Monday, March 28, 2011

Desperate Plea

I sent out this desperate plea for help to my Facebook friends:

Please someone ADOPT this dog. She is so sweet that I can't handle it anymore—her snores, the way she plays with the rubber chicken, her signature "lab lean." I'm falling in love with her more and more every day. Please help!

But no one has yet to answer this cry to take this really awesome dog out of my home and my life for good.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

If I won the lottery tomorrow...

If I were to win the lottery tomorrow and could spend my time and money doing anything I wanted, I'd create a top-notch, nation-wide program of reading therapy dogs. (Does this surprise you? It combines two things I know and care deeply about.) The dogs would visit schools and libraries and bookstores and any places where people and books meet.

These canine tutors have made headlines recently.

Here's a short, cute video from CNN about a golden retriever reading therapy dog. What parent, teacher, or librarian would object to having children learn to read with the help of this fluffy dog?

No one. No one would object. But what if you substituted that golden retriever with another dog? That dog might be a little stockier and a bit more muscular. It might have shorter fur and a stumpier tail. It would have passed the same tests and have the same even temperament as the golden, but what if it just so happened to be a pit bull... and it just so happened to be one of Michael Vick's former fighting dogs?

From the BAD RAP Blog
Well, then, we would have a totally different story. I've told you about Jonny Justice before—one of the Vick-tory dogs that was fostered and adopted by BAD RAP volunteer, Cris Cohen. After lots of training and assessments, this paw-some dog became a reading therapy dog with a program called" Paws for Tales" in California. In fact, Jonny was going to be featured "at work" on a PBS special about the former Vick dogs and their successes. The PBS crew planned to tape Jonny at a read-a-thon event at a local library until a librarian had a change of heart— no pit bulls allowed, she said. And it wasn't just Jonny she was talking about. It was all pit bulls on the reading dog therapy team. Cris tried to convince the librarian otherwise. He showed her that California law prohibits breed discrimination. So what did the librarian do? She cancelled the event all together. This has left the folks at BAD RAP to ask whatever happened to not judging a book by its cover. To read more about what happened, check out Jim Gorant's article in Parade, No Justice for Jonny.

If the librarian had changed her mind, it would have been a win-win for all—the kids and their teachers and parents, as well as the dogs and their handlers. Jonny could have continued to debunk breed stereotypes in the minds of adults and prevented stereotypes from ever forming in minds of children.

So,  Jonny, in my lottery dream world, you'd be my ace. You'd be my right-hand man, my sidekick, my #1. Of course, this all hinges on me winning the lottery. And winning the lottery means playing the lottery, and I really can't justify throwing away money like that when it could be spent on other things—like rawhides or a honeymoon. In the mean time, I wonder if there's any scholarly research out there about reading therapy dogs. If all else fails, perhaps that is my life's calling...

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Golden Retrievers: A Love Story

My dog autobiography goes something like this: golden retriever, golden retriever, golden retriever. For anyone who has ever owned one of these dogs before, it comes as no surprise that a family might fall in love with a golden and never consider another breed again. That is how it has always been with my family.


My love story with golden retrievers begins on an usually warm night in December many moons ago. Just hours before I was born, my dad rushed home from the hospital to give Reggie, our first golden, his seizure medication. I guess you could say I was born into a world where taking care of dogs was a priority.

My parents got Reggie as a puppy from a family friend whose dog had an "oops" litter. I don't remember too much about this golden named after Yankee great Reggie Jackson, but I look back at pictures like this one and am convinced that my love of dogs started at a very young age. I do distinctly remember a day in second grade when my parents sent me bowling with a friend, and, when I returned, Reggie wasn't there anymore. His passing was one of my first lessons in saying goodbye.


Several years went by between Reggie's death and when we adopted our next golden, Abby. I can't even remember what life was like in our family's house without a dog, but my mom assures me that a good 4 or 5 years went by without one. (I guess my parents were busy raising four kids or something!)

It wasn't until I was in middle school that we were ready for another dog. We spent months trying to find the perfect, young adult golden to adopt. And then we finally found her. Her name was Abby, and she would become the dog to whom I would compare all others dogs.

She was surrendered to a local rescue by a family who said she was destructive and poorly behaved. (Long story short: The people were the problem—not the dog.) Abby lived with a trainer as a foster and, from what my mom recalls, the foster seriously considered keeping her. But luckily the rescue decided we were the perfect home for her. Needless to say, Abby was everything a family could want and more. She was smart and loving and the center of our universe for years to come. On a spring day during my sophomore year of college, my parents decided to put her to sleep after her battle with cancer deemed painful and hopeless.

