Monday, August 29, 2011

Notes from Home - 8.22.2008

One of the reasons we were able to adopt such a young dog (still a puppy really) was the fact that Jan could be home with her after a heart-attack and subsequent bypass surgery sent him in to early semi-retirement.

I confess to being a little jealous that he got to spend his days with her while I trudged off to the office so he offered up little notes throughout the day to fill me in on things and all of Bella's antics. It didn't take long for me to realize I had the easy part of this dog-raising equation.

I envision these brief little interludes being an on-going feature of the blog. I hope you enjoy his reflections on "Bringing up Bella" as much as I do.

August 22, 2008:

Remember how you said that Bella couldn't get up on our bed by herself?

You were wrong.

Friday, August 26, 2011

The stair master (mistress?)

It stands to reason that a dog who has lived their entire life outside in a tractor-trailer park probably hasn't encountered stairs before. This, believe it or not, never actually occurred to us until we headed downstairs to watch TV shortly after bringing Bella home and realized she had no idea of what to do with them. She stood at the top of the stairs doing a little dance, wanting to be with us but absolutely baffled about how to maneuver the long, scary drop in front of her.

She was small enough back then that we were able to pick her up and bring her downstairs with us, and she was pretty quick figuring out how to get back up, but that option was only going to last us so long. We thought she just needed some encouragement to go down but sitting on the top steps with treats garnered only a wary peek around the corner at the "abyss". Stepping off into the unknown just wasn't going to happen.

After a few unsuccessful attempts to coax her down the whole staircase, it was time to brainstorm an alternate plan. We began carrying her most of the way and putting her on one of the bottom steps. Oh hey, look, that worked. A dozen or so trips down the stairs to plop her an ever-increasing distance from the bottom and finally, one day, she just did it.

I wasn't watching at that exact moment but I heard some noise and then a single bark. Wait, what? I went over to the stairs and there was Bella at the bottom looking up at me just as proud as could be. Lots of "Good girl!"s and "Yay Bella!"s brought her scampering back up the stairs before she promptly ran back down again. And then back up. And down again. And up. And down.

12 times. Yes, 12. (I counted.)

It's almost impossible to describe how it felt to watch her do this - conquering something which had so frightened her. She absolutely beamed with her new-found courage.

It was an early lesson about "training" a scaredy-dog: every behavior, every "trick", every lesson starts three steps before what they tell you in the books. Before you can teach a scaredy-dog to come, you need to teach her to trust. Before you can teach her to jump, you need to teach her the pole won't be used as a weapon. Before she can tackle the staircase, she needs to tackle a step. And before you give up on her, you need to look in at yourself.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Sato 101

Bella is a Sato. Rescued Satos

Sato is Spanish slang, a slur really, for "street dog". They are dogs left to fend for themselves in the cities and on the beaches of several Caribbean islands, most notably Puerto Rico. Often found starving and infested with parasites, they are dogs who have been abandoned by their owners, neglected by the community and abused by people who consider them pests.

While Sato doesn't mean mixed breed and there are plenty of pure bred dogs among the thousands of Satos on the island, pure bred dogs are considered a status symbol and are not quite as routinely "thrown away" as the mixed breed dogs. Since sterilization hasn't been a priority on the island, intact Satos are abundant and a major contributor to the over-population problem.

As a result, mixed breed Satos have a tendency towards similar features after years of breeding without human intervention: they are generally small to medium sized dogs (usually 35 lbs or less) with big ears and long and slender snouts. They are also very smart, charming dogs who have learned how to survive, many learning how to "work a room" coaxing tourists and islanders into offering scraps of food that help them stay alive.

My earliest experience with Satos dates back to 2001 when I was volunteering at Buddy Dog Humane Society in Sudbury, MA, a partner shelter of Puerto Rican rescue group, Save a Sato. Founded in 1996, Save a Sato rescues dogs off the streets and beaches, nurses them back to health and sends them to partner shelters in the states. New England has a very low rate of stray dogs due to extensive spay/neuter efforts over the years. Our shelters had space, our families had desire and the dogs of Puerto Rico had need: a long and enduring partnership ensued.

