The Dog That Started It All (or The Hardest Part of Love)

23 Mar

Up till this point, I have only briefly mentioned my first foster dog. Lately, several people have been asking me about it, and I think it’s time I talk about it.

Nearly a year ago, I decided to become a foster parent, so I got Lucy leashed up and went to the local shelter. I wanted Lucy to be there for obvious reasons: any dog I took in had to get along with her. That was pretty much my only requirement. We met three dogs. The first was too dominant. The second, too shy and stand-off-ish. The third, well, as “Goldilocks” as it sounds, she seemed just right! It was settled that I would leave her at the shelter overnight, and pick her up the next day.

Lucy & Foxy

Small disclaimer here: Foxy is not her real name. I have decided, for the sake of all involved, to change and/or omit names as much as possible for this post. My intention in telling this story is not to offend, upset or insult anyone, but simply to tell a story that I think needs to be told.

When I first got Foxy, she was 6 months old. At about 25 lbs, she was truly a pocket pittie, probably mixed with some sort of hound breed. She had been abandoned on the street and was found by a family who, even though they couldn’t keep her, cared enough to surrender her to a shelter where they knew she would be well taken care of. The shelter put her through the basic rounds: vaccinations, spay, microchip, etc. She had just been spayed several days before I met her, so she had to wear a t-shirt knotted around her (when not wearing her e-collar) – I thought it was adorable, really.


Well, I quickly realized that Foxy wasn’t quite as perfect as Lucy – nor was I expecting her to be. On our walks, when she would so much as smell, let alone hear or see, another dog, she would start barking at it. A pittie-looking dog with hound bark? Bad combo, right? Obviously, I kept her as far from other dogs as possible while on leash, but I simply couldn’t figure it out. At home, she and Lucy were best buds: sharing toys, beds, they would even walk beautifully together while on leash. But with any other dog while on leash, she became so fearful.

I found out the term for this issue was called being “leash reactive.” And in many instances, this is something that can be counter-conditioned. Just watch this video from Dr. Sophia Yin:

But in New York City, the streets are so unpredictable. There was no controlled environment for me to safely to put these practices into effect on my own. Regardless, within a couple of days, I was contacted by a potential adopter. I was sad, because Foxy was getting along so well in my home and I was quickly developing a relationship with her, but so thrilled that Foxy could possibly get a family of her own and I could help save another dog. The adopters came over later that day to meet her. I was very frank about Foxy’s issues, and explained that she would need considerable training. Because of the immediate connection they felt with her, and their being financially stable, they told me they were ready to commit to working with Foxy and make her feel safe and secure through love and training. After only six days, Foxy was moving on. I sent along with her some instructions, as well as recommendations for dog walkers, groomers, etc.


A week later, the dog walker they had hired (one of my recommendations) called. Foxy was being returned to the shelter immediately; there had been an incident. Over dinner, I was given the whole story: the walker was running late from a previous walk. They had a choice to either let Foxy wait, despite not being fully house-broken yet, or attempt socialization and bring the current dog to Foxy’s parents’ home and walk the two together. In my book, the wrong choice was made. The walker introduced the two dogs indoors off-leash, and then, after a bit, leashed them both up and went to leave.

As they were walking out the door, the worst happened. To make it as simple as possible, suffice it to say that it involved dog teeth on human skin & flesh, significant damage to walls and doors, and sufficiently terrified owners. It was a disaster, for lack of a better word.

Foxy lived at the shelter for three weeks, and underwent many behavioral evaluations. Options were weighed, but nothing seemed certain for her anymore. I strongly felt that what happened was not her fault, and Foxy deserved another chance to find the owners that were right for her. She needed someone in a suburb, with a yard for her to run and play, and enough resources to help her learn not to be afraid anymore. So, Foxy came back to live with me and Lucy, and it was like nothing had changed.

Lucy & Foxy

Playtime interspersed with naps interspersed with training sessions. I adjusted my schedule so that I could take Foxy outside during times when there were not a lot of people and dogs out. We walked a special route where I knew we would not encounter many dogs, and I was diligent about keeping a watch out so that I could prevent issues before they could develop. Foxy always wore a gentle leader head harness and a second leash attached to her collar. I had control over her every move, and she was happy for it – I showered her in treats from the time a leash went on until they both came off.

In the meantime, I reached out to everyone I could. I emailed bloggers (this is when I met Love and a Six-Foot Leash, who were more helpful to me than they could ever really know), I called and emailed professional trainers requesting free or low-cost training sessions, and reached out to several other shelters and animal sanctuaries to see if they had a better fit for Foxy than anyone in New York City could. No other shelter would even consider her – she had a bite history, after all. Only one trainer offered to help, and their idea of that was to “test her threshold” by taking her near a dog park. Not even the renowned trainer affiliated with the shelter would come over for 15 minutes.

