Breaking Through Barriers

Grace and I have something in common. It’s called barrier frustration. My nemesis is the pushy tall Asters that have encroached upon their gentle neighbors. The thinning is endless.

Grace’s issue is the barrier that keeps her from meeting other dogs on her terms. Whether it is a kennel door, fence, or sometimes, the leash – the reaction is the same.

I know a little about this from my flying boy, Yogi.

The first time I took him for a walk around the neighborhood I realized I had myself a project dog. Every time we passed another dog on leash, Yogi literally launched himself – like a helicopter – straight up in the air until he was at eye level with me growling and snarling like a rabid animal. It took a few walks for me to see that his tail wagged and back end wiggled just before this reaction took place. What he wanted was to meet the dog – but he was completely lacking in proper dog social skills.

Dogs have a meeting ritual which was completely lost on Yogi when leashes were involved. The reaction he got from his excited stare sent him into a tailspin and earned me more than a few startled looks. If a dog is punished for this behavior, or not taught an appropriate alternative response, its reaction to another dog may change from excitement to frustration to fear and aggression.

Yogi and I worked for many months on “watch me” – earning a treat each time he focused on me instead of a passing dog. It requires that the handler be watchful themselves, combing the landscape for potential trouble. Once he had that down, the command became “look, dog…watch me.” Now, the minute Yogi sees another dog, he looks at me in anxious anticipation of his treat which he only earns after the other dog has passed without incident and he has assumed a watchful sit. He has been introduced to all the friendly neighbor dogs and has welcomed foster dogs (young and old) into the house. Part of this is training; part of it is growing up. He has rounded the corner to age three. But all of what I initially saw was about him telling me “don’t hold me back.”

Grace was found in Folsom State Park. No collar or microchip. No one claimed her.

The person who found her had her for nearly a week and was able to share that she was good in the house, good with kids, but horrible on leash when she met another dog. Her reaction was the same in the kennel, or in adjacent yards with a fence between. And it got her into trouble. But she had strong advocates who recognized that the trouble was not intentional and thankfully, it was not grave; a human had simply gotten in the way.

For the safety of all, she was assigned a special team with advanced handling skills and the physical strength to guide her.

She was gradually and carefully introduced to other dogs in play group – a barrier-free setting. Like Yogi when he first came to us – she is young: only one year old. And her social skills, like his, need work. Her play style is what we call rough and ready (or rough and tumble!). She is definitely too much for some dogs, but with the right dog match – she is a fun and exuberant playmate.

Roo is one of her very favorite friends. You might remember Roo from this post. Talk about two dogs transformed.

With all of her improvement, this week is about a “get Grace home” effort: creating a special video, updating her photo on the website – and most importantly – helping to change her internal “rep” demonstrating the progress she has made.

As for the encroaching Asters: they get no such break. They are simply out of here!
Think good thoughts for our Gracie girl, please. It’s her time.

Follow-up Friday: Rudy

No, that’s not a football play…or a six-legged dog!
It’s Rudy. Being Rudy.

Rudy came to us in December at the age of 10 months. His mom had to move back in with her mom, and Rudy – who had been a loved, inside dog – had to become an outside dog. In the winter cold. It was breaking his mom’s heart. She knew he deserved better and she asked us to find it for him.

He was quickly adopted – and then returned. It seems that Rudy – still being a big puppy – needed people around to monitor his puppiness. The other thing that Rudy needed was socialization. He had apparently led a sheltered life with few, if any, dog friends. As a result, he wasn’t sure how to properly greet or play.

Rudy was adopted again – a successful placement with people that are around to make him feel comfortable and keep him out of trouble. Best of all, they decided to bring him to Kathryn’s Golden Rule Training at Homeward Bound.

The truth about training, is that it is really for the people. If they can be taught consistency of effort and approach, the dog is sure to follow. Rudy is a fast learner. It’s not the sit, or wait, or down. It’s the lessons he needs to learn from other dogs. Dogs are – paws down – the best teachers of other dogs.

So when Rudy decided to try to have his way with Tahoe – who, by the way, is no slouch –

Hutch was quietly observing from a distance.

Until he decided: enough!

Rudy is constantly trying to see where he ranks in the social hierarchy. And Hutch and Tahoe are pretty clear: you’re at the bottom, pup!

