Category Archives: Personal

A Life Shattering Experience

On this day last year, I was at a vet’s office while my elderly cat underwent surgery when I got a text message.  “Check Facebook.  Bunny and Brock are missing.” Bunny is the single most special animal I’ve ever fostered.  I almost didn’t let her go, and every day for the last year, I have wished that I hadn’t.  She was worth giving up the rescue for, to me.  She was worth it all. When Bunny arrived  in our care, she was one of the most fearful dogs I’d ever seen.  She was nearly feral.  She was born in a shelter as evidence in a hoarder’s animal cruelty trial, and spent the first eight months of her life without leaving her kennel or seeing daylight, or grass.  She and her siblings were said to be so afraid of grass that they collapsed on it and crawled, dragging their handlers to the sidewalk where they could at least feel the familiarity of concrete.  Volunteers for a border collie rescue had helped to socialize them, driving for hours  each week to arrive at the shelter and work with the 20 dogs that were left out of the original 30 or so (some died in the kennels, including some of the pups that were born there, and Bunny’s mother.)

When we took Bunny in, it was a lot of work, effort and a heck of a learning experience for me.  We went through so much together.  It was just a completely fulfilling experience for me, though, as I really learned about the kind of dogs that I love to help.  I would take in a million Bunnys just to see them blossom the way she did.  She was here for over a year, and she was a huge part of my life.  I was close to keeping her with that “perfect” home came along, and I was able to let her go so I could continue my rescue work.

A year later, that text message came, and my world was shaken, rocked, off its foundation.  We launched into action.  A Facebook page just for the two dogs and their search effort quickly grew to over a hundred people.   Volunteers donated an incredible amount of money to help cover advertising costs, and my husband, best friend and myself spent well over 30 hours the first week searching on foot, searching with dogs, and hanging flyers and posters to try and find the dogs.  I spent every day making a trip out to hang more posters or to search, even if I was alone.  In addition to ads, we contacted media, had the dogs’ story make the front page of the paper locally here and featured in a large spread in a weekly paper that comes out in a large area locally.  We had http://www.findtoto.org send calls out to thousands of neighbors in the area to report the dogs missing.  I took and made phone calls daily as nearly every stray dog sighting in a huge radius was called in to me- with not a single one showing any hope of being the dogs.  While I didn’t know Brock that well, we never narrowed our search for just Bunny.  It’s our hope that if she is alive, so is he.

We never had a confirmed sighting of the dogs.  After a month, our efforts on foot dwindled.  We kept our flyers updated, kept checking Craigslist and other sites, but nothing really seemed to stand out.  It’s like they disappeared.  In fact, some theories came out that perhaps their adopters gave them away (I hope not, and am not accusing them of such,) or perhaps they were stolen, or picked up and moved far away.  I will probably never know.

It’s been a year, and I’ve never stopped thinking about Bunny.  I’ve never stopped missing her.  My heart has not been whole.  I have never regretted one of my mistakes in rescue as much as I regret not keeping her here, with me, where she never would have ended up in this situation.  Some days, the misery I feel over losing her is unbearable.  In terms of closure and the ability to move on, it would have been better to find her lifeless body than never to have found her at all.   I fear I’ll have this pain with me for the rest of my life.

In the past year, it has been more difficult to allow rescued animals to go.  I have a harder time parting with fosters, a harder time trusting adopters, and an emotion of protectiveness that overcomes reason too often.  I can only hope that this will fade, or I  may have to give up my rescue for Bunny after all.

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Defining success: I didn’t go to college

Some classrooms don't have a blackboard.

Recently I was asked if I would consider going to college, and told I should look into it.  This is something I’ve heard repeatedly over the years.  I knew when I was in high school that I didn’t want to go to college.  I don’t deal well with social situations anyway, typically, but I especially didn’t want to spend so much of my time with people I didn’t know, in a culture I didn’t care for, to get a degree in something I wasn’t sure I wanted to pursue.  I had been accepted to an art school when I was sixteen, but due to family finances and my parents telling me that I would have trouble making money as an artist, I had to turn that down.

