Monday, March 25, 2013

Chloe Chronicles VII: On Getting Rejected by a Rescue Group

Chloe Chronicles VII: Rejection Blues

--> You know how it is — we dog lovers can be partial to certain breeds or types of dogs.  Some of us love the cuteness and ease of lapdogs; some of us admire the regal carriage of Afghan hounds, or the calm strong presence of Shephards, or the goofy sweetness of pit bulls. Some of us can’t resist the ultra-floppy ears of Bassett Hounds, or the giant gentleness of the—ahem—Gentle Giants, or the wiggly wags of Labs. The list goes on and on, and I am sorry if I have left out your favorite breed or mix. And, oh, the glories of mixed-breeds! Who can resist the myriad combos? I have a friend with a short-legged, big headed lab/Bassett mix named Hagrid—the cutest dog you’ve ever seen. Another friend has a Beagle/Setter mix—a gorgeous orange, brown and white dog with a Beagle’s bugle-bray. 
My own Chloe is some sort of Spaniel/Lab/Border Collie amalgam, and I adopted her, in part, because of my Spaniel/Setter fixation. I love their beauty, their exuberance, their fondness for hikes and swims, their silky fur, and they way they transform, inside the house, into cuddly lap dogs—albeit 70 pound ones. To me, the only thing better than having a bird dog as a companion is to have two bird dogs. So the idea of adopting a second dog was always on my mind.

In 2006, I finally left New York City and moved to the Catskill Mountains full time. I had had Chloe for about a year at that point, and we had enjoyed a rich life, spending part of our time in an apartment in the city and the other part at a small cottage upstate. It was an ideal situation in many ways, but it got to be exhausting. The commutes and the changes and all that packing and backing-and-forthing was too much, especially with a large dog in tow.

So I moved to that big house with lots of land I had always dreamed about. Finally, it was time to adopt my second dog.

I was very excited at the prospect, and I knew Chloe would be too. We all know that dogs are pack animals and thus are happiest and most comfortable when they are members of a canine pack.  Chloe loved other dogs — she loved to play and romp and flirt — and she also seemed to enjoy being a mother dog. I got a kick out of watching her play with puppies at the dog park, wrangling them and letting them crawl all over her, giving them playful but very gentle swats and nips. It made me wonder if she had had puppies at some point in her young life, before I adopted her. It made me wonder if she missed them.

Therefore, I decided I would adopt a puppy this time around, rather than an adult. I had the time, after all. And I knew what raising and training a puppy would entail. I felt fully prepared to adopt my Setter pup. And so, I began my search on  Whereas I’d searched the Internet for several months before choosing Chloe, the second-dog search took only a few weeks. I found a Setter rescue group that I liked, and they were in the midst of arranging adoptions for a litter of nine liver-and-white pups. Seven of them were male, and I knew I wanted to adopt a male. I telephoned immediately, and spoke with a kind and encouraging volunteer, who filled me in on the adoption process. We spoke for about 45 minutes — about me, their group and my potential dog — and by the end of the conversation, she told me she’d send an application. (Apparently, this group will not even send out applications until they speak to the candidates in person or on the telephone.) “You sound like an ideal candidate,” the woman said.

