June 16, 2021

A Wonderful Foster Failure


By Lauren Lee

He knew it was his turn. That much was clear. Finally, he was getting his “freedom ride.” It was a sweltering, late August afternoon, easily one of the top five hottest days New England had seen that year. The foster contract was filled out and left behind on the front desk mid-signature. That’s how quickly he had run out of the building, to the parking lot, and by some instinct, to the exact car that would take him to his forever home.

Chances are he had seen many others leave. He had seen the people stand in the front, leaning on the desk as they signed the papers. But he also knew that each time he left, no one filled out papers. He went for walks – experienced little tastes of freedom – but always came back to a cement kennel with a used toy or two and a makeshift bed. So, though the shelter volunteer had been there nearly every day that summer to walk him, the 50 pound, white and brown brindle Pit bull, who had gone by a few different names, wasn’t waiting around for anyone’s mind to change. He had his bags packed and was ready to go.

I first met Diesel when I went to volunteer at the local animal shelter for the summer. My passion was dogs, preferably large dogs. I had two rescues at home – a Pit bull I rescued from Florida and a Pit bull/Rhodesian Ridgeback mix I had rescued from another shelter. I told the shelter manager that I loved bully breeds and my ultimate wish was to see a day when understanding and breed education took the place of judgment and breed bias. I said I wasn’t picky, didn’t mind getting beat up and dirty. And I was happy to train dogs that “needed work.” And so, for little more than my time and what it cost to fill my gas tank, I learned the value of reusable ice packs for my bumps and bruises, and the true accomplishment that comes from working with an untrained dog (or two) and helping it become a loving, manageable, family pet.

I received two assignments that summer; Diesel (who the shelter staff had renamed “Hopkins” because it was apparently a “less imposing” name), and a one year-old, 130 pound, Shepherd/Rottweiler mix who took up two kennels. He was named Excel, which clearly was a name that came from his obvious large size, but had a less imposing spelling than XXL. Both boys were located in the very front of the dog room, in kennels on opposite sides of the dog area from one another. However they could both see one another. More importantly, they could both see me immediately when I walked in, making it crucial that I divide my time equally between the two.

My goal: train these dogs and make them “adoptable” by summer’s end.

Upon approaching Excel’s kennel, I could see right away what one of the challenges would be. He was so eager and still so full of puppy energy, that he had no idea of his strength or size. He excitedly greeted me on his hind legs, giving him a full foot advantage over my 5’2” 100 pound frame.
Hopkins (who I called Diesel when he and I were alone) on the other hand, was very well-behaved. He was not a barker. He was not a jumper. Weighing approximately 50 lbs., he would only be considered medium-sized. He was powerful, yet he was aware of his strength and remained conscious not to use it to his advantage. When I approached his locked kennel, not only would he wag his tail with excitement, but his entire body would follow suit. His eyes would light up, and when I looked just below his moist, black nose, I could swear this boy was smiling at me. He had a big pittie grin – the one that melts Pit bull lovers’ hearts all over Facebook©, Instagram©, Animal Planet’s Pitbulls and Parolees, and unfortunately in shelters all across the United States.

I grabbed the leash out of the bin located above Diesel’s kennel, unclipped the secure kennel, careful to clip the latch on to the door according to protocol, and stepped inside. I wanted to be as non-threatening as possible, knowing that as eager and loving as a dog may be, several months in a loud, impersonal shelter environment can turn even the best family pet into a fearful, untrusting – even aggressive – dog. I let Diesel decide if he wanted to come to me. If I was to build rapport, I had to meet him where he was. Quickly he was licking me, gently rubbing his head against me, nudging the leash as if to say, “Yes, I want to go walking with you. I’m ready.”

