Since the passing of our beloved Pit Bull mix, Piper, in November 2009, my boyfriend and I have had a slew of fosters and rescue dogs come into our home. Each one had a different personality, temperament, variety of past experiences and most of the time, a little bit of baggage – whether it be the lack of life skills like walking up stairs or getting in a car, fear of strangers, anxiety issues, not crate trained or potty trained or lack of manners in a home. We like to have a strategy before we get the dog, but inevitably things shift once he or she is here. Our generic game plan usually includes limiting water and letting them relieve themselves every 2-3 hours (if possible) to cut back on accidents, start using a crate immediately throughout the day and at night and create good associations with it, hand feed them their meals when possible while working on training skills and limiting affection and access to couches and beds.
My biggest mistake with Piper was bringing her home and trying to love her enough to make up for her poor start to life. I cuddled her and slept with her every night. She was an extreme lover of people and this created huge anxieties when I left her alone or tried to crate her. This was not only stressful for her but was torturous for me to leave her for any period of time. So now, for the first 6-8 weeks that a new dog is with us they are crated often, get lots of training but affection is limited to a few petting sessions throughout the day and unfortunately no cuddle fests on the couch.
After meeting and working with many rescue dogs, I have a list of behaviors in my mind that could appear and I am constantly aware of them. This means I am on the lookout for things like nervousness around men or children, anxiety in a new place or outside, reactivity to noises or other dogs, and how they react in general when meeting someone new. Bad manners such as counter surfing, drinking out of the toilet, and jumping are all things that can be corrected with training and worked on with time. Things like fear and anxiety are things that most often will not go away on their own and also need to be taken into consideration as to what kind of home the dog will be most successful in if he is a foster. With this being said, I like to try and be preventative and constantly create good associations with people and other dogs before any problems arise. Yes, this means that for the first few weeks a dog is with us, I carry around food and treats in my pockets at all times! If a loud noise happens outside I say “yay!!” and reward them, if a man in a big coat is approaching I call their name and reward them, if they see another dog I call them back to me and start working on some attention skills like “Watch Me”. So there are lots and lots of great things happening to them, especially outside, where there are so many sights, sounds, smells, people, children and other dogs. We do a lot of training but much of the first 4-8 weeks is getting them into a routine, schedule, and preventing them from practicing bad behaviors by limiting their time out of the crate. The bad behaviors would include counter surfing, having accidents, getting too aroused, chewing anything, barking at things outside the window, etc.
Our dog, Desi, is actually a foster failure because I didn’t think she would be successful in any home but ours. She is fearful and anxious, especially outside and for the first 2 weeks we had her she barked at any stranger she saw outside. We have had her 2 years this March and she has made huge strides since those first 2 weeks. She is a lovely dog and so well behaved in the house. She is still anxious outside but no longer barks at anyone. She loves to play, her and my boyfriend have a special bond and are each other’s favorites!
Our newest addition, Bodie, who we recently adopted from the Animal Welfare League, is quite the opposite of Desi. I fell in love with him the minute I saw him and had to have him. A volunteer had him out in the lobby and when I touched him he melted. He literally slid down my leg onto his back, loving every minute of the attention. I knew I couldn’t let him go, because quite honestly, Pit Bull mixes are not in high demand, and most often perish while at a shelter. He has only been with us 5 weeks and he is a lover of everything and everyone. He is the life of the party, although ill behaved in the house (we’re working on it) and has taught Desi a few tricks like counter surfing… it has been quite the experience to say the least. The amount of food and poop bags we go through with two 60+ lbs dogs is astonishing! And right now our days are spent constantly separating two young Pit Bull mixes as we have WWF matches in our living room every second that they are out together. Things will calm down with time and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Our lives will always be shared with these once down and out pups that each has their own quirks, strengths and weaknesses. I grew up with my fair share of puppies, and while I loved them all, the feeling I get from working with shelter dogs and being a part of their journey is too wonderful. I think I will always find my best friends in their time of need, screaming out “Rescue Me!” And as the saying goes “Who Rescues Who?”