Tuesday, July 19, 2011

What if you die?

A older gentleman came to us recently wanting to discuss options for his pet should he pass on before she does. His dog is a lovely, four year old pit bull. He had a recent medical scare and at his advanced age, he acknowledged that his time on this planet was limited, so he was busy with tying up loose ends while he still could. He spoke plainly, gesturing with thin arms bruised by needles from a recent hospital stay. His candor was refreshing. We were discussing the life of his dog, and despite the down-to-business tone of the conversation, it warmed us completely to know that our meeting was centered around the life of a special pit bull who was so dear to him. Planning for your pet(s) comfort and care after your death is such a generous demonstration of love.

So let's just assume you're going to die someday. It happens to the best of us. What can you do to ensure your dog(s) will live a quality life after you exit?

Here's the thing: While it's incredibly helpful to friends and family to map out your final wishes in a will and testament, those wishes may only be as solid as the people you entrust to fulfill them. We all learned about the soggy power of wills to protect pets recently when multi-millionaire Leona Helmsley's directions to leave bundles for the care of her Maltese and to animal welfare causes were disregarded. While we may snicker at a 12million dollar inheritance for a Maltese, it was still troubling to learn that her owner's final wishes were not as sacred as one would expect. This is because animals are regarded as property by the courts and, when faced with greedy relatives who stake claims on estates, current legislation does not support clauses in last wills and testaments that delegate funds for our pets care. As it turns out, relatives refused to care for the little Helmsley dog so her former employees took her home. She's since followed her owner by passing on, but the battle for the funds that Helmsley wanted relegated to animals rages on. More: Leona Helmsley

With an estimated 70 million pets in the U.S., you can bet the Internet is loaded with information on estate planning for pets. It's fascinating reading. Some suggestions include writing a letter to your chosen pet guardian that clearly outlines your wishes, and an article on the American Bar Association's website suggests creating a Pet Trust with pet protection agreements to control the disbursement of your funds. Wow. Who knew owning a dog came with these kinds of responsibilities?

If you're a pit bull owner, you could face extra work creating secure arrangements for your pet. Landlord biases, HOA regs, insurance obstacles and in some cases BSL might just block your best helpers from taking your dog in. To circumvent this, the lucky home owners among us can arrange to leave their homes to the caregivers who are entrusted to care for the pets. Again, remember that there's nothing stopping them from selling your house and taking your pet to a shelter. But let's assume you have true hearts in your circles. What if you don't have the cushion of a big nest egg or friendly housing to leave behind?

In addition to getting your paperwork in order and your best allies on board, one of the best things you can do NOW is just what our gentleman friend has done with his own pet. Very simply, he's starting to reach out to trusted circles to build her a safety net and - important - he's kept his dog socialized to other dogs.

It's just common sense: A well socialized, reasonably trained dog of any breed stands a much better chance of being accepted into a friend or family member's home or rescue organization or shelter adoption program after you pass on.

If you read our Barn Dog Blog, you might know that we recently received a dog named Jondi after a friend passed on. Barbara was good enough to keep Jondi healthy and happy, and she left behind toys, treats and up to date vet records. Of course we found a way to fit Jondi in, but not a day goes by that I don't think of how badly it could have turned out if we didn't know her owner. This beautiful girl had really lousy manners with other dogs and would've failed a shelter evaluation in a flat second. She was the queen of fence fighting and reveled in spitting obscenities at other dogs when she was out on leash. Barbara loved her girl, but life got in the way of getting through training classes and Jondi's known behavior issues went unaddressed. An Oakland resident, she would've died fast at Oakland Animal Services. And forget about most rescue groups - Who has a foster home for an under socialized dog who can't live with other pets? Her issues were basically a death sentence.

Barbara's circle of friends was sympathetic to this now-homeless dog's plight, but obviously no one would take her in. Some recoiled from Jondi as if her dog intolerance meant she was defective. One less-than-sensitive woman at Barbara's memorial service snorted, "Oh, well she's a PIT BULL" - as if the label defined her behavior and her doom. Seeing as it was a solemn occasion, we bit our tongues, but her attitude wasn't so unusual, especially while the majority of animal shelters routinely destroy pit bull type dogs who show any amount of dog intolerance. (We've got such a long way to go before dog intolerance is seen as a workable behavior and not a disease.)

And now the good news: Eight weeks later and after lots of lots coaching, this beautiful creature is now playing with other dogs, getting better leash manners and is well on her way to becoming very adoptable. Jondi's ridiculously lucky, but untold numbers of dogs just like her follow their owners to the grave when workable behavior issues short circuit their survival. This is a such a terrible tragedy for family pets who've known nothing but love, and based on the number of desperate emails we receive from grieving families, it's excruciatingly common.

