Tala’s Story: Lessons From a Mean Dog (Part Two)

Read Part One first…

Come Christmastime, I took Tala with me to North Carolina to visit my father. He’s the reason I have Aussies to begin with, and he adopted my very first foster dog, Tucker. I tried to convince him to adopt Tala, since there was plenty of reason to assume she was in fact Tucker’s mom (same county, I was just full of crap). He didn’t buy it, but we had a blast anyways. Tala enjoyed the snow and she was finally at the point where she could be completely off leash without issue. She still hated to be grabbed, and she snapped at me in the den when she had an accident and I jumped up with a “NO!” and went to put her out. Belly up, on the floor, I forgot about her little game and grabbed her. Whoops. This vacation, however, was a definite sign of our much better relationship. She trusted me, and she didn’t want to leave me.

100_8546

January brought heartworm treatment, finally. She still hadn’t gained much weight, but we opted to go ahead. Tala was such a trooper; she never complained, never acted the least bit sick or in pain with the injections. Two months later we had a clean bill of health, and a month after treatment, our little blue bug weighed 36 pounds! Tala learned how to play with toys, and she loved tossing a tennis ball to herself. She no longer needed a crate to sleep in, and spent her nights on the rug by my bed with Rugby.

Okay, I knew this would happen. Here’s where I’m going to start typing through my tears. Curse my womanly emotions.

100_8687We were nearing the year mark with Tala in foster care. My hatred for this little dog had turned a 180 and blossomed into full-fledged, unconditional love. It was more than just me caring about her, and more than just me liking her. I loved that dog with all of my heart. I remember one morning laying in bed and looking down to where she and Rugby rested on the rug together, grooming each other affectionately. I loved her, Rugby loved her, and I wanted nothing more than to keep her forever – whether forever was six months or three years. However, I was in undergrad, had two dogs already and couldn’t logically commit to a third. So I kept her up for adoption and fought back the tears every time I thought about her leaving.

It was nothing short of a miracle when my rep told me about a repeat adopter in North Carolina that only adopted senior dogs. They were interested in Tala. To date, nobody had been interested in my now eleven-year-old scrappy Aussie girl.  I had lots of mixed emotions, but they came down to South Carolina for a visit. There wasn’t much to it – she was my dog, and didn’t care too much about visitors, but they liked her and so we arranged a weekend for me to drive to their place to see how Tala did with their other two Aussies and the cows.

Tala did wonderfully, of course. I was so happy and so sad when the adopters said they would like to keep her. My success was also my worst nightmare; I had to say goodbye to a foster that was just short of a “heart-dog” in my life. I stood there in their kitchen, choking on my words and doing a really crappy job of holding back my tears (exactly like right now, thank goodness there’s nobody around to see me and wonder why the heck I’m sitting in the back of the law school auditorium crying). The sweet couple smiled and said they would give me some time with Tala, and as they closed the door behind them I sunk to the ground, wrapped my arms around her little neck and bawled. I cried like baby for fifteen minutes before I gathered myself enough to stand up and walk out to shake hands with the adopters, and thank them for giving my sweet girl the opportunity to have a great rest of her life. Then I left, and I cried the whole way home.

dogs 023

Tala lived for two more years on her farm in North Carolina. She was pampered and adored, and could not have asked for a better “retirement” home. She passed away last spring; she had developed adenocarcinoma in her mammary glands – probably from years of puppy rearing – and succumbed to the cancer in her sleep one evening. Of all the heartbreaking calls I received last year concerning my foster dogs, hers was by and far the worst. I sat on the back steps and wept hard and long. I knew she was old, and I knew I would get the call eventually, but I was heartbroken all the same.

dogs 009

In the year that I fostered that scrawny little blue dog, I learned more about fostering and rescue than many people learn in decades. I learned, first, that patience is not just a virtue – it’s a necessity. Dogs will learn, and they will adapt. There will always be foster dogs that are more difficult than others. The key to success with these “project dogs” is to never give up. They feel your frustration and animosity towards them, and it hurts them and makes them anxious. On the flip side, they can also feel your resolve and your patience. It may take weeks or months, but when you and the dog do finally reach an understanding, there’s nothing that can break that bond.

Second, I learned that the dogs that touch our hearts are not the ones that we need or that we want or like, they’re the ones that need us. And we don’t get to choose which dogs need us – they just appear, and it’s up to us to recognize their need and be the rescuer they’ve been waiting for. I’m not religious, but I do believe that things happen for a reason. Tala came into my life to make me a better person, and a better rescuer. I might have saved her life, but I owe her more than I could ever repay. She is the dog I think of when I’m frustrated with a foster. She is a memory that makes me smile and laugh, and she is the reason that I do what I do. She didn’t deserve the life she lived, but damn if she was going to take the fire out of her. If only humans could learn to live with such positivity and resiliency.

