Monday, March 24, 2014

Heart vs. Head: the Perennial Struggle

Here we go again. 

I'm about to write a post that you've seen about 67 times before on this blog, only this time its subject is not a solid muscled stubborn rowdy reactive loudmouthed mastiff-pit brindle bundle of velvet and love, but a slender pacing sensitive anxious gentle white shepherd who has stolen my heart. 

And you know what the outcome with that other dog was. Am I doomed to go down that path with Lars too?

That path where the dog I began with in tears, dreading the time I would have him because of the stress of walking feeding managing and keeping safe such a high-maintenance dog, the difficulty of managing relations between him and Lamar, hoping praying and feeling certain that he would be adopted almost immediately because he was after all so goddam cute, ends up being a dog who is so firmly embedded in my heart that he can't possibly go anywhere else? 

The path where at the end of every walk, having wrestled with 2 or 3 leashes and 2 or 3 dogs lunging and pulling at every squirrel skateboard or other dog, frazzled and overwhelmed and hoping that the perfect adopter would call NOW, I put the leashes away, sit down with dinner, and a sweet, gentle cold pink nose tilts up in my direction inquiringly to see if I'm so frazzled I can't spare a kiss, a head rub, or a bite of veggie spare ribs. 

The path where 12 times every day I watch Lamar growl and snarl at Lars and then I spend extra time massaging, kissing, loving on Lamar because I feel so bloody guilty for making him go through this in his old age.

The path where I imagine the joy Lars could have in another home, with people who love him and have time to walk him or even a person who works from home and could be with him all day, and with another dog who likes him and doesn't stress him with constant snarling, a dog who plays with him and cuddles with him. 

And after imagining all these things clearly in my head, going over them hundreds of times and thinking rationally how much better it would be for Lars to be in another home and not here, the path where my heart breaks at the thought of not being with him, not having this incredible connection with a truly special creature (and I do feel Fozzie and Lars are incredibly special dogs, with unusually sensitive and intelligent natures), where I meet wonderful adopters who would give him an outstanding home and I just. Can't. Do it. 

This is where we are. So many reasons on both sides. The head has won out plenty of times before (See previous fosters, Sandy, Star, Pager....) and I've been happy for that decision. Otherwise I'd either have about 12 dogs right now, or I never would have been able to rescue the subsequent ones. 

But there are a couple of times when I've regretted letting the heart be overruled. When the connection is so strong, is that something you SHOULD give up? If I let Lars go, will I always regret not having that precious white long nose to kiss and massage, and those innocent, sensitive eyes that look right into mine when I scratch him?

Maybe I won't regret if I know that he's 10 times happier in his new home. So just wait, just wait for the perfect adopter. If they don't come along, then there's my decision. 

The thing is, when I think of these past weeks with Lars, I've had a buoyant sort of happiness running through all my days. I don't think about it much, but it's not something I always have. And I think it's because of him. Yes other things in my life are going well but when I come home, there's always that bouncing bowing mouthing wagging white slinky sweet dog of love. He just makes me happy. Is it possible to let go of that? Or would it be a big mistake? 

And then Lamar. What a horrible thing to go through when you're 14. Living with a dog who scares you and makes you angry, watching your woman who you thought loved YOU go cuddle that beast you hate. How can I do that to him?

Fostering is not easy, it's really not. And the more challenging the dog behaviorally, it seems for me, the more rewarding and the more attached I get. 

Maybe Lars really will be the last foster. 

For a while. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Making the most of life changes

I've heard it said before, and its true: everything changes once you've lost a parent. Even more so once you begin taking care of a surviving parent.

No more weekends off in the mountains camping and spacing out with the dogs, gotta spend time with Georgeo. Fortunately Dad and Florian love spending time together; its a chance to drive around, go to convenience stores, and eat really nasty sausages. Too bad they don't bring the dogs; a car ride and some icky sausages is right up their alley.

A few weeks ago, Dad seems to have had another small stroke. Everything is fine, and all that was strained was my dad's patience waiting to be released from the hospital. The least we could do was cheer him up by bringing Florian along to pick him up, so he didn't suffer a relapse being nagged by his daughter on the way home. 

He wasn't due to be released until the afternoon, so we decided to load up all the dogs and find a place to hike near the hospital so we could be ready when Dad was.

We generally take the Honda for hikes because it is a pretty fuel efficient way to transport a family of furballs.

But with my dad's height, the Fit is not such a good fit. So we threw all the dogs in Dad's real mini van, and headed to a lake we've enjoyed on many occasions in the warmer months.

Covered in ice, it was beautiful. 

And it was deserted enough, on a cold weekday, that we felt good about letting all our little furry lunatics run free. They needed that. And so did we. 

