Lessons from the foster dog: What Rainer taught us

We learned a lot from Rainer, likely because we had him with us much longer than our other fosters (Brando and Laszlo). We are going to miss him, even though our life with him wasn’t always easy.

He is a sweet boy, and we are so happy that he found his forever home! I’ve heard a bit from his adopter, and it sounds like he is really settling in and learning to love being doted on as an “only child.”

Dogs in the yard on Sunday
Rainer in our yard.

What Rainer Taught Us

  1. A dog’s personality can change over time. This is especially true of shy dogs. We already knew this with Pyrrha, since she really blossomed into a happy dog since adopting her, but it was rewarding to see this shift occur in Rainer too. The first few days, he would hide from us in corners of the backyard. Everything made him nervous. I thought he had a neurological disorder because of how much he slunk around and moved in such strange, stiff ways. But after more than a month living with us, Rainer turned out to be a totally different dog. He was so content being in our house. He wanted to be EVERYWHERE I was (I mean everywhere; private trips to the bathroom did not happen with Rainer in the house). In the latter days, he was affectionate with Pyrrha, whereas he first made her pretty uncomfortable. They even got to the point where they would sleep side by side, something I NEVER thought Pyrrha would allow in a million years. His whole physical demeanor transformed; he started jumping and sitting and letting his tongue hang out — all of these things that I thought he was incapable of doing when he first came to us.
  2. Correlated with that, a dog’s personality (and the canine power dynamic) can be different in different environments. This one surprised me. In the house, Rainer tended to take charge and let Pyrrha know her place. But in the backyard, Pyrrha ruled; she initiated play with Rainer, she got him belly up all the time, she taught him how to patrol for her feline nemesis. I’d never seen this dynamic before, and it still interests me. Rainer also reminded us that new environments are still very stressful to shy dogs. Getting groomed, going to the vet, and even going on walks made him extremely anxious, despite the fact that he was the picture of calm in our house. Again, good reminders to be vigilant in training and rehabilitation.
  3. Let dogs figure out the power structure. Obviously, do this within reason, and don’t let scuffles get out of hand, but Rainer taught us to hold back a little bit. Dogs are better than we are at figuring out canine dynamics; they suffer when we try to impose our human rules on them. For instance, it rankled me at first that Rainer laid claim to Pyrrha’s bed when he came here. My human instinct was to intervene, thinking that this is Pyrrha’s bed, she was here first, etc. But Pyrrha was OK to let Rainer take it. By the end of his stay with us, they were happily sharing the bed, and there were no more bed-territory scuffles or warnings.
  4. Don’t let strange dogs meet face-to-face, and don’t underestimate the protective instinct. We learned this lesson the really hard way with a dog fight (between Rainer and a potential adopter’s dog). I was naive, I didn’t trust my gut instincts, and I really, really should have known better. This is not a mistake we will ever make again. (And thanks to you all for your kindness and advice. This incident certainly revealed me to be capable of dangerous amateur mistakes, and you were all gracious with me. Many thanks.)
  5. Pyrrha really enjoys having a canine sibling. Even though their relationship had a somewhat rocky start and even though his presence in our home was very isolating to her social life, I think Pyrrha misses Rainer’s company. Particularly in our last weeks with him, Rainer and Pyrrha shared so many sweet moments: kissing each other’s faces, play bowing in unison in the living room, just sitting side-by-side in the yard and watching the birds and cars and people. They were happy and gentle with one another (especially Rainer, who was so tolerant of Pyrrha’s antics!).
Someone's not so shy anymore
Good luck, buddy!

You taught us a lot, Rainey Baby. We’ll miss you! But we are SO happy that you are starting a new life with your new family.

We are taking a few weeks off from fostering. Carrie from Tales and Tails reminded me that this is OK, that you shouldn’t feel guilty about taking a fostering hiatus. I appreciated hearing that. I feel like I need to spend more time with Pyrrha, particularly refocusing on her training, so we’re enjoying this little respite.