Rescue is hard. Fostering is hard. Balancing school, work, and life in general with this mission of dog rescue is incredibly hard. The heartbreak when we lose a dog that we loved so very much, even when it wasn’t even “our” dog, is excruciating. It’s always worth it, however, because every dog and the lessons they impart during their time with us makes us better human beings.

100_8725

Tala’s Story: Lessons From a Mean Dog (Part One)

This is a long one, so I’ve broken it into two parts. 

Those of us in rescue know – there is always that one dog that opens your eyes and shows you exactly what you’ve been missing. They may appear early on in our rescue days, or they may not surface until we “think” we’re veteran rescue sages, just to show us that we really don’t know as much as we think we do.

To say I’ve fostered a lot of dogs is rather the understatement. I mean, I can’t even remember all the dogs I’ve fostered. That’s most because, as the “boss”, I’ve always felt it was my job to take most of the rescue burden. I also have never felt completely comfortable asking others to foster dogs that I haven’t met and evaluated myself. Anyways – lots of dogs, which means lots of lessons. Each dog is a lesson of their own, as each dog has a different personality and set of needs.

One dog, though, was a step above the rest when it came to being a professor of the fostering art. She was a scrawny little blue merle female Aussie, found stray in Oconee County, South Carolina (better known as Upstate BFE). This little dog weighed 28 pounds, and I could fit my hand around her waist and probably pick her up by her spine if I wanted to. At that point in my rescue career, she was the worst case I had ever seen. She was 9-10 years old, had very obviously been pregnant recently, and had heartworms and every type of intestinal bacteria you could imagine. Her teeth were all broken and/or worn down to nothingness, her legs bowed, and she smelled like a music festival port-a-potty. I named her Tala, which meant “wolf” in Sioux.

IMG_9789a

Getting Tala home was the easy part. Being Tala’s foster mom, not so much. She was nervous indoors and paced constantly. Wire crates were out of the question, but she tolerated a plastic one well enough unless she knew she was being ignored. She was a trash-dog and counter-surfed, terrorized my cats if they didn’t stand up for themselves, and was rather overly enthusiastic with puppy managing. Somewhere in the archives I have a video that basically consists of me saying, “Tala, stop tackling the puppy,” over and over again. That being said, she got along fine with my older dogs and fosters.

Tala was sick – probably the sickest dog I’ve ever fostered, even now (with the exception of parvo puppies).  I mentioned her bacterial infections; it is because of Tala that I learned what giardia and coccidia smell like. All over the living room. I’ve never been a weak-stomached person, but I literally had to hold my breath, run in and wipe up a spot, then run back out to breathe or I would have vomited. Tala’s heartworms were also severe, and it took almost eight months to put the four pounds on her little frame that the vet requested before starting the immiticide treatment.

100_8457

While Tala’s condition taught me a lot about foster care (she was my first senior and my first heartworm dog), it was her attitude that taught me the most. You see, Tala was not always a very nice dog. In fact, she was quite the nasty bitch when she wanted to be. About a month or two into fostering her, I hated her. I absolutely despised that dog. She was cunning and manipulative, and she was not afraid to use scare tactics to get what she wanted. Her favorite thing to do was to slip out the door between my legs and take off down the street through the neighborhood. I would chase her, and when I finally got close enough she would flop on the ground, belly up in “okay, I submit” position. Naturally, my first reaction was to reach down and grab her by the collar to pull her up and walk her back home. NOPE. That little shit would bite the crap out of me the minute I touched her collar. She waited, goading me into making a mistake. Fortunately, she had no teeth so I was never hurt, but still – nobody likes to be bitten. So, this turned into me standing over her nudging her with my foot when she would belly up, and she would just lay there, four legs stretched out in the air, not moving a damn muscle. I would eventually get a leash around her neck and she would pop up, happy as a lark with herself for playing such a great game of, “Who’s really the boss?” One day, I got so fed up with her I just walked back home and told her to figure her own shit out. Of course, the game was over then, and she rose from the ground and followed me on home with no problem. That was the end of her running off, if I wasn’t going to chase her, then it wasn’t worth it and she needed to find a new game.

100_8474

As quick as it is to explain, it really took months for Tala and I to reach our understandings. Meanwhile, I was begging my rescue representative (I was nothing more than a young, green foster at this point) to move her to another foster. I would take anything if someone else would take Tala. I was fed up with her, we didn’t get along, and nobody was happy. My rep said no, however, and told me I needed to stick it through. Old dogs are different, she said, and we just needed time to figure each other out. Tala had been through a lot and needed to learn to trust me. I very reluctantly complied, and kept trucking on with this bat-shit crazy little bitch dog.

Stay tuned for part two…