I was just recently going through a bag of doggie supplies my parents gave me for the foster dogs. I took out a martingale collar to put on Jack, and there hung Abby's tags. More than ten years later, I cried standing there holding that collar.

If Abby was the center of our universe, you could imagine what life was like without her. My family said they would wait some time before getting another dog, but "some time" ended up being 2 weeks. My mom found an ad in the local paper's "absolutely free" column.* A family had to give up their 2-year-old golden retriever because of a divorce. Shelby was free to a good home. My mom loves a bargain.

The family brought her to our house to see if it was a good fit. It was. For the next several months, Shelby ran circles around our yard and house just like Beethoven the St. Bernard. She counter surfed and gobbled up my lunch. She was not the well-behaved dog Abby was. One day that summer, I tied her up outside as I washed my car in my bathing suit. She got loose and ran through the neighborhood. I chased after her in my bathing suit and flip flops, which apparently was quite pleasing to the lawn maintenance workers in the vicinity. When I finally got her by her collar, she ducked out of it and just kept running. When I finally caught up with her again, I somehow carried that 60+ pound dog all the way home. Shelby and I were not off to a good start. But she was merely naughty in that "Marley" kind of way. "She's not a bad dog," we used to say over and over again.

About 3 years ago, Shelby started to go blind from Progressive Retinal Atrophy. When we realized that her vision would ultimately be gone for good, we weren't sure what to think. But, as anyone who has ever had a blind dog could attest, she adapted very quickly. At a time when I was going through some medical issues of my own, she showed me that if she could adapt to a world of darkness, I too could flow with life's changing tides.

To this day, Shelby remains spunky into her geriatric years. She has no vision due to a medical procedure to relieve pressure in her eyes. She enjoys eating ice cubes, running in small circles in the back yard, and being the center of my family's universe.

* Note: If you ever must give up an animal, placing an advertisement in a newspaper or on Craiglist for a "free" pet is not a wise idea. While it worked out in our situation, the promise of a free animal can attract people who might have bad intentions for your pet.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Failed Fosters (or, Are You Going to Keep This One?)

A few weeks ago, the rescue held a meeting for volunteers. We went around the table, introduced ourselves and our capacity within the organization. Many of the volunteers concluded their introductions with "... and I'm a failed foster." This means, of course, that they adopted one (or two, or three, or four, or five) of their foster dogs or cats.

One couple—who did not have a dog of their own—just recently "failed" after fostering dozens of dogs over the course of a year. Another couple "failed" and adopted a special-needs dog they had fostered for some time. The list goes on and on.

So it's not a surprise that I've been asked this question a lot: ARE YOU GOING TO KEEP THIS ONE? My co-workers keep asking. My friends keep asking. My mom keeps saying that she wants a real "grand dog" and not "grand foster dogs." Don't get them wrong; they all love that we foster. But they can't wait to see us fail.

The answer, for now, is no. We are not going to keep "this one" or any one any time soon. Here are a few reasons why:

1) We live in a condo complex where technically you're only supposed to have one dog. If we adopt a dog, then, according to the rules, we can not foster another dog. (However, many people break these rules. As long as the dogs don't cause a problem, no one complains. We could work around it.) With our schedules, it would also be a task for us to keep up with two dogs. I wouldn't count us out, but let's just say it wouldn't be easy. In essence, for every dog we adopt, that's one fewer space for a foster dog.

2) We have a busy summer coming up and will probably need to take a doggie break. We'll be gone most of the month of August, so we can't take responsibility for a dog then. (In my opinion, we need to hold off on "failing" until September; Jonathan thinks we should make it much longer.)

3) We haven't fostered a dog that would really make "failing" logical. All of our foster dogs can (and will) do better than living with us.

Wookiee, although very cute and lovable, was not our kind of dog. You know how dogs look like their owners? He didn't look like us. Plus, he was our first foster. You can't fail on the first one.

Jack, although smart and charming (at times), does not belong in a condo—by any stretch of the imagination.

And Karina, well, this girl could easily be my best friend. But, as a lab, she too deserves room to run. She also isn't great with all other dogs, which means fostering another dog would be a logistical nightmare.

In my heart of hearts, I know that one day, logic won't matter. The timing  might be off, but a dog might just come along and fit right in stride with us and our lives. (Who knows, he or she may even "look" like us.) At that point, we'll fail. We'll fail miserably. And everyone will celebrate.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


If I told you that Karina had a syndrome you could help cure just by changing the way you think, would you? [This is where you say yes.]