Why is it so enjoyable to watch dogs run free? 

Somehow it just redeems everything else. A tedious drive and a wait for the hospital to say my dad could go, empathizing with his mounting frustration through repeated delays. 

Yes it was frustrating, but somehow less so knowing that the dogs got to feel that freedom and joy and get some really good exercise, 

running through the snow and sloshing through the slush, 

feeling the bright sun and letting their ears flap in the wind, 

and humoring their humans as we got some sun and fresh air too, 

not doing much hiking but just enjoying, breathing, smiling, 

and regressing. 

Fine with us, to just get some time outside and end up with a bunch of really tired dogs, 

content to ride home and pick up Dad. 

In agreement that the slight loss in freedom is well worth the satisfaction of being there for family. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Watching Lars' Progress

As you read in my last post, I've found it so gratifying to watch Lars' progress over the time I've had him--both 3 years ago and over the past two months. 

Just over the past week or so, I've observed some things that have made me so happy.

My friend Stuart came and stayed with us over the weekend, and Lars took an immediate liking to him. 

Granted, Stuart is probably the most nonthreatening, mellow, agreeable, gentle person you could imagine, but still. 

I was a little worried when Stuart first walked in the door, and I instructed him on approaching slowly, standing up straight, holding his hands passively and letting Lars approach. 

Lars paced around, following us as I gave Stuart a tour of the house. He wanted to be close, and gave Stuart a thorough sniff. Maybe still a little hesitant for the first 10 minutes, but staying close, curious while Stuart got to meet everyone else.

Then I gave Stuart a few pieces of cheese to toss Lars' way, and that was it. Lars was thoroughly sold. 

From that moment--about 15 minutes after Stuart walked in the door--Lars was cuddling up to him like a long lost friend. 

It was so great to have a house guest who's so easy, so nice to talk to, and so great with the dogs. Florian and Stuart talked for hours that first night, 

and the dogs loved being right in the middle of it. I think dogs love feeling a part of an extended family, and listening to relaxed human conversations. 

And to be in a comfy crate right in the middle of it must feel so relaxing, so safe. 

Stuart is an old friend I met when I was in grad school in New York. Soon after I came back there, I went to see another old friend's Zimbabwean music band, and Stuart was the other mbira player. He lived on the Upper West Side as well at the time, and we began playing together regularly. 

It was great to play with him again, and to have the dogs get to hear that music. 

Lars really seemed to relax listening to the mbira, and to bond with Stuart.

Which again, is easy to understand if you know Stuart, and no stretch at all for a dog like Fozzie.

 Or Lamar.

But when I think about Lars' origins, I think its still pretty impressive that he became such a snuggly goofball with a new person.

So proud of all my puppies, and happy to spend time with an old friend.

Monday, March 10, 2014

A Good Old-Fashioned Rubdown

Lamar is just about 14 years old. He's a little stiff going up stairs and climbing on the bed, tires out on long hikes, and has some eyelid growths like older dogs get, but he is really in fantastic health. 

He loves his walks, he gets into playful, happy moods with Fozzie, and he still rubs his nose along his bed and makes happy gurgling noises

I've been wondering if there is any particular thing responsible for his vitality, and the only thing that comes to mind is that I've been really concentrating on spending time with Lamar each evening, giving him a really good massage. 

My own back is often in a lot of pain, how must it feel to be about 98, or however old Lamar is in dog years, and to not be able to complain to anyone about it, or buy a new mattress when you start to be in too much pain? 

The good thing is that one of the physical therapists I went to prescribed a series of exercises that make me lie on my back on the floor each night. A perfect opportunity to lie next to Lamar's dog bed, and help his aches and pains while I help my own. 

Giving him a thorough, full body rubdown while I do my ab exercises and leg lifts. Squeezing his legs and paws, rubbing his chest and butt, rubbing the ears and head until he opens his mouth and gets that blissed out expression.

No new age circles of a specific size and speed, just a good old fashioned rub, enough pressure to feel it and relax. 

Whaddya say, Lamar?  

Am I being too cautious? When the perfect adoptive home becomes the enemy of the good

Lars is an incredibly special creature. I found him--or really, as reported in my story on Care2 that went viral, Fozzie found him--and transformed him from a feral stray to a goofy family dog. 

In my house, Lars learned the joys of domesticity. 

He went from being impossible to even touch, to being a dog who would come up to me, stick his head on the floor next to my lap, and flop his whole body over to end up paws akimbo and primed for a belly rub.

Though he reacts when he sees other dogs on leash, he still likes to be close to Fozzie and seems to love other dogs when properly introduced. 

Though still not what you'd call gregarious, he has developed a closeness with Florian and he approaches for petting and begs for food when my dad or Uncle Johnny come over. 