Together, they are teaching Rudy lessons in boundaries and appropriate play.

And Rudy is taking it in stride.

It’s great to see Rudy getting the time, training, and socialization that his surrendering mom wanted for him. I think she’d be proud.


When fellow gardener Maria is not showing off her magnificent sunflowers in the Memorial Garden, you will find her at home tending to her beautiful bonsai.

Bonsai 1 BW

Bonsai is the art of shaping a plant to find the miniaturized tree within. Bonsai is a long-term commitment; a labor of love to create and care for. As a living thing, they are never truly “finished” – their true shape takes form and is reinforced over time.

All around us at Homeward Bound, our trainers and volunteers are working to shape the behavior of the dogs to speed their turn for successful adoption. The behavior of a dog reactive to other dogs requires special attention. When dogs growl at other dogs it is often labeled as “aggression.” But behavior that looks like aggression can actually be fear-based and should be treated as such. While a reactive dog can react aggressively, this typically occurs in a situation where he feels that there is no escape. The key is to replace fear with focus.

For most of the hundreds of dogs we help each year at Homeward Bound, their needs are obvious: medical care, leash training, basic commands, some socialization. But reactive dogs require much more.

There is no cure for reactivity, per se, but a dog can gradually be desensitized to the stimuli by using a series of techniques and games to lessen the reaction. Equally important is helping their handlers to understand what triggers the behavior and train them to manage situations when they occur.


Homeward Bound’s Golden Rule Training includes special classes and training for reactive dogs – including dogs that are reactive to other dogs. Class takes place in groups; this tells our trainers a lot about how reactive the dogs are. It also helps to desensitize the dogs so they gradually become more comfortable around other dogs. The aim is not to get them to like other dogs; simply to help react less in those situations.


A “clicker” or vocalization (“Yes!”) is associated with something positive – usually a treat. When the dog begins to demonstrate the behavior sought, the trainer clicks or praises immediately and treats. Sometimes the process has to be broken down into the tiniest advances; even a slight movement in the right direction is cause for celebration. Then the reward is withheld until the dog more closely approximates the desired behavior. This is called “shaping” – a learning theory concept. Timing is critical when rewarding the dog for his or her behavior.


There are games that help as well: “Watch Me” teaches the dog to focus on the trainer. A treat is held at at eye level with a “Watch Me” command. Once the dog makes the connection and looks on command, the frequency of the treat reinforcement is reduced. Intermittent reinforcement is key to maintaining the behavior you want.


“Look at That” is just what it sounds like. The dog is encouraged to look at another dog and then rewarded when they look back at the trainer. Shifting the dog’s focus from other dogs to the trainer is critical.


As the class progresses and it is safe to do so, the proximity to other dogs is reduced further. Dogs are walked in a circle outside or inside the group. If either dog reacts, they are refocused and rewarded immediately. As with overcoming any fear, whatever frightens the dog is introduced from a distance which very gradually closes. Most importantly, the experience should be fun and bonding – not stressful.

As with Maria’s bonsai – all of this effort takes time and patience. When we are successful, it helps the dog to live a more calm and confident life, and clears the way for a dog with special emotional needs to find the perfect home.

Of course, we recommend that you seek professional training support if you have a dog that is reactive. The rewards are worth the effort. One of our trainers put together this fun video that demonstrates the amazing progress two of our reactive dogs made through consistent training.

We go to school

At Homeward Bound we rescue Golden Retrievers, golden mixes and the occasional gold dog masquerading as one or the other. But we serve dogs of all shapes, sizes and spots through our Golden Rule Training program which is available to adopters, fosters and the public. The garden has always been a welcome place to visit on the way to training classes. Thor and Locke –


and Bear and Cooper regularly make their way through the garden before class. It puts them in their happy place.


Lately, the garden has become a destination for training in its own right. Since so many gather here, it is a perfect spot for people socialization training. Sadie visited with us last weekend. She is great around other dogs and gets a lot of hiking and outdoor time,


but people make her a little nervous. When I first walked by, her posture immediately let me know that I was too close and she was uncomfortable.


Our trainers have taught us – avoid eye contact and do not attempt to approach or pet a dog that is afraid. Instead, wait quietly for the dog to approach you – then reward with treats.