You see, I'm beginning to think Karina has a case of Big Black Dog syndrome, or BBD for short. Have you ever heard of it? Large, black dogs are often the last to be adopted out of shelters and rescues. As a result, they have a disproportionately high euthanasia rate. It's especially true of black labs and lab mixes. They are a dime a dozen in most places because litter sizes are usually quite large.

I started to sense this bias at adoption day, specifically with children and their parents. One child came to pet Karina, and the mother shrieked, pulled her away, and directed her toward the puppies. While our dogs at adoption day have great temperaments, I think there's a much greater likelihood of a puppy nipping at the child's fingers than Karina giving anything but kisses. (Did I mention Karina is great with kids?)

So, what is with the human perception of black dogs?
• Black dogs are difficult to photograph. Their pictures appear dark and blurry on Petfinder.
• In dimly-lit shelters, they are often difficult to see.
• Many large, black dog breeds, like Rottweilers and Dobermans, have bad reputations as aggressive dogs.
• They often appear older than they really are because gray hair shows on their muzzles more easily.
• Different forms of media have created a negative bias toward big, black dogs. Think movies, books, and folklore/mythology. (I'm looking at you, Jo Rowling, for portraying the Grim, the omen of death, in the form of a big, black dog.)

I'll admit it. In the past, my heart would skip a beat if I saw a big, black dog approaching. And I've even been thinking about this on the other end of the leash too. I was walking Karina around 3 a.m. a few nights ago and saw a man walking from afar. While I'm sure he was just stumbling back from a bar, my gut reaction was that I would be safer because I had this big, black lovebug of a dog with me.

Take this test, and be honest. Which of these labs would you choose?
I borrowed this test from this website.
Will you do Karina a favor? The next time you see an oversized, black dog, do what you would do with any other dog. Ask the owner if the dog is friendly and if you can pet her/him. Then shower him/her with love. Karina thanks you.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Karina's 15 Minutes of Fame

7 minutes: Sara over at Foster Dogs in NYC was kind enough to post Karina on her blog and on Facebook. She creates great publicity for the pooches, so make sure to "like" Foster Dogs in NYC on FB.

7 minutes: Jen at Inu Baka linked to the post about Karina's home visit. (It fit really well into a discussion she had going about procedures in rescues.) Be sure to check it out; the comments created quite a stir! 

1 minute: On a lighter note, here's Karina caught on candid camera—with a rubber chicken. Watch it a few times; it never gets old. :)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Art and Science of Home Visits

When I told my mom I was going on a home visit with Karina on Sunday, she recalled being on the receiving end of these rites of passage. A rescue came to "check us out" in process of adopting the family golden retriever, Abby. At the time, my mom thought the rescue’s procedures were a bit invasive.

This is my post to convince her (and others) otherwise.

Home visits usually happen after an application has been put in for a dog and we believe it could be a good match. The home visit is not a white-glove inspection. It’s not for the rescue’s volunteers to gossip about the size of your home or your interior decorating or how much money you make. After all, these things are of little value to us. In our own home, our couch has turned into a giant wee-wee pad, our comforter has been chewed to pieces, and our carpet has more vomit stains than I care to think about.

The point of a home visit is to make sure that the dog and the people will both be safe and comfortable in the living environment. We look to see that the dog interacts with all family members—human, canine, feline—in a positive way. We look to see that there are no utterly apparent dangers that could pose harm to the dog. For dogs with special requirements, such as a fenced-in yard, we make sure that their needs will be met.

On Sunday, I drove out to Pennsylvania to do a home visit with Karina and her old foster mom. The family was extremely nice; they were true "dog people." Karina, while a bit jumpy and curious, was a doll with all of the family members. When they let Karina out into the fenced-in back yard, I was so busy thinking about how much she would just love being able to run around for hours. Then her old foster mom, who has years of rescue experience, pointed to the vertical slits in the 4-foot fence. Because we know (and the family knew) that Karina has issues with other dogs, she suggested that the family ask their neighbors to let their dogs out so Karina could meet them through the fence.

Despite a mildly positive initial introduction, Karina went bonkers on one of the dogs. And the slits in the fence were so wide that the dogs could stick their muzzles through and potentially do damage to each other’s faces. And, being that it’s a 4-foot fence, we believe that Karina could also jump it in pursuit.