What have your foster dogs taught you?

SPCA Day: Stillness and energy

The weather was pristine this weekend and made my morning and afternoon at the SPCA that much more enjoyable. The dogs were happy, as always, and I had a great time with them.

A few notes on what I learned:

Lesson #1: Never underestimate the power of a pit bull body slam


Eden was kind enough to teach me this lesson. As you can see, she is a very lovely lady. But don’t let her demure, elegant gaze fool you: This girl is a tornado. Just trying to snap a leash on her was like trying to wrangle a bronco. In a tiny kennel. She dragged me all over the trails and I decided, for the sake of my arm sockets, to take her to one of the fenced-in areas to let her run around–something she clearly needed.

I took her leash off and she tore around the fence, running at full speed. I picked up a tennis ball and she chased it merrily for a while but that soon bored her. I turned around to pick up a tug toy on the ground and as I was standing up, WHAM! Thick pittie skull smacked me right in the tail bone; I think I actually heard our bones crack against each other. I was knocked down, which she found very amusing, and in quite a bit of pain. Tailbone injuries are the worst! Had no idea how painful that would make the rest of my afternoon there. Walking up hills was awful.

But, whatever. I pushed through the rest of the day and managed to get Eden back into her kennel without any further fiascoes. The enduring lesson? Don’t turn your back on a rambunctious dog who REALLY wants to play with you. Your whole body, in fact.

Lesson #2: Let dogs sort out inter-dog social situations on their own.


I was in a fenced-in area playing with the sweet-faced Roscoe (who was ineptly described as a “St. Bernard mix” by the shelter. Hardly!) when another volunteer, L., walked by with a tiny 10-month-old mix named Blossom (photo not on file). The two began to play bow through the fence and L. asked me if she thought they would play well together. I said we should try it, even though I was a little anxious. Blossom was much smaller and shyer and so we decided to keep Roscoe on his leash in case things went south.

I always get nervous when dogs meet other dogs, and maybe this just contributes to the anxiety of the meetings. We led Blossom in and Roscoe sniffed at her and then immediately stood over her and started playfully gnawing on her neck. Blossom started to whimper a little and my first instinct was to pull them apart. But L. gently stopped me and said, “We’ll let them sort this one out on their own. Roscoe doesn’t appear to be trying to hurt her and Blossom is willing to yield.”

L., a more seasoned volunteer, of course, was right. In just a few minutes, the two were happily chasing each other in circles and bowing and wrestling. The formerly bashful Blossom was even taking well-timed nips at Roscoe’s legs. It brought me a lot of joy to watch them play together and reinforced the lesson that dogs often need to be left to themselves to sort out social situations. Human interference usually makes things worse.

Lesson #3: Not all GSDs are shy, anxious messes.


So, Estella is probably not a pure GSD, but she looks pretty darn close, especially in person. (This photo makes her nose look bigger than it appears in real life.) I first saw her in a pen near one of the trails and she quietly approached the corner of the pen to sniff me and the dog I was walking.

All that I’ve read about GSDs has made me pretty nervous about wanting to adopt one. It seems that, as a result of bad breeding, GSDs are especially prone to nervous dispositions, which can often lead to anxiety and shyness-based aggression. I now expect almost ever GSD to act this way, especially a GSD in the county animal shelter.

Estella, however, graciously proved me wrong. She is an older lady, approximately 7 or 8 years old, and maybe a tad overweight. I didn’t get the chance to walk her this weekend, but I did make a point to spend some time with her in her kennel. When I approached the door, she sat politely and looked up at me noiselessly. This in itself is unusual for any shelter dog. I held out my hand for her to sniff and walked into her kennel with a biscuit. I offered it to her and she gently took it from me and laid down by my feet while I stroked her coat. It was a brief encounter, but it was encouraging just the same.

Looking forward to my next visit; I never know what I’m going to learn or experience next!