I must confess that I also thought I was an ideal candidate to adopt a dog. I’m not saying that I’m a perfect human specimen, or that I know every last thing there is to know about dogs, but I do work for Bark magazine, for goodness sake,—the best dog magazine out there, which means that for the past twelve years I have been reading, editing, and reviewing (and yes, writing) articles and essays from some of the top trainers, behaviorists, veterinarians, ethologists, poets, and animal rescuers in the country. We who read Bark are up to date on the best and most effective training methods (positive reinforcement/operant conditioning, of course), the latest studies on canine behavior and psychology, the newest and best veterinary treatments (holistic and allopathic) and even the latest treats, toys, beds, gadgets, accessories and foods. And please don’t think I’m bragging—if you are reading this column in Bark magazine, that means you have access to all this knowledge, too.
To further toot my “You Should Let Me Adopt Your Setter” horn: I also spent years writing a series of columns—and a subsequent memoir entitled Rex and the City—about how I devoted just about every waking moment of my life to rescuing and rehabilitating an abused hunting dog: a wonderful Spaniel mix named Wallace. He was everything these setter rescue groups “warn” you about: exuberant, energetic, high spirited (read: highs-strung), vocal, stubborn, capable of fantastic athletic feats (i.e. leaping tall fences in a single bound, etc). We used to joke that Wallace was the equivalent of three dogs. So again, I felt I could handle a Setter puppy.
-->Meanwhile, Chloe was running circles around the car, dancing happily at the sight of another canine. I told Chloe to come sit quietly by me so that Mr. Whitaker could say hello. (And yes, I spoke to Chloe in a full sentence). Chloe immediately ran to my right side and sat, looking sweetly at Mr. Whitaker with a gently wagging tail.

“Wow,” he said. “I’ve never seen such a thing. How did you do that? You got her to sit down and everything.”

“I clicker-trained her.”

“Never heard of that,” he said.

I kept my face blank and pleasant, but inside I was thinking: They sent this man to evaluate my dog? Meanwhile. Took began to bark and scratch at the car window, trying to wedge his body through the small crack.

-->“Well, I suppose I could take him out,” Mr. W said. He looked at Chloe again and seemed to convince himself that she did not have any communicable diseases.That she was the "right kind" of mixed breed. He then strung Took up on a choke chain and let him out of the car.

I should point out here that I Iived on 16 acres of land, much of it bordering thousands of acres of state land. Chloe is never on a leash because she does not need to be: (a) she is not a roamer, and (b) she is, as we have seen, well trained and has perfect recall. For recall, I use hand signals in addition to verbal cues, and a special whistle she can hear at great distances. She’s a terrific dog who has earned her freedom.

Now, Chloe waited for my “okay” command before she said hello to Took. She play-bowed and he play-bowed back, then he leaped forward for a romp, only to be yanked back rather cruelly by Mr. W, who had pulled sharply on the choke collar.

I winced. I hate to see dogs yelping in pain. “Do you want to let him off-leash and watch them interact?” I said. “We can watch their body language and signals, to see how Chloe interacts with other dogs.”

“I never let him off-leash,” he said. “He hasn’t been off-leash since he was six weeks old, straight from the litter. If I let him go, he’d never come back.”

Do you know that for certain? I wanted to ask. But I held my tongue.
“Will you let him off leash inside the house?” I asked.

Mr. W answered: “Sure, I think that will be okay.”

I wish I hadn’t asked.

Once we got inside and Took was released, he began to wreak havoc. First, he peed on my sofa, then he ran into the kitchen and jumped up on all the counters, sweeping his snout across in search of food, knocking over blenders and utensil containers along the way. Finding nothing to eat, he ran into the bathroom, tipping over my little metal trashcan and digging around for used tissues. Meanwhile, Chloe followed Took with a rather perplexed look on her face, as if to say: we don’t do that around here.

Mr. W was aghast. “Took, Took!” he shouted. “No! No!” He finally seized Took by the collar, pulled the chain until the dog choked, and then snapped on the leash.

He’s a show dog, I thought.

“I’m sorry,” Mr. W said with a laugh. “He’s never done this before.”

“Would you like to see the rest of the house?” I said, remaining polite.
I gave him a tour, showing him where the dogs would sleep (two dog beds in my bedroom), and pointing our various rooms and amenities. I showed him the sun room, where Chloe liked to hang out during the day, watching squirrels though the window as I wrote, shifting her body positions so that she was always lying in a patch of sun. I showed him the finished basement—another spot Chloe liked to visit if it were particularly hot outside, or stormy. “She has free reign of the house,” I said. “Whether I am here or not.”

Then we heard a crash—Took, in the boiler room, tipping over boxes, one of which contained antique tea cups. Chloe lifted her ears and looked at me with an air of concern. I swear she rolled her eyes.