His body was wiggly, and his tail smacked repeatedly against the bare part of my leg with each excited wag. I struggled to make him sit before I would put the leash on him. I motioned for him to stay, lifting my right hand up and out in front of the dog, a motion I had come to think of as a “crossing guard signal.” Once Diesel displayed a mildly successful sit and stay, I attached the leash and we were headed out for a walk, his floppy, white ears bouncing up and down as he trotted outside. To any observer who passed the two of us, we were just another woman and her cute dog taking a walk.
Most people might wonder how this sweet, happy, eager-to-please dog ended up in a shelter.

Unfortunately, pit bull-like breeds (American Staffordshire Terriers or Am Staffs, Staffordshire Bull Terriers or SBTs, and other Bulldog breeds) are stereotyped as highly aggressive, vicious animals that do not make good family pets. This misinformation and negative public perception has caused many people who are seeking their family pet from a shelter, to not even consider adopting a pit bull. In that respect, Diesel wasn’t so different from the more than 35,000 Pit bulls waiting to be adopted in shelters across the country. In fact, Diesel was so cute and friendly, that many people did ask me if they could pet him throughout our many walks and travels that summer. And that is exactly how I became aware of another, less obvious, prejudice that humans still feel is acceptable to perpetrate on animals.

Diesel was deaf. He did not lose his hearing as a result of old age or illness. He was born deaf, so to him silence was normal. However, in a society that is prone to believe negative publicity and is not always tolerant of differences, Diesel had two strikes against him: Deaf and a Pit bull. All the cuteness and kisses in the world couldn’t put him high up on the “adoptable” list. But I was determined because this was a dog that deserved a home. And though no one ever mentioned things like this in a local, small town shelter, I knew that being a pit bull in a shelter in the US generally resulted in one of two outcomes: a home or a death sentence.

So, what would a deaf dog, who could offer all the love in the world, need in order for someone to want him as a family pet? If I could answer this question, I felt confident I could help this sweet boy. So, it was during a training session with Excel that I began putting the pieces together. Of course, Excel was more difficult. However, he was making positive progress in steps. I had purchased a prong collar for him and was becoming more adept at putting it on him. He knew now that I would not enter his kennel unless he was on all four paws. However, once I was inside, it was a different story. Excitement got the best of him and inevitably he felt the need to greet me on his hind legs.

While his very large front paws inadvertently left temporary tattoos, outlined in colorful scratches on my arms and upper body, I was not deterred. I now stood firm in the double kennel and faced away, my back to him, staring at the chipping paint on the cinder blocks. Sometimes I stared at those cold, generic cinder blocks until I felt cross-eyed, pretending not to notice the paws resting, um clawing, on my shoulders. I refused to put the collar on him until he was in the “sit” position. I used my body language, hand signals, and commands. Little by little, he understood that certain behavior is not rewarded with any response. I needed to find a way to communicate with Diesel that did not rely on verbal commands.

The next day I returned to the shelter, my pockets full of treats, and a long lead (leash) in hand, and entered the dog room. To my right, Excel eagerly jumped at his Kennel. To my left, Diesel barked for my attention. He had only recently begun barking which I took as a sign that he felt a connection to me. I decided to focus on working with Diesel first. I went through the usual routine: entered the kennel, motioned for sit, stay, attached the lead, and corrected his pulling as we exited the building. Diesel had been responding to my hand commands. He was sitting and staying for longer periods of time within the kennel. However, I had yet to try these in the outside environment. Not to mention, how would I call him – tell him to “come”? How would I yell “no” in a dangerous situation? How could I tell him “good boy!” – or if need be, not-so-good boy – when so much communication is transmitted through voice inflection?

I decided on an area of the grounds where we would be relatively alone so that both of us would be better able to focus. Our usual walks were more for fun and exercise – and of course, leash training. Our sessions in the doggy-run fields were for play time. This was going to be different. The treats jiggled in my pockets and I was eager to see how well Diesel would do. Outside in the beautiful sunshine and freshly cut grass, wearing my excitement like a child with a new backpack and untarnished notebooks on the first day of school, I was confronted with an issue I had never anticipated.

