Former foster update: Laszlo

Anyone remember Laszlo, our foster puppy from Southeast German Shepherd Rescue?

Watching bugs

Pen Park with Laszlo

He was just a little guy when we had him, back in April 2013.

Found: Old photos of Laszlo

I got the pleasure to see him again this past March, when I taught a calligraphy workshop at the vineyard where his person, Tracey, works.

Calligraphy workshop: Laszlo all grown up!

What a handsome little dude! He looks like a miniature German shepherd, with macro ears.

Calligraphy workshop

Calligraphy workshop

Dogs in March

He has turned into a fantastic dog, and he is so well-mannered and calm.

Dogs in March

I taught the workshop for about three hours, and he camped out like this in the room with all of us, like a complete darling.

Tracey has done a marvelous job with him. He gets to roam around the winery with her all day and behaves himself beautifully with people, children, other animals. He also is still loving life with his big sister, BB, a German shepherd, and a gigantic cat out on their mini farm.

Calligraphy workshop

It does the heart good to see a former foster thriving. Laszlo has a great life, and I couldn’t be happier for him.

If you fostered, do you ever get to see your former fosters?

Nature and nurture in dog raising

Creative Commons license. Via photopin.com.
Creative Commons license. Via photopin.com.

One of the most important contributions of modern neuroscience has been to show that the nature/nurture debate operates around a false dichotomy: the assumption that biology, on one hand, and lived experience, on the other, affect us in fundamentally different ways. Research has shown that not only do nature and nurture each contribute to who we are, but also that they speak the same language. Both achieve their effects by altering the synaptic organization of the brain. The process by which experience shapes synapses is referred to as “synaptic plasticity.” Although a great deal of synaptic plasticity occurs during early childhood as the brain is developing, plasticity in the form of learning and memory continues to shape our synapses throughout our lives.

— Joseph LeDoux, “Nature vs. Nurture: The Pendulum Still Swings with Plenty of Momentum,” Chronicle of Higher Education (11 December 1998).

Hope B. thoughtfully suggested a post on nature vs. nurture in dog raising, and it’s a great topic. I think most of us recognize, by now, that this isn’t a chicken-or-egg conundrum; clearly, both factors are always at play with every dog (genetics and environment), but it’s a fascinating thing to ponder, especially since dogs can come into our lives at so many different junctures — as purebred puppies, as adult rescues, etc. — and from so many different backgrounds (breeders, shelters, puppy mills, foster homes, the next-door neighbor).

I’d like to frame this post as a discussion of both elements, instead of as a debate between them. As the blog Science of Dogs has clearly explained, the so-called nature vs. nurture debate should have died off a long time ago:

The simple fact is that genes can influence behavior. Behavior can influence environment. Environment can influence genes. It’s an interactive and ongoing bouillabaisse with behavior as the ongoing product, but all are affected by each other. And behavior is not the final product because as long as an organism is alive, it has the potential to change.

— Science of Dogs, “Nature vs Nurture: Time to End the Debate” (25 May 2012)

So here are just some case studies from my own experience. I’d love to hear about yours!

Case Studies

Emma

Sam, my little brother, and Emma, circa 2002.
Sam, my little brother, and Emma, circa 2002.

My childhood dog Emma was purchased from a breeder who also raised miniature horses. He was an old farmer who loved his dogs and didn’t compete in the show ring. By today’s standards, he probably would have been classified as a “backyard breeder,” a term of derision, but I think he did a good job by his dogs — even if he probably never considered their genetic legacy or their fitness for herding, etc. But his Aussies were actually “herding” — albeit miniature horses — and so I suppose they were working dogs.

We got to meet both of her parents (Candy and Bandit), and they were sweet, gentle dogs. Candy was a tricolor and Bandit was a blue merle; Emma ended up with strong markings from both sides. Emma was one of the most tricolor-looking-but-technically-blue-merle Aussies I’ve ever seen.

