Friday, December 28, 2012

About Giffy, Pt. 1: How I started working with dogs

To be honest, I really was a cat person all my life. It wasn’t until I found myself adopting a 5-month-old Pomeranian puppy that I started to explore the world of dogs. That was nearly 20 years ago. And, sadly, Mandy lived a short life for a Pomeranian. She fell down the stairs when she was 8, suffering some “major neurological episode,” and died. I was devastated.

Distraught by the emptiness of my home, I couldn’t stop feeling Mandy’s absence, and then it occurred to me that I needed to do something. Because I decided I wasn’t ready to love another dog just yet, I decided to try fostering, to give another dog a chance in Mandy’s honor; I checked into local rescue groups, and after several people recommended Second Chance Animal Rescue, I contacted them. I think the year was 2000.

At first, my foster dogs were highly-adoptable puppies and small dogs, wriggling bundles of energy and fur. Some of them literally lasted hours before they were adopted, but over time, I developed a reputation as a person who could work with more challenging dogs, and more challenging dogs I got.

It began, innocently enough, with a call from the dog coordinator asking me if I could try working with a dog that had some challenging behaviors. She probably prefaced her comments, “I’m not sure this dog can be saved,” a line that has led many a rescue dog to front door. To be honest, I’m not even sure which dog it was—perhaps the Lhasa Apso whose person had committed suicide or the stray 14-year-old Pekinese with a spinal condition and dry eye or the Pekinese cross that had proptosed its eye squabbling with another, larger dog in its previous foster home. Maybe it was Wally, who lived with his siblings in the walls of a house, completely unsocialized. Or Maude, the Neapolitan mastiff that had been fed carcasses and had to have 18 inch tumor removed from her kidney. I no longer remember which dog started my journey, but I am so grateful for it.

So, I became the difficult dog foster, the person who could handle aggression, shy-fearful behaviors, submissive wetting, separation anxiety. The list became longer over time, and then when I began working with a holistic vet, Dr. Pomeroy, I began to work with allergies, too.

Since 2000, I’ve fostered approximately 170 dogs!

Friday, December 14, 2012

A Miracle Lands in My Lap

On December 3rd, Charles, a 7-pound, 8-month-old, Chihuahua-Pomeranian cross awaiting adoption through Second Chance Animal Rescue escaped from a fenced yard in Hugo, Minnesota. To make matters worse, he was wearing a leash, which would certainly complicate his journey and could cause him to ensnare or strangle himself. During the next 10 days, with temperatures dipping near zero at times and wind chills much lower, nearly a foot of snow fell and created deep drifts in the rural community where he had escaped; his survival was by no means certain.

With the dedicated work of volunteers who trudged through the snow and posted flyers and community members who watched for him or placed food and live traps on their property, especially Applecrest Orchards, we were certain that Charles was still alive, at least through Monday, December 10th, the last time he was spotted by a community member--running in an open field near Hwy 14 and 35E, still dragging the leash. With an already low body weight, predators, snow, temperatures, traffic, and a leash, the deck was stacked against this young dog. Every day was critical, but weather didn't cooperate.

I tried meditating on it; usually, my dog Sarah helps with that, but I couldn’t connect to her. Instead, I felt the presence of two of my dogs who had died, Kunda and Muffin. In my meditation, I asked them to find Charles, wherever he was, to comfort him and guide him toward shelter. The second time I meditated, I saw Charles seeking shelter in an outbuilding, perhaps a barn, with hay scattered on the floor. I doubted myself. Maybe I was seeing what I wanted instead of what was real.

So, yesterday, with no sightings of Charles in several days, I drove to the location where he was last seen with my friend Carol to meet fellow volunteers, Mary and Carl, so we could continue to search. Despite our assignment, it wasn’t an entirely bleak prospect. After all, I was able to spend time with Carol, a lovely person, the kind you want to spend time with; everybody does. On the way, we spoke of miracles and asked one difficult question: At what point should we give up the search?
Ultimately we decided that, as long as Charles was still being spotted, we should continue to look.

When Carol and I met Mary and Carl at the site, we checked the live trap and spoke with the owner of the orchard, who directed us to a nearby abandoned farmhouse. Together we trudged through knee-high snow, and despite our heavy charge, I found myself grateful to be outside on such a beautiful day getting exercise, spending time with warm people, slowing down a bit, seeing nature. In the pristine snow, we noticed mouse tracks first, followed by rabbit tracks, and then a strange disturbance in the snow that Carl suggested had been caused by a raptor; there were no tracks leading to or away from it.