Diesel jumped at the ground, pouncing over and over again, as if trying to kill his own shadow. I tried in vain to distract him. I walked up to him. Undeterred, he repeatedly jumped into the air, each time landing with a vengeance on my shadow, leaving bare, brown patches in his wake, where lush green grass had been moments earlier. I motioned for him to move to a shadier spot, at which point something – my watch or rings – sent him flying through the air after the reflection. I removed all jewelry that had not already been a casualty of Excel’s training sessions and put it away. As people came and went from the shelter, some stopped to admire Diesel or to observe his strange behavior.
“Oh, that’s so cute how he chases his shadow like that! It’s like a game,” one passerby noted. I didn’t see it as cute. I saw the dog becoming increasingly stressed out, panting in the early July heat. I could tell it was no “game” to Diesel. I didn’t think, given his current anxiety level and the amount of time we had been outside, that it was fair to try to make him learn new things at the moment. And, I’ll admit it – part of me was disheartened. But I always believe in ending any challenge on a positive note. That’s how I trained my dogs. It’s how I learned to ski at age 30. It is the belief I held to during my 15 years teaching middle school. Always make the last run a success so everyone (and his or her dog) looks forward to the next. So, Diesel and I took a short walk around the property to unwind before heading inside for some water.

My first thought about Diesel’s compulsive shadow-chasing behavior was that his previous owner (who the Animal Control Officer had revealed to me was a male in his late teens or early twenties) must have thought it was funny to shine a flashlight or laser light and watch Diesel jump around in a futile effort to “get the shadows.” Realizing how much more developed his other senses must be to make up for the loss of his hearing, I became furious at what a cruel “game” that would be. If that were done to a deaf person for amusement, certainly people would stand up and say something (or so I would have liked to think). Why would someone do that to an innocent animal? But it was simply conjecture on my part, so all I could do was fill my pockets with fresh treats the next day and start again, with the goal of a better future for this dog.

Everybody needs a name. Whether it is a name given at birth or a name chosen later in life by oneself or someone else, a name is an integral part of one’s identity. So why not start there? My little buddy had entered the shelter as Diesel, likely because it fit his small, muscular body. And though I made a half-effort to call him Hopkins when the shelter manager was within earshot, it never stuck. He was a Diesel, and he should know that. With the treat in my left hand, I made sure his eyes followed the treat up to my face until he made eye contact with me. Then I raised my right hand, touching the tip of the forefinger to the tip of the thumb and holding the other fingers straight to form a letter “d.” I repeated that motion over and over again and then began pointing at Diesel and making a letter “d,” to show him you-are-Diesel. And from that day on, I “called” him Diesel with that hand signal.

Eye contact was crucial. Once I had Diesel making eye contact with me, a whole world opened up for him. He and I now held the key to communicating with one another. Of course, there was also the compulsive shadow-jumping to contend with. We worked around this by going to entirely shady areas for training work. I had stopped wearing anything reflective to the shelter. Through trial and error, I figured out when the light cast fewer shadows. Morning seemed to be a better time to work on hand signals and commands. Then with each success, I would give Diesel time to just sit with me before I brought him inside and worked with Excel. Later afternoons, after I returned Excel to his kennel, Diesel and I would go for walks. My husband had researched and printed out various charts on sign language and hand signals.

Picture a hand with the middle and ring fingers curled downward, the pointer and pinky fingers pointed upward and the thumb outstretched. This is the American Sign Language signal for “I Love You.” It is also a sign I taught Diesel, repeatedly making this sign, then pointing at him and signing “D” for Diesel. Eventually I put it all together: I Love You, Diesel. His powerful tail wagged in return. We also practiced daily with “sit,” “lie down,” and “stay,” all reinforced with treats, a big smile, and a “good boy!” My sign for “good boy” became a thumbs-up, which he seemed to understand.