Emma was a really remarkable, intelligent, and beautiful dog. We did not do right by her, and I regret my adolescent ignorance regarding her welfare. Emma is an example of good nature afflicted by misguided or ignorant nurture. My family didn’t really know what a working-line-level Aussie meant. Emma should have been raised on a farm, like the one she came from; at the very least, she should have gotten 10 times more exercise and mental stimulation than we gave her. We lived in a suburban one-story home in a busy neighborhood with a tiny backyard, and so Emma spent most of her time barking. Barking, barking, barking.

My mom got fed up with her and arranged for Emma to go live with some of her college friends, who had acreage in the country. The day my dad took her to her new home, he sobbed, leaning his head on her crate, as he loaded her up in the truck. To this day, I’ve never seen him cry that hard. I got to see her one more time, when I was a teenager, and we went to visit the family who had her. We all cried when we saw her; she jumped right into our car, even though the car was one of her fear triggers, and kissed all of our faces. Emma met a sad end; she was killed by a car and left on the side of the road.

Even though I was a relatively ignorant and powerless kid, Emma’s story is still one of my biggest life regrets.

Emma.
Emma.

Pyrrha

Her safe space
Pyrrha in her crate for the first time; June 5, 2012.

Pyrrha’s case could be viewed as the opposite of Emma’s: screwed-up nature attempting to be remedied with patient nurture.

Pyrrha came from a backyard breeder in North Carolina. The German shepherd rescue raided his operation when he told them he was planning on euthanizing all of his dogs, because he was tired of being a breeder. (Good solution, dude. Kill all the dogs! Really?!?)

According to the rescue VP, who went on the raid and served as Pyrrha’s foster home, the dogs were kept in filthy outdoor pens. They were completely unsocialized to both dogs and people, and so of course, they all had a ton of fear issues. They were all rather fat, though, because the breeder just gave them tons of food to keep them quiet. I’m not aware of any physical abuse that happened, but Pyrrha, as well as the other dogs from that breeder, were all noticeably more afraid of men than of women.

At 1 year of age, Pyrrha was one of the younger dogs who came out of that situation, and she showed slightly more potential than some of her older relatives, who were almost entirely shut down. I got to meet a handful of her relatives, and what I will say, to the dogs’ credit, is that they were all extremely gentle dogs. For dogs with such a poor upbringing and such a lack of socialization, I continue to marvel at how gentle they were. There was no snapping or snarling or attempts to attack people, which are certainly to be expected of such mistreated, fearful dogs. They were clearly scared of almost everything, but they were very soft, sweet animals, despite it all. Pyrrha is still the same way.

The night we first saw Pyrrha
First time we met Pyrrha, May 2012. See how she was kinda chunky!

Pyrrha was unspayed and intended to become a breeding bitch. I love my girl to death, but I am so glad she was never bred. Not to mention that I think she would have been a pretty lazy mom, but I also believe Pyrrha would have passed on her fearful temperament to another litter of puppies.

She’s made amazing progress since we brought her home two years ago, and she still has lots of progress that will be made. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to “nurture out” Pyrrha’s fearful temperament and her unfavorable background, but she is a testament of how much a fearful dog can learn and grow with patience.

Laszlo

Out back with baby Laszlo
Guion with baby Laszlo.

Laszlo was such a cute, oddly shaped puppy. We fostered him through our rescue organization, and he was our first official puppy foster. His back story was that he’d been thrown over a West Virginia shelter fence in the middle of the night, and that was all anyone knew about him. (He was originally called “Duke,” but I renamed him Laszlo, and his adoptive family kept the name!) Laszlo is an example of uncertain nature raised up through the perfect nurture environment.

I wasn’t tempted to keep him, because Pyrrha didn’t love him that much, and because he had a tendency to get snappish and growl-y when he was afraid. This was surely something we could have worked on, if we decided to keep him. But Laszlo found the absolute perfect home with a young farming couple and their older GSD mix, BB, and their big, lovable cat.