As we made our way across the field, Carol suggested I scout the abandoned farm off to our left. I veered away from the group and cut a second trail through the knee-deep snow. As soon as I entered the yard, I knew Charles had been there--although the tracks clustered around a tree were no longer fresh. The snow had been walked on multiple times by an animal about the size of a small dog, and there was urine in the snow. I was certain that this had been home base.

To my right, a small outbuilding with a couple of walls missing seemed a logical hiding spot as the tracks were clustered very near there. I rounded the corner and looked inside.

And there, staring back at me, was Charles, his leash wrapped around a board and very much alive!

I called out to the others in the group once, twice, three times, “He’s here!” I knew he couldn’t bolt, but he looked so scared. I thought he might die any second, of fear, of cold, I don’t know. He was just so close and still not safe. I needed backup and couldn’t move until it arrived.
After what seemed an eternity, Carol and Mary reached me. They held up a blanket to give Charles the illusion that the building wasn’t wide open, in case he broke free before we reached him. Then Carl rounded the other side of the building, and I was ready to go in. My heart was pounding, as a wrong move on my part could be fatal for Charles. I tried to clear my head, inhaling deeply, and stepped over the boards with nails covering the floor of the shed. He stood near the middle of the building, where he might have found protection in the dusting of hay under the boards if he hadn't been tethered to a board. I called for the others to throw me treats, which I tossed into Charles. He didn’t seem to notice.

He looked weak.

A few moments later, he cautiously stepped toward me, and Carol handed me some pepperoni that she had the forethought to bring along. It worked. In moments, he ate 5-6 slices of it. Someone handed me my mittens, and I grabbed Charles, tucking him close to my body and wrapping his leash around my arm and securing it to my wrist. From there, we began the trek back across the fields to the car.  Carol ran ahead to drive it closer, and Carl and Mary flanked me as I cradled Charles in my arms, his frail body collapsed against me as I tried to provide some small protection from the December air.
Immediately after returning to the car, we rushed Charles to the Life Care Animal Hospital to make sure he didn't have any other major problems. Turns out, although Charles had lost more than 20% of his body weight, some 1 3/4 pounds, he was able to eat and hold down food and water; he had no cuts or frostbite. Painfully thin, his ribs and hips protruding, he was still okay.

In the waiting room we took more pictures, and then Mary, while snapping one of Charles in my lap curled around a Snuggle Puppie that provided him heat, commented that somehow a blur had appeared across the screen although the rest of the pictures were perfectly clear.
Was it a strand of hair, perhaps?
I don't know, but I'd like to think it was some being that had been sent to protect him. One of my dogs, perhaps, providing comfort while Charles warmed himself on my lap? Perhaps it acted as a guardian until he was safe.  
Who knows, but I definitely think it was a day filled with miracles.

Thanks to everyone who helped bring Charles home.


Friday, December 7, 2012

At long last . . . a goal sheet!

I've been wanting to get to this for awhile now, and with the help of my student, Angie, I'm finally able to provide a first draft of a goal sheet. Consistently when I teach New Beginnings courses or coach families, I remind them of the importance of goals.

Of course we all want perfectly-behaved dogs that meld seamlessly with the family, but that takes time and effort. Notice, however, I didn't say "work." That's because I don't view it as work. When I want to build a more mutually satisfying relationship with one of my dogs, I start by looking at the behaviors--the dog's and mine. What is the dog doing that frustrates me? What's getting reinforced?

Let's think of Lucy. She barks (or should I say screeches) at the cat. I don't particularly enjoy that behavior.

So, I might scream, but that won't work, right?

Frankly, when I observe Lucy barking at the cat, I notice her whole body is tense. Step one, I need to help descrease her tension when she sees the cat, redirect her, perhaps, reward her when she doesn't react, possibly prevent Lucy from getting so close to the cat until she becomes more calm (with gates, for example). Little-by-little, I should be able to help Lucy approach cats more calmly, but I can't just make that happen without thinking it through and implementing a plan. To help you with that, I've added a new tab, "Set Goals!"

Let me know what you think won't you?