As a high school freshman, I began working in a retail store locally. I was pretty good at my job, but it was an easy job to be good at.  I was placed at the service desk  often where I really enjoyed helping people. I was lucky to have that job, even if it was only a tiny bit above minimum wage, but eventually I started feeling  disconnected from it.  I knew that this job was just filler, not a career. A year and a half or so after high school graduation, I saw a listing for a part time kennel worker at the Humane Society, and thought that I would really like to try it.  When I was told that I had been chosen for the job, my heart sang.  I really wanted to try this.  It seemed like a dream job.  I worked morning shifts and some weekends at the shelter and continued working at the retail store part time.

I discovered pretty quickly that working at a shelter really isn’t a dream job.  Some days it’s a nightmare.  What it is, though, is fulfilling.  Even on the sad days, you know you’ve made a positive impact on the lives of animals- and often people- that need you.  This isn’t enough for some folks, and shelters have a high turnover rate because of that.  I couldn’t imagine not working with the animals, though.  I loved my job, even though I was underpaid, stressed out and had to say goodbye to animals that I loved and cherished.   I realized something then: for better or worse, this is what I want to do with my life.  I’m good at it.  Maybe it’s my calling, if you believe in things like that.    From the moment I cleaned the first cat cage at that shelter in 2003 until present day, I have been completely immersed in my work, helping homeless animals.  I was only 22 when I founded my animal rescue.  In different paid shelter positions as well as my position in STAR, I have spent a lot of time educating pet owners and even other rescuers because of the knowledge and experience I’ve obtained over the years- much of which couldn’t have been learned from a professor.  If I had gone to college, would I have taken the path that I am on?  Would it be better if I wasn’t?  I sort of get the feeling sometimes that it’s what people think- that I could be something different, better, had I chosen another route.

I realize that business classes might make me more efficient at what I do, or that having any career would help me earn money to take care of myself and the pets here so my husband wouldn’t have to support us- but our financial situation is our business, no one else’s.  At the end of the day, does my level of education or the wages I earn (or rather, don’t earn) really make me less of a person?

So have I “thought about going to college?” Sure, and I’ve decided it’s not something I want to do.  I know that questions like this are meant to be thoughtful and caring, and that people that ask them are doing so because to them, there is significant value attached to going to college and that it could help me to “do more,” somehow.  My husband has a college degree in a field that he didn’t pursue.  Five years of schooling, thousands of dollars that we’re still paying off and probably will be for years, and he found a job he enjoys that his degree has no bearing on.  No, I didn’t go to college, and I don’t plan on it.  You don’t have to believe that I took the right path.  I will continue to grow and hope that if I become successful, it is in doing something that I love and that makes a difference.

And though I may not know the answers,
I can finally say I’m free.
And if the questions lead me here, then
I am who I was born to be.
Susan Boyle, Who I was Born to Be

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Second chances: Milo

It’s not a call you want to get as a rescuer.  I knew what was coming when I heard the vague message on the machine.  “I adopted a dog from you several years ago.  Could you call me as soon as possible?”  I knew from her name which dog she’d adopted and he’d been a wonderful, well-behaved boy but I knew something bad had happened.  Milo was, as best as we could figure, a german shepherd or collie mix that came from a cat shelter that only had outdoor kennels that he escaped from regularly.  In a strange coincidence, the day we returned the family’s phone call happened to be the fifth anniversary of his adoption.

The news was what I had expected.  Milo had bitten his adopted “dad”, an injury that required sutures, when he came toward the dog and demanded that he leave the room. It was not unprovoked, and it was the first time he’d aggressed with them and so they really felt they should give him another chance.  However, they had recently had a baby- unquestionably a stressor that led to the situation- and were unsure what would happen if they kept him.  After the bite, Milo was sent to the boarding kennel he stayed at sometimes, and they called us.  They used wording like “he goes insane” when someone would come to the door, mentioned that he was “extremely protective” of the home and of the woman adopter, and we were worried that the aggression was an issue that had been building up for a while.

