Today is a little over a month since my last foster dog Wilbur got adopted. I wanted to tell you about my time with him. I’ve been fostering dogs for nearly ten years now and hope to share my memories, good or bad, about all of them. Every dog had something wonderful and something frustrating to teach me.
Wilbur was available through a local shelterless rescue that is run entirely dependent on donations and foster families to care for their animals. I’d fostered for them before and was looking forward to doing so again once I’d moved into the new house. I knew Kyra wanted companionship now that she was alone every day and I had really missed the joy of learning and training a new dog, and the wonderful sadness that accompanies giving them to their new owners and knowing that they’ve found a loving permanent home.
Wilbur was about 3 years old and a brindle pit/boxer mix. I didn’t get any information about him from his previous foster mom besides that he liked to get into the garbage, he hated being crated and he was good in the car, so we really started with a blank slate. Fortunately he was neutered and respectful of Kyra’s boundaries, so besides a few arguments over toys and food that Kyra wholeheartedly won (for a while he was very afraid to go anywhere near her), they got along very well.
I did not get along nearly as well with Wilbur. Don’t get me wrong, he was a sweet boy, and when we were all home together he was a happy, snuggly 65 lb lap dog. The problems came when I wasn’t home.
Since his previous foster mom had said that he couldn’t be crated, I closed him in the spare bedroom during the day so that he couldn’t be overly destructive to the house until he had adjusted a little bit. He dug at the door and howled when he was in the room by himself – not unusual, and the digging stopped when I put a crate in front of the door – and lifted his leg in there. One day when a noise must have startled him, Wilbur jumped through the screen window in the room and roamed the local neighborhood until he was picked up by the police. I had to pay to spring him later that day, because apparently the rescue hadn’t bothered to microchip him and I didn’t find out that he was out until I arrived home to an empty room. Let me tell you, that’s a panic-inducing moment.
As the first week progressed, Wilbur managed to lock himself in both my bedroom and his bedroom by pawing at the door handles (note: I did not have keys to these door locks. I do now!) and also learned how to release himself from his room. He counter surfed with regularity and ate anything he could get his nose near, edible or not. Any time Wilbur had free rein of the house he would lift his leg on whatever wall was handy and get into the trash. Mind you, I’ve discussed my trash setup before and it isn’t like he just has to nudge open a cabinet door. Wilbur actually learned how to grab the handle of the trash cabinet, presumably with his teeth since there aren’t any claw marks on it, and pull it open to access the trash inside. I lost count of the number of times he got into the trash, either because he would get up in the middle of the night to get into it while I was sleeping, break out of his room or crate during the day, or get upset when I went outside for something and left him inside for brief periods of time. Separation anxiety, thy name is Wilbur.
Another thing Wilbur did regularly that the rescue didn’t bother to tell me about was jump fences, including the one in my backyard. Not every day or night, not when he was out there by himself or with Kyra or with me, just…when he felt like it. I met a family by pure coincidence a month or so into my time with Wilbur who had fostered him when he first came into the rescue, and it turns out that he had jumped their backyard fence and gotten into a massive fight with a neighborhood dog. That prompted them returning Wilbur to the rescue. Wilbur generally jumped fences to either see other dogs – he assumed that every dog would be thrilled to see him and want to play – or to chase after critters. The deer that move through the woods in my backyard may never recover from the trauma.
After the first time he jumped the fence to visit the neighbor’s dog and I caught him, I kept a closer eye on him. Then he jumped it to chase some deer in the middle of the night…there was no way I was going to get him back in that situation, so I tromped into the woods with Kyra and some treats and lured him back. The times he jumped the fence after that (when our relationship was really deteriorating), which happened while he was on a lead in the backyard and chewed it apart in order to chase after something, I just let him go. He always had a collar on, and I figured he’d either come back when he got cold or hungry or get picked up by the cops. Wilbur always came back on his own in high spirits. At the end of his stay with me, I probably would not have bothered springing him from the pound if he had been picked up. Yes, things got that bad.
Now, if you are howling about me being irresponsible and not keeping him on a lead once I knew he would jump the fence, let me defend myself a bit. I followed my normal protocol for foster dogs and kept him leashed to me or something else for the first week that he was with me, and he was only given limited access to furniture with permission until he proved that he was trustworthy. Which I must say he was; as long as he was supervised, Wilbur was a little angel. He was never unleashed when outside of my backyard. Once I realized that Wilbur would hop over the fence at any provocation, I would either be out there with him (turns out that my presence made absolutely no difference) or he would be on a long line, which got chewed through multiple times. Once Wilbur nearly choked himself by jumping over the fence at the end of the long line’s tether. I had limited sympathy, as he managed to tear down the fence as a result.