Save a Sato is not the only rescue group in Puerto Rico, in fact, a handful of organizations on the island are working hard to save the dogs but their task is daunting. It is estimated that there are over 100,000 stray dogs on the island and cultural attitudes and lack of governmental support have been hindrances in efforts to promote low-cost spay and neuter programs for the island dogs. Campaigns to raise public awareness and change the laws are ongoing. Progress is being made but much work still needs to be done.

Please see the links below for more detailed information about the hardships these dogs endure and ways you can help.

Rescues in Puerto Rico:
  • Save a Sato - The first group I knew of helping dogs on the island. They have been rescuing Satos for over 15 years. A very nice profile of the group with links to news articles and an interview with then outreach coordinator Twig Mowatt can be found at this link: "Shelter Spotlight: Save-a-Sato in Puerto Rico"
  • Amigos de los Animales - Not a physical shelter, ADLA still rescues and rehabs both companion and farm animals in need. With a focus on working to change laws and minds, their commitment is to creating a more humane Puerto Rico. They are featured in this article "Dead Dog Beach" from 2009.
  • Island Dog, Inc. - Offering low-cost spay/neuter and vaccination clinics as well as humane education programs, Island Dog is working to promote responsible pet ownership on Puerto Rico as well as St. John, Vieques and Culebra.
  • PetsAlivePR - A relatively new group affiliated with PetsAlive, a no-kill sanctuary in New York, and armed with financial support from Sidewalk Angels Foundation, PetsAlivePR is building a sanctuary "Bed and Breakfast" on the island where volunteers can stay and help care for the dogs. They also send dogs to the states for adoption.
For more information:
See also:
  • 100,000 - the movie. We are still hopeful that "100,000" the movie will be released in the states soon. (Google can translate the page for you if your Spanish is not what it was in high school. :)

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Monday, August 15, 2011

First impressions and "winning the lottery"

Bella has a home.
Right from the start, we did pretty much everything wrong with Bella.

We should have known she would be afraid of car rides, having never been on one in her 4 or 5 months of existence. Luckily, she was small enough to ride in my lap, which was sort of necessary since she really wouldn't leave it, and the shelter was close enough to home to make that style of riding possible. (Car barriers have since been purchased and Bella has learned to sit nicely in the back.) That first ride home, though, she clung to me with those still puppy-like daggers we call toe-nails and all her might.

We all survived the experience.

As we pulled up to our home on its wooded lot, I wondered what Bella's perspective on this whole crazy experience was. She had been plucked from the streets of Puerto Rico, nursed back to health and promptly shipped off to a shelter in the states with lots of dogs and noise and unfamiliar people - and kept inside no less! Now she was zooming down the street in some moving cage she couldn't escape with those nice folks she liked so much at the shelter - but what were they going to do to her? Where was she going now? Couldn't she just go back to her rescuer's backyard pen and play with the other puppies?

When we pulled in and stopped the car, we carefully pried Bella's toenails out of my arms and thighs and brought her in the house. Bella had never been in a house before and we didn't know what to expect. Of course the first thing she did was pee on the sunroom floor. Thank you tile flooring. Time to put that potty training plan into action.

She seemed quite flustered and a little overwhelmed - we gave her a little water which she wouldn't drink, offered some food which she didn't eat, tried to pet her, yeah, not really into that, thanks. And then it struck me. The note that came with her from her rescuer in Puerto Rico mentioned "She is a little shy, loves to play with other puppies." I got into a human version of puppy play-bow and voila! Bella the playful puppy emerged.

After that her tail didn't stop wagging as she discovered each and every one of Beau's old toys (as well as socks, teddy bears and pretty much anything that resided at or below Bella level...) She played like a maniac running full speed and then "pouncing" on whatever happened to catch her interest (most often me or, more precisely, my hair which she decided to use as a tug toy - ouchie!) It was such a treat to watch her as she continued to explore and gain confidence in her new surroundings. I think she realized she finally 'hit the jackpot'.

It's amazing how resilient dogs are in their trust. We surely don't deserve it.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Don't try this at home.

(Or why you shouldn't get snookered by the first cute dog you see at the shelter.)