Taking this into consideration, I made an appointment at the vet’s office to euthanize Milo, and called the family to make arrangements to pick him up.  I told them that I could not make promises and that it is not usually an option to rehome a dog that has bitten someone and sent them for stitches due to dangerous dog laws and liability issues.  They said they did not want to know what would happen, they would rather keep the idea in mind that Milo would have a happy ending; they did not want to be informed if we were to make a final decision about him.  It was their way also, I believe, of giving me a way to do what they understood I might need to do with less guilt and turmoil.

I drove to their home that Monday, depressed and miserable, setting out for what would have been one of the worst days I’ve had in rescue.  I held my composure as Milo’s “dad” met me at the door with Milo on leash, pulling and struggling to get to me, his body language showing an excited but happy dog, not an aggressive or fearful dog.  After an initial greeting, I knelt so he wouldn’t feel the need to jump on me, and he gave me kisses.  After Milo’s dad signed the return form, he started to show some emotion but soldiered through it.  We loaded Milo and some of his belongings- what had gone with him to the boarding kennel, anyway- into the back of my Forester, and as I drove away, I began to cry.  After what happened with Murphy earlier in the year, I knew I needed to do more for Milo than give up on him for a mistake that was probably human error entirely.  The dog in my vehicle was not giving signals that he was a crazy, dangerous beast.  I took him home in order to give him a chance to mingle with the dogs and cats.

Milo met the dogs with little issue, and showed some interest in the cats but not enough to be a concern.  I called the vet immediately and cancelled the euthanasia appointment and instead made one for a checkup and thyroid test (thyroid disorders can cause temperament imbalances, including aggression in many cases.)  His checkup went well, no thyroid issues, and he was very well behaved for the exam and blood draw and in the crowded waiting room.Milo has been here for five weeks, and we have seen no signs of aggression.  He is a high strung shepherd mix that can be reactive to lots of stimuli, but I believe he had to feel seriously threatened before he decided to bite.  My goals for 2012 is to work with Milo on confidence building, continuing to reduce his reactivity, and earn his Canine Good Citizenship award to prove that dogs can show less than desirable behavior without condemning them for good.

I know it was the right decision to make, though it comes with sacrifices- Milo is now a permanent part of our lives, at least for the duration of HIS life.  I’ve struggled with the very human response of feeling that it is unfair to us AND Milo  to have this dog join our family because of a situation that shouldn’t have happened, or because his adopters were unwilling to work with a behavior consultant or give Milo a chance to adjust to his new life with the newborn baby in the home.  It is inconvenient, and it is stressful having eight dogs under our roof to take care of.  Milo’s reactivity has gotten better already but as a sound-sensitive chronic migraine sufferer it has been incredibly difficult listening to him bark his head off at random things like neighbors in their own driveway and anything larger than a leaf moving down the road in front of the house.  I’ll admit that I selfishly allowed myself to resent this dog for no reason other than we have become stuck together.  In the last two weeks, I have really made an effort to spend one-on-one time with him, working on training with the reactivity (HUGE difference already) and basic manners and obedience to help develop a bond.  It has been easier to accept that he’s a part of our lives and look forward to seeing what kind of potential he has.  I feel guilty for allowing my own emotions to make me upset about having Milo in the house when really, I am relieved that he is doing so well.  He has the opportunity that I couldn’t give Murphy because of his dog aggression.  Though he is treated with the love and compassion that all dogs under our roof deserve and receive, I can’t bring myself to call him “my” dog yet, I simply refer to him as a sanctuary dog for the rescue for now.  It will take some time for that to change, but we’ll get through this together.

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Shutting down

The phrase “shutting down” has been used for a while in dog behavior.  It usually refers in situations where the dog has just become so overstimulated by stress or fear that it becomes unresponsive.  I was recently contacted by an adopter that is attempting to do some pretty advanced training with her new dog and she mentioned that he seemed “exhausted” after a relatively short period and would not even take food from her anymore.  This dog isn’t exhausted, he is shut down.  She is most likely introducing too much, too quickly, or making training sessions go too long, or throwing too much at him at once and he is having a hard time coping with all of it, so he just turns off.  This can happen with fearful or hypervigilant dogs as well, dogs that are so overwhelmed by what’s going on around them that they just can’t process the environment anymore.

