My Foster Failure:

The dog, when released, headed into the field like a rocket.  I cringed because the last six months have been difficult.  He came to me as a ‘foster’ dog.  The agency I volunteer with (American Brittany Rescue) reached out saying we have this young Brittany pup with a leg problem. Might be a CCL tear.  We need somebody to get the injury properly diagnosed and treated.  So, I agreed.

I drove about 3 hours away and met the transport guy, another person with the American Brittany sickness.  He brought the dog over to me on a leash, bouncing along in a 3-legged hobble.  We chatted a bit because Bill and I have exchanged dogs in one direction of travel before. We caught up on Brittany’s we helped in the past. I asked a few questions about Hank; what kind of food he is eating, is he crate trained, the normal needed preliminary information. He gave me Hank’s personal effects and we headed back toward my my vehicle.

I lifted him into the front seat of my truck, got in, and headed back home.  Within the first five minutes he came to the center of the front seat and plopped his head on my lap.  I knew immediately I was in trouble.

Foster dogs have been temporarily added to my pack before.  I do the best I can to nurture them back to health if they’ve been sick.  The pack serves to socialize them.  In hard cases they teach them how to be a dog. One foster dog had never been on grass, imagine. I reinforce good manners and house training and then list them with American Brittany Rescue for adoption.  A nice, appropriate family inquires, and I send them off to a new life…a better life.

Usually there isn’t any irreversible attachment problem.  Going in I know in advance what my job is.  Sure, I love the dog, but I also realize that it will eventually go to someone else and I am fine with that arrangement.  Now this dog snuggled on my leg makes me think I am in big trouble.

I had set up an appointment for him at my vet before I even picked him up.  The next day it took the vet all about tw0 minutes to determine that his injury was not the torn CCL the out of state vet suspected, but a broken tibia.  Even I could identify this on x-ray.  So, an orthopedic surgeon was consulted, and surgery scheduled.  In the mean time Hank was put into an awkward plastic splint held in place with gauze and vet-wrap.  The vet said, ‘keep him quiet.’

When I got Hank, he was four months old.  Just think about that for a minute.  Keep him quiet, he said.   The next week the surgeon repaired the broken tibia with a plate and pins and screws.  Hank had a new brace’ a continuing restriction for a short leash, five-minute potty ‘walks’ three or four times a day, and ‘keep him quiet.’   Now I am not a fan of medication, for me or my dogs (with reasonable exceptions).  But within 24 hours I was at the vet saying, “one of us has gotta be medicated.”   The ten weeks of light duty, of ‘keep him quiet,’ were torturous. Both Hank and I were at our wits end.  Finally, with the incision healed and the bone looking good we got the all clear.

Freedom at last.  This six-month-old puppy was now exhibiting unmitigated joy running around the fenced yard.  Then at seven months he started doing something I knew he might do but was unprepared for: pointing.  Butterflies, sparrows, mourning doves, he pointed.  His prey drive was obviously good.  Hank came with an AKC certificate, but I knew nothing of his lineage and there were no letters after names in his family tree.  Still, there he was catching scent and pulling up to a point.  I knew I was in trouble.

Because I have 2 other Brittany’s who need exercise and remedial training, Hank joined the string for some runs at our local game lands. His work with all 3 Britts on the ground was remarkable for a puppy. Then I made a big mistake.  I took him to a preserve where I sometimes guide and occasionally help train other dogs.  Hank not only eagerly pointed birds but chased wing clipped chukars and retrieved them to my hand.  The trouble I was in was deepening.

I don’t know why, but about then I realized that this dog is never leaving my house.  I have somehow managed to compartmentalized foster care in the past.  From the moment the dog arrived I knew I was going to get this dog back on solid footing and ready for a forever home.  One morning I was standing in the kitchen drinking coffee with the three Brittany’s watching for a crust of bread to hit the floor when I realized this.  Hank is my dog.

So, I called Rebecca with ABR and said, “I think I am going to adopt Hank.”  Now Rebecca did the initial leg of the transfer.  She picked him up out of state, got the paperwork signed, and drove him to eastern Pennsylvania to Bill, who drove him to me.  I don’t remember exactly what she said when I called, but it was something to the effect of “Hank is a sweetie.” I felt awkward making this call. I knew I had in no way betrayed American Brittany Rescue, but there was a part of me that considered this a “foster failure.”

