A few years ago, after making friends with some fellow animal-lovers at the dog park, I decided to get back into animal rescue. It was something I had done during college, but fallen out of once I moved from PA to Virginia. Animal fostering—temporarily caring for rescued animals until they’re placed in a new home—sounded like a great fit for me.
I filled out my application, and it didn’t take long to get the first call. This was the county shelter, one that was low on resources and short on space. Fostering an animal meant one more empty cage and one more life saved.
The question people most frequently ask is whether it’s hard to give them up. Sometimes, yeah. My first foster was this lovely hound-mix named Jade. She was barely eight weeks old and newly separated from her mother. I couldn’t even leave the room without Jade whining and howling until I returned. I didn’t even try crate training the first night. She and I slept on the sofa together, her curled up against my chest. Unfortunately, she had fleas, which I couldn’t treat because of her age. We had to wait until her vet visit the next morning. That was one snuggly, but itchy, night.
The thing is that you go into it knowing you have to let go. It’s extremely rewarding to be there when a dog finds a new forever family that fits them perfectly. I still care about all of the animals I’ve fostered. The apartment is quieter when they’re gone. I miss them. But I also know I’ve done the right thing. I brought together the right people with the right animal, and that’s a good feeling.
But there’s a part that’s harder and far less sentimental. Like raising a child, there are parts of caring for animals that aren’t all snuggles and squeaker toys. Most animals that end up in shelters are there because they had owners who didn’t do the right thing. Didn’t spay or neuter their pet. Didn’t properly train them. Didn’t properly socialize them. True, some animals are surrendered because their owner becomes sick or passes away. But most end up there because someone didn’t care enough or know enough to treat their pet properly.
If you’re going to foster, you have to realize that it’s hard. Not just emotionally, but mentally. You get the animal when they’re in a terrible place. They’ve been taken away from the only life they’ve ever known and brought to a shelter (which, unfortunately, is an incredibly stressful environment). It’s literally a traumatic event. Some animals are highly adaptable. Others end up absolutely terrified, and they’re pretty much all confused. Helping them through that transition is difficult. Getting them into a home that offers a safe and comforting environment can make a world of
difference, especially for a puppy like Jade. Or this guy, Buddy, who was almost euthanized because he hid in the back of his cage for weeks, growling.
We soon learned that Buddy was afraid of men. Though my husband is a gentle, soft-spoken guy, when Buddy’s tennis ball rolled next to my husband’s feet, Buddy cowered and walked away, too afraid to claim a ball with which only moments before he’d been playing gleefully. It took a lot of coaxing to get Buddy comfortable with men. Today, he has a loving home.
Shelter dogs have it rough. Many have separation anxiety. Many haven’t been housebroken or taught basic commands. They need a lot of love and a lot of patience.
With fostering, the animal comes into your home during a stressful transition. What the foster family provides is a bridge to a new, permanent home. Adopting a new animal is stressful, but the stress passes, and the family settles in. Though I enjoyed fostering, it requires a certain tolerance for chaos because you’re always working with animals who are in transition.
Some animals stay for a few days. Others, like this girl, Honeybee, are long-term fosters. Honeybee, if you can’t tell from her photo, was a total clown. She was sweet and playful and loved to give kisses. My nieces almost cried when this girl was finally adopted.
But Honeybee had been returned to the shelter twice. When she came home with us, we saw why: She chased the cat, and, when I corrected her, stared at me like I was crazy. She’d never walked on a leash. She wasn’t house-trained and, because she was more than a year old, had difficulty getting the concept down. Honeybee wasn’t ready to be adopted. She stayed with us for several months, during which she learned not to chase the cats (usually…), to obey basic commands, and to walk on a leash. I finally managed to housetrain her through what has to be the most uncomfortable method for everyone involved: I put her on a leash indoors, which I kept around my ankle (I wouldn’t try this with a Great Dane). We also had a couple trips to the vet because she had a tendency to eat otherwise inedible things—one time, her collar. But I also remember the moment everything clicked into place for her. We were preparing for our nightly walk, and she sat there, prim and proper, as I put her leash on. She’d gone a couple days without an accident. Just like that, she was ready.
I have great memories of the dogs I’ve fostered. Though I’ve agreed, at my husband’s request, not to foster until we move into our own place with a backyard and hardwood or laminate floors, I look forward to getting involved with animal fostering once more.
Animal fostering isn’t for everyone. Once you get a dog completely trained, they go off to a new life with their forever family. Soon, there’s another dog, with its own set of challenges, in need of your help. Helping that dog is a great feeling.
But be prepared to douse that wet spot on the carpet with Nature’s Miracle (the name fits) or crate-trained an eight-week old puppy (it’s hell on your conscience). It takes a big heart to open up your home to an animal in need. You’ll gain a patience you never knew you could muster–and be on a first-name basis with the local professional carpet cleaners.