One year ago, I was trolling online for puppy porn when the phone rang. I had taken to looking at Golden Retriever websites, both in the UK and in the States, hoping to one day fill that big hole in my heart left by the loss of my golden girl Bailey.
It was Saturday night, so I was surprised to hear the foster coordinator from Irish Retriever Rescue, who I'd signed up with a couple of weeks earlier (about the time we realized we wouldn't be moving to the States right away).
They had an emergency. Sparky had just come over from Ireland, arriving in Anglesey on the 5 a.m. ferry. He'd been transported to Bath, where IRR was having their annual reunion, and was introduced to his foster family—and their three dogs.
The meeting didn't go well. Sparky chased the other dogs, barking at them and tackling them, and generally let it be known he wasn't happy being near other dogs. He spent his first night in a car, for the safety of the other dogs at the event.
When I got the call, I was literally online looking at pups. I knew we might be moving within the next six months, so getting a dog—especially a puppy—was a bad idea, but a girl can dream. I also would have preferred a full grown rescue dog, perhaps even an "oldie Goldie", but I knew moving a dog back to the States would be difficult, and an old dog might not be medically cleared for the journey.
My online friend Nancy Freedman-Smith had inspired me to foster. I came across her Gooddogz training blog, and read the stories she posted of her fosters. Through Twitter I found other fosterers, and the love and commitment they showed to their foster dogs made me determined to do the same.
So when I got that call I said yes, immediately. Of course I'd take this dog who attacked other dogs! He probably just needed a lot of love. And maybe some healthy food, some firm training, and, I don't know, some cuddles?
Yes, I was pretty clueless. Even though I've owned dogs most of my life, I'd never had one with issues more serious than piddling. I was going to learn a lot over the next year.
The next day, I collected Sparky at a motorway services outside of Oxford. The man who transported him from Bath handed me a leash and enough food for a few days, and Sparky hopped in my car. That was the last time Sparky was ever perfectly quiet in a car: He didn't make a sound, just looked at me, a question in his huge tawny eyes. I've often wondered what he must have thought during that 35 minute drive home.
Sparky arrived needing a lot more than cuddles. He was dirty, matted, and smelled like he'd been on a months-long sea voyage. Newly neutered, he seemed physically healthy, bright, alert and eager—very eager—to earn treats. He stared intently at me when I spoke to him, in a language that sounded like nothing he'd heard before. I knew dogs don't understand accents, so it didn't surprise me that he didn't understand even a simple "sit" that I uttered in my American voice.
Over the next few weeks, we got him cleaned up, found food that didn't go right through him, and discovered a great—and scrawny—dog underneath the heavy coat he'd grown while sleeping outside. With a terminally ill owner, Sparky had apparently been left to his own devices in the garden. This is why, I suspect, he sleeps curled up in a tight ball, as if he's learned to conserve body heat.
We didn't plan to keep Sparky. When I first saw him bark and lunge at other dogs, I was embarrassed and frustrated. He wasn't the kind of dog I needed, one who could go on long walks across the English countryside without bothering other dogs or livestock, who could be trusted to come back when I called. And I was enamored with the idea of fostering—even though I knew I'd miss him when his forever family came for him, I steeled my heart, knowing he would never be mine.
But no one called to enquire about the dog who didn't like other dogs. And we grew to love him, despite our steely hearts and his "dog-reactive" ways.
Along the way, I found help where I always do: online. My friend Nancy was always a Tweet away (she keeps odd hours) and on Facebook to answer my questions, and I found other online resources too—the dog community is remarkably generous with advice, I've discovered. While I'd always been interested in dog-related websites and books, I'd never paid much attention to training, other than knowing instinctively that Cesar's Way was not the right way.
Within a few weeks, I'd learned how classical conditioning works, a fancy term we translated into simply "dogs=cheese". Sparky was quickly learning that the sight of other dogs meant I pulled out a stick of string cheese, offering bits as we passed other dogs from a safe distance. The barking and lunging was replaced by his rapt attention on me. Eventually, I was able to work with a trainer and her dogs. The first time I saw Sparky walking side by side with another dog, I almost cried.
At Christmas, my daughters came home, and Sparky slept with Daughter Number Two her first night home. By the time she left a month later, I knew Sparky would be our forever dog. It took a few months, though, to fully commit. I felt like I was playing whack-a-mole with him—as soon as we'd almost solved one problem, another would pop up. Like resource guarding, another term I'd never heard of. This time, I turned to Grisha Stewart's article on her website, and within weeks we had that issue, too, under control.
Now, having attended two training seminars on dog behaviour, I've learned that Sparky's issues were mild compared to some dogs. We probably caught the problem fairly soon after it started, likely when he was living on his own in his back garden. The sight of other dogs passing his fence every day could have inspired his case of dog reactivity. I don't think Sparky was ever treated badly, not intentionally, anyway. He simply had bad luck, and then he had some good luck.
But I'm really the lucky one. Sparky came along just when I needed him, when I needed a "project", as my daughter told me. I've learned more about dog behaviour in the year I've had Sparky than in all the years previously. And I'm more proud of what I've accomplished with him than I am of any other achievement.
The other day, I brought Sparky along on a 4.5 mile pre-hike with the new hike leader. We went to Burnham Beeches, walked past horses and cows (on lead) and I let him run off lead through the 540-acre wood. He came back to me whenever I called, racing ahead of me on the footpath, then racing right back to check in. We handled the herd of barky Labs that greeted us near the carpark with aplomb. (I led him off the path while they passed—he seemed relieved that I'd learned a few tricks at the BAT seminar I attended.)
We've still got a ways to go—Sparky will never be an "easy" dog. But with the help of my online community of "dog advisers" and a new positive, rewards-based trainer I've found nearby—and with a dog who's exceptionally eager to please—I've got no doubt we'll get there.
Sparky's first year here has been brought to you by my friend Nancy at Gooddogz, and all the others, online and off, who inspired and advised and consoled me. We both owe them a debt of gratitude.
One year later, Sparky knows he has found his forever home.