They call him Pockets now, I first saw an image of him when he was called Sebastian, and I was strongly drawn to this dog, and to the idea that I might be able to save him from a lifetime of change, confusion and fear. Last night, I had a good and long talk about Sebastian – Pockets – with Sarah Katz Fostello, an articulate, honest and conscientious rescue volunteer at bigflullydogrescue, a group that has been trying to save Sebastian for some time now.
I liked Sarah right away, her big heart and straightforward manner spoke to the best of the rescue impulse, also to it's complex and sometimes troubling underside. When Sebastian was brought up to Massachusetts, a lot of people sent me his photo, I am, I guess, well known for loving crazy border collies and taking them on. Something about his photo – perhaps because he looked so much like Orson, Izzy and Rose – drew me to him, I e-mailed the group to inquire about him, pushed along by many border-collie and blog and book readers.
Sebastian was the kind of dog animal lovers dearly want to rescue, he has a strong back story, he is beautiful, his eyes speak of intelligence and affection. Sarah and I have been exchanging phone messages for a couple of weeks, I had the idea Sebastian had been adopted. It isn't that simple of course.
Sebastian is one of those dogs whose life trajectory is going to be either tragic or uplifting, that is not year clear. He was in a Southern United States shelter and was about to be put down, he was classified as unadoptable. Sebastian was anxious and unpredictable and failed a food aggression test – they stick a plastic hand into a food bowl and if a dog bites or growls, he fails. The rescue group decided the shelter's decision was inappropriate, and they brought him North to be evaluated, the story of many Southern rescue dogs, and to be saved. Many of you know this story.
Nothing about his background – his breeding, genetics, litter history or social experience – is known. He is large for a border collie, about 60 pounds, and a bit schizophrenic. In one way or another, Sebastian has been damaged. People tend to see all troubled border collies as being abused – many are skittish around sticks, brooms, smooth floors, strange sounds, the movement of lights, erratic human movement. But the breed is often high strung, nervous and easily aroused. Many are bred poorly, especially in rural areas, and have many behavioral problems.
Abuse has become the template to explain and sometimes excuse every kind of problem in a dog, but most often, that is not the cause of the trouble. Bad breeding, trouble in the litter, or bad human behavior is much more likely to be the cause. Lots of perfectly healthy border collies are just a little crazy and the key to living with them is loving them for it, not always easy, as they are not always crazy in the ways we approve of. And most people are neither patient nor committed.
Sarah was fostering Sebastian, she fell in love with him. She says he is a great dog. He is a beautiful dog, she said, sweet and loving and responsive. He was also very anxious sometimes, afraid of objects that moved, sticks, brooms. She said she made enormous progress with him, he was calming down. Then one day her eleven-year-old daughter came into the room with a broom and Sebastian suddenly and moved towards her, barking and growling, even standing up on his hind legs. Something about her either frightened or aroused him.
Sarah's daughter knows how to behave with dogs – there are always a bunch around, I suspect – she calmly and authoritatively told Sebastian to get back and he did, he actually ran away. A few minutes later he was in her lap cuddling. Then she entered a room again and he growled at her again and repeated the behavior. Sarah couldn't imagine or explain why this happened, she and her husband decided this wasn't the right place for the dog, and so he is in another foster home and she contacted me saying he needs and hopes I will consider taking him. I admire Sarah for her decisions, both in trying and putting her family's safety first. Rescue is hard emotionally, clear-headed people are the best at it.
I am considering Sebastian, I said I would take the weekend to think about it. I told her the odds were long against it, there are a lot of things happening in my life right now, there are a lot of animals here, blogs and books and photos, donkeys, chickens and cats. The rescue impulse is powerful and complex, we all want to be heroes – Sarah Katz Fostello is one, sounds like – but that is as dangerous an impulse sometimes as it is noble.