Before even meeting Karina at adoption day, we told the family she was dog selective. They said it would be fine because they are a one-dog family and don’t frequent the dog run. But at the home visit, the family saw the reality of her behaviors in their own background. With a teenager who would be letting Karina in and out most days, they didn’t feel comfortable putting their child, Karina, or the other dog in that situation. And I don’t blame them. The family decided not to adopt Karina.

And this is what the home visit is for. It’s the most accurate indicator of what life will be like if you adopt the dog.

It’s one thing to buy a cute puppy at the pet store; the employees could probably care less if your home has dangling electrical wires or if you're hoarding dozens of animals. All they likely care about is commission. But when you’ve poured your blood, sweat, and tears into a dog, as Karina’s old foster mom has done with her, you need to find a really good match. So while it may be tempting to jump at “any” home, you have to face the reality that not every home will be perfect for every dog.  

I’m 110% confident that family will find the perfect dog to fit into their home. Karina was just not it. 

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Karina, Karina

To uphold our end of the switcheroo, we took sweet Karina. At this point, it feels like we are the Mets trading our worst minor-league reliever for the entire Yankees starting line up.

Something about her just exudes sweetness. Maybe it's the way she wags her head and her tail in unison. Maybe it's the deep snores she lets out mid nap—like a sweet, old grandpa snoozing in a recliner on a lazy, Sunday afternoon.

Karina's foster mom found her wandering the streets of a nearby town. Emaciated and covered with a skin infection, Karina was also heartworm positive. The rescue treated Karina for heartworm and now, several months later, she's as good as new. (She just needs to go for a follow-up test in a few weeks.)

We're told she's about 2 years old and, as if you couldn't tell from that goofy smile, mostly Lab. She's house broken and knows some simple commands like "sit" and "down." She is fairly good about going into her crate, but even better at hopping up on the couch. We're labeling her as "dog selective" for now. (That's the part of the reason why the switcheroo [am I really still calling it that?] worked out so well. We're the only fosters in the rescue without another dog.) We were told that she gets along with some dogs, but not others. She might be best as an "only dog," but we'll have to gather more information. We hope to bring her to adoption day on Saturday and see how she does. Cross your paws!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Switcheroo

Jack is a handful. He wants to be king of the world. There is no doubt about it. Over the last few weeks, he has taken it to the next level—being possessive over his bones (OK—acceptable), growling when I pet him (what?), and guarding our bedroom (I just want to sleep!).  Then, at adoption days, he has been less-than-friendly to some people who approach and pet him. [If you recall, these are some of the behaviors that the adopters noted.]

What happened to the gregarious dog that we knew? Surely he wasn't feeling well and was cranky. So we took him to the vet. Was it a thyroid problem or Lyme or something else? Probably not. He showed no signs of lethargy or loss of appetite. Was it a simple ear infection or intestinal parasite? Nope, not that either. What was it?

I'm convinced it's us—his foster people, but specifically me. Jack is Jonathan's sidekick, his partner in crime. The vet pointed out that we both need to be equally firm and in charge. We should do our equal shares of working with him, feeding him, and walking him. Well, therein lies the problem. Part of the deal for continuing to foster through this hell-ish semester of grad school was that Jonathan would take over much of the day-to-day responsibilities. I spend so much time at work, in class, commuting, and doing school work that taking the dog for an extra walk at night has just become impossible.

Maybe it's our fault for even agreeing to take him in the first place. A Border Collie in a condo? We thought it would be fine for a week or two. If we had ever imagined it would be 3 months, then we might have said no.

The last straw came on Saturday. A very nice couple with lots of Border-Collie experience came to adoption day with the hopes of adopting Jack. That glimmer of hope quickly vanished when Jack growled and barked every time the couple approached him. I knew these people would be great with him because they kept trying. They approached different ways, with different treats, in different locations. But it didn't matter. Jack wanted nothing to do with them.

With time, resources, and some space to run, we might be able to work with this dog. We see his potential. But right now, we just can't do that. We can't give him what he needs.

So we asked another foster with more behavioral experience and a big backyard if we could do a "switcheroo." She kindly (very, very kindly) agreed. On Sunday, we went to her house, dropped off Jack, and picked up her Karina. (More on Karina later.) We know that the change of environments is stressful for the dogs, but we hope that the situation will be better in the long run.

I cried as we drove away. We always joke about "foster failures"—those that end up adopting their fosters. But here, I felt like a failure for giving up on a dog that I loved. His needs are just beyond us; he has shown us what we still need to learn.