In the pandemic summer of 2020, after three happy foster experiences (two shy little dogs from a hoarding situation and one elderly shepherd mix) we brought home a people shy and possibly “bite prone” Chihuahua mix. Let’s call him Tiny to protect his identity. After a few weeks of what felt like successful fostering, Tiny was adopted by a perfectly lovely family. Then he bit Dad and had to be returned. At that point, I wasn’t sure what else our home could offer Tiny. My concern was that he would learn he could pull that stunt and end up back at our house, assuming he thought living with us was a score. With two dogs and a senior cat we weren’t in a position to adopt a third dog. So, what was next for Tiny? Tiny had come to us from San Francisco Animal Control; they were happy to help look for a solution. Through them, Tiny went to foster with a woman in the South Bay who, we were told, specializes in “Spicy Chihuahuas.”

My husband Dave and I have fostered pets for Marin Humane for approximately twenty years. We started with kittens, moved on to mom cats with kittens, then adult cats, then dogs and finally, because of our behavior and training background, we were asked to foster shy and/or shut-down small dogs. And now we’re branded.

When we first started fostering shy Chis we had a small Chihuahua mix, Maybelline, who was the perfect foster foil. She made other small, shy dogs feel safe and gave them a guidepost. These small, reticent dogs would watch May and their learning curve would soar. She was the perfect mentor. Since May’s death in 2017 we’ve adopted a small coterie of similarly good mentors and so our behavior fosters come and go, mostly with great success.

“I don’t know how you do it,” people often say to me. “I would want to keep them all.” I explain that, for me, dogs are just like people. I really like almost everyone I know. I would not live with all but two or three of them. And so it is with dogs. The vast majority of the dogs we’ve fostered, despite their idiosyncrasies, have turned out to be wonderful dogs. Sure, some of them want to bite our guests, but they LOVE us. It’s rare that a “shut down” dog doesn’t come out of her shell. Having other dogs around can really accelerate that, but even so, most traumatized dogs (because that’s really what’s going on) find a way to cope and accept companionship. Even the one dog I can think of who never really blossomed with us found a wonderful home with a man who really understood her. She was exactly what he was looking for. There is someone for everyone.

In addition, we’re comfortable fostering with our two dogs and one cat (a boss of a feline whom I promise to highlight in a subsequent blog), but if we were to have three dogs in the “permanent collection” I would be reluctant to foster. Walking four dogs at a time is not my forte. As it is, walking two familiar dogs and one dicey or spicy dog is enough of a challenge. As noted, more and more we seem to be attracting not just shy dogs, but shy dogs whose MO is bite now and ask questions later. Generally, these dogs very quickly adopt us as secure members of their pod, so their reticence is then directed toward strangers. Always fun on a walk.

Tiny was one such dog, who, by the time of his adoption had done some very positive work learning to ignore those triggers and redirect his attention to me. He was easily managed with guests (a practice difficult to work on when sheltering in place) by crating or being put in a room by himself. He seemed to welcome the feeling of safety. So, why did he bite Dad? My theory: he was startled. Tiny actually favored Dad and slept with him the first night of his adoption. But with two teenagers in the family and the prospect of one day getting back to normal life when people visit and teenagers have friends around all the time, managing a seven pound dog who might bite anyone who startles him was too big an ask. Enter Spicy Chihuahua lady, bless her. I suppose my question to her would be: “Do you have to keep them all?”

Do we consider keeping even the most difficult fosters? Of course we do. When you think you might be a dog’s only chance at a comfortable life you play out all the scenarios. I can usually imagine how the dog would integrate into our household. Ditto walking dynamics. At the start of shelter in place in mid-March we took in two foster dogs to accommodate the immediate need to clear the shelter. At first our two previously hoarded dogs had no interest in walking. But day by day they emerged from their crate and showed curiosity and interest. I tried a few different approaches, but in the end settled on walking two dogs at a time. Great for me – extra exercise!

After the daily walking question it gets more challenging. Is this a dog who can easily visit the vet? Do I have the bandwidth for that? How will I provide care for this dog when I go on vacation? And yes, someday I will go on vacation again. What will be the protocols when guests visit? And yes, someday I will have people over to my home again. Can I count on Dave to be mindful of this dog’s issues when the UPS delivery arrives at the front door?

In the end, I’ve concluded that I’m happy to foster spicy. I just don’t want to live with it. Which brings us back to someone for everyone. Fortunately, the world is made up of all kinds of unique and amazing individuals – dogs and people. While I enjoy spicy from time to time, there are loving homes where spicy is on the menu every day. And that is just how they like it.