It took a little while, but pretty soon Sadie was saddled up to me and turning to mush while my friend Rob took pictures.


Claire is undergoing similar training. Sick as a puppy, she didn’t get a lot of people time – something that is key to a well-adjusted dog.


One by one, visitors approached her in the garden. She is making steady progress. Who says a dog can’t change its spots?


Training, like gardening, is a commitment. It requires patience, consistent effort, and a little bit of faith.


“Properly trained, a man can be dog’s best friend.” ~ Corey Ford

Breaking up is hard to do

Love is in the air – at home and in the Homeward Bound Memorial Garden. At home, Mourning Doves on a wire signal their return to the nest they use season after season.


In the Memorial Garden, the Killdeer have returned to the same spot we marked for them last year. Can you spot the egg?


These monogamous birds pair year after year; they share parenting duties, forming strong bonds. We often receive such bonded pairs of dogs at Homeward Bound; we go to extraordinary lengths to place them together. Sometimes, it simply becomes impossible – as was the case with our Brutus and his beloved Sierra.


She was sweetness and grace; all adopters were drawn to her. Her Brutus was of a different class. He was her big, rough and ready guardian; a lovable clod who, through no fault of his own, was never taught the simple basics of civilized behavior.


At some point, we were simply holding her back. Once the decision was made to allow them to separate, she quickly found a forever home. Heartbreaking as it was to break them up, it may turn out to be a blessing in disguise for our friend, Brutus.


With the opportunity to devote one-on-one time to him, he has made amazing progress. Simple things that we take for granted, are giant steps forward for Brutus – like returning a ball instead of eating it…


“look at me” –


and “leave it.”


But these are the things that will help people to see the magic in our boy who just needs a little attention and love.


Breaking up is hard to do. For Brutus, we hope it pays off soon in his very own forever home. One thing we are sure of: he has proven himself both loyal and true.

A Good Day For Gardens and Goldens

Some days are too good to be true.
First, it feels like the night before Christmas at the Homeward Bound Memorial Garden. Today we met to finish prepping for the path installation which is scheduled to begin very early tomorrow morning. We’re so excited that the day is finally here!

The weeds have been beaten back and the ground leveled on our well-trodden garden paths. While they look manageable for the moment, they have been a constant battle of spring mud and summer weeds since we began this project.

By burying them in three inches of walk-on mulch, we will dramatically cut down on our weekly maintenance, while making the garden more dog, and dog-walker friendly.

Brutus and Sierra say that they whole-heartedly approve.

Can you guess which one is Brutus?

And which is sweet Sierra?

In the pen next door, I met Leslie and Tiffany, two Animal Behavior College (ABC) students who were doing their required “extern-ships.”

Tiffany was working with Scooby. She has always loved working with animals and would like to become a trainer herself.

She has completed most of the stages of the program, and was at Homeward Bound to put her new skills to the test.

Leslie has a special connection to Homeward Bound. Today, she was working with Buster – you’ve read about him here before.

But her first love was Rusty, adopted from Homeward Bound in 2009. Rusty helped her through some tough challenges; and she helped Rusty on his journey over the Rainbow Bridge. To honor him, she wants to gain experience as a trainer so she is equipped to foster, and provide the best possible preparation for, other dogs in search of their “fur-ever” homes.

As luck would have it, both of their pupils had very big days. Scooby caught the eye of a family with young boys; and we just received word that Buster was adopted late today as well. Buster’s adoption would not have been possible without the hard work and effort of the trainers, walkers, feeders and countless others who helped him to focus on people instead of a ball.

Here’s another one who is making great progress: Huck.

A couple of weeks ago, he wouldn’t even sit still for a picture – and now look.

Great gardens require preparation, care and continual feeding. Great pups need the same, and they receive these at Homeward Bound.

If there’s hope for Scooby and Buster, there’s hope for Huck. Not to mention these two near-identical beauties; Luni…

and Angel.

Another step forward for the garden – and the pups. It does not get much better than this.

Bringing Out The Best in Buster

As we tackled the blackberries last weekend we uncovered hidden treasure.

To some, this represents a fun game of play;

but to pups like Buster – something more worrying. Buster is one of a few dogs that arrive at Homeward Bound Golden Retriever Rescue and Sanctuary completely, utterly and totally ball-obsessed.