This dog – I'll call him Pockets now – has a lot of problems. In a sense, he's a loaded gun, a crapshoot. With rescue dogs, we often do not know the source of their troubles, which can make the solutions difficult. Pockets might be inbred, have been mistreated, be damaged in some genetic way, bred incompetently, traumatized by people or other dogs or his mother or siblings in the litter.
There is no way to know. That is why I often get my dogs from good breeders, I need and want to know where they come from. Lenore and Rose and Red and Izzy have been wonderful dogs for me, in part because they were bred for temperament and work. I've had great rescue dogs as well, which is why I believe there is no one way to get a dog, people need to do what works for them. I never tell anybody else how to get a dog. I've had a dog – Orson – who hurt people, and it will not happen again in my life with dogs. I doubt Pockets is an aggressive dog, but his behavioral problems are serious, not just minor things to work through. I value dogs like Red and Lenore, I can take them anywhere, if children rush up to them and grab their ears or pull biscuits right out of their mouth, I don't have to worry about it, nobody is going to get hurt. I value that in my life.
There are millions of dogs in shelters all across America – 12 million at last count – and there is something wrong with a system and a culture that leaves so many animals stranded and in need. Perhaps we are saying yes too often.
The food test for Pockets and the arousal around Sarah's daughter are bothersome, not necessarily critical. My theory about aggression is that dogs who are aggressive bite, they don't pretend to bite. But fearful dogs might bite at any time, it is not that they are bad, it is simply that things can frighten them. And we may never know or understand the triggers until they are upon us. Freida often looked as if she intended to kill me but I knew if she wanted to bite me, it would be easy enough, dogs know how to do it. She never did, I have never seen her as aggressive, I suspect Pockets is similar.
A dog like Pockets would, in my mind, take years to really ground and calm down, assuming he isn't damaged in some permanent way. It would be stressful on me, the other dogs, possibly even the other animals on the farm. Or I might have a magic touch, and it might just work. Red had plenty of issues when he came to me, he had never even lived in a house, but he is a wonderfully bred and grounded animal, generous and spirit and calm in demeanor. Part of that, I can see, is his breeding. Dogs like Pockets rarely become good herding dogs, they have too many other issues and need to start when they are very young. So work would have to be different for him, balls or frisbees, something like that.
I think it is very important when dealing with the rescue impulse to be honest with oneself, to know oneself. Am I doing it to be a hero, to feel good? Or can this really work? Am I committed to it? Why am I drawn to it? Every dog can not be saved, every dog cannot be flipped, it is arrogant to think so. You can think the shelter was cruel to write him off, or also think they might have seen something we need to consider. I don't really know. Just because they thought he shouldn't be put up for adoption doesn't mean they were wrong.
I have more respect for death than many people in the animal world, I do not believe it is humane to keep dogs in crates for their whole natural lives under the guise of loving them. It is selfish to me, and cruel. Pockets needs resolution – he either needs a home where someone will commit to him for the long and hard and loving haul, or, if he is not salvageable in the human world, he needs resolution and peace, not a life of being bounced from one place to other, or ending up in a crate, a cruel fate for any border collie.
I understand that many people will look at a beautiful dog like this, see the spirit in his eyes and believe strongly that I should take him in. For me, it is not simple, not so clear. But it deserves thought and consideration, I am doing both. It is a wonderful thing to save a dog like that, I completely understand why people are drawn to it, few things in life feel better or more satisfying. It is also wonderful to know oneself and one's limits, to protect and care for the animals I already have, to know what I cannot do as well as what I can do.
I like the look on Pocket's face, I love the breed, they are crazy in ways that I am crazy, we understand one another, but I don't know if I can really save him or not, or even if I should try. I have great respect for Sarah and what she and the group are doing for him and anyone reading this who feels they can help him should feel free to consider it and contact this dedicated rescue group. Last night I was leaning towards it, this morning not.
I will be thinking hard on this over the next day or two and I will share the process, as always.