I’m so sorry, Uncle Otto


One potential hazard of fostering dogs, when you already own dogs, is that your dogs become stressed or unhappy about the foster dogs, who often need remedial training and lessons in basic good dog manners. Other dogs enjoy having canine company, even if the visitors are ill-mannered. While my dog Otto is currently the latter, I think that when he’s a senior dog, I will have to forego fostering for a time. I suspect that he’s going to be one of those senior dogs who loses his tolerance for young dog antics. 

Today, though, I really appreciate his participation in our fostering efforts. If I bring in a well-behaved dog, he gives that dog proper space and respect, allowing him or her to participate in all of our daily activities. However, I’m more likely to bring home a juvenile delinquent who needs some remedial work on self-control; these are the dogs who need the most help to become appealing enough to find an adopter willing to take them home. And when I do bring home one of these impulsive, anxious, over-the-top dogs, Otto helps teach the dog when and where it’s inappropriate to be wild. In the kitchen? Mind your manners and keep all four feet (and your butt) on the floor and you may get a treat; if you act like a chimpanzee, we are all going to get kicked outdoors and NO FOOD.

Otto has never, ever, left a mark on another dog; his bite inhibition is exquisite. But he has a fearsome growl/roar – more like a bear than a dog – and he will unleash it on any teenaged dog who attempts to jump up on him or get right up in his face. I rarely have to say anything when one of my foster dogs is behaving too exuberantly in the house (or as we are on our way to get in the car or even just going out to feed the chickens); if the dog jumps up on me, Otto will take it upon himself to pounce on the rowdy youngster with a fearsome RRRROOOWWFF! (translated as “Knock it OFF! Or else!) and when the young dog hits the dirt, I can step in with a kindly word, petting, or treat as a reinforcement, both for the dog’s deference to Otto and for calming himself.

Recently, due to a number of family events, I’ve been staying in the Bay Area, at the homes of various friends and family members. Otto and Tito (the Chihuahua) have been going with me everywhere. They’ve been to most of these places before, and have been relaxed and polite visitors to my friends’ homes. But Otto had to work hard during our frequent visits to one house: my son’s dad’s house. My ex and his wife have a gorgeous 8-month-old German Short-Haired Pointer, who (surprise, surprise) is also a bit of a nut: relentlessly active, curious, and confident. She flings herself on every visitor and explores every damn thing you might have in your hands.

It took Otto about two seconds to identify her as a Special Problem and take responsibility for teaching her better manners. When her owner came in the back gate and Trixie jumped up in a exuberant (but rude) greeting, Otto pounced (“RRRUUUUUFFF!”). Trixie hit the dirt, displaying appropriate deference to the older dog, but then would bounce back up after a few seconds and jump again. RRUFF! Down. Jump! RRUFF! After five of these corrections, Trixie gave up and just walked into the house ahead of Amy, who laughingly said, “Can Otto stay here for a few months?”

A couple of days later, my son and I took my two dogs, Trixie, and his girlfriend’s elderly Labrador to the beach for an outing. It was Otto’s first experience with an ocean, and he had a wonderful time. He loved the sand, was fascinated with the seagulls, and seemed super curious about the incoming and outgoing waves (and the salty, not-nice taste of the water). He also rode Trixie hard for all of her infractions: not coming when called, not giving us humans (or Tito!) enough space as she ran by, jumping up on us, and sometimes, just existing in the same space/time continuum as him.

A young adult Labrador also got his attention when it ran toward us, blithely ignoring his owner’s calls. Given that the Lab was intact and at least 20 pounds heavier than Otto, I was worried when the Lab got in Otto’s face and Otto immediately gave him the Trixie treatment (RRRUUUFFF!). Fortunately, the Lab also got the message and displayed some deferent behavior (“Okay, boss, whatever, I’m outta here.”) rather than escalating and taking umbrage for what could very easily be taken as Otto’s bad manners – the presumption that all the other dogs should behave as he thinks dogs should.

We left the beach shortly after that encounter but it made me wonder: How much tolerance does Otto have left in him for ill-mannered dogs? Is this behavior getting more pronounced because of all the fostering we do? Should I dial it back to help Otto mellow out and not feel compelled to “train” every rude dog we encounter?

Those of you who foster: What do you think? What do you do to make sure your own dogs are not too put-upon by the dogs you foster?