The other day I discovered that shutting down applies to more than that when it comes to working with dogs.  I learned that *I* can shut down while interacting with them, too.  I was going out for a walk and discovered my foster Hailey to be HIGHLY reactive on leash.  It is frustration that causes her reaction, she wants to check the dog out and I’m sure her pit bull heritage doesn’t help with that.  She is better after getting a solid sniff and she does fine with the six other dogs at the house, but she was just uncontrollable until she was able to get to him and unfortunately, she can’t be allowed to do that with every dog we see on walks or at classes, which she was supposed to be starting today.  Her behavior was so awful I was floored; I really hadn’t expected it even though she can be a handful.  I should have done something productive, should have taken her out of the situation and gotten her back to a manageable level of excitement, should have used the information I have gathered over the years to help solve the problem.  Rather than using my brain to figure out exactly what I needed to do, though… I simply turned off.  I didn’t want to walk this dog anymore, didn’t want to try and solve her problems, just didn’t want to deal with it.  She was hurting my arm, I could not get her focus, and she sat there squealing and yipping and looking quite fierce because she completely lacks social skills with new dogs and I felt overwhelmed and helpless.  I shut down.

It’s been a hard pill to swallow to realize that there are huge gaps in my comfort level with certain aspects of training.  We’ve had dogs come through here with serious problems that were ironed out pretty easily through consistency and training and a lot of patience and I know that this can be as well.  I have had this degree of reactivity with two fosters now (Cody and Hailey) though and… I feel so lost.  I joke, “why can’t this be as easy as aggression and resource guarding?”

With a dog that is overwhelmed and shutting down, we try to figure out how to keep the level of stimuli to a point where  the dog feels safer and can think and concentrate.  I suppose that now, I need to do the same for myself while I try to help Hailey.  Hopefully I can, and we’ll get through this together.  Baby steps.

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Murphy

Wow, has it really been a month since my last blog post?  I’m sorry.  There has been so much going on, and I’ve let this go unintentionally.

Just recently, we’ve added a new permanent dog to our household.  It’s not the way I thought it would happen, and I am so glad that I hadn’t recently followed through with my desire to adopt and bring home a missing pet search candidate to train, because things might have ended differently for this dog.  Murphy was returned to our rescue after three and a half years in a loving home because of a bite that sent his human girl to the hospital.  It was provoked- he was grabbed and startled when he got loose while out on a walk, and he was reacting to that fear- but unfortunately, we can’t erase mistakes even when made in earnest.

When a dog bites so severely, there are few options.  It is irresponsible to attempt to rehome this dog, even if a rescue deems it “rehabilitated”- stay away from groups that claim that an animal’s aggression is rehabbed and gone, because they are showing serious inexperience with dog behavior.  Management and safety will always be a necessary part of that animal’s life from the moment of the bite until the day the dog dies.  This leaves the following options.  First, the adopter/owner keeps the dog forever, providing management and seeking professional help to work out the cause of the behavior, following any dangerous-dog laws that may encompass their situation.  Second, if returned to a rescue group, the rescue may wish to keep the dog forever but this is only humane, in my opinion, if they are providing a quality home environment for the dog, not permanency in a shelter/kennel.  The last alternative is euthanasia.

When I picked up Murphy, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen but I was pretty sure we were going to have to go with the last option and had, in not as many words, told the family so.  He was reportedly very bad with most other dogs, and we’d seen this during his first stay in our rescue so we knew it was true.  He had bitten someone that he had known for many years very badly.  There was not much we could do and it seemed unlikely that keeping him would ever be an option.  I had run through all the possible scenarios many times in my head on the three hour drive to the arranged meeting spot three hours away.  I had come to the decision that if he needed to be euthanized, I could provide that last kindness for him with as much peace of mind as is possible in such a sad situation.  Once arriving at the meeting place and seeing the profound love the adopters had for this dog, though, all that changed.  The obvious heartbreak they were feeling was a testament to the wonderful dog that he is.  After a day of crying and soul-searching while this dog napped at my feet, only one option seemed right and my husband and I adopted him ourselves.

Murphy is good with the dogs, if a little unsure what to think about them, and he has bonded with me, deciding that I am A-ok.  He already responds pretty well to me and wants to spend as much time as possible sitting with me.  He laid at the gate at the top of the stairs all afternoon yesterday while I was cleaning my guinea pig and rat cages, even napping at one point but making sure that he knew where I was.