In light of my first post, I would like to go on record that bringing home the first sweet dog who bats her eyelashes at you in the shelter is not usually a good idea. When you bring a dog into your life, you are taking responsibility for the life of that dog and you should do your research beforehand so you are prepared to honor that commitment come what may. Here are a few tips before you fall in love with that doggie in the window:

Sam - the first dog in my life.
I'm pretty sure she existed before I did.

Assess your lifestyle. Are you a couch potato? If so, do yourself a favor and don't bring home a Border Collie - rescue a Greyhound instead. Are you always on the go, running, hiking or biking? An English Bulldog is not going to be able to keep up but there are a dozen breeds in the AKC Sporting Group that will think you are their dream come true!

Does size matter? In some cases, like the Greyhound mentioned above, large dogs can live quite comfortably in relatively small spaces. Compatible activity vs. energy levels are important but the reality is a Newfoundland is going to take up a lot of space in a studio apartment. Additionally, vocal dogs (Beagles) and guard dogs (Mastiffs) can make living in an apartment complex, um, well, complex.

Talk to the shelter staff. Most have experience in placing the right dog with the right family. They also know the personality and temperament of the dogs they have. They'll know if a particular dog is good with cats or kids and will guide you toward an animal that will fit in with your individual family needs.

Consider a senior dog. Have a busy work schedule that keeps you away from home for several hours a day? Don't have time for housebreaking or obedience training? A senior dog may be the answer for you. Labs have a reputation for not "growing up" for at least 2 - 3 years. But considered a senior at just 7 years old, they are finally ready to appreciate both snuggling on the couch and taking long walks on the beach with you for many years to come.

Before Bella charmed us at the shelter, Jan and I had already discussed at some length what we would be looking for in our next dog - a small to medium sized, mixed breed rescue with short hair. Preferably black. Most people will have a more particular list of requirements, but these were ours and the first dog that batted her eyelashes at me just happened to meet them. We weren't specifically looking for a crazy dog with abandonment issues but we were informed and committed, if not necessarily prepared, so home she came.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Sunday, August 7, 2011

So who's this Bella anyway and what's so special about bringing her up?

This is Bella. This picture was taken the first night we brought her home. The best introduction to her I can offer is this story I wrote back in 2008 in response to Janine Allen's "I Rescued A Human Today".

My Bella Saved Me

I lost my 14 y.o. Lab in May and I thought I would never love again - it was too painful. He was a very special dog and a very, very special part of my life. He was there with me when no one else was, he protected me from one who would want to do me harm, I never had to teach him "Come" because he was never "away". Losing him nearly ruined me.

My husband suggested we consider adopting a dog in August because he was "tired" of seeing me cry in the backyard where Beau and I used to sit. I wasn't sure I was up for it. I wasn't sure I wanted another dog - ever. I couldn't bear the pain. But we agreed to just 'go look' at some shelter dogs. We had been to a couple of shelters by the time we went to Buddy Dog Humane Society. I walked through the kennels thinking they were all cute but that none of them were quite 'mine'.

Then I came to one pen where this small, young dog cowered, curled in a little ball at the back of her cage. The name on her sign said "Bella", she was a Sato (street dog) from Puerto Rico. I knelt down and whispered her name. She wiggled her way to me and then, just as in Janine's story, she would tell the story saying "I shoved my shoulder and side of my head up against the bars to comfort her. Gentle fingertips caressed my neck; she was desperate for companionship."

That is exactly what she did - she leaned her shoulder against the chain link gate, kissing my fingers and pawing at my hands. The shelter staff said she had never done that and in fact, they had to go in to the back of her cage again to catch her and then carry her out. She would not walk on a leash (she wouldn't walk at all - just huddled, trembling at every sight and sound.) She came home with us the very next day.

Sometimes I still cry missing my beautiful Beau but every time I do, Bella comes and buries her head in my chest, kissing my fingers and looking to play. She makes me smile just thinking about her. She has seen anger, abuse and hunger and she has been afraid but these are all in her past now. As little as she is, she tries to protect me but I promise to protect her. I promise she will never starve again and most of all I promise no one will ever lift a hand to her again.

She saved me. She let me love again.


So thanks for stopping by for a read. Bella's come a long way from those first days. She's not so little any more. She's also smart as a whip, full of mischief and mostly still scared of her own shadow. But she's still my little sweetheart.