But besides all that, Wilbur and I just didn’t…mesh. Despite his very pittie-looking face, Wilbur has the body and soul of a boxer. I’ve known boxers in my time but never owned or fostered one before, because I know they’re not my type of dog. They tend to be anxious and high-strung and very needy, and Wilbur was certainly that. If he was awake Wilbur panted furiously as if he was incredibly stressed. If I was up and moving around, he would circle me endlessly. If we were in the car, he would pant and cry every time we slowed down or stopped. It drove me up the wall. Wilbur was so anxious that just being around him made me anxious, and I’m a relatively patient and mellow person. I began to dread coming home to my newly purchased peaceful haven of a house, because I never got a break from Wilbur’s constantly panting presence. We would go for hikes up and down mountains or walk for miles with a heavily weighted backpack on him, something that had always calmed down previous fosters of mine who needed to get some energy out. Nothing helped. It seemed that Wilbur only had two modes: anxious and sleep.
About a month into his stay, I called the rescue and told them that I needed some help with Wilbur. He needed training classes urgently and, although I had never advocated for putting a dog on medication before, possibly Prozac. I had the idea that maybe his adjustment to his new situation was taking overly long and that he would adjust better with some calming meds that I could then wean him off slowly.
The rescue was pretty unsympathetic. No money for training classes. No money for supplies (Wilbur came with a collar and a banged up slip lead and that was it, and he would rub his neck raw while choking himself pulling on the leash). No money to reimburse me for food or treats (generally I’m fine with that, it comes with the gig), or for the cost of repairing the damage to my house or for springing Wilbur from police custody. There were no potential adopters on the horizon, and no suggestions as to what to do to improve things.
The one concession they did make was to agree that he should be on Prozac, because surprise surprise, he had been on Prozac before and the rescue hadn’t bothered to continue him on it or inform me of this. From then on I made the 45 minute trip monthly to their vet (who I got the impression had never met or examined Wilbur) to pick up his prescription, and Wilbur got pills twice a day with his food.
Things got better immediately once Wilbur went on the meds. He stopped panting and circling me. He stopped marking in the house and started sleeping through the night. He was more attentive during walks and training times and easier to handle in general. Wilbur began to accept being in a crate and stopped hurting himself trying to break out of it, though he still often managed to escape it until I started ziptying the thing shut. He wasn’t perfect, but things were much better.
I also enrolled him in a basic obedience class at my favorite dog training center Finish Forward Dogs, at my expense. Wilbur was a star pupil during class and during training sessions at home (he’s extremely food motivated) but any behaviors he learned went out of his head the instant he was out of class. Wilbur was generally a guy who was interested in anything else but what you wanted from him, unless you had really good treats and there was nothing else to pay attention to.
The final straw with Wilbur was not as much him but with the rescue. Their complete apathy towards advertising Wilbur’s availability was frustrating. It’s a very small rescue that’s only run by a few people, but that doesn’t excuse them from the responsibility of trying to get their dogs adopted. If you can’t run a rescue properly, don’t run a rescue! All that you’re doing is putting the lives of these animals at risk and annoying and inconveniencing the people who have volunteered their homes, time, and money to help these animals out. They ran one small poorly advertised adoption fair at an out-of-the-way doggy daycare; I drove the hour to drop Wilbur off and then had to stay to keep an eye on him because there was also a cat there, and Wilbur seemed to enjoy trying to investigate it. Two people came by and looked at the puppies that the rescue had available, and that was it.
I decided to take adoption matters into my own hands lest I got stuck with Wilbur for an indeterminate amount of time. I drove to Boston and sat with him at the Roslindale Farmer’s Market Boston for the Dogs booth, an excellent area dog walking and training business run by my wonderful friend and dog trainer Hannalore. It was late fall at that point and the farmer’s market wasn’t busy, but Wilbur still got a lot of attention. One woman in a neighboring booth in particular seemed to fall in love with him. She had dogs at home and loved pitties and pit mixes, as did her boyfriend. She owned her own home and had a fenced in backyard. It seemed like the perfect match. They put in an application for Wilbur the next day, and we arranged a time for a home visit the next week. I found myself driving down to Boston yet again, but at least this was with the hope that Wilbur had found a new home.