Because of the amazing life he now leads (photos below), Laszlo has blossomed into a really great dog. His human mom works at a winery in the mountains, and so Laszlo gets to go to work with her every day. He lives the old-fashioned off-leash life, and he’s apparently a fantastic dog. I’ve had friends go see him at the vineyard and say that he is the most calm, chill dog they’ve ever seen.

Laszlo "helping" with the harvest.
Laszlo “helping” with the harvest.
Laszlo on the vineyard with his big sister, BB.
Laszlo on the vineyard with his big sister, BB.
Laszlo with his BFF, the family cat.
Laszlo with his BFF, the family cat.

Regardless of his genetic heritage, Laszlo is definitely a win for the nurture side! I don’t think he would have been that great in our household; he really needed that laid-back, anxiety-free owner, and that’s exactly what he got.

So, a lot of text here, but I’m curious to hear your thoughts. Is nature vs. nurture still a debate worth having?

What do you think? How much of your dog’s temperament can be pinned on nature or nurture? Or both?

Pro-rescue doesn’t have to mean anti-breeding

Lately, I have been thinking about this post on My Rotten Dogs and about the division between the pro-rescue and pro-purebred camps of dog lovers. Can they peaceably coexist?

There are purebred elitists — people who think the only dogs worth having are from registered breeders — and there are rescue elitists — people who judge the purebred elitists and think the only dogs worth having are from rescues.

I am unequivocally pro-rescue. Both of our shepherds were adopted from Southeast German Shepherd Rescue, and we served as a foster home for SGSR pups for about a year (something I’d love to start doing again one day). The beauty and mercy of rescuing a homeless dog is a matchless feeling, and that is a tie that really binds.

But I am not anti-breeding or anti-purebred dogs. Our dogs are both purebred, and I am an advocate for ethical breeders, because I have seen first-hand what irresponsible, negligent breeders can do to dogs, both physically and emotionally.

Laszlo in the evening
Laszlo, our foster puppy, a German shepherd mix.

A Pro-Rescue Person Defends People Who Purchase Purebreds

I will always have a rescue dog in my life, but that doesn’t mean I don’t see the serious benefits of raising a purebred puppy from Day One. I believe that Pyrrha, for instance, could have been a totally different dog if we’d met her at 10 weeks of age instead of at 1 year.

Rescue dogs, almost by definition, come with some kind of baggage, or at the very least, an element of mystery. This doesn’t mean that they are going to be screwier than a purebred, by any means, but it just means you know a lot less about their background and heritage.

Anecdotally, the most stable dogs I know are purebreds raised from puppyhood by their current owners. The dogs I know who have the most issues to work through are almost always the rescues, even those that were raised from puppyhood. This doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to have a purebred who is a psychopath, or that it’s impossible to have a totally sound, issue-free pound puppy: both definitely exist. But the odds of having a dog with some form of baggage to work through is greater if you’ve got a rescue pup.

Playdate with Josie
A well-bred GSD (Josie, on the left) and a poorly bred GSD (Pyrrha).

I confess that I sometimes get jealous of the people who have carefree, sound, emotionally stable purebred dogs (like Josie, Heath, and Loki). These dogs all came from responsible breeders, and the dogs are a testament of their breeders’ conscientiousness and their owners’ care. Josie, Heath, and Loki can go anywhere and do anything; they have no fear issues or reactivity; they love people, children, and other dogs. I marvel at them sometimes.

Of course, there are also rescues who are essentially bombproof (Roland and Zoe come to mind, of the dogs I know). They do exist. But when a dog-loving person buys a purebred puppy, I put aside my rescue righteousness and think, “I get it. I really do.”

I was talking with Carolyn, Josie’s mom, about this very issue during our recent play-date. Her first German shepherd, Maya, was a rescue, and Maya had some fear issues and reactivity issues with other dogs, among other things. Josie, however, came from a highly respected working-line German shepherd breeder and entered Carolyn’s household as a puppy. Josie is unfazed by most things and is a very smart, stable dog; she was the most laid-back dog at the play-date.

“Maya was my heart dog,” Carolyn said, “and I would never say anything against her, but my life with Josie is so much easier. I almost feel like I have more joy in my relationship with Josie, simply because she has fewer issues.”