By mid-August, I felt the familiar sadness that always accompanies chillier nights and store windows lined with Back-to-School deals. I would be returning to teaching in a few short weeks. Though I would miss the day-to-day challenge of working with the dogs, I would soon embrace the challenges of teaching new students to overcome obstacles and become better people. But this August brought a new sadness. I was not just mourning summer’s end, but I would be saying goodbye to two dogs who I had grown to love. Hopefully, I would be turning them over to loving, forever homes. Both Excel and Diesel had made so much progress over the past couple of months. I believed they would go on to be fine representatives of their breeds. Excel now sat on command instead of jumping and trying to caress me with paws twice the size of my feet. He walked nicely on a leash and two prospective adopters were scheduled to come meet him. Diesel now responded to my hand signals. He and I had formed a special bond. Shelter visitors and prospective pet adopters often stopped to admire Diesel while we were outside and remarked on how cute and sweet he was. And then inevitably a shelter volunteer made “the comment” as if three words defined him: “He’s deaf though.”

I worried that those words were going to be the determining factors in this boy’s future. I knew the statistics: people adopting from shelters were more likely to adopt small dogs. They were also likely to go for puppies that did not have health or other problems. Less likely to be adopted were special needs dogs, black dogs and pit bull breeds. At about a year and half old, gentle Diesel was fine with children, cats, and other dogs. He was a great dog. It was true; he could not hear. But he could respond to hand signals now. He could communicate. And he could love just like any other dog.

Humans don’t speak dog. That’s just a fact. And therefore we don’t always know what they are asking for when they are speaking to us. Diesel had recently begun barking incessantly when in his kennel. I can only surmise that now able to communicate, “he found his voice.” I believe he wanted attention. He didn’t want to be in a kennel anymore. Or maybe he just had a sense. Dogs tend to sense things that people overlook. Whatever the reason, his new found vocal behavior didn’t work out in Diesel’s best interest as the staff didn’t think it made for a great image. Something to the effect of not wanting visitors to see a barking Pit bull when they first enter the dog room. Consequently, he was moved to a kennel in the far back of the shelter. My heart broke for the little guy. Now, not only did he have less chance of getting a home, he had less human interaction. In order to get to the back of the shelter, people had to pass several kennels, each containing a cute dog or puppy to grab their attention (or their adoption fee).

I had thought about taking Diesel home with me throughout the summer, but I had two dogs at home already. Every time I left for a rescue event my husband would half joke, “don’t come home with another one.” It was true. I was tempted to take every pittie home with me, a temptation I kept in check by reminding myself of the fine line between animal rescue and animal hoarding. But every time I brought Diesel back inside and he instinctively headed toward the first kennel on the left, my heart sank. I corrected him and walked him to his new living quarters in the far back. Even my excitement at Excel’s successful adoption couldn’t shake my worry about Diesel. He had been in the shelter just shy of six months now. He might get a home, but I couldn’t take the chance that he might not. He was my little buddy boy. And so I decided to “foster” him and see how it worked out with my other two dogs.

That was seven years ago this summer. Since bringing Diesel home we found many new signs to add to his (and our) vocabulary. He feels vibration, so a stomp on the ground gets his attention. During his second year home he acted like a typical teenager, refusing to make eye contact when he knew we were going to put him in his crate. It was a classic game of “If I don’t look at you, you can’t see me.” In 2013, after the death of a friend in the horrific Sandy Hook tragedy, Diesel participated in the Newtown Strong Therapy Dog training course. Unfortunately, he broke his foot and wasn’t able to complete the course, though he was a big hit among his classmates (human and canine).

Kennels and shelters are a thing of the past for Diesel (and all of my dogs). Diesel now sleeps in our bed, between me and my husband. Actually, he sleeps on what was my side of the bed, head on the pillow and all. I sleep on whatever small space is left for me. And I wouldn’t change a thing. I guess Diesel is my “foster failure.” And for that, I am grateful. He has made me a kinder person. He has shown me that happiness is just being loved and giving love – and having a place to call home. Love has nothing to do with breed, size, ability, or hearing. The only limit to one’s love is the boundaries of his or her own prejudgments. After all, love is not something one can hear; love is about the heart.

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