Chosen (fur) family

posted in: Dogs | 4

This will be a rambly post. I know some of what I want to say, but I'm not sure how it's going to roll out. [Warning: How it rolled out was LONG. But you could just look at the photos.]

We're serial animal rescuers, lately mostly of dogs. Sometimes we have one dog, but more usually two. Sometimes we have one cat, sometimes two. Sometimes two dogs and two cats. Mostly two or three of some mix of cats and/or dogs. We take the animals into our family for the long term, so it's a slow and evolving progression of residents.

Finding the right combination of personalities in the furry ones as well as the humans is a matter to which we pay more attention as the years go on. Years ago I got coerced into taking on a cat who attacked my ankles when I walked across the room. Not playfully. It was like living with a small sadist. I wore thick socks. Another time we ended up with two cats who didn't get along. On the advice of our cat-specialist vet, one of them ended up living in one part of the house while the other had access to the rest. That worked, but was a bit inconvenient for the humans. For years.

We have adapted. But it's far better if the adaptations require more minor, or less constant, adjustments.

Lately we have been looking for a new fur-clad member for the household. It's taken six months. He's here now, and what I'd like to do is run through the sequence of dogs who have lived with us over the past twenty years, along with a few notes about the transitions—especially of the challenges in finding our most recent adoptee. (I'd go back farther in the canine/feline history, but I'd have to dig into the boxes of photos and scan things in. Maybe another time. A few of the images below come from film-recorded photos, but I've already scanned them.)

Our introduction to the world of herding dogs came with Heather, Aslan's Mountain Heather, the blue merle beauty on the left. I was accustomed to Springer Spaniels and Golden Retrievers and mutts and a rescued miniature poodle. Herding dogs are not your average dogs. Heather was an Australian Shepherd. She got us hooked on the herders.

Heather was a sweet, kind, generous dog. She was also capable of getting food out of the upper cupboards and off the top of the fridge. We learned a lot from Heather. She came to us at the age of 6, after having had prize-winning but economically too-small litters of purebred Aussies. She only lived to be 12, because of a cancer that affects female dogs who are not spayed early. But before she left us, she did a wonderful job of helping raise Ariel, the cutie on the right, who was found, at the age of seven weeks, abandoned in a hole in a field in the winter.

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Ariel was the start of our "kennel." When we registered her with the American Kennel Club and the United Kennel Club for obedience competition, we needed to come up with a kennel name, and we chose Tempest, because she was cast ashore with us. She became Tempest's Ariel Miranda. Our other rescues are now all part of the same "line," by chance and choice but not genetics.

After Heather died, Tussah found us. We were her third home that we knew about, and she, too, had been abandoned, although as an adult and at a reservoir in North Dakota, and then cycled through, and been adopted from, the local humane society. We got her from her immediately previous owners, who had called her Red. She was a good deal more feminine than that, so she became Tempest's Tussah Redfurr.

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Ariel lived for fifteen years, which we were told was a very long time for a Border collie(ish). It took a year before we were ready to find another dog: we went looking for another rescue Border collie, knowing that there was no way we could replace Ariel but liking the personality and temperament of the Aussies and the Border collies, although there were apparently more Border collies needing homes at the time. The primary criterion we established for the new dog was this: Must Not Harrass Tussah. Tussah was a gentle dog and could have been bullied.

Through Western Border Collie Rescue (WBCR), we found Ceilidh, whose rescue name was Pebbles.

The next photo shows Tussah's and Ceilidh's first walk together: we knew within about thirty seconds that the combination would work. It wouldn't be appropriate to expect dogs to be best buddies right away, any more than we'd expect that of people. We could tell, though, that their interactions gave us what we would need to work out a good household dynamic. Ceilidh Did Not Harrass Tussah, and Tussah seemed to find her decent to walk with.

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Pebbles became Tempest's Ceilidh Sora (Sora being offered by a friend as a Finnish word reminiscent of Pebbles).

Ceilidh not only didn't harrass Tussah, she enticed her into playing now and again.

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They traveled a lot of paths in gentle companionship.

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They even bumped over and made room for Lady, not our dog but one who stayed with us for six months when she needed a port in a storm. The biggest trick there was keeping the leashes from tangling.

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In April this year Tussah died of a fast-moving cancer. Our best guess is that she was sixteen. We got the sense right off that she would want us to give another needy dog a home as soon as possible. She had that sort of generous spirit. There was also a question of Ceilidh's adjustment to being without her buddy. She seemed depressed, yet based on her delight in seeing Lady, when Lady came to visit, we thought that the right companion might help.

The process didn't go all that quickly, even though we got in our applications to the rescue organizations right away and started the matching process.

On their first meeting, Ceilidh and Jak were more interested in exploring the new-to-both dog park than in interacting with each other. Jak especially was a bit hypervigilant in that environment. We knew we wouldn't be able to tell anything until we spent more time with him. So we signed the papers to be his foster family, put him into the back of our car, and drove the hour back home. At the least, our goal was to make him more adoptable by another family. At the most, he would join our crew permanently.