Lucy & Foxy spooning

I felt exactly like so many dogs we hear stories about – abandoned. It seemed like the entire animal welfare community, for one reason or another, had completely turned their back on me and Foxy. But I kept at it – our schedule remained the way it was, and we continued to work as much as we could, but not much progress was being made. Then, it happened again.

We were out on a walk, and somewhere on our block, a dog was in a window…barking. It’s not like I saw a dog far away down the block and could simply cross the street. There was no escape, and Foxy was quickly spiraling out of control. I got her into a somewhat-secluded spot where I attempted to regain her focus with high value rewards (the typical fare: hot dogs, cheese, turkey chunks), but nothing was helping. I was so concerned on getting Foxy to focus on me, I didn’t notice the woman walking toward us, but Foxy did. She only caught the hem of the woman’s dress, thankfully. But a horrible image flashed through my mind: what if that were a child and not a dress?

Lucy & Foxy

My first foster had been a complete failure, and not in the “foster failure” way that we all hope for. What I dreaded from the start had become the reality: I had to bring Foxy to be euthanized. The danger she posed to me and my neighborhood (since no one else would take her) was too great. There was no way around it. Being the only humans in her life, Jennifer & I had to take her to the vet ourselves. Even though it was something I never imagined doing, I knew it was the right thing. In their post “Goodnight, sweet Blue,” Love and a Six-Foot Leash said it best, “no matter how much you want to help, you can’t fix every dog.” I couldn’t fix Foxy, and no one else was going to try. So the only thing to do was to say, “Goodnight, sweet Foxy.”

There was another reason I had to make this decision: the reputation of the pit bull breed. Would having a leash reactive dog in midtown Manhattan really affect change in the perception of these dogs? Would adopting Foxy out again to a family that couldn’t handle her issues be a positive influence on people? I wish I could have created the perfect world for Foxy to live in for the rest of her life, but that’s not reality. We have the cards we’re dealt, and we can only do so much with them.

Our last night

When I got home, I took Lucy out for her walk. When we were done, I collapsed on the floor, hysterically crying. Despite knowing I had done the “right thing,” I felt so wrong. It took a little while for me to come back out of the black hole I dug for myself, but I grew to understand why Foxy’s story had to unfold the way that it did. And then Lola Bird came into my life, and I realized my fostering journey was very far from over…


17 Responses to “The Dog That Started It All (or The Hardest Part of Love)”

  1. barbarajkennedy1014 March 23, 2012 at 10:20 AM #

    I appreciate the courage it took to share that experience, and admire the fact that you realized you go on and help many others.I had a similar happening with my own dog, who I had gotten as a puppy.I know how difficult that situation is.
    Keep up your good work!

  2. Diane McCornack March 23, 2012 at 10:37 AM #

    What a difficult decision and one that I’ve had to make for a foster dog too. It still makes my heart ache when I think about it even though I knew it was the only answer at the time. Good for you for sticking it out and bringing hope to lots of dogs since her. In a sense what you learned from your experience with her has made you better at being a foster parent and in that sense she is helping too.

  3. Two Grads March 23, 2012 at 11:10 AM #

    Crying. I am so happy you finally decided to share this story. I know you did the right thing. A leash reactive dog is a scary thing, we know all too well…you need time and energy and focus. I am so sorry.

  4. Christina Berry March 23, 2012 at 11:13 AM #

    This story breaks my heart for so many reasons, but I do believe you did the right thing. The story could’ve ended so many other ways, and none of them would’ve been good for Foxy or the breed.

    Bless your heart. I’m so thankful for good-hearted people like you. Keep up the great work!


  5. TwoKittiesOnePittie March 23, 2012 at 11:27 AM #

    This story breaks my heart, and I’m so sorry you went through that experience. It reminds me of what I went through with Scotty ( It’s such a terrible feeling to want to save a dog, and to try so hard, only for it to not work. But you did the absolute best you could, and you can at least know that you gave Foxy love when she needed it the most. Thank you so much for sharing this piece, and for continuing to foster.

  6. Karen March 23, 2012 at 11:42 AM #

    Thank you so much for being brave enough to share this story. It’s heartbreaking but I admire your strength and know the pit bill community is lucky to have someone like you.

  7. Tucker's Mom March 23, 2012 at 12:15 PM #

    Thank you for doing everything you could to help Foxy. I’m glad you were finally able to share the story, and hopefully in the sharing you will be able to find a bit of peace about what happened. You did your best, which is more than most people do. And at least while she was with you, Foxy knew what it was like to be loved and feel safe.

  8. Hannah March 23, 2012 at 2:07 PM #

    I just read this post in a coffee shop and started bawling. It’s such a sad story but an important one to share.

