Gracie was curled up on the couch, probably exhausted from the trip, and confused about why she was in a room with strangers. She was such a sweet angel, my birthday foster, and just minutes after we got her home we were about to lose her.
Gracie was no one’s first choice as a foster dog, much less a forever dog. She had been in foster care for 9 months and her foster mommy was unable to continue caring for her. Karuna Bully Rescue decided Gracie’s rehoming was a priority and froze all rescue intake until the situation was resolved. The problem was, this girl required some extra care, she had a bad case of anxiety.
A few days earlier I had decided I was ready to start fostering again. It was either foster Gracie, or go through the long process of being approved by another rescue. So, being the impatient person that I am, I decided to inquire about her. She was fearful of men and unfamiliar dogs, and usually reacted loudly to close contact with them.
I remember scrolling through her photos, her ears looked different in every shot. Sometimes they were floppy curious, other times one stood up like she was part radar device; they were very animated and quickly became my favorite thing about her.
When I told Nick about her he agreed to take on the challenge with me. Nick is a go-with-the-flow kinda guy, so I knew he’d be on board, just like I knew Gracie would not have any man-hate issues with him; animals just naturally trust Nick, it’s a gift he has. Nevertheless, we both went to meet Gracie, just in case.
It was only 50 degrees, but in March that may as well be summer. It felt amazing to be outside in nothing but a hoodie. A cool breeze came in off the Long Island Sound and the few clouds in the sky soared over our heads as we got out of the car.
Jen was sitting up against a tree on the grass, and Gracie sat in between her legs. Two of Jen’s friends came along too, and they sat on each side of her.
Gracie wasn’t ecstatic to meet us, but she didn’t freak out either, and she gladly took our treats. Nick and I sat down in the grass and completed the circle surrounding Gracie.
We all hung out for a couple of hours. Jen showed me a tube of cream cheese and explained how she used it to instantly reward Gracie as soon as she sees something scary. Gracie only barked once while we were in the park, it was at a guy about 100 feet away. It wasn’t bad, or crazy, nothing like what I expected from what everyone had prepared me for. This would be easy!
Jen started loading bags and bags of Gracie’s things into the back of our car. Blankets, toys, a brand new bag of food, and finally she led Gracie onto the back seat. I felt a rush of excitement that everything had worked out, and we were getting a new doggie to play with.
As I watched Jen hug and kiss her longest foster dog goodbye, though, a pang of guilt swept over me. As a foster mom who has cried over giving up every one of my dogs and cats, even one who was with me for less than two weeks, I knew the pain she was going through.
Gracie was quiet the entire way home. She laid on the back seat, head between her paws, sad eyes glancing up at us. We soon discovered she was the silent and deadly type… her nervousness came out in gas form and we had to keep the windows cracked for most of the trip.
When we got home it was time for kitty introductions. Callie immediately ran to a high shelf to watch her braver sibling, George, approach the new beast. Gracie stared intently at George, drooled, and smacked her lips. For the first time ever, I was terrified that my new foster dog was envisioning a snack in my cat. Everyone had assured me that she was good with cats, but I never loosened my grip on her leash.
A little while later, the cats were hidden away and Gracie was curled up on the couch. Looking at her there, I couldn’t imagine why this sweet girl hadn’t been adopted yet. Her problems didn’t seem so bad.
That’s when I got the text: someone wanted to adopt Gracie.
“Nooooo!” The voice in my head screamed, “she just got here!”
After all the discussions, preparations, and the trip out to get her and bring her home, now suddenly someone was interested?!
Luckily, after all was thought over, everyone agreed to let Gracie settle in with us. We all knew she didn’t need the extra stress of yet another move so soon. The potential adopter never reappeared and Gracie got a chance to do more than settle in.
Around the house I kept her leash on for the first two weeks, I wasn’t 100% convinced that she wouldn’t eat the cats. Not until Callie swatted Gracie on the nose one day when she got too close, and Gracie jumped back 5 feet and whimpered. Turned out Gracie was more afraid of the kitties then they were of her.