“Why don’t we sit in the living room and chat?” I said.

Chloe, upon hearing this, trotted into the living room and seated herself on her “special spot”—one corner of a long sofa that I had bequeathed to her. It was covered with a thick throw rug to protect the sofa cushions from her fur.

“So you let your dogs on the furniture?” Mr. W. asked, bringing out his notepad.

“Just that one spot. She’s trained to stay off everything else except that rug.” I placed a tea tray on the coffee table as I spoke: Earl Grey and cookies. “When we go to friend’s houses or hotels or whatnot, she knows not to go on the furniture.”

“Impressive,” he said.

Meanwhile, Took leaped onto the coffee table, spilling tea right onto the sofa I had worked so hard to protect.

“I think I’ll put him in the car,” Mr. W said.

Back outside, I showed Mr. W the property. As we walked with Chloe across the meadows and around the pond, I pointed out stone walls in the distance that marked the borders, and the mountain that loomed behind us — the beginnings of the great Catskill Park.

“Chloe is boundary trained,” I said. Mr. W had never heard of this, so I explained that I had spent many hours taking Chloe along the property’s perimeter, which I’d marked with light-colored flags on various trees, and used a clicker to teach her that she was not to wander beyond those barriers. “It was time consuming, but it was worth it.”
“My dog could never be trained like that,” he said. I wanted to say, With a clicker, you can do anything, but I held back out of respect for his point of view. I had to respect his beliefs, and he believed his dog would “never” come back and “never” be trainable.

I showed him Chloe’s various skills, cueing her with a mix of hand signals, verbal cues, eye movements, whistles and clicks. It felt like a circus act, but she seemed very pleased with herself, and happy to entertain our guests. When I told her to “run to the pond,” she ran to the pond, which was quite a distance away. Then I shouted “Come” and blew the whistle, and Chloe returned, bounding happily across the grass, ears flapping.

Mr. W was impressed. He petted Chloe and praised her when she returned. “What a good dog!” he said. “I never knew dogs could do such things.” Chloe beamed with pride.  She seemed to feel--as did I--that Mr. W would certainly approve us as puppy adopters.

Then the issue of the fenced-in yard came up. I had a pool, which was fenced, but both of us knew that didn’t really count. I was banking on the fact that this particular rescue group made exceptions to the fence rule for the right candidates.
“Chloe loves to swim,” I said, pushing through the gate into the pool area. “She does laps.”

“Technically, we require six-foot fences,” Mr. W said, looking around, “and I worry about this pool.” Then he turned to me and smiled. “But I think you’re a good candidate. I’ll put in a positive recommendation.”

I was so happy that I hugged him. Chloe, sensing the mood, threw herself on her back and waved her legs in the air. We talked a bit more about bird dogs in general and Setters in particular, and then discussed the logistics of the adoption process. “I submit a report of my home visit,” he said, “and then the board meets to decide.”

All in all, I felt that this home visit had been a pleasant experience, and a successful one. As we parted ways Mr. W emphasized that Chloe seemed to have a good life here.

So imagine my shock when, a few days later, I received an email notifying me that I had been rejected. The reason? Lack of a fenced-in yard. And more: boundary training. “We cannot give our dogs to people who boundary train,” I was told.

I was crestfallen. Rejection never feels good in any situation, but this felt like an emotional, even personal, blow. Sometimes we come across certain dogs that we know are meant to be with us—we know it in our hearts that our paths were destined to cross—and yet bureaucracy gets in the way.

Soon my sorrow was replaced by anger and indignance. I complained to my off-leash friends, to my rescue friends, to my dog-writer friends, and we all had choice things to say about this rescue group’s decision. I am not usually a back-stabber but it helped to let off some steam. 

“And why did the rescue ground send a representative who wouldn’t recognize a well-trained dog if she stood before him and danced the can-can?” one friend complained at the dog park

“Or if she peed on command on his leg,” a friend chimed in.


