It is possibly Gala’s last week with us.
I say possibly, because we’ve been here before. Time and again, we’ve had a plan for Gala and it has not come to fruition. My family only rolls their eyes at me when I tell them Gala is leaving on [insert fairy-tale date].
This time she is set to move to another foster home which is much, much quieter than our home. She’ll live with only one person, one cat, and no other dogs. Only one person to take direction from. Only one person to love on. Only one person to worry over. Her stress level should plummet. Maybe the worry lines on her forehead won’t be permanent.
I’ve been reading The Education of Will by Patricia McConnell. McConnell has written several excellent books on training dogs; she is an animal behaviorist and a trainer who specializes in reactive/aggressive dogs. Her newest book is different than her others, though. It’s a memoir.
She shares the story of a border collie named Will and how his fears got tangled up in her own. The book is raw in places – McConnell baring her heart and soul and painful history. Her dog is reactive and fearful and she is, too. She needs to help Will manage his fears, but in doing so, she is also forced to face her own.
As a writer, I’m impressed with her courage. It’s not easy to be that vulnerable on a page, to trust the reader with the inner workings of your heart in all it’s embarrassing, messy, and sometimes ugly truth. She weaves her own growth narrative with Will’s and it is instructional and inspiring.
As I read the book, I thought a lot about Gala.
Gala is fearful also. She watches everything happening around her. She worries about me and Nick and Ian and Addie and Brady and Gracie and Frankie and our cat. She even worries about the horses in the field and the chickens in the barn. She needs to know where all of us are and what we are doing. I think she considers it her job to take care of us. She scuttles around the house, keeping an eye on everyone.
When Gala encounters other dogs, she reacts to them as a threat. McConnell’s dog has the same problem and she methodically works through Will’s reactivity with knowledge and patience—two things I do not possess.
I grew up with dogs but have no recollection of ever having to housetrain a dog or teach it to come or sit or walk on a leash. (I’d never even picked up dog poop in a bag until I had a foster dog.) We never owned a crate, the dog just slept in the laundry room. When the dog wanted to go out, you opened the door (or if it was summer, he used the dog door). The dog roamed the neighborhood and came back when it was hungry.
When one died, we got another. Mostly, we ended up with strays or dogs someone else didn’t want anymore. I don’t remember that we ever went to the pound or the pet store, the dogs just found their way into our lives – Spot, Candy, Scamp, Meeko, and finally Fluffy (who helped me through young adulthood).
Prior to Gala, we’d had pretty straight-forward foster dogs, and a lot of puppies. Fostering didn’t seem that difficult. I had lots of questions, but there were plenty of people with answers. I made mistakes, but more or less bumbled along doing the best I could. I would never claim to be a dog expert, in fact I’d say I’m closer to the other end of the spectrum. Mostly, I’m a dog lover. I’m good at loving them, I’m not good at making them behave.
Gala adapted as best she could to our gates and rules and crates, but it did not still her soul. Instead she’s grown more anxious and more reactive to people and dogs. Despite all the love and affection we’ve poured on Gala, her fears have grown during this year with us.
I realize now that while we did our best we could never have helped Gala because it wasn’t us, necessarily, it was the environment. There are simply too many people, animals, activity, and frequent visitors in this house. More than her heart could manage.
She went for a test run at her new foster home and everything went well. When she returned, I saw a marked difference in her for the first few hours, she seemed like a different dog – relaxed, calm, and instead of inspecting the house, she lay down on the Frank bed for a good twenty minutes.
But then the house got busy, and she went back to work—protecting all of us, monitoring our activities, her brow wrinkled and worried. It’s only when she plays with Frankie or the two of us go for a walk around the pasture, that I see the puppy hidden inside her. She pounces and runs and smiles.
Trying to figure out what is going on inside that beautiful head of hers has consumed many hours of my life. She is a conundrum made up of biology and a history I’ll never know. No doubt her year with us has added to that history. How much of her anxiousness is nature and how much is nurture is hard to guess.
I don’t know what the future holds for Gala. I’ve already shed plenty of tears over our inability to help her find her forever home, but I’m a person who likes to learn from failure, so I’ve been thinking a lot about what she’s taught me.
She’s taught me that love is not always enough; knowledge can only take you so far, and mostly, trust your instincts.
Only a month or so after Gala arrived, I felt she should move to another home. She was too much dog for us and our home stressed her out. When another home didn’t readily appear, I didn’t push the issue. Next time, I’ll trust my instincts. Next time I won’t keep soldiering on with a dog who needs more than I can give her.
I don’t know what the purpose of Gala’s year with us was, but I’m gonna trust that someday it will be clear. She’s made me laugh and made me cry and driven me to the edge again and again. I’m done. This is my last dog. My family could tell you how many times I’ve said that.
I’m hopeful for Gala, though. I think this move is the right one. Do I wish it had happened ten months ago? Yes; but I am going on faith that this year has been necessary, if not for Gala, then perhaps for me.
If you’d like to know how you can volunteer, foster, adopt or donate with OPH, click here. And if you’d like more regular updates of foster dogs past and present, be sure to join the Another Good Dog facebook group.