That struck a chord with me. I would never trade Pyrrha or Eden for the world, and anxious Pyr is my heart dog, too, but I sometimes dream of a life with less anxious, high-strung dogs.

Support Each Other

If you’re in the rescue camp, support ethical, responsible breeders. I believe people are always going to want purebred dogs, so if we accept that as truth, we should support great breeders. Champion breeders who do their research, who produce the best possible version of a breed, and who care about the mental and physical health of their dogs. The world needs more breeders like this. If you have friends looking for purebred puppies, point them in the right direction to such breeders as these (and not to pet shops or backyard breeders).

If you’re in the purebred camp, support smart, proactive shelters and rescues. Share your knowledge of a particular breed with a breed-specific rescue (like where our girls came from). Volunteer as a foster home or as a dog walker at your local shelter. Get to know your local rescue organizations and learn about their missions and their needs.

The Bottom Line

In conclusion, I am still a person who would tell people to rescue before they bought a purebred puppy, but I will never judge anyone for the decision they make, as only that person knows what kind of dog is best for their family and lifestyle. Even though I think I’ll always have rescues, I still dream about choosing that “perfect” purebred puppy.

When you acquire as much knowledge about a subject as we* have, it’s hard to stop ourselves from becoming unbearably opinionated and judgmental. (*I say “we” because if you’re reading this blog, you probably have a deep, abiding interest in dogs, dog culture, and canine behavior, more than the average person.)

But let’s stop judging each other for our decisions. You bought a purebred puppy from a great, responsible breeder? Good for you! You adopted a mix-breed dog from a shelter? Good for you! Either way, good tidings and blessings in your adventures in dog raising.

Sweet Heath
Heath, a purebred golden retriever.

Do you ever find yourself having to withhold judgment, on one side of the rescue/breeding camp or the other? How do you think rescues and breeders can do a better job supporting each other?

Related Reading:

Laszlo: On trial!

Smile for the camera
Laszlo: With his new family!

We are sure going to miss this little dude, but we are THRILLED to report that he went on trial* with his new family last night!

(*Our rescue has a period called “on trial,” which is a 2-week stint before the adoption is finalized, just in case the family decides that the dog isn’t a good fit for them.)

I went last night to do the home visit with the family, and I am convinced he is going to have a wonderful life with them. He has a big, beautiful farmhouse in the countryside, plus an older canine sister (a gentle, sweet 11-year-old shepherd mix) and the most dog-friendly cat I’ve ever met. (I don’t think Laszlo had ever met a cat before, but this cat — who, I should note, was bigger than Laszlo — walked right up to him, delicately sniffed his nose, and then rolled over on his back to play! Amazing.)

He will also be spoiled rotten, which of course he won’t mind. He already had a treasure trove of new toys waiting for him when we showed up.

The adoption will be finalized in two weeks, but here’s to hoping that our little guy has found his forever home!

(Side note: Thanks for all of your great advice about Pyrrha’s new problem on walks. I will report back after some of our walks this weekend.)

Laszlo updates

Laszlo in the backyard

Laszlo updates!

Look at this adorable little dude. He is going to be hard to say good-bye to, but… we might be doing that soon!

There is a pending adoption on little Lasz, so we are awaiting further details! Excited!

And more sticks

Watching bugs

He was such a good boy at the big meet-and-greet event on Saturday with the rescue. It was a potentially overwhelming environment — tons of people, children, and several dogs (one of whom was quite agitated by the other dogs) — but Laszlo took it all in stride.

He was so friendly and affectionate to everyone who came up to pet him; his little tail would just thump, thump, thump against my side whenever someone came up to greet him. Laszlo was great with little kids, babies, men, women, the elderly, the mentally handicapped, people of a diversity of races and backgrounds, etc.; he met everyone on Saturday! It was a great socialization experience. We only stayed for about an hour and a half, because I could tell he was getting tired, but I felt like it was a great day of experience and exposure for him.

