I would like to tell you the story of a wonderful dog who got a second chance at life. Choice started his life at a puppy mill as a breeding dog. As one of the most timid and sensitive male dogs I have ever met, it makes me laugh to think about Choice as a breeding dog, and it’s not very surprising that he was surrendered at a young age. Choice was likely mistreated and abused at the mill; he was terrified of being handled by humans, and it took him a long time to learn that being touched and petted was a good thing.
Choice was rescued by A Tail to Tell in February 2018, when he was about three, and stayed at the main rescue for several months. In fact, you might have seen a picture of Choice at the rescue on the A Tail to Tell front page.
Choice at the ATTT Rescue
Choice first came to us in August 2018 with his friend at the rescue, Hoppy. At that point, we had been fostering for A Tail to Tell for about two years. We got started in dog rescue by accident. We adopted our Molly, a sweet, mild-mannered Shitzuh mix, a few years previous. As a family, we picked Molly out at a rescue, and I remember her seeming to relax into our arms as we held her. She seemed like such a “chill” dog. Then we took her home and slowly it dawned on us that freezing was her fear response mechanism. She was not relaxed with us; she was terrified of us! So began a year long adventure of trying to gain Molly’s trust. Going in our favor, we have a very calm and stable house, and I work from home and can spend a lot of time with the dogs. Fast forward to today, and Molly is a love bug that sleeps in between us on the bed. It took a lot of time and patience, but we enjoyed it, and our experience with Molly convinced us to begin fostering dogs.
When Choice and Hoppy came to us, they were scared and quickly bonded with each other. We learned the hard way that Choice did not want to be handled after being defecated and urinated on a few times. How could we get Choice to go outside without handling him? We found an amusing routine that worked pretty well: Whenever we needed Choice to go outside, we would simply carry Hoppy out into our fenced yard. Choice was scared of us, but he was more concerned about Hoppy. He would follow us outside, and smell Hoppy to make sure she was ok. He was a very compassionate dog from the very beginning.
August 30, 2018: Choice and Hoppy arrive.
September 2, 2018
September 27, 2018: Choice and Hoppy start to play!
November 2018: Choice loves his beds.
Choice and Hoppy were a funny pair. Together, they would steal items like shoes and socks and drag them back into their crate. They would chew on them a bit, but both were very gentle and did not damage much. As a pair, they seemed anxious, and never wanted to be apart.
June 2019: Choice, Hoppy, and Molly all posing for a picture. Notice the stolen socks in the bed!
As spring started to arrive, Choice found that he enjoyed laying in the sun. He would go out onto the deck and sunbathe for hours. Even inside, he would often curl up on a sunny spot on the carpet. He loved to be warm. He LOVED when we made fires, and would lie right in front of the woodstove.
July 2019: Choice, Molly, and Hoppy sunbathing on the deck.
January 2019: Choice enjoys the wood stove.
Over time, Hoppy began to show signs of recovering, and seven months after we started fostering her, she was adopted. Choice quickly began to bond with new foster dogs as they came to live with us.
August 2019: Choice and Preddy
September 2019: Choice is not so sure about Bean the puppy. We eventually adopt Bean, and they become close friends.
September 2019: Choice and Dot
Choice did not interact with us much for a long time. Eventually he learned how to stand up, and he started to do this near us when we were sitting. At this point, he did not want to be pet or picked up. He just wanted to be close by. It didn’t take him long to figure out how to beg from there. I have to admit, I spoiled Choice with food any time he came over. It was one of the few times he wanted to interact with us, and I was determined to make the most of it. I quickly taught him a barter system: If he lets me pet him, I would give him food. Food was really the key to Choice’s heart, and I encouraged him to beg for food so that we could slowly teach him that in our house, only good things can come from human hands.
Choice developed a very funny strategy for getting extra snacks at the dinner table. If one dog was given food, the others would riot if they were not given something. So as soon as one dog got food, the others would swarm and stick their little faces up for the food they knew was coming. Choice would often be the first to receive food at the dinner table. He would then run to the other side of my chair and pretend to be one of the other dogs that hadn’t been fed yet in the hopes of getting two snacks. I’m sure it worked sometimes!
November 2019: Choice learning to stand.
December 2019: Choice learning to bed. Look at his paw resting on my arm. He would often do this when he wanted something. Who could say no to that face?
After a few months of successfully begging for food, Choice started to approach me in situations where I had no food, and allowed me to pet him. This was on his terms: I was sitting, he was standing, and he decided when it was ok. But it was a great sign. Choice also started spending more time near me, sleeping on the floor while I worked in my office.
April 2020: Choice lets me pet him without food in my office.
April 2020: Choice lets me pet him without food in the living room.
April 2020: Bean and Choice supervise my work at the office.
June 2020: Choice watches me work.
Choice continued to make new friends. One of my all time favorite pictures is of him, Harry, and Ana watching my wife garden from the deck.
April 2020: Choice, Harry and Ana are spellbound.
We took Choice for his first walk. We were very unsure how he would do, but he had a great time.
April 2020: Bean and Choice walk together on Choice's first walk.
A few months later, we took Choice to the dog park for the first time. Although he is a very sweet and social dog, he was too nervous to enjoy himself. It was a good bonding exercise for us though, as he looked to me for protection. On the way home, Choice sat in my lap. It’s hard to emphasize how momentous this was, but it was huge. He was really starting to trust me. Even though our bond continued to grow, I think it is the only time that Choice ever sat in my lap. He was just not that kind of dog.