One night while checking on him (after field work I go over each dog, eyes, ears, limbs) I noticed a small wound on his leg about where the plate was on his tibia.  Nuts.  I cleansed it with some betadine and put some triple antibiotic salve on it.  Let’s keep an eye on it I said to no one in particular.  Well, it became infected.  Not a raging infection but infected nevertheless.  It warranted a call to the vet.  By chance, the surgeon was going to be in the office the next day.  He squeezed us in.  Here’s the skinny on this:  The danger of the infection is that it can get to the plate, the healing tibia, and then there is a big problem.  We agreed to get him into surgery asap (the bone was healed), remove the plate and pins and debride the site.  Sounds good, right?  All went exceptionally well with this plan.  Now we have another eight to ten weeks of ‘keep him quiet.’  An eight-month-old puppy.  Short leash. No running, jumping, or other normal puppy shenanigans.  They don’t make enough bourbon to alleviate the angst in this.

He is now, in every way possible, my dog.  This Brittany (who won’t win any conformance contest by the way), who runs big and hunts like a fiend, is a part of the string of Brittany’s that make themselves at home on the couch in our living room.  I was dedicated to him from the beginning, of course.  Now it’s different.  There is no longer any ‘clinical distance.’  Now there is an ache that I feel as we face another two or three months of rehab.  It is an ache for him as much as it is for me.

During this whole time, during the broken leg, the surgical reconstruction, the healing, the rehab, he has never once cried out because of his leg. I have never heard him cry in pain. One day I gathered up e-collars and check cords and put my over-under in the case he is as excited as everybody else.  When does he cry? My wife tells me he cries like someone is pulling out one of his nails with a pair of pliers when the other two get loaded up and he stays home.

I suppose that part of my heart ache is that I’ve come to understand that certain dogs are bred to do certain things.  Gun dog breeds have been shaped over years or centuries to run and smell and find and work cooperatively with their human. It is literally in them. After all, they have to hunt on their own and if they do, you only need to sharpen their skills and get them to cooperate. They are smart.  Not in the way humans are smart, but they associate and are conditioned to certain activities and the joy they experience in those activities is palatable.  It is contagious. It hurts me to deny him, even if it is for the best, that part of who he is.

Finally I find myself on a cool spring morning at Pheasant Valley Farm.  ( We have ever so slowly introduced gunfire.  It is so much easier to go slow with this instead of trying to fix a dog you’ve made gun shy. First a primer pistol at a distance with live birds.  The next session, a 20 gauge at a distance with live birds.  The next session, a 20 gauge nearby the point and flush.  Today I am here with the trainer Karen and I am going to shoot a bird over this dog.

The short leash time and the denial of ‘free range’ may have been a godsend.  Poor Hank has been ‘heeled’ and ‘whoa’d’ to tears.  He’s never complained about the steady diet of tennis balls and retrieving bumpers.  After a taste of a real hunt, what deep in his genetic code he was born to do, the cheap substitutes are just that.  He can learn with these other things.  He can have fun, he can be entertained.  But it isn’t what he’s supposed to be doing.

It was almost 40 years ago when I got my first gun dog.  An English Springer Spaniel named Jack.  Jack was my constant companion.  He loved the bachelor life because it meant that on a whim we could quickly shift from some important adult responsibility to something that he and I enjoyed much more, time together in the field.  As a handler, I am never so content, so happy, as when I can partner with a dog who is doing what he is supposed to be doing and is willing to let me participate.  I suspect, they’ve never told me, that they feel the same way.

On that cool spring morning I am standing on the edge of the bird field.  Off in the distance, barely visible, is a wisp of orange surveyors tape tied to a tall stalk of canary grass.  Nearby is a launcher with a chukar tucked into it.  Hank is whoa’d up at my side.  Karen is off to my right with the launcher controller.  I reach down and tap Hank on the head, saying “hunt” in the same instant.

I am tense, watching every stride.  I am watching for a limp. I am looking for some unevenness in his gait even though the leg was totally healed weeks ago.  I watch Hank as he hits the scent cone, begins to quarter toward that hidden bird.  He locks up, pretty as a picture, solid as a statue.  We walk in.  Karen released the bird.  I shoot, the chukar falls.  Hank is on it like a duck on a June bug. I call out ‘fetch.’  He swings around with an ever so slight ‘victory lap,’ saying ‘look what I’ve got!’ and brings is to my hand.

Like every gun dog I’ve owned up to this point in my life, I am moved with a deep feeling of gratitude.  I am truly sad that the previous owners either could not or would not care for him, but I am one of the luckiest guys around that he ended up plopped down in the front seat of my truck, with a broken leg and unanticipated months of recuperation, years of chasing birds together, on the way to his new home.


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