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March 8, 2017

Zen & the Art of Fostering Dogs.

“Leap and the net will appear.”  ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

I started my journey to foster Buddy while at a yoga retreat right before New Year’s Day.

Buddy, a two-year-old Pointer dog, didn’t have a home for New Year’s weekend.  Since I didn’t have a lot going on, I offered to foster him.

My fiancé was concerned that I was taking on too much. I had no large dog experience, no crate, and no clue what I was getting into. I just had space, love, and enthusiasm—and Buddy’s picture, that was adorable (see above).

So I took a leap, and hoped it would all work out.

I met Buddy in a parking lot near my house. He bounded out of a rescue volunteer’s pick-up truck and ran over to me, dragging the good samaritan by the leash. It was in that moment, I realized, I was in way over my head.

My dog, Yogi Bear, is a nine-year-old, 17-pound lap dog (who hates being on laps by the way). He never runs…ever. And his energy level is very low. He is content just lying at my feet while I watch television. The only time he demands attention is when I am on or looking at my phone.

In contrast, Buddy demanded attention from the get go. My son and I struggled to get him into our SUV. We were too overwhelmed to set up the crate the volunteer gave us, so we let him sit on the seat. Right away he started nuzzling and asking to be petted. As we drove home, he kept trying to get up and look around. I started to wonder if this dog could sit still.

We got home, and I tried to take Buddy on a walk (which was more him walking me, to be honest). My arms quickly became sore from trying to hold him back. Eventually, I gave up and ran along with him as he slowed to a brisk walk.

Next, he unloaded a huge poop, four times  the size of my Shih Tzu’s typical deposit. I was unprepared for its smell and size and had to go back to pick it up later with a bigger bag.

I then realized I had no appropriate dog toys. The only one I had was a stuffed octopus that our dog played with every full moon. Buddy shredded it in about five minutes.

To keep him entertained, I gave Buddy the first viable toy-like thing I could find—a Pilates training ball. He ran around the yard with it in his mouth for about 10 minutes. Then he popped the ball and buried it in the backyard, before I could get across the lawn to stop him.

I was stunned.

My leap into fostering was turning out to be a free-fall with no net in sight. I was already overwhelmed with working full-time, teaching yoga four times a week, taking care of two children, and now, two dogs.  Listen, I know I am a wimp as there are volunteers with the rescue agency that foster more dogs and do way more, but it still felt like a lot.

It was then that I realized: There was an art to fostering dogs, and I was a clueless novice.

I needed to get some professional help. Not the psychologist kind, but the dog trainer kind. So I reached out to my vet, and he gave me the name of a dog trainer.

I spent 30 minutes on the phone with the trainer discussing the situation. He told me that dogs live in the moment and respond to our energy. If I wanted Buddy to be calmer, I needed to be calmer. He suggested I be more mindful in my interactions with Buddy. I needed to move slower, breathe slower, and be very measured with my voice, gestures, and energy.

Throughout the conversation, I was thinking: Was this guy a Zen master or a dog trainer?

I decided I needed to reboot my knowledge of Zen philosophy. I found the following list of Zen tenets:

>> Zen is the peace that comes from being one with an entity other than yourself.

>> Zen is living in the moment and experiencing reality fully.

>> Zen means being free of the distraction and illusory conflicts of the material world.

>> Zen is being in the flow of the universe.

Wow. So the trainer was right—I needed to go all Zen with this dog.

I felt completely unprepared, even though I am a trained yoga teacher. But I committed to helping Buddy.

So, when I took Buddy out of his crate that evening, I tried to be one with him by performing a breathing practice while I put his leash on. I inhaled slowly…and exhaled slowly, taking small pauses at the tops of the inhales and bottoms of the exhales.

Within minutes, Buddy began to match my breathing pattern and calmed down. Then, I gradually made my way to the patio door.

I have always moved quickly and been more focused on getting to the next place rather than on the journey itself. I had to change this pattern, because moving too quickly was freaking Buddy out. As I became more mindful with my movements, Buddy slowed his, too.

The trainer said that Buddy needed to be challenged and engaged so he wouldn’t be so easily distracted. I took the bag of tennis balls that I keep for yoga classes (they are great for self-foot massages), and stuffed some in my coat pockets along with some treats.  Buddy was adept at the fetch game, so I threw tennis balls again and again until the treats were gone. Within days, my entire backyard was dotted with yellow tennis balls and large piles of poop.

The trainer also suggested I start walking Buddy up and down my deck stairs.  As I needed the exercise as well, we would walk up and down the stairs at least 10 times, four times a day. It may have been the stairs, or less hours eating Extreme Cheese Goldfish while watching Bravo TV, but my pants began to loosen.

Turns out a side benefit from fostering dogs is losing weight.

A few days later, we experienced the first real snow of the season. Buddy loved it so much. He ran through the snow, and stopped to eat as much of it as he could. By the end of that first snow day, you would have thought a dozen dogs had been running in the yard as opposed to one dog and one middle-aged woman. I took pictures and videos of him in the snow and sent them to the adoption agency to post on social media.

As the first week of fostering turned to the second, we settled into a routine. Buddy knew that when my garage door opened, I was coming home to take him out. First, I would first feed him, give him water, and then we would go outside and play. When play-time was over, I would pet him and rub his belly. We watched TV for a bit, and then at the end of the night he would go back in his crate.

I hated leaving him in his crate while at work and at night, and pleaded with the universe to please find Buddy a family that would love him and welcome him into their life.

Thanks to the snow pictures and social media, Buddy was soon blessed with multiple families interested in adopting him. The day of his first adoption meet-and-greet, Buddy partially pooped out one of my leather gloves. I had no idea where he got it from, but there it was sticking halfway out of his bum.

I was not prepared for this situation. I was in my work clothes, designer rain boots, and Coach sunglasses. But Buddy was in pain, and he was getting more and more upset. I had no time to think or to change outfits. So I pulled the stick out of my ass, and pulled the glove out of his.

It was a pure moment of Zen. I was one with Buddy, experiencing reality fully, totally focused on the removing the glove, and in the flow of the universe. Although this might not be the type of flow the Zen masters were talking about, I will never forget the experience.

When I spoke with the young couple that wanted to adopt him, I was elated. They were definitely sent by the universe for him—they were perfect.

I told them how Buddy could read energy and could be calmed with a simple breathing practice. Luckily the woman had a low-key demeanor that allowed Buddy to be at his best. I hoped they would adopt him, but I had to leave to teach a class before they had decided.

Toward the end of my yoga class, I did something I rarely do: I checked my phone. Greeting me was a text from the adoption coordinator saying that Buddy had been adopted by the couple. I teared up realizing that I wouldn’t see Buddy again.

I will never forget the Zen things Buddy taught me: To leap even if there is no visible net, and to live in the moment, breathe, find peace with others, and surrender to the flow of the universe.

Although next time, I hope the flow will be more spiritual than physical.

How might taking a leap without a net bring more mindfulness and peace to your life?

“Nothing ever goes away until it teaches us what we need to know.”  ~ Pema Chödrön 

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Author: Donna Kling

Image: Dharamsala Animal Rescue/ Courtesy of author

Editors: Deb Jarrett

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