I started to take her on long walks around the lake I live on. Armed with a bag of cubed mozzarella cheese and roast beef we set out to get Gracie Lou socialized in the neighborhood
It wasn’t long before we came across another dog; I knew she was going to react, but I was not prepared for how intense her fear actually was. There was no time to give her tasty treats when she went off. Barking, lunging, and yanking me toward the other dog, all I could do was hold onto her, and scream my apologies at the wide-eyed man walking his black lab.
I talked to Jen and Liz, my amazing foster coach, at Karuna Bully. They gave me tips and advice. Liz even sent me a training book (Click to Calm by Emma Parsons) and set me up with a local trainer on behalf of the rescue.
Even with all the help, though, I started to feel desperate for her adoption day. Things didn’t seem to be getting better, her reactions were getting worse, and I suspected they had a lot to do with my own fear.
When we met with Ali, a local trainer and rescue-mom extraordinaire, a strange thing happened: Gracie didn’t react once. Not one time. Not to any of the three dogs Ali brought out of her car. Not from far away and not even from 5 feet away. This is literally the only experience I’ve ever had of her meeting new dogs calmly.
I started getting up earlier for our walks, but surprises always turned up that neither Gracie nor I could deal with. A new dog I’d never seen would turn a corner and she’d go berserk. Then one day she reacted to a woman, making my caution bar go up another notch. She was terrified of bicycles, and motorcycles, and random cars too.
Our walks got shorter as I decided it was not fair to try and train her with unsuspecting strangers. I enrolled her in a reactive dog class, but it only lasted a few weeks before it stopped running, and I learned to keep Gracie close to home.
Even through all of these struggles, though, Nick and I were falling deeply in love with her. Maybe it was the way she climbed onto us to snuggle. Or the way her kisses to the nose and ear lobes often turned into gentle pibble nibbles.
Maybe it’s the fact that she needs both Nick and I home in order to play with her toys, just one of us won’t do. When our family is complete, though, she’ll often bring a toy up to us and push it into our hands until we agree to tug on it. She’s adorably insistent.
It was six months later when we decided she was already home. After having her for so long we realized that if anyone tried to adopt her we would most likely end up disappointing them… so we didn’t let it get that far.
I can’t believe it’s been two years since we brought her home. Happy Gotcha Day, little pibble.
Obviously, her story isn’t over. We still have challenges to overcome, and I’ve just been avoiding the problem for too long now.
Sometimes I still wish I could have adopted any one of my previous fosters. I would walk around the lake everyday and each one of them was always so happy to greet everyone from dogs to people. Then I realize they all had their own problems… no one’s perfect and this goes for dogs too.
Gracie’s already overcome so much. The first time I ran the vacuum, she was so terrified she went into a corner and peed. (Which, I’m proud to say, is the only accident she’s ever had!) With 2 or 3 training sessions, though, the vacuum became her pal and she now follows it around the house, tail wagging, hoping it’ll spit out some treats.
She would barely let me touch her feet when she first got here. We had to work up to it, but now I can give her a full pedi in one sitting!
These little successes give me hope that Gracie can overcome any fear she has. So now it’s time to address my own fears and get involved with a trainer.
I have successfully introduced her to dogs before, the problem is that it’s a slow process, and I can’t just walk right up to new dogs with any measure of success. My ultimate goal would be for Gracie and I to get up to the point where we can just pass other dogs calmly on the opposite side of the street.
Time to stop talking and do it, which is part of the reason why I’m putting this story out here. Now that you know what I should be doing, it gives me a stronger sense of obligation.
Like I said earlier, I don’t want to practice on unsuspecting passers-by, but I want to introduce Gracie to as many dogs as possible. If you want to help, you have a relatively calm dog, and you live in Putnam or Westchester County please get in touch with me. Gracie and I would really appreciate your help!