store), many people are not aware that pocket pets -- hamsters, rats, guinea pigs, and so forth -- also land in shelters and foster homes every day.

They're out there, waiting to be adopted. And many are better socialized and more amenable to handling than pet store animals, because they're being fostered by people who know the importance of regular human interaction and are capable of gently earning pocket pets' trust.

Last month, my elderly guinea pig Biscuit (shown here in happier times) passed away after six and a half years. He'd had cancer once before, but it was successfully removed by surgery and he lived another three healthy years before a new, more aggressive, and less operable cancer cropped up. Biscuit fought it for a surprisingly long time, but eventually he succumbed.

A few weeks later, we decided to adopt another pair of guinea pigs to fill the space that Biscuit left behind. His pen is quite a large one, and guinea pigs are social animals that do best in pairs or groups, so I opted to adopt a bonded pair. Besides, that way they could eat even more apple cores and carrot peelings than Biscuit disposed of on his own.

My first stop was at Morris Animal Refuge, the nearest local shelter, which occasionally has guinea pigs looking for new homes. They didn't have any when I checked, though, and the adoption coordinator suggested contacting Have-a-Heart Guinea Pig Rescue , a rescue partner with whom the shelter frequently worked.

There I saw Snickers and Twix, who were named "Meg and Jo" at the time. (Nobody, including the pigs themselves, knows which is which. Somehow that just seems beside the point.)

Snickers and Twix, along with almost a hundred other guinea pigs, came from an animal hoarder's home in Connecticut. Authorities busted the house and removed the animals, and rescue groups all along the East Coast split up the guinea pigs into twos and threes so that they could fit into foster housing. These two, who are almost certainly sisters from the same litter, are estimated to be about two and a half years old.

I filled out the adoption application, confirmed that they were still available, and drove out to New Jersey to meet them. An hour later, they were settled in the pen, occasioning great interest from Dog Mob.

Crookytail adopted the pigs almost immediately. He seems to think of them as "his pigs" and is extremely solicitous of Snickers and Twix; if the guinea pigs start whistling or wheeking, Crookytail will bolt awake from a nap, rush over to their cage, and nose them worriedly until they quiet down (which they usually do promptly, since they still get a little unnerved by being nosed by a giant furry predator).

It's been a couple of weeks now and they seem to be getting along well. Snickers and Twix are a lot younger than Biscuit was, and it's been a while since we've had such a symphony of pig noises echoing through the house. Crookytail's never heard such a thing, I think. He seems delighted by it, though, and if Pongu is largely indifferent, at least he doesn't seem to mind.

So here they are: Snickers and Twix, the newest additions to the menagerie.

Thursday, August 2, 2012


I don't post much about the dogs who have homes.

I dropped off updating Indy once her adopter had chosen her; I still haven't posted the story of how Crookytail came to live with us permanently, or what Dog Mob has been up to in the months that this blog's been dark. And I never posted about Mab at all.

That's because I view this blog, in large part, as a way to get the word out to prospective adopters and inform them about foster dogs who still need homes. Once a dog has a home, the urgency diminishes, and I tend to move my efforts to more pressing concerns.

But it's also a record of dogs we have fostered, and in that spirit, here's a post about Mab.

Mab, whose name was "Oreo" at the shelter, was taken into Robeson County Animal Shelter by an animal control officer who found her running around as a stray. She stayed in the shelter for about three weeks with zero interest. Her picture showed a small, nondescript black-and-white dog with a pointy muzzle and flattened ears; she was listed as a six-month-old "shepherd mix." But the description also said she had an exceptional personality, and a friend of mine was looking to adopt a dog, so I sent her Mab's picture along with a photo of another dog who was running out of time, and asked whether she might be interested in either one.

With 90 minutes to go, she picked Mab. It wasn't an easy choice, but fortunately the other dog was also saved at the last minute. (They got lucky. The situation at RCAS has deteriorated considerably, as rescue partners shift their efforts to other shelters, and the odds for dogs and cats in that shelter have dropped far below what they once were.)

So Mab spent a couple of weeks in quarantine boarding and got a ticket to come up to Philly, and then she spent a couple more weeks hanging out with Dog Mob and learning how to learn.

Mab arrived with a couple of bad habits: she liked to nip me when she got overly happy and excited, almost as if she were saying "high five!" to celebrate getting something right. She also frequently wrapped her front paws around my leg and dug in, which caused some painful scratches.

The nipping went away after a couple of days of the time-honored "No!" + turn-back-and-ignore technique, coupled with praise and treats for holding a polite Sit instead. The grab-and-scratch seemed to be born out of anxiety more than anything else, and it faded swiftly once Mab started to relax and learn the rules of living with people.

And she learned fast. That nondescript-looking "shepherd mix" turned out to be a purebred (or close to it) Border Collie, with all the smarts her breed is famed for. Mab learned new commands at the rate of about one per day -- not just how to approximate the desired behavior, but how to perform it in finished form on a verbal cue in a moderate-distraction environment. In two weeks, she went from absolutely nothing to an above-average pet dog's level of training: Sit, Down, polite leash walking, beginning Stay, beginning recall, and various combinations like "come from 10 feet away, sit and wait to be leashed, walk with handler to door, sit at door, wait for cue to pass through."

Not only was she extraordinarily smart, Mab was exceptionally sweet.

I often tell people that Dog Mob consists of one dog who's smart but a dick and another dog who's nice but kinda slow. (This isn't entirely fair to Crookytail, who is of above-average canine intelligence; he just seems slow next to Pongu. It is, however, entirely fair to Pongu, who is a massive jerk to people and other dogs alike. Some fearful dogs turn out to be gentle and loving once you get past their anxiety. Pongu is not one of them. I love him more than anything, but he is a spiteful, jealous, petty little bratling.)

Anyway, the point is that I don't have a dog who's both smart and nice. Mab, however, is that dog.

She lives in Vermont now, where she is doing very well. We were glad to have her, for a while, but a foster home is just a waystation for a dog. What they all want is a real home, and once they have it, they don't look back.

They know where they belong.