The Dog That Started It All (or The Hardest Part of Love)
Lucy & Foxy
Up till this point, I have only briefly mentioned my first foster dog. Lately, several people have been asking me about it, and I think it’s time I talk about it.
Nearly a year ago, I decided to become a foster parent, so I got Lucy leashed up and went to the local shelter. I wanted Lucy to be there for obvious reasons: any dog I took in had to get along with her. That was pretty much my only requirement. We met three dogs. The first was too dominant. The second, too shy and stand-off-ish. The third, well, as “Goldilocks” as it sounds, she seemed just right! It was settled that I would leave her at the shelter overnight, and pick her up the next day.
Small disclaimer here: Foxy is not her real name. I have decided, for the sake of all involved, to change and/or omit names as much as possible for this post. My intention in telling this story is not to offend, upset or insult anyone, but simply to tell a story that I think needs to be told.
When I first got Foxy, she was 6 months old. At about 25 lbs, she was truly a pocket pittie, probably mixed with some sort of hound breed. She had been abandoned on the street and was found by a family who, even though they couldn’t keep her, cared enough to surrender her to a shelter where they knew she would be well taken care of. The shelter put her through the basic rounds: vaccinations, spay, microchip, etc. She had just been spayed several days before I met her, so she had to wear a t-shirt knotted around her (when not wearing her e-collar) – I thought it was adorable, really.
Well, I quickly realized that Foxy wasn’t quite as perfect as Lucy – nor was I expecting her to be. On our walks, when she would so much as smell, let alone hear or see, another dog, she would start barking at it. A pittie-looking dog with hound bark? Bad combo, right? Obviously, I kept her as far from other dogs as possible while on leash, but I simply couldn’t figure it out. At home, she and Lucy were best buds: sharing toys, beds, they would even walk beautifully together while on leash. But with any other dog while on leash, she became so fearful.
I found out the term for this issue was called being “leash reactive.” And in many instances, this is something that can be counter-conditioned. Just watch this video from Dr. Sophia Yin:
But in New York City, the streets are so unpredictable. There was no controlled environment for me to safely to put these practices into effect on my own. Regardless, within a couple of days, I was contacted by a potential adopter. I was sad, because Foxy was getting along so well in my home and I was quickly developing a relationship with her, but so thrilled that Foxy could possibly get a family of her own and I could help save another dog. The adopters came over later that day to meet her. I was very frank about Foxy’s issues, and explained that she would need considerable training. Because of the immediate connection they felt with her, and their being financially stable, they told me they were ready to commit to working with Foxy and make her feel safe and secure through love and training. After only six days, Foxy was moving on. I sent along with her some instructions, as well as recommendations for dog walkers, groomers, etc.
A week later, the dog walker they had hired (one of my recommendations) called. Foxy was being returned to the shelter immediately; there had been an incident. Over dinner, I was given the whole story: the walker was running late from a previous walk. They had a choice to either let Foxy wait, despite not being fully house-broken yet, or attempt socialization and bring the current dog to Foxy’s parents’ home and walk the two together. In my book, the wrong choice was made. The walker introduced the two dogs indoors off-leash, and then, after a bit, leashed them both up and went to leave.
As they were walking out the door, the worst happened. To make it as simple as possible, suffice it to say that it involved dog teeth on human skin & flesh, significant damage to walls and doors, and sufficiently terrified owners. It was a disaster, for lack of a better word.
Foxy lived at the shelter for three weeks, and underwent many behavioral evaluations. Options were weighed, but nothing seemed certain for her anymore. I strongly felt that what happened was not her fault, and Foxy deserved another chance to find the owners that were right for her. She needed someone in a suburb, with a yard for her to run and play, and enough resources to help her learn not to be afraid anymore. So, Foxy came back to live with me and Lucy, and it was like nothing had changed.
Lucy & Foxy
Playtime interspersed with naps interspersed with training sessions. I adjusted my schedule so that I could take Foxy outside during times when there were not a lot of people and dogs out. We walked a special route where I knew we would not encounter many dogs, and I was diligent about keeping a watch out so that I could prevent issues before they could develop. Foxy always wore a gentle leader head harness and a second leash attached to her collar. I had control over her every move, and she was happy for it – I showered her in treats from the time a leash went on until they both came off.
In the meantime, I reached out to everyone I could. I emailed bloggers (this is when I met Love and a Six-Foot Leash, who were more helpful to me than they could ever really know), I called and emailed professional trainers requesting free or low-cost training sessions, and reached out to several other shelters and animal sanctuaries to see if they had a better fit for Foxy than anyone in New York City could. No other shelter would even consider her – she had a bite history, after all. Only one trainer offered to help, and their idea of that was to “test her threshold” by taking her near a dog park. Not even the renowned trainer affiliated with the shelter would come over for 15 minutes.
Lucy & Foxy spooning
I felt exactly like so many dogs we hear stories about – abandoned. It seemed like the entire animal welfare community, for one reason or another, had completely turned their back on me and Foxy. But I kept at it – our schedule remained the way it was, and we continued to work as much as we could, but not much progress was being made. Then, it happened again.
We were out on a walk, and somewhere on our block, a dog was in a window…barking. It’s not like I saw a dog far away down the block and could simply cross the street. There was no escape, and Foxy was quickly spiraling out of control. I got her into a somewhat-secluded spot where I attempted to regain her focus with high value rewards (the typical fare: hot dogs, cheese, turkey chunks), but nothing was helping. I was so concerned on getting Foxy to focus on me, I didn’t notice the woman walking toward us, but Foxy did. She only caught the hem of the woman’s dress, thankfully. But a horrible image flashed through my mind: what if that were a child and not a dress?
Lucy & Foxy
My first foster had been a complete failure, and not in the “foster failure” way that we all hope for. What I dreaded from the start had become the reality: I had to bring Foxy to be euthanized. The danger she posed to me and my neighborhood (since no one else would take her) was too great. There was no way around it. Being the only humans in her life, Jennifer & I had to take her to the vet ourselves. Even though it was something I never imagined doing, I knew it was the right thing. In their post “Goodnight, sweet Blue,” Love and a Six-Foot Leash said it best, “no matter how much you want to help, you can’t fix every dog.” I couldn’t fix Foxy, and no one else was going to try. So the only thing to do was to say, “Goodnight, sweet Foxy.”
There was another reason I had to make this decision: the reputation of the pit bull breed. Would having a leash reactive dog in midtown Manhattan really affect change in the perception of these dogs? Would adopting Foxy out again to a family that couldn’t handle her issues be a positive influence on people? I wish I could have created the perfect world for Foxy to live in for the rest of her life, but that’s not reality. We have the cards we’re dealt, and we can only do so much with them.
Our last night
When I got home, I took Lucy out for her walk. When we were done, I collapsed on the floor, hysterically crying. Despite knowing I had done the “right thing,” I felt so wrong. It took a little while for me to come back out of the black hole I dug for myself, but I grew to understand why Foxy’s story had to unfold the way that it did. And then Lola Bird came into my life, and I realized my fostering journey was very far from over…