It was a very cold early December day when I pulled up to a small house in a crowded suburb in Revere. The woman met me outside and her boyfriend joined us shortly after. Wilbur seemed to love them immediately and I handed over Wilbur’s leash to the boyfriend while we walked. We chatted about Wilbur’s history and some of his difficulties, which they seemed fine with, and were enthusiastic about the idea of having a big friendly dog in the house (they had little dogs). I warned them that Wilbur could not be with cats, and that did give them pause. They had a cat in the house. That surprised me on two levels, one because Wilbur’s bio on Petfinder clearly states that he can’t be with cats and I had expected them to read his bio before putting in an application, and two because I had expected the rescue to tell them about this restriction when they interviewed the couple over the phone before setting up the home visit. Apparently not. I’d never had Wilbur around a cat before but assumed that, like Kyra, he enjoyed chasing and potentially eating them, and told the couple that it was essential that Wilbur and the cat stay separate if they decided to go ahead and adopt him. I also told them that the rescue potentially would not allow them to adopt Wilbur with a cat in the house, but that was a conversation between them and the rescue. Again, they seemed fine with it.
After a short walk we headed back to their house with the idea of introducing Wilbur to their resident dogs and, if they got along, letting him into the backyard to watch them play. The meet and greet through the gate went well, and once we were inside the yard I told the boyfriend to drop Wilbur’s leash and see how the dogs got on.
About two seconds after he had dropped the leash, Wilbur spotted the cat in the backyard and was after it in a flash. I’ve never seen him move so fast. He grabbed the cat around the body and shook it. The cat yowled, Wilbur growled, and the boyfriend had an absolute meltdown. I’m amazed the neighbors didn’t call the police, because his high-pitched screams literally echoed throughout the area. We all ran over to the combatants and the boyfriend grabbed Wilbur’s jaws in an attempt to keep him from crushing the cat. I grabbed Wilbur by the collar and pulled upwards to choke him while sticking my fingers into a gap in his mouth between the cat and his jaw. It’s a trick I’ve used before when having to forcefully persuade a dog to let go of something, usually only in emergency situations. It’s hard to chew and swallow something when someone has their fingers stuck down your throat, and the automatic urge is to regurgitate. It works excellently to force a dog to open their mouth provided that you are brave or stupid enough to actually stick your fingers between some very big teeth in a situation where all the dog wants to do is chomp down.
Fortunately Wilbur let go of the cat and did not chomp me. We all received multiple injuries from the cat, who was (understandably) clawing and biting anything it could reach while Wilbur had ahold of it. Wilbur had huge cuts across his face, I had claw marks on my hands and arms, and the boyfriend was bleeding freely from scratches on his arms and head. The cat, once it was free, used his head as a launching pad to get away from Wilbur.
The boyfriend didn’t stop screaming at full volume for the next 15 minutes. Once the cat was free, he went after it, caught it, and brought it in the house. He screamed at the girlfriend about having it outside, screamed about injuries to his cat, screamed about how painful the cuts were…it went on and on. The girlfriend apologized to me and followed him in. I cleaned Wilbur up and stuck him in the car before letting myself in the house (there is no way the girlfriend would have heard me calling her over the boyfriend’s racket). I wanted to check on both the cat and the boyfriend as well as wash the blood off my hands. I helped myself to their sink and then called to her until she heard me and met me in the kitchen. The boyfriend was going to the hospital, the cat was going to the vet (both probably unnecessary but precautionary visits). She was going to be late for work. I asked her to call the rescue with a follow-up, called the rescue myself to report on the days events (they didn’t answer), and headed home, shocked and despondent.
I’m sad to say that after finally chatting with the rescue about the visit, it turns out that the reason Wilbur had been surrendered to a pound in the first place was because he had lived with cats contentedly in a home…right up until the owners woke up one morning to a dead cat. Wilbur seems to have developed a taste for them and has all the hunt/chase instincts of a terrier in his genes. Again, useful information for me to know ahead of time, but the rescue didn’t see fit to inform me until after a cat nearly died.