Let me back up a bit now.  Four years ago I had a dog, Buddy, that arrived as a foster the day before “Matty,” the dog that became Murphy.  While Matty went to another foster home, Buddy stayed with me due to his issues. Buddy was horribly insecure and had a history of biting. His saving grace was that he never bit hard enough to really be dangerous. I worked with him for six months before making the decision to adopt him. We had bonded deeply by that time. Buddy’s routine involved classes and training at home to help build his confidence, exercise and socialization, and we used medication, supplements and other measures to help him get over his fears.  He was a horribly anxious dog, would pick fights with the other dogs out of fear/insecurity, and was starting to display severe symptoms of anxiety when I was not home (even if my husband was) and during any mealtime. After a year and a half together, we made one last trip to the vet to release him from his suffering. I loved him so much, and was not the same after losing him. Every day had revolved around keeping Buddy happy, and then he was just… gone.

I see a lot of qualities in Murphy that my Buddy had- not just quirky insecure behavior but the good ones, the endearing things that I remember when I think of him. Even when I look at Murphy’s face, there is something there that I see that looks so familiar. Murphy obviously does not have the depth and severity that Buddy had, but his root issues are the same and it feels so… normal… to work with them again. It is strange to think that they became “STAR”s in the same weekend, and are so similar, and now both have ended up with me. Having Murphy here is actually comforting because it feels almost like I didn’t lose Buddy, not completely. Buddy would stand sentry at the top of that gate when I cleaned cages, too, and so yesterday, though I wished Murphy would go hang out with my hubby, there was something in that simple act that made the void Buddy left feel way smaller. I had to say goodbye to Buddy and have always wondered if I could have done something differently, or if there was some other way to keep him here.  Euthanasia is a serious, permanent situation that I only believe in as a last resort and though I don’t regret doing what I really believe was the right decision for my mentally anguished dog, I’ll always wonder if I’d done everything I could.  I have spent a lot of time learning about dogs and behavior since his passing, hoping I never end up in a situation like that again.

Maybe Murphy is here because we both needed a second chance.

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Canine Good Citizen-ship

Yesterday evening, the last of my five dogs, Dover, passed his Canine Good Citizen test.  This is huge for us because Dover, a deaf English setter, came to us with such severe canine compulsive disorder that he was disconnected from everything in the world around him except the lights and shadows he lived to chase.  He was a foster for an English setter rescue but it was clear that he was unadoptable after six months of sloooooow progress uphill and we adopted him.  I knew that placing him in an “average pet owner” home would be risky.  His condition is serious enough that he has been placed on anti-anxiety medication to help control the compulsion and for three years, managing his behavior and trying to recover his quality of life has been a huge part of our lives. We initially had kept him because it was the best thing for HIM but over time, we realized that we were just as much in love with him as any of our other dogs and can’t imagine this journey without him.  Passing his test last night was like planting our flag on top of Mt. Everest. Proof that we made this climb together.  I’m not sure what is in our future but I know this: whatever we try to accomplish, we will succeed!

What is CGC testing?

The American Kennel Club has a series of simple tests for you to demonstrate your dog’s status as a Canine Good Citizen (CGC)- essentially that he or she is a well mannered, respectable member of society and not a menace, danger or nuisance. This test is actually a jumping board to therapy dog testing but they are not the same thing.

What do you get? A certificate that proves your dog has proven itself in front of one to three evaluators. Some insurance companies will reduce your home owner’s rates if you present these certificates for the dogs in your household.

Your dog must pass ten tests for a 100% in order to be certified. Automatic dismissal occurs if the dog growls, snaps, bites, attacks or grabs any person or another dog. If the handler is unsportsmanlike, kicks, strikes or manhandles a dog at any time, the pair will be dismissed immediately. If your dog eliminates during the test, you will be dismissed although you can take the test at another date.

Your dog will wear a harness or collar (no correction collars or head halters) and depending on the facility where you test, you may be asked for proof of license or rabies.

SO, is your dog CGC-worthy?