He loves to be close to us. OK, especially me. If I get up and walk into another room, he'll follow me. 

So yes, he's a bit of an anxious man, but I consider it a good sign that he takes comfort in being close to his humans. 

He loves it when I take his head in both my hands, and massage the whole thing, rotating his ears and rubbing his scalp, squishing his nose and mouth and massaging his teeth and gums as I kiss his nose and he kisses mine. We could do that for hours. 

So I am torn between thinking that Lars is really a pretty normal dog, who could adapt and be happy in a range of different homes and with a bit more focused, positive training, and thinking that he is a special dog who really needs an experienced owner who knows and loves his breed. 

Because there are still those times when he plays a bit roughly, and his teeth come down on my hand a bit too hard. Not because he's trying to bite me, but because he's mouthy, playful, and clearly has not ever been thoroughly socialized.

There are times when, on a walk, he jumps at a jogger going past. Probably because of his prey drive and anxiety, and not aggression or a desire to do harm. Probably, if he got close enough, he would just do a nose bump and not a bite. But still, he needs some management and training.

So there are some reasons Lars probably shouldn't go to a home with a first-time dog owner, or a bunch of small kids. 

On the other hand, there are far more challenging dogs out there, who find loving homes every day. 

Lars loves his humans and is treat motivated, smart, and easy to train. While he loves to go for drives, go hiking and running and walking and tennis ball chasing, he's calm in the house and happy lounging around. 

He loves other dogs, and he does his best to avoid conflict with dogs who don't like him.

So we've gotten some applications for Lars, but I haven't felt quite right about any of then yet. One wanted to jog with him and their other dog, and I worried he'd nip at another jogger.

Another had a big yard that was not totally fenced, and had no other dogs, and a 12-year-old kid who wanted to wrestle with the dog, and I worried he'd run away, or be miserable staying home alone with no other dog to keep him company, or nip at the kid.

I've worked with rescue groups and shelters that would definitely have turned away these adopters, others that would have approved them almost immediately. What's the right approach? 

Sometimes I feel fine just taking whatever time it takes to find him a perfect home, and if that doesn't come along maybe just keep him.

Other times I feel that if I hear Lamar bark and snarl at him one more time, or have to take two separate dog walks on an evening when I'm already tired and rushed, or decide to bring them all on one walk and regret it when Lars and Fozzie both decide to lurch after a cat or a squirrel at once, I will explode. 

And I despair that there are so many homeless dogs out there that a gorgeous one like Lars doesn't get snatched up immediately, and rescue groups are so overwhelmed that none of them really wants to help or can help, and Florian tells me that as soon as I get a promising applicant, I should just go with it and not worry so much. 

Am I thinking too much? 

Lars, what's best for you? 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Winter hikes

What a winter. Polar vortexes, recurrent snow and storms, chilly and wet and snow and more snow.

And these dogs. A snarly senior shepherd and a fat, hot, velvety heating pad of a mastiff mix 

and a pacing skinny anxious white shepherd. What are you going to do with all these things, in this weather? 

Well, you can stick 'em all in the car and go for a hike somewhere, who knows where. 

Better leave that up to Florian, and not ask too many questions. That always works out well.

We did do one smart thing on this hike, which was to take only Fozzie and Lars in the mini-mini van with us so as not to put Lars and Lamar through the stress of having to look at each other too much. 

Lamar got his solo walk with Mom in the morning, leaving us to wrestle only two large, strong, poorly leash trained, prey-driven dogs through the snow. This time, we ended up someplace in Maryland, no idea where. Florian saw some trail in a trail guide and thought we should go check it out, so we headed in the general direction.

And got lost before we even left the car, circling a few times past the spooky place where the turkey vultures must have found something nice and dead and decided to park themselves near it. 

Then we finally found our way to the trail, which it turned out was somewhere in Gathland State Park. 

A part of the Appalachian Trail where the snow was really high and we were glad we didn't subject Lamar to hiking up the steep incline with his arthritis. Difficult enough for the rest of us, who don't have Lamar's excuse of advanced old age. 

While we're talking about spooky, snowy hikes, there was another one we took right after another snowfall this winter. 

This one, I really don't know where the heck it was. I only know that it was seriously spooky, as someone had strung up old animal bones on the barren trees.

Who does that? 

In rural Maryland, I guess you've gotta be prepared for anything. 

It was still a nice hike, and got the dogs nice and tired walking through the snow.  

So Florian and Lars could cuddle up in the back of the mini-mini van on the way back,

and everyone was well-behaved and less annoying by the time we got home and rejoined Lamar, much to his relief.

How do YOU keep your dogs well-behaved during the cold of winter?