How High-Spirited Toby, Returned to Rescue 20 Times, Got a Forever Home


Sarah Stiles, director of A Soft Place to Land dog rescue, tossed and turned every night for two years, asking herself the same question: “What are we going to do about Toby?”

Toby is a 6-year-old mischief-maker of a dog. He looks just like a rare Decker Terrier. Think of a stout, tri-color Doberman on steroids, and that’s Toby. Sarah did not worry about his fate after he was returned to her from his first foster home for being “impossible,” nor the second home for being “difficult,” nor the third for being “a troublemaker.” But it was a huge concern after the 20th time Toby was returned. Sarah began to wonder if she’d ever find the perfect home for the smartest dog she’s ever known.

The mischief-maker Toby. (Photo by Annie Phenix)
The mischief-maker Toby. (Photo by Annie Phenix)

What was this little torpedo guilty of doing in all of these homes? I personally think he was bored out of his terrier mind, and a bored brilliant dog can sometimes (often?) find new ways to make the hours go by. Some things that Toby did in these homes included:

  • Getting kicked out of doggie daycare for instigating fights.
  • Jumping into a full bath tub, getting soaked, and then galloping through the house encouraging a very wet game of chase.
  • Starting a game of chase that involved all the other previously calm foster dogs, who were whipped up into chasing the running and darting (and smiling!) Toby.
  • Hating hiking and coming home stressed with diarrhea every time.
  • Being kicked out of boarding at a kennel for fighting.
  • Relentless counter surfing.
  • Rolling up tight in the human sheets on a bed and then yanking all of the covers off the bed if ignored.
  • And his best effort: Jumping on a counter, opening the spice cabinet, pulling out spice bottle by spice bottle, taking the caps off the spices, mushing the spices into a pile, and then peeing on that pile.

Toby is not an aggressive dog (in spite of starting a lot of fights, he has only caused one small injury to another dog), although he is quite bold and brave and has snapped at a dog or two along the way, especially little dogs. But he LOVES people. All people. He is the kind of dog who has never met a stranger. It’s remarkable that he still loves humans, considering how many gave up on him.

Toby sniffing out birch in a nose work session. (Photo courtesy Tica Clarke Photography)
Toby sniffing out birch in a nose work session with me. (Photo by Tica Clarke Photography)

He wasn’t and still isn’t interested in obedience training. He is interested in hunting varmints, something his genes push him hard to do, preferably every single day. The best home for Toby is one in which he has an active life that engages his big, terrier brain — and one in which the owner has a very good sense of humor. You need one to handle a jokester like Toby.

After two years and 20 some moves, just such a person found Toby online: my friend and fellow dog aficionado, Robin.* When she told me she was driving all the way across Colorado to the rescue in Fort Collins to get a dog who had not lasted in 20 other homes, I told her, “If anyone can make this work, it’s you.”

Robin grew up showing Dobermans, so she naturally liked the way Toby – or Toberman as we sometimes fondly call him – looked. Robin is also an accomplished sheepdog handler and lives on a large ranch. And – this is important – she has a very good sense of humor.

Toby is an adorable jokester who was bounced around 20 times before he found his forever home. (Photo courtesy Tica Clarke Photography)
Toby is an adorable jokester. (Photo by Tica Clarke Photography)

Sarah approved Robin right away as a potential, hopefully permanent home for Toby. She shared all she knew about his antics and his history. Robin still got in her truck and drove up to get her new dog, and she made it work.

How did she succeed when so many others did not? Here’s how:

  • Robin has a lifetime of dog experience with a broad range of dogs, both her own and in her active role with a local shelter.
  • Robin is semi-retired and had time to help Toby integrate into her ranch life.
  • She wasn’t looking for an obedience champion (good!); she has shown dogs in obedience and sheepdog trials before, and she was looking for a companion, not a competition dog.
  • She is very bright herself and hates to be bored, so she can relate to an active, bright dog who gets into trouble when he gets in such a state.
  • She accepted him for who he is and didn’t insist on trying to shape him into being some other dog.
  • She invested in a wide assortment of safe chew toys, food dispensing toys, and mind puzzles for Toby, which she has to trade out every day or he gets bored.
  • She sets aside time in her schedule to walk him on “sniffing adventures” around her ranch twice a day, no matter what the weather.
  • She enrolled him in nose work classes with me, something that Toby has excelled in. And it tires him out … slightly. But a tired Toby is the best kind of Toby there is.
Toby playing with a mind puzzle -- one of the many ways his owner keeps his big terrier brain occupied. (Photo by Annie Phenix)
Toby playing with a mind puzzle, one of the many ways his owner keeps his big terrier brain occupied. (Photo by Annie Phenix)

Toby has never destroyed anything in Robin’s home. He hasn’t been in any dog fights. He cracks us up every Friday in our nose work sessions, because if Robin and I get to chatting and we forget to focus on Toby — even briefly — he reminds us why the heck we are there: for him to find odor! He does things like slowly backing up until he hits the end of the leash, and we have to pay attention to him. Or he’ll just start searching on his own until we notice what he’s up to. Sometimes he’ll lift a leg and act like he’s peeing, but he doesn’t actually pee. He certainly does get our attention, our laughter, and our appreciation, and then we get back to the business at hand. Toby must have some Basenji in his background, because he never barks. He can be quite expressive with his strange yodel/howl/talk. It’s quite effective for him.

Trainer Annie Phenix getting Toby ready for a nose work session. (Photo courtesy Tica Clarke Photography)
Toby and me during a nose work session. (Photo by Tica Clarke Photography)

I got to take Toby to a nose work clinic in Santa Fe this summer. He is a delightful travel companion. He peed on all of the outdoor spots where we were supposed to be searching for odor, and he took a large poop in the inside training room, but he soon enough got down to work. Sometimes a dog just needs to be a dog before we start asking him to do tasks for us, even if that means taking a poop in the training room.

He’s content, at last. Robin’s content, too. I’m thrilled because I get to work with a brilliant clown every Friday – he keeps me on my training toes. Sarah Stiles of A Soft Place to Land might be the most content of all, because she no longer has to toss and turn and worry about Toby. He’s home.

*Owner’s name changed for privacy reasons.

Read more from Annie:

About the author: Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA, is a force-free professional dog trainer enjoying her mountain-filled life in Colorado. She is a member of the Pet Professional Guild and the National Association of Canine Scent Work. She is also working on a book due out in spring of 2016: The Midnight Dog Walkers, about living with and training troubled dogs. Join Annie on her dog-training Facebook page.

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