At that point I had fostered Wilbur for more than 3 long, difficult and quite frankly traumatizing months. I lost my trust in him to such an extent that I didn’t even want him near me any more, and he spent a great deal of time closed in his bedroom. He’s a killer…if he kills cats, what’s to stop him from killing other things? Now I realize this is a totally unfair judgement of an animal that is following its instincts and has never shown aggression to humans. But my rationalization couldn’t stop my mistrust. I lasted for two days before I called the rescue and told them that I had enough, and couldn’t keep Wilbur any longer.
Their reaction was predictable and immediate. “We don’t have anywhere else for him to go.” I said too bad, that the rescue had just adopted out a bunch of puppies as well as adult dogs (Wilbur was actually the only dog left in the rescue at the time), and that another foster family had to be able to take him. They said no, that everyone else had cats. I said too bad again, and to find him another place to go by the end of the week or I would leave him tied to their doorstep. I felt truly terrible saying this but I had reached my breaking point. As much as I’m willing to do a great deal to find a dog a home, I was no longer willing to sacrifice my sanity and peace of mind to do so. Wilbur was their responsibility, not mine, and if I had been hit by a bus the next day they would have somehow managed to find somewhere for him to go. If a volunteer wants to stop volunteering, they should be able to do so without being hassled. That’s one of the joys of volunteerism – it’s not permanent, and it’s not a job.
What the rescue said next is the reason I won’t volunteer for them any longer (yes, even after all the time, aggravation, expense, and trauma that I had been through with Wilbur, I was still willing at that point).
If you can’t keep him, we’ll have to send him back to Indiana when the next transport comes in on Tuesday. He’ll go back to a high kill shelter and be put down.
I think they fully expected me to gasp and clutch my chest and say “you can’t possibly!” and then agree to keep Wilbur forever. Instead I said ok, I’ll drop him off on Tuesday, and hung up the phone.
Seriously, what kind of supposedly kind and caring rescue people try to blackmail their volunteer foster families into keeping an animal they don’t want any more, to the point that they’ll threaten the animal with death rather than try to find an alternate solution? Apparently, its the same people who neglect to tell their foster families vital information about the animal and show little or no interest in improving the animal’s health or welfare.
A potential adopter appeared out of nowhere shortly after that phone call. Either the rescue decided to actually start advertising Wilbur, or they finally made a few phone calls to try to place him elsewhere and an adopter turned up. Why they couldn’t have done that two months prior when I called them to let them know I was having problems with Wilbur…but so be it.
Usually the foster parent gets to meet the potential family and chat with them about the dog’s background and preferences, and it takes several days and several meetings for the adoption to be finalized. In this case it was obvious that the rescue wanted me far away from the potential adopters and wanted to rush the adoption. I took Wilbur to the rescue one morning and he was in the family’s house later that day. I got one follow-up photo the next day and haven’t heard about Wilbur since.
I wish I had gotten a chance to meet the family and see for myself how they interacted with Wilbur and how Wilbur interacted with his new foster sister, a Rottie who apparently fell in love with him instantly. I wasn’t interested in trashing the poor guy as much as giving the new family the heads-up that I didn’t get about Wilbur and cats, trash, fences, and Prozac, as well as the basic obedience commands that I taught him. Since I had the feeling I wouldn’t get to chat with the family, I included all of the handouts from the obedience class in with Wilbur’s scant paperwork, and wrote the family a long letter that detailed some of the techniques I used to curb Wilbur’s bad tendencies. I also left my contact info and asked them to email me with any questions or updates. I don’t know if they ever got the paperwork or the letter. It’s possible the rescue threw the file out or removed the letter before giving them the file. After this fiasco, I don’t trust them to give any potential adopters the entire truth about any dog they’re trying to sell you on. [To be fair, that could be said about 99% of rescues and shelters out there. They’re trying to find an animal a home and recoup some money, and never seem to realize that disclosing all the good and bad points of a dog will make it more likely that it’ll be placed in the right home rather than returned or abused in the wrong one.]
Life has been significantly quieter without Wilbur. I throughly enjoyed the first two weeks without him, and then the holidays hit and I was pathetically grateful that I wasn’t trying to manage gifts, food, and visitors while also handling a manic dog who would try to eat all three. Kyra hates the quiet and is obviously very lonely without him. I can’t say that I miss Wilbur, although the fostering bug has bitten me again. I’ve applied to another shelter as a foster mom and am still waiting to hear back, though I’ve gotten to the point where I’m more seriously considering simply adopting a dog rather than continue to foster. I think the right dog just has to cross my path.