The unsung heroes of animal shelters are foster partners. These devoted people take an animal into their home for a limited time, to help the dog or cat recover from illness, or teach them the manners that will make them more adoptable, or build up their strength after abuse or neglect. Many of them will keep the animal until he or she gets adopted, and they are an invaluable resource for prospective adopters in that they can give a full picture of the pet’s charms, quirks, habits, likes and dislikes, and special qualities.
I have great admiration for these selfless caregivers. They are willing to endure disruption in their lives from ill or unruly animals. Some of these loving souls will bottle feed orphaned newborn pups or kittens every two hours, round the clock. Foster partners open their homes and hearts without reserve, and then let the pet go to an adoptive home. Unless they can’t let go – in which case the happy outcome of the animal being adopted by the foster is called, ironically, a “foster fail.” I would be a foster fail for sure.
Suzanne Held was an English professor at a nearby college who had fostered several dogs for Northside Animal Shelter. I met her at a restaurant for lunch to interview her for the shelter’s newsletter.
The vivacious, Canadian-born woman was petite, her black hair hanging in bangs practically in her eyes and swept into a tall updo reminiscent of the sixties. She sparkled with love for the dogs as she told me about some of her challenges and breakthroughs.
“Lizzy Lou, a collie mix, was literally paralyzed by fear,” she said. “She wouldn’t walk on the leash, she wouldn’t go up or down stairs. I live in a third floor apartment and my boyfriend and I had to carry her in and out several times a day. But gradually she became confident, loving — a normal dog. The first time she walked upstairs by herself I cried!”
I asked her if she had ever helped a dog get over problem behaviors like food aggression. Sadly, these behaviors sometimes cause dogs to be deemed unadoptable by the shelter staff, who can’t risk having a child or anyone else bitten. Unless a rescue or foster can be found, the animal may have to be euthanized.
Suzanne has saved some at-risk dogs. “Les, a chow-Lab mix, had a sort of low-grade food aggression,” she said. “When the behavioral assessors at the shelter pulled at his food bowl or pushed at him with that rubber hand on the pole that they use, he would snap. He wouldn’t actually bite, just sort of poise his teeth on the hand without bearing down. So I guess they thought he might be trainable.
“And he was,” she went on, picking at her kale salad. “I worked with him around food, taking his bowl away and immediately giving him a treat. When I thought he was ready, the two assessors from the shelter came over to my apartment with that rubber hand on the pole. It was pretty comical–I can only imagine what the neighbors thought was going on! They used it to pull his bowl away and he was fine. He let them. And soon after that he went to a home. I hear he’s doing well.”
“What’s your training technique?” I asked her.
“Just to shower them with love, try to teach them good behavior using food rewards and lots of praise. I take them out to various places to help them with socialization and try to get them noticed — outdoor concerts, parks, the streets downtown. When I have to leave them alone I crate them, to keep them safe and also keep my apartment safe.”
The average time a dog stayed with her, she said, was two months. That was long enough for her to make a difference. And in the past year, her record for adoption was six out of six. “They stay with me till they get adopted,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll bring them to one of the offsite adoption events or to spend the day at the shelter, but most of them have found their homes by people searching online and asking to see them.
“If by any chance one of my foster animals gets returned,” she added, “which has only happened once – I’ll take them back.”
That was reassuring; I thought it would be awfully stressful for a dog who had grown used to living in a home to be sent back to the shelter.
“I wish I could adopt them all,” she said. “Usually around day two or three, I’ll be overwhelmed by the urge to tell them, ‘I love you!’”
Which brought me to The Big Question: how did she let them go, loving them so much?
“The main thing that I feel,” she said thoughtfully, “is that when they leave me they’re going to the place where they’re meant to be. I’m part of the process—“ she pronounced it in the Canadian way, with a long o – “of helping them take the next step in their lives. It’s my job to get them ready and let them go.
“After