Test 1: Accepting a friendly stranger
Evaluator approaches the handler, shakes hands with and greets the handler, ignoring the dog. The dog may be sitting, standing or laying down but may not break whatever position it’s in to go to the evaluator and cannot show signs of timidity or aggression.

Test 2: Sitting politely for petting
Now the evaluator greets the dog, petting its head and body. The dog may stand or remain sitting politely for this but should not jump up on the evaluator and as above, cannot be shy or resentful.

Test 3: Appearance and grooming
The evaluator inspects the dog as a veterinarian might examine it, checking the body, feet, and ears. The handler brings a brush the dog is familiar with so the evaluator can lightly brush the dog. The dog should be healthy in appearance and cannot be frightened or aggressive in response to handling.

Test 4: Out for a walk (walking on a loose lead)
Exactly what it says- your dog should walk beside you and not pull ahead on the leash. Usually you walk in an L shape pattern out and then back because there must be a left turn, a right turn, an about turn, a halt somewhere along the route and a halt at the end.

Test 5: Walking through a crowd
Essentially, a crowd of people (usually there are kids or people with crutches in this crowd at the tests I’ve observed) spreads out not too thinly and you are instructed to walk around them, passing fairly close. The dog doesn’t have to totally ignore people but shouldn’t jump or strain on the leash, be fearful, aggressive, or overly excited.

Test 6: Sit and down on command and Staying in place
At this station, your dog is placed on a 20 ft line. You must ask your dog to sit and down to show that s/he knows how, and then you pick the position to leave your dog in for the duration of the test. Telling your dog to stay, you move to the end of the 20 foot line and wait for your evaluator to send you back to your dog, return to your position and then the dog may move.

Test 7: Coming when called
Usually done right after the sit while your dog is still on the long line, you now must put your dog in a stay and walk 10 feet away from your dog. When the evaluator gives you the signal, you release your dog and tell it to come to you. This test isn’t for the stay so your dog doesn’t need to be PERFECT in a stay here, but it certainly goes over better. All you’re doing is demonstrating that the dog will come to you when called.

Test 8: Reaction to another dog
Two test takers and their dogs walk across the floor to each other, they shake hands and say hello, exchange pleasantries, etc, and then continue walking. The dogs are on the outside, not walking face to face, and must not go to each other or the other handler. You don’t have to put them in a sit but some/most evaluators I have worked with like to see that.

Test 9: Reaction to distraction
This might be “dropping a crutch or cane,” “dropping a chair,” rolling a wheelchair, opening an umbrella, clanging pots or pans, etc. The dog is allowed to startle but can’t bark, lunge, or try to run away.

Test 10: Supervised separation
Tester leaves dog with an evaluator or a test volunteer and goes out of sight for three minutes. As long as the dog doesn’t throw a total fit (constantly bark, whine, pace, or otherwise seem freaked out though mild nervousness is okay) it should be able to pass.

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Japan Disaster Relief: you can make a difference!

I’ve been relatively quiet about the situation in Japan.  It is time to bring it up, however.  When Hurricane Katrina struck, the rest of the country mobilized to come together and help the people and animals that were displaced by the tragic natural disaster.  The landscape in some areas of the Gulf Coast remains empty and changed, homes ruined and clutter and debris scattered about, more than five years later.

Japan is a country with amazing culture, beautiful landscape and a rich history.  They need our help.  Stop here for a list of ways you can help. WorldVets is trying to help with donations, vet care, and relief support.   You can like them on Facebook to get real updates on their progress. Click here to see the blog hop; check out how some bloggers like Sparkle the Cat (donating $1 for every comment today…) are trying to help.  Consider donating or just spread awareness and messages of compassion and encourage others to pitch in and help.  This all goes, of course, hand in hand with supporting the efforts of disaster relief and humanitarian groups such as the Red Cross.  Japan has been an ally of ours, with an overwhelming response to Hurricane Katrina, and if we can help, we should.  When a natural disaster of this magnitude strikes, our loyalty, compassion and kindness should NOT have borders.  It’s not a nation that struggles now.  Individuals do.  There are so many things, even small things, that we can do to make a difference for someone in need.

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