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Jak taught us a lot, including about how to house-train an adult dog. He and Ceilidh didn't interact badly.

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But he wanted to play in a style that she initially thought might be interesting, although she wasn't entirely certain . . . 

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. . . and then she got tired of what he thought was fun sooner than he did.

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Ultimately she preferred not to come up the stairs if he was at the top. Or down them if he was at the bottom.

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He didn't attack her or anything. He was just there.

As time went on, we became increasingly fond of Jak—and increasingly aware that having him in our household was cramping Ceilidh's style. We knew that we would not let Jak move to a different home unless it was even better for him than ours was, but that left us in limbo for a while.

We "interviewed" a number of other dogs, while Jak remained on the "adoptable, in a foster home" list.

Cricket was a true sweetheart, and we humans thought she had a lot of potential for our household, but when we took Ceilidh and Jak to visit her, she and Jak played and Ceilidh watched from underneath a bench. We thought that we wouldn't be able to tell how Ceilidh and Cricket would get along until Jak was not part of the interactions; we lost out on Cricket, because another, less ambivalent, family came along for her; and then Jak found his Perfect Forever Home. We were sad to let him go, but it was totally obvious the minute he walked into the new family's house for a visit that this was His Place.

We went on a road trip with Ceilidh.

The first two days were rough for her. On the first, we met somewhere between eight and ten rescue dogs, several of which were charming, and one of which—after about an hour of good-natured play—attacked Ceilidh. Quick response from the humans, no damage, but the next day Ceilidh was attacked by another dog in another location. Again, quick response, no damage, but yikes. This trip wasn't turning out very well for our sweet pup.

With some trepidation, we sought out the Spokane dog park for one of our travel breaks. Was Ceilidh giving off "kick me" vibes for some reason we didn't know about, and would there be more trouble? We did know she needed some strong positive experiences to balance what had been happening.

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What a blessing that dog park was for her!

It's huge. It is laced with trails. It goes up and down a mountain. Ceilidh took off, tail happily waving.

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We followed. It was a challenge to keep up with her!

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She chased around the entire perimeter, at top speed. In places, we had to hang onto chain-link fence while descending through areas that she powered down at top speed.

The other dogs there were fine.

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It was good to be out and about together. We figured Ceilidh might be thinking "it's better to be an only dog than to live with Jak. Or any of the other clueless dogs who are trying to chew on me."

Yet we have watched her enjoy other dogs' companionship, so we still thought that the right dog associate would be better than none. She and Lady have been such good friends on backyard squirrel patrol, but Lady only visits now.

Another treat of the trip was Greenbank Farm, which has off-leash areas.

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On the way home, we had a good visit with another adoption candidate. He stayed on the "possible" list, pending a second visit, which, for one family-event reason or another, didn't happen before the holidays began (my trip to Scotland; his foster family's addition of a grandchild; everyone's teaching schedules). Because of some special needs that he had, both his foster family and our family thought he would end up with us. But we had to have at least one more get-together to determine whether the chemistry, human and canine, was right.

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And then he found his forever home: with exactly the right person who needed him more than we did, and who also had the skills to meet his special needs—plus that person has horses, which we don't and this dog loves. What a match! We were in on every twist and turn of the process, and applauded loudly when it became obvious that the other home was exactly right for this dog.

But we were also little sad, and back to zero.

Back home, Ceilidh was attacked by a loose neighbor dog while we were out for one of our regular walks. Even with quick action, this encounter resulted in a lengthy visit to the vet hospital's urgent care clinic, and then some healing time.

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It had been quite a six months so far. If it weren't for how happy Ceilidh normally is with the right four-footed friend at her side, we likely would have given up.

But she and Tussah truly enjoyed each other.

And Lady is a reliable companion, if not a daily (or even weekly) one any longer.

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Ceilidh and Maisie get along really well, when they see each other, which isn't often enough.

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When Skid comes to visit, it's obvious that the two of them find each other's company comfortable.

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So we continued our search.

And then we interviewed a dog at the time called Baxter, who had been surrendered to a pound in Utah and picked up from there by HeRD of Wyoming. Having already visited dogs eight and twelve hours from home, this one was a ten-minute drive away. Pretty weird. We had to go say hi. On the first visit, at the foster home, Ceilidh was a bit doped up with pain meds because of an infected lymph note, but even with that handicap they seemed compatible.

Here's what he and Ceilidh looked like on their second meeting—our first visit at our house—when we "borrowed" him to take him for a walk in our neighborhood, and to see how things would go in the place he would live if he came to us. The walk and time together went just fine.

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We called his foster family to ask if we could just keep him, instead of bringing him back. They checked with the head of the rescue organization (who had met all of us in person) and got a "yes."

As the days went on, it became apparent that a friendship was developing between the dogs.

There are several unusual things about the next photo. We'd been told that Baxter (no longer his name) liked to sleep on beds. Because he didn't act like he was entitled to be there, we let him continue the practice. As long as a dog understands which beds belong to humans and that canines are allowed only by invitation, dogs are allowed on beds in our house. (I know, it's a subtle distinction, but it works for us.)