Mmm, sticks

His relationship with Pyrrha still isn’t the best — she still gets easily annoyed with him and still plays too rough with him — but he is not afraid of her anymore, so I consider that progress! He enjoys running up to her and licking her mouth, which she tolerates for a time, but when she tries to reciprocate play, she is inevitably too rough and he starts to cry. So we are usually playing referee during most of our time at home.

He has a lot more energy these days, too, which makes me wonder if he’s growing? He’s only been with us for about two weeks, but I think he’s bigger already. Look at those ears!

Being his adorable self

We are looking forward to hearing more about his potential adoption! Updates to come.

Big things in your future, bro!

Things I’ve learned from fostering so far

We’ve only been fostering for two-and-a-half weeks now, but we have already learned so much!

Trifecta of shepherd protection
Trifecta of shepherd protection: Vera (adoptable pup), Pyrrha, and Brando (former foster)

A few of the fostering lessons we’ve learned:

  • Personality will probably shift over time. I thought Brando was a WILD MAN on the first day–and he was. He was so stressed out. I never thought we’d be able to let him indoors. But after a week, he’d settled down and he turned out to be quite a mellow dude. Likewise, Laszlo was fairly shut down for the first few days, but now he is all energy and play.
  • Baby gates are a lifesaver. The ability to separate the dogs when needed and the ability to keep them in a small space has been an excellent tool. Even though Pyrrha and Brando both could have jumped our baby gate if they wanted to, they respected the barrier. I also keep Laszlo in the kitchen with me while I’m eating or cooking; he can never be too far away from my sight.
  • Our small house has actually been beneficial. Although, yes, having two full-grown German shepherds in a 830-square-foot home is overwhelming, it’s actually been something of an advantage. Brando could never be too far out of our sight! (Cooking in our tiny galley kitchen with both dogs underfoot is another story, though…)
  • Crates are the best! I love crates. Brando didn’t love crates, but he gradually got used to them. I don’t know how people foster without them! We could leave for a few hours at a time without worrying that he was getting into something, going on the floor, etc. (I’m just praying now that we don’t get one of those Houdini GSDs who are able to get out of crates at will. Pyrrha has a touch of that ability–she has sprung herself out once for a gastrointestinal emergency–but thankfully she stays put 99% of the time.) Laszlo seems to have adapted to the crate as well. He still cries a little bit when we put him in there, but he has now been accident-free for four days (knock on wood!) and has been sleeping through the night (thank God).
  • Pyrrha loves having another dog around. Even though Brando would get tired of her, she never seemed to get tired of him! She was like a silly kid with him. Like a silly kid, she would occasionally get petulant and sassy, but she was always THRILLED to see Brando every morning. Very sweet. She also liked to follow him around and copy whatever he was doing, which was good news for Guion, because he got an extra dose of cuddliness from her when Brando was around. While she isn’t so thrilled with Laszlo, the two do have moments of affection.
  • Don’t underestimate the value of routines. Dogs love routines. Especially nervous dogs. Having a set schedule every day has helped our fosters relax and recuperate during their transition period. These dogs have, for the most part, had fairly rough lives thus far. Being able to count on a consistent daily routine helps them settle down and into the family life. This is the prime advantage of fostering, after all: Helping a dog (who has likely had a rough start) acclimate to life with humans.

Obviously, we still have a lot to learn, but it has been a fun journey so far!

Tomorrow, I am taking Laszlo to an adoption event with the rescue. I am sure he will garner lots of attention, being the adorable puppy and all. Here’s to hoping he finds his forever home soon!

Laszlo log

Laszlo on the couch

Laszlo Log!