“And don’t get me started on fenced-in yards,” another friend said. She actually runs a shelter in Queens. “Yes, yards are handy, especially if you have a dog door, but I just can’t see how access to twelve square feet of much-shit-upon grass, surrounded by a fence so high you can’t see above or beyond it, constitutes a better quality of life for a dog. According to behaviorists, dogs experience boredom and boundary frustration. It can be stressful.”

“And the dogs don’t get socialized.”


After a few days of immature complaining, I finally had to settle into the truth that I would not be granted a dog. I like to think that I have a rational mind, and I always take care to see both sides of the story. Thus, I began to remind myself that the people who work at these rescue groups are well meaning. That’s an understatement. They volunteer their time and efforts and hearts all for the sake of rescuing and rehoming dogs. They have witnessed cases of intolerable neglect and abuse. They have seen dogs die at the hands of humans. They have rescued dogs who were emaciated, or broken-spirited, or simply confused at being separated from people who didn’t care enough to keep them.

Bird dogs are often relinquished, by the way, because they aren’t birdy enough, or they shy away from guns, or don’t respond to those awful shock collars those hunters often use. Bird dogs are often found as strays because, yes, they do run away and they can jump fences.

But anyway, all this is to say that I can recognize a rescue group’s needs to be stringent. People can be cruel. I often find that many rescue workers have lost their faith in the human race, because they have simply seen too many horrors. So they have to err on the side of caution.

But what exactly is the fine line between error and caution?

Back to the fenced-in-yard debate. The pro-fencers argue that dogs are safer enclosed in high fences, and that’s a considerable point. But in this world, as we know, safety is not an absolute guarantee. Even the fenced-in dog can be stolen, poisoned by a toad, strung up on his chain, etc. In life, there are no absolutes, period. Does that mean we should not take risks?

When I first adopted Chloe, I knew the possibility was high that she would be a birdy-bird dog with a strong prey drive and no training. I was willing to take that risk. I also took the proper precautions. In our first few months together, I did not let her off leash in unenclosed spaces. I brought her every day to an enormous fenced-in dog run at Fort Tryon Park in New York City, and there taught her the rudiments of recall. Then I took her to an even larger park—an abandoned fenced-in soccer field underneath the George Washington Bridge. I won’t take you step-by-step through her training: suffice to say that I supervised my dog and continue to do so to this day.

I would have done the same thing with Trinley. And if it came to pass that he still roamed beyond my comfort zone, I would have restricted his activity more. He’d still have had Chloe to keep him entertained and exercised. And she would have kept him in line, too. We all know that older dogs can teach the younger dogs new tricks, and remind them of certain household rules. I still think Chloe would have been a model mother.

But I must say that my dreams of adopting a second dog are finished for the time being. That rejection from that rescue group was stinging enough—and demoralizing enough—for me to give up the quest for a very long time.

Why not try another rescue group, you say?

Why not spend thousands of dollars to fence in the property?

Why not consider another type of dog—a lap dog, for instance, that wouldn’t be fast enough to run away?

I can’t explain....I wanted Trinley. And then someone came to my house and told me I wasn’t good enough. Maybe part of me believed them.

That was six years ago. Chloe is an old dog now, beginning to limp with signs of arthritis, and no longer all that patient with exuberant dogs—especially pups. She has also become—forgive the pun—quite the bitch, and doesn’t necessarily want to share her space with anyone else but me. 

Sometimes I still think about Trinley, with great pangs of regret, but I am sure he found a home. Puppies always do. But I cannot help but wonder how things would have been. I especially wonder this on the days when I do have to leave Chloe alone on those rare occasions where I need to go down to the city for the day, to make music or teach class. She looks at me with her sweet and tender face, and I start to worry that she'll be lonely.  “I’m sorry,” I tell her. “Sometimes I have to go out.”  She seems to understand and, being an older dog, seems to enjoy the extra-long snooze her time alone allows. 

Being older and wiser (we hope) I know that everything always works out for the best. So I hold no grudges against Mr. W or that particular rescue group. But the question of where to draw the line with potential adopters is an interesting debate.....
Your thoughts?