So unusual thing #1 is that there's a dog on the bed. Unusual thing #2 is that there are two dogs on the bed, because Ceilidh didn't previously sleep on the bed when there were humans around. We'd come home and find a warm spot, but if we tried to get her to be on the bed when we were there, she'd get up but then leave almost immediately. She now gets up a bit more often and, more interestingly, she stays longer. Whether or not the new pup is there.

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We worked on the new dog's new name: although he knew his old one (and being an owner-surrender, he'd likely been called by it for a while), he didn't seem like a Baxter to us. The name was too percussive. At one point we were tempted to call him Joie de Vivre, because if this dog has anything, he has enthusiasm and an optimistic approach to life (although that's a lousy call name and never made it past the messing-around-with-names stage).

After much deliberation, he is now

Tempest's River Tam o'Shanter

also known as Tam, Tam-tam, Tammer, Mr. T., and, in different situations, Tam-lamb and Tam-a-lam-a-ding-dong.

He and Ceilidh are getting along really well.

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This is more like what we had in mind.

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At the same time, Tam has turned out to be a good deal more of a handful than we expected.

His description was "mellow," and indeed he has his moments. On our first walk with him, the introductory one, he had excellent leash manners. He loves to nap with a friend, two-footed or four-footed. He's good company around the house. He's eager, but not over the top (well, not all the time). For herding dogs, this is usually phrased as "s/he has an off switch." He does have one. But apparently he hadn't revealed his full personality in his foster home, in which he didn't spend a long time. We think it takes him about three weeks to feel enough at home to reveal his true colors.

Qualities that he's started displaying since he joined us are: extreme athleticism (we're working on basic obedience, and then considering treibball); vast amounts of energy; serious pulling on the lead (after three weeks—my daughter says "it seemed like 300 walks"—of both of us leash-handlers working with other techniques, we broke down and got an Easy Walk harness, which makes all the difference in the world and which we'll wean him off later); and an extremely energetic chasing instinct (often called "prey drive"). While we would like to have another cat, it looks like we'd need to be very careful to introduce only an adult feline that was capable of putting such a dog in his place.

But we can work with all of those things. Over time. With basic personalities so everyone has a baseline of comfort to work from, the rest can be managed.

It's interesting to note that Ceilidh would not play around Jak. She wouldn't bring us her rope toy for a game of tug, or her ball for us to throw. With Tam, she does those things without a qualm. He's a little confused about this play thing—we're going to need to teach him about it, along with the other skills—but he doesn't get in her way.

Just last week, we received the HeRD of Wyoming calendar for 2014, and there is our new family member, lower left, as he looked at his foster home:

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And there he is again, lower right, as a representative of the month of October, also a photo by his fosters:

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With us, he's learning how to approach a dental chew-stick (he is happy to chew on it, as long as someone will hold it for him):

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He spent ten days in the Utah shelter, and then only a little over two weeks with his foster family. So when we got him, he had a few medical challenges left over from his previous life. He had bilateral ear infections and giardia, both now cleared, and was underweight. On the body-condition scale of 1 to 9—where 1 is skeletal and 9 is obese and 4 to 5 is a good, healthy place to be—he registered as a 2 at his rescue intake exam. His foster home fed him terrific quality food (as we're continuing to do), and our vet estimated him as at a 3 when we got him. He's gotten up another .4 pound since he came to us. His teeth need cleaning and likely one extraction, but we won't do that until he's a bit more secure. It was bad enough to have to treat both ears twice a day right off the bat.

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In between romps around the neighborhood on the harness; joining Ceilidh in protecting the back yard from squirrels; and going to obedience class and alternately being a star pupil and a total overstimulated ditz, he's resting and gaining his strength.

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It looks like we may be part of a nascent treibball group in our area, including Tam, Ceilidh (who can do treibball despite her arthritis), and (see above) Skid, plus a couple of others.

More updates to come, I'm sure, as the canine future unfolds.

This is how our chosen family, fur and otherwise, is right now: none of us is anywhere near perfect, but we're all getting along with each other's quirks just fine. That's all it takes. And it's no small thing.

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4 Responses

  1. It is so wonderful to read about this sort of situation, where you are so prepared to put the happiness of dogs and cats before anything else (I have a friend in Dartmoor who is the same with horses). I wish it wasn’t so rare. Such lovely stories about your dogs and how they come to visit them.

  2. Thank you for this post. I needed to read it, and it did my heart good. Life is such a fascinating series of events, and I loved reading about your evolving fur family.

  3. Thanks for reading, and Im glad it did your heart good!

    Tam has gained .6 pound since he joined us. Hes within easy reach of patting just about 24 hours a day (except when he goes out back to let us know how the yard is doing).

    And Ceilidh continues to think hes just fine.

  4. What an interesting post! I love Border Collies and we have a red and white dog called Dan at the moment. He’s the 3rd collie we have had to date – and hopefully won’t be the last. Have a great Christmas.
    Best wishes,
    Rachel Berry – The Deerfold Spinner
    Herefordshire UK

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