  9. Of Pit Bulls and Patience March 23, 2012 at 9:42 PM #

    Thank you for sharing your story. I’m sure it was really tough to find the right words to do the situation justice. If only love were enough to fix anything- Foxy would certainly still be here. Bravo for continuing to foster- many people would not be able to do that,

  10. Mimi & Cabana March 23, 2012 at 9:46 PM #

    It’s so easy to share the feel-good, “successful” stories, but so difficult to share the sad and vulnerable ones. Like the other commenters, I so appreciate your sharing this. What’s most amazing is that you went on to foster more dogs. That makes this experience, in so many ways, a true success story.

  11. prettie little pittie March 25, 2012 at 2:13 PM #

    Gosh, this was a tough, tough story to read and I don’t envy your position at all. That being said, you made the correct, yet difficult decision to keep everyone (even strangers) safe. Fostering is never easy and faced with a volatile situation like this is gut-wrenching. I’m so sorry this happened, but grateful you shared the story and your reasoning to help others in a similar situation.

  12. Emily March 25, 2012 at 10:50 PM #

    Thank you for sharing – I imagine it must have been awful for you. I know the feeling when you try so hard to work on a dog’s issues and no one is willing to step forward to help you out. I went through that with my first foster, Ginger Rogers, but luckily, I eventually found a trainer who was willing to help me. I don’t know what I would have done otherwise. Hugs to you…and kudos that you continued fostering despite such a sad first experience.

  13. Crystal Galloway Arnott March 26, 2012 at 1:17 PM #

    I appreciate your sharing this. I work in an animal shelter and it is so hard to put time, effort and love into an animal-only to realize that you can’t save them.

    Take solace in the fact that however short the time was, at least “foxy” was loved by you and was able to experience a family with you. So many other dogs don’t get that opportunity.

  14. Pretty Pitty March 26, 2012 at 5:54 PM #

    Thank you so much for sharing. I had a very similar experience with a foster dog. Tasha wasn’t our first foster but she was one of the first four or five dogs we placed when my husband and I started doing private rescue. She was a good dog that I (unintentionally) placed in a home that just was not the right home for her. It was a placement that was bound for disaster from the start.

    Looking back over the years I can see now where we went wrong. The warning signs were all there up front that while this was a nice dog and a nice family they simply were never going to be a good match for each other. I know the mistake was not intentional but the fact is that a good dog was placed in a bad (for her) situation and had to be euthanized because I made a poor choice. I’ll have to live with that fact forever.

    I know for myself it is easy to dwell on the failures and forget that there have been countless placements in the ten years since that have gone absolutely perfectly. It seems so insignificant to call it a “learning experience” and move on but at the end of the day what else can one do? I don’t have a blog but I do tell the story often to those I meet who are new to rescue to say that A) you are going to make mistakes and B) somehow once you make them you have to learn from them and try to move on.

    Hopefully when I meet my end Tasha will be at the bridge willing to forgive me and tell me that she appreciated me giving it my best even if I was too ignorant to do the job right. I’m sure she will be as their capacity to forgive and forget far outweighs that of us poor, pitiful humans.

  15. pititpwasson March 27, 2012 at 8:17 AM #

    The pit bull I fostered was very reactive to other dogs when I got her. It was a nightmare at first. Totally loving dog, totally wonderful in the house but difficult to walk on a leash and would LOSE HER MIND if she saw another dog (particularly if the dog was small and yappy). Luckily I lived in a pretty remote part of Queens so there weren’t actually many other dogs. Fast forward one year — I had to move to Brooklyn to a neighborhood full of dogs. Fortunately because I have a flexible schedule I am able to walk her at off hours away from other dogs and the trainer who runs the rescue has given me CONSTANT advice, reinforcement, training ideas…but there have been incidents, and at points I wondered if it was even going to BE possible to keep her. (For a time I couldn’t GET a dog walker…she was just too difficult, and eventually she had to wear a muzzle in order to be walked by someone else). After a year of BAT training she is much better, but I NEVER would have made it here without the support and help from the rescue, (and frankly, she going to need this training for the rest of her life). She’ll never be an easy outdoor dog but I adopted her, and I just ADORE her.
    It makes me so angry to read how little support you were getting. I understand that rescues have to prioritize…but still…
    That being said…it’s true that not every dog CAN be saved. NYC is a tough place for a reactive dog. SO many people, SO many other dogs. What you did was wonderful, and generous, and not many would have the strength to do it. Thanks for sharing that.


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    […] And to the very, very sad. […]

  2. Wallace: A Synonym for Inspiration « That Touch of Pit… - September 20, 2012

    […] book but in real life as well, is that every dog deserves a chance. I learned this first hand with my very first foster, “Foxy.” Despite her serious behavioral issues, I couldn’t give up on her easily. Until I realized […]

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