September 2020: Choice, Macy, and Uncle Sam on the way home from the dog park.
September 2020: Choice loving life.
Choice loved beds, and I had a feeling that he would really enjoy being the couch. I also hoped that if he spent more time on the couch, we’d have more opportunities to pet him. Unfortunately, Choice had never showed any inclination to jump on the couch. I tried to carry him up on the couch a few times, but the process was always very stressful for him, so we gave up for a while. As my Christmas vacation started, I had some free time, and had the bright idea of lifting Choice up to the couch in his crate so that I wouldn’t have to handle him. We started to call this “the crate elevator”. It took a few days of being in the elevator before he ventured out. A few days before Christmas, he came out and laid on the blankets on the couch. It was a Christmas miracle.
December 2020: Choice stays inside the crate elevator.
December 2020: A Christmas miracle: Choice voluntarily lays on the couch.
Once Choice got a taste of the couch, there was no going back. And as I had hoped, it was a great opportunity for us to bond.
March 2021: Choice leans on my arm.
But there was a small problem: he still couldn’t get up and down when he wanted. I taught him that if he went in his crate and barked, someone would raise or lower him to/from the couch. I was ecstatic, but my wife was less enthused since Choice often liked to ride the elevator several times an hour.
Here is a video of what the crate elevator process looked like.
So I bought a ramp for Choice, and tried to teach him how to use it. I was not successful. Several months later, I read about a training technique called “clicker training”, and started trying to use it to train Choice to go up the ramp. During training, Choice actually went up the ramp once. Even he seemed surprised that he did it, and he did not repeat it for me again. We went on vacation a few days later, and our pet sitter sent us a picture with the caption “HE CAME UP BY HIMSELF!”.
June 2021: "HE CAME UP BY HIMSELF!"
Choice loves being on the couch with the other dogs. And because he tolerated us petting him on the couch, he was becoming much more comfortable with petting.
June 2021: Gnocchi, Bean, Choice and Molly hang out on the couch.
June 2021: Choice relaxes and allows me to pet him on the couch.
That fall Choice started letting me pet him while I was standing up. Initially he would stand up on my legs and allow me to pet him. Eventually he started letting me pet him while I was standing and he was on the ground. From this perspective, I am towering over him, and it indicates a great deal of trust. He would not let anyone else pet him while standing.
November 2021: Choice lets me pet him while I am standing.
Being a foster parent can be extremely frustrating. Sometimes it’s hard not to take a dog’s distrust or fear of you personally. My wife and I often cope with humor. When Molly would become frightened of something we did, no matter how innocuous, we would joke about her fear of “death by turning the TV on” and other ridiculous things.
Although not quite the same, we joked that Choice was almost a “real dog” every time he made progress. At some point, I said that if I could train Choice to come up on the couch on his own, we would adopt him. At this point, we had been fostering Choice for a few years, and I was already very attached to him. He was also very happy at our house, and was comfortable with our routines. It was hard to imagine him ever being adopted to another home, both for his sake and for mine. Choice was never leaving our house. It was really just a matter of whether we were his foster parents or his adoptive parents.
Since Choice had clearly met my milestone, my wife and I officially adopted Choice in January 2022. Nothing really changed, but it was official now: he was my dog.
This story has a bittersweet ending. If you are sensitive or dislike sad stories, I suggest you stop reading now. I hope you can tell from the pictures and videos that Choice lived a very good life in our family. Even before he learned to trust humans, he found great comfort and joy being with other dogs.
In May 2022, I took our four dogs to the groomer: Macy, Bean, Molly and Choice. Shortly afterward, the groomer called and said that Choice had fallen over and was not responsive. My wife and I drove over as quickly as we could, but Choice had stopped breathing and crossed the rainbow bridge while we drove over. He was only six years old. We think that he had an undiagnosed heart condition and suffered a heart attack. We were shocked and devastated. It hit me especially hard. I had literally invested years of effort into building a bond with this dog, and just like that, he was gone.
I am writing this a week after Choice passed away. I really struggled to come to terms with Choice’s death, but going through all of his pictures and videos and reliving all the good memories helped. I really wanted to share Choice’s story and journey. He made so much progress and did not get to enjoy the fruits of his labor for nearly long enough. We don’t know exactly what happens to each dog while they are in the mill, but whatever happened to Choice literally took years of love and patience to undo. He managed to overcome almost all of his fears, and in the process, we developed a very special bond. I hope he knows that I’ll be looking for my special friend when I cross the rainbow bridge.
May 2022: My special friend crosses the rainbow bridge.
-- Edward J. Schwartz
I originally wrote this to help me deal with my grief after Choice's sudden death. It helped, and I actually forgot to post it. It's now September 2023, and Molly just passed away yesterday from kidney and gallbladder failure. I'm not quite ready to process my grief for her, but it's been enough time that I can revisit Choice's life and feel comforted.
If not for Molly, we would not have helped countless other dogs. Molly literally changed the course of our lives, and the lives of many other foster dogs. It's horrible to lose a loved family member, whether canine, human, or otherwise. But it's worth it: years of joy for a short period of grief.
Please also consider being a foster parent. So many people tell me they wish they could, but they would get too attached. Yes, attachment can be difficult. But there's always another foster dog that needs your attention. It also helps my wife and I to receive pictures and hear stories about how well our former fosters are doing with their new adoptive parents. You can do it! At least give it a try.