Updates on our little foster buddy:

  • Working on a better relationship with Pyrrha. They are increasingly learning how to coexist with each other, which is heartening. While I eat breakfast, they like to play bitey-face under the table. Recently, they’ve been doing this weird thing in which Pyrrha holds her mouth open and Laszlo sticks his ENTIRE HEAD in her mouth and starts licking her teeth, gums, and tongue… kind of like this. It’s so strange. But they both seem to enjoy it! (Have you ever seen dogs do this?? I haven’t!)
  • He’s still sitting when he wants attention. We’ve been teaching him to sit in front of us when he wants attention, instead of jumping up. He still jumps, but he throws those sits out any time he wants something! It’s impressive. He still jumps on me, though, when Pyrrha comes barreling after him in the yard, which I don’t blame him for; I’d want to be picked up, too!
  • Makes up for all the crying and destructiveness with snuggles. It’s a good thing puppies are so cute. Because they are so much work! I was really irritated with him on Monday night; he kept messing with Pyrrha, chewing stuff, peeing, etc. But then I pulled him up on the couch with me, after an hour of enduring his antics, and he fell asleep on my chest for an hour. Sigh. You can’t stay too mad at a creature who is that adorable.
  • He met a prospective dad this week! Our friend in town saw photos I’d posted on Facebook and said he was interested. He came by to meet Laszlo and I think Laszlo was quite charming. Naturally! Waiting to see what happens here, but I’ve encouraged our friend to go ahead and put in application, because I have a feeling that Laszlo won’t linger very long.
  • Laszlo will be attending an adoption event with me this Saturday at our local Tractor Supply. The rescue is having an event there, and I will be bringing him along. I am sure his cute little face will attract a lot of attention!

More to come!

Laszlo is up for adoption! If you like that cute little face, fill out an application at Southeast German Shepherd Rescue!

New foster: Laszlo!

Everyone, meet our new foster pup, Laszlo!

Pen Park with Laszlo

Laszlo is a 9-10 week old German shepherd mix. He was thrown over the fence in the middle of the night at a West Virginia shelter, and that’s basically all that we know about his background.

Out back with baby Laszlo

He was dropped off at our house by a sweet family who volunteered to transport him on Friday. Laszlo arrived somewhat overwhelmed and withdrawn, but he was very cuddly with everyone and always wagged his little tail whenever a person approached him. Within a few hours, he had started to open up and explore the house.

Pen Park with Laszlo

Pyrrha has been a little less than thrilled with his arrival. She treats him with a kind of reserved disdain. He was quite frightened by her at first, but after a day, the two of them now coexist peacefully. (This morning, the two were playing bitey-face while I ate breakfast…)

For all of her standoffishness, Pyrrha remains gentle with puppies, and she does seem to respect his size and age. For now, they are tolerating each other, which is all we can really ask for. I imagine, however, that within a week or so, he may gain more confidence and the two of them might actually interact more.

Laszlo in the car

My sister and brother-in-law were visiting for the weekend, and on Saturday, we took the dogs to the local trails for an afternoon walk. Laszlo kept up quite well and did OK on the leash, partially thanks to Pyrrha’s example, I think. We did carry him part of the way back, but he was a trooper. He even met a few dogs on the trail and didn’t seem too scared of them, which was a good sign.

Pen Park with Laszlo

He strikes me as quite smart and trainable. Within a day, we trained him to sit, and he’s now habituated to sitting in front of us when he wants something, instead of jumping up. He still does jump, but he doesn’t seem to have many of the typical GSD vices yet (noisiness, biting people, chewing up stuff). Essentially, he strikes me as a rather easy puppy. He slept through the night on his first night here, and he’s still getting used to the housetraining.

Out back with baby Laszlo

What would you guess he is mixed with?

His paws are somewhat small and proportional, so I don’t think he’s going to get very big. He clearly has GSD markings, but purebred GSD puppies don’t get their ears up this young. His coat is also unusual and unlike a GSD; instead of the fluffy puppy fur that leads to the thick GSD double coat, this guy has somewhat odd, silky fur that is close to the skin. He has a stocky build, too.

My best guess is either some terrier or some heeler somewhere in his lineage, but of course, we have no idea. What do you think?

Out back with baby Laszlo

Looking forward to getting to know this little dude more and more! More details to come!

Laszlo is looking for his forever home! If you are interested in adopting Laszlo, fill out an application at Southeast German Shepherd Rescue.