Tail whipping the air, Ruben was raring to go as the Pooch Pontoon beached on the sandy shore of a little island on Lake Lanier.
Overcast clouds hanging high overhead on Wednesday, Candace Solyst opened the front gate on her 19-foot pontoon boat and called for the shelter dog to leap onto the red earth below.
Free from a leash, from the threat of cars and from the temptations of new people and strange dogs, Ruben raced around the shore of the island — free for a little while to be a dog.
Ruben’s run is an experiment of the Humane Society of Northeast Georgia, which is working with Solyst as a short-term foster of the shelter dog through a program called respite fostering.
“When I got Ruben, I was planning on taking him for a day because I thought he was going to be a lot of trouble, and he wasn’t,” she said as she pointed the low-power, gentle pontoon at her destination south of Lanier Bridge. “I thought, ‘Gosh, if I could show people what he’s really like.’
“So I’m taking him for a week.”
As she talked, Ruben nosed around, tasting the air over the lake while riding in the Pooch Pontoon, which was purchased by the Solyst family a few years ago as a rough-and-ready vessel for their three dogs (and lots and lots of neighborhood dogs, as it turned out).
“A dog like Ruben, just getting him out of the shelter — he’s a different dog,” Solyst said.
Even the best shelters can be trying for dogs. Sitting in a room with many other unfamiliar dogs, with all of the barking and the coming-and-going of shelter staff and volunteers, can be overly exciting or frightening for vulnerable dogs.
“They get a little stir-crazy in there, as you can imagine, being in a kennel 23 hours a day ... it’s not a life,” said Samantha Threadgill, spokeswoman for the Humane Society.
Ruben had been in that environment for almost a year.
“You couldn’t even hold him on the leash because he pulled so much. Now he pulls just when there’s something new — real new, like a new person,” Solyst said. “He doesn’t get the opportunity to experience things. When he does, he has trouble with his enthusiasm.”
Fostering dogs not only gives them a break from the difficult shelter environment, it allows experienced volunteers to answer important questions for the Humane Society.
Even with the improvements he’s made recently, Threadgill said the Humane Society will be particular about where he’s placed because of his sensitivity to other dogs.
Getting more information about a dog’s strengths and weaknesses is key to a successful adoption, said Sarah Jolly, volunteer and outreach coordinator for the shelter.
“It gives us so much insight into the rescue so that we can let potential adopters know more about them,” Jolly said. “Are they housebroken? Do they like cats or children? Are they protective of their food?”
The Humane Society recently had a poodle that had been returned by more than one family. Getting that dog out of the shelter and into a respite foster home “allowed us to figure out why,” Jolly said. “He really just needed extra attention. Those things are so important when we’re trying to match dogs with families.”
And Solyst is discovering new things about Ruben, not only his problems but his strengths and the things that make him unique.
“If he never went back to the shelter, he could be the perfect dog with somebody who knows a little bit about dogs in a week,” Solyst said while walking the shore of the island.
The Humane Society is expanding its respite foster program to give more shelter dogs, especially those that have been in the system for weeks or months, time to get out in a home. Applications are available on the society’s website. There’s a fair amount of red tape and paperwork involved with the process, Threadgill said, because of regulations from the Georgia Department of Agriculture. Volunteers should be prepared for a home inspection by the society before they’re able to foster an animal.
Solyst has helped other dogs and other people learn new things out on those islands. She’s well known in the neighborhood for inviting other dog owners onto the Pooch Pontoon for some off-leash fun.
It’s a learning experience for both dog and owner.
“If I take friends who have never had their dogs off-leash before, we go out there and sometimes the dogs just take off and people freak,” Solyst said. “I set my timer on my iPhone, and the longest a dog has ever been gone was three minutes.”
Julie Greeley lives in the same neighborhood as Solyst but in a different cove. She has two coton de tulears — small, white, shaggy dogs from Madagascar — that she adopted as rescues.
Manny was the younger of the two.
“We got him at 18 months. We couldn’t train him off-leash very well — maybe he’s so excited about squirrels, I don’t know. He won’t come back to you very well,” Greeley said. “He’s on a leash all the time.”
Mary Franze is another longtime friend of Solyst. She owns two chihuahua mixes, both unreliable off-leash in roaded areas.
“They pull all the time. We have a lot of dogs in the neighborhood, so if you’re walking by somebody’s house, they’re barking and our dogs start to bark,” Franze said.
For both women and for all of these dogs, a walk around the neighborhood can turn into a stressful experience.
But not out on the lake.
“They just can’t wait to get not only on the pontoon but off the pontoon to run free,” Greeley said of Manny and Jaque.
It’s about more than running around letting out mindless energy; dogs get to run in a pack and get some training from their owners.
“It’s nice to let them run free and be happy and interact with other dogs, and they learn to behave when they come across dogs in the future. That’s what I’ve found,” Franze said, noting she’s seen permanent changes in her dogs. “It’s made it a lot easier when we are walking (on-leash).”
Walking around the neighborhood, going to the dog park, traveling with their dogs — spending time with other dogs in a more relaxed environment has made all of these day-to-day tasks easier on both the dogs and their families.
Solyst and the staff at the Humane Society are hoping, and confident, that the same will be true for Ruben.
“He’s a great dog,” Solyst said, watching him sniff and paw at the pine needles, “and somebody is going to see that.”