Lots of dogs enjoy a game of ball, but in some cases it moves from play to something much more. When a dog focuses on the ball to the exclusion of every other kind of human or canine interaction, the obsession lessens their quality of life.

A garden succeeds with variety – of shape, texture, color and contrast.

Too much of a good thing results in sameness.

The magic occurs in mixing things up and uncovering surprises.

Dogs are social beings. They need interaction and variety too, or they can become compulsive, neurotic, or worse. The trainers at Homeward Bound are well-practiced in turning around these pups, to give them a chance at adoption and a happy, healthy life.

There is a must-read success story posted to the website about Chester – now Rudy – who arrived at Homeward Bound very much like Buster. You can read it here.

With the training and dedication, Rudy has found a whole new life beyond the ball.

Buster is still a work in progress – but the progress is really good. It begins with a cleared pen, free of all balls, so he can begin to focus his attention on the trainer. Each look is rewarded with treats and praise.

New activities are introduced, with the ball becoming the reward – instead of the object of the exercise. A look in the eyes is cause for celebration;

a kiss means it’s time to throw a parade!

Buster is well on his way. You can see the change in his face…from a few weeks ago…

to now.

He is so lucky to have the team at Homeward Bound on his side. And it truly takes a team! Trainers, feeders, walkers – all reinforcing the same steps will, with any luck, help the placement team connect him to a waiting family;

someone who will see the golden in him, the way Art and Amy saw the promise in Rudy. Is that you?

Gardens and Goldens: A Weekend Update

Light clouds and cool temps this morning. A good day for moving dirt.

I spent about six hours with Maria, my partner in crime, at the Homeward Bound Memorial Garden today, moving dirt to level the ruts left by the sprinkler project last spring.

Fall will be here before we know it, and we have a lot of prep work to do in order to create the grassy area and paths that will link our garden beds and banish the weedy fill. Always practical, Maria insisted on using the modified golf cart, outfitted with a large hauling bin on the back.  Unfortunately, I think we made more ruts using it as the ground was very wet today. Then, or course, the battery died. The good news is that I cannot be blamed for the cart’s misfortune! (Regular readers will remember that I have a bit of a reputation for breaking things.)

A good old-fashioned wheel barrel and shovel got the section done. The project continues!

Maria, somehow, managed to find more room in her Sunflower and Herb beds for more plants. The bird bath was replaced with a family of ceramic Quail, much to the surprise and unhappiness of the Robin who visits her garden.

Speaking of Sunflowers, they look as stunning from the back as they do from the front. A constant source of amazement in the gardens.

Roses were pruned; trees deep-watered; and flowers dead-headed.  But the best part of the day were the dogs and their human visitors.

Pat came by with Sunny. He was three when her family adopted him two years ago on Halloween. She was on the hunt for a young dog, but we know how that goes. While volunteering, she was asked to play with Sunny.  A ball was dropped and thrown, and the rest – as they say – is Homeward Bound history.  Masquerading as a younger pup, Sunny adopted Pat.

Pat has taken Sunny through all of the dog training classes offered at Homeward Bound.  A well-trained dog makes for a happy dog and family, and greatly improves the chances of a successful, long-term adoption. Together, Pat and Sunny also volunteer to provide therapeutic visits to patients at Kaiser. She says he comes home thoroughly exhausted and happy after spreading his joy to others.

Training has paid big dividends for two other visitors today. Owen is about two and was very well-mannered when he told us how anxious he was to find a home.

Black Jack was dropped off in the middle of the night. He is more “mature”, but has apparently discovered a love for little boys. You can read about them here and visit their galleries for more pictures.

Finally, Chris stopped by with her own Tigger and Missy.

Chris and Rob are Mentors who started a Homeward Bound Dog Walkers Club to help volunteers understand how to walk and work with the dogs. These dedicated volunteers ensure that the dogs get exercised and socialized by spending time with people and around other dogs. Their efforts help to give these pups a greater chance of adoption.

Speaking of which, I see from the Homeward Bound website that Zander was adopted!

I watched from a distance, holding my breath as a family played with him not too long ago. Looks like it was a match, which makes my day complete. Gardens. Goldens. And a home for three-legged Zander. What could be better? Oh yes…puppies!