So for the sake of your beloveds, please work to socialize and train your dogs as best you can even while you fight the thought of leaving the planet. Of course you're never going to die. Neither am I. But assuming we just might be mortal, maintaining behaviors that make our dogs "adoptable" is one of the very best gifts we can give them if we're called away to the big dog park in the sky before they are.

Jondi with a new friend Jiggs, below. Available for adoption soon!
EDIT: Jondi is living large in her new home with two other dogs. Thanks for the help, Jiggs.


Adrienne said...

I'm the owner of a pit bull that I adopted when she was an adult. She has no dog manners and is leash reactive. She can get along with dogs when we introduce them slowly over a few days (like my mom's dog) but none of our friends have the patience to do that. So her socialization problems just get worse over time.

I would really love it if Bad Rap would post information on how to socialize an adult pit bull. I know that her dog aggression is a problem but have no idea how to tackle it.

Donna said...

Adrienne. Kudos to you for figuring out how to introduce your girl to other dogs. That ritual may never change - it's a common sense practice that all kinds of dogs of every breed need in order to make new friends, but you may want to video tape it to show your friends how easily it's done. We also have it listed here on our blog in a post called 'Drive in Slow Lane for Dog-Dog Intros.'

As far as leash reactivity, it's tough to advise without knowing your dog since there's no such thing as a one size fits all training technique for that behavior. But we would recommend putting some time into finding a trainer who's comfortable with this work. Your local pit bull rescue (try PBRC.net for a list) may have just the person. Getting improvements will help you enjoy your girl that much more, so I hope you can sniff out a good resource. Let us know how it goes, okay?

Dianne said...

I also would love to know the details -- our shelter dogs become dog reactive and people selective the longer they are in the shelter. We're increasing the training staff and have started the Open Paw program. As a trainer (volunteer) -- as Oliver said, MORE please.

Donna said...

@ Dianne. You just may need to get yourself out here for one of our camps. :-)

A regular shelter would've brought out Jondi's worst in no time. The barn is one example of a way to house dogs and encourage good behavior - a minimum of noise with lots of close proximity 'flooding' in our kennels. She's lavished with positives for any kind of calm, appropriate behavior towards her barn mates. Also, the team's been doing a lot of obedience training to help her learn to follow our lead and our verbal prompts.

As far a leash behavior goes - yes we needed a prong collar for Jondi. No corrections - but a whole lotta love and direction and focus and distraction work. It's a work in progress since we broke her challenges into pieces and are just starting to tackle the out-in-the-world work. She's getting there.

Leslie-Ukiah said...

Beautiful post Donna. I've been thinking about writing a letter to the editor in my community, but I'm not as good with words as you are. We get so many people wanting to surrender dogs that have never been off their property, and some never have been indoors, yet people are sobbing when they have to surrender them. I wanted to write a letter telling people to train their dogs like they have to rehome them. Whether it be a death, moving, whatever, but I imagine the people that are doing it will continue doing it and the people that are not will continue to bring in these poor terrified dogs that will most likely never leave the shelter.

Donna said...

Well said Leslie. This advice goes for anyone who has to walk away from a dog!

(OT - but would love some photos of you and your new boy so we can toot the happy horn. Looking forward.)

Roberta said...

I too am the owner of two pit bulls that I rescued as adults, one actually saved hours before being put down.... I have the same problem both are dog aggrssive one more than the other, and one also very leash reactive. it took me 3 months of every day walks together to get them to live together and it has taken a few brawls before they were able to live in peace together. because fo their aggression I have been afraid to introduce them to other dogs, not to mention the older one squeals like a wild pig and frightens people from wanting thier dog near her.. I am sure my fear has some impact but knowing my own two had fights in the begining I don't want them to hurt other dogs. I have been more inclined to walk them where there are no other dogs, pit bulls have a bad rep as it is. I read your blog on slow intro's but what if you don't have dogs to reguarly introduce them too how will that work to get them use to be around other dogs and not so aggressive. thanks Roberta

ST said...

One of my pits is dog aggressive and our trainer, who also worked with Mel, the Vick dog, taught me more about how to handle her than focused on making her non-dog aggressive which is a difficult thing to do. Also some people in my condo complex do not like pits so I am extra careful about keeping her out of any situations that might end badly.

Due to the training I understand her triggers, can read her body language, have taught her the command "leave it" which comes in great handy for so many things, walk her at later times at night or early in the morning by taking her to my car and driving her to areas where there are few dogs. Unfortunately sometimes its more about learning the best way to handle them than changing some behaviors that probably cannot change. Sadly I worry about her if we pass on first. My family loves my dogs and has agreed to take my other pit because he's such a wonderful boy but they all have other dogs and she cannot live with them.

Dianne said...

I would come out for one of your camps in a heartbeat. I love the bay area and two of my best friends (from High School!) are there. I just need to care for the diabetic cat who just turned 14 and the wild and crazy Savannah who just turned one.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post Donna - we're getting in more dogs all the time whose owners have passed on. And yes, its only the socialized dogs (and pit bulls) who have any chance of being available for rescue or the adoption floor. Hah! My kids worry that I'm going to die before my dogs - that means they get the property (teehee) and the pack!! They really have a vested interest in my old age health! Thanks again!

NorCalRose & Riddick said...

This is profound and possibly, IMHO, one of your very best posts.

Thank you for the gentle yet direct reminder that our responsibilty to our pets can extend beyond our life.

Donna said...

Thank you Rose. It's been a hot topic around here, as you can tell. ;-)

To the people who are struggling with dog aggression issues with their pets: I don't believe it's necessary or practical to make your dog like other dogs. Sorry if that was implied in my blog post. I think the point is to make your dog as adoptable as possible on the off chance that something happens to you. As Leslie/Ukiah pointed out,even the dogs that lose their families to foreclosure, etc, are SOL if their owners haven't instilled some manners in them.

A dog selective dog can still be very adoptable if he's got good leash manners around other dogs. (We see this all the time at Berkeley Animal Care Services, where some very dog selective dogs get adopted again and again thanks to the dedicated training efforts of the volunteers.) In theory, a dog selective or even dog aggressive dog can participate very nicely in the real world because he's been given such good distraction skills that any dog can walk by him and he's not going to react. He may *want* to react, but he's learned not to. That doesn't mean he's ready for the dog park (!!) but he's able to go home with a family who commits to an on-leash lifestyle.

If you think your dog can never acquire that level of management around other dogs, and that he's going to fail in any other home, then of course your options for him are naturally limited. There were some people on our facebook page who confessed to arranging for the euthanasia of their (dog aggressive) dogs should they ever pass on before the dog. We completely understand and respect that level of planning, as excruciating as it is. The fact that they've looked into the future and made this arrangement shows a level of responsibility and love that flattens me. Those are some committed people who care deeply about quality of life issues for their dogs. Dog love'em.

Anonymous said...

This post hit me hard. My grandfather passed away several hours ago in his sleep. His one and only wish was that the pit bull who sat by his side these last eight years would live her life out happily in a home. She will.

I remember the day we brought Boo to my grandpas house. The 8 week old pup had been abandoned, tied to the steps of my after school job. I wanted the dog so bad I ran away for three days so she could be with me. The second I brought her home my parents loaded the both of us into the car and down to grandpas. I didn't know it at the time but I was saving both of their lives.

Grandpa asked me what kind of dog she was and I told him she was an all amercian dog and he laughed. He said pit bulls were just like any dog and I shouldn't hide her heritage.

Boo Boo helped my grandfather live longer then the cancer should have let him live for. She was and will be forever faithful to him and is taking his death worse then we ever will. She laid with him until he passed and didn't leave his body until we pulled her away.

Donna said...

Anon 12:58, your comment hit ME hard. What a special grandfather and special dog. "Don't deny her heritage" Words to live by.

I hope you and your family are doing okay, and that Boo Boo is giving you some extra love right now.

Peace to you both.

Cyndra said...

Donna, So appreciate your work and help with these special friends. I have a dog who has some dog selective aggression and am wondering if the best course if to continue as many slow intros as possible or if dogs respond well to camp situations with a pack and improve or even get over it. (Obviously with excellent trainers and professional help.) My girl loves other dogs but has some fear issues and will do the occasional turn and nip action (does not break skin) but is scary for me. She works well on leash but for her sake, I would love her to feel comfortable around all dogs. Possible??

Donna said...

Hi Cyndra - You're doing such good work with your dog already. We don't think dogs have to enjoy close contact with all other dogs at all -- Being well behaved (calmly ignoring) is a more realistic goal. That said, the more well behaved dogs your dog is exposed to, the more tolerant she'll become. You can accomplish much of this by fostering for a savvy rescue group and giving her lots of opportunities to practice her dog skills (supervised by you of course) in a way that is good for her and maybe even fun. My own pit bull female used to be qute the snarky bitch as a youngster, but has shown us that lots of positive exposure to dogs will soften even the roughest edges. Fifteen years later, I've actually forgotten how rotten she used to be with dogs and how much work we had to do to navigate and direct her interactions. Make each interaction count and work hard to keep each one as positive as possible and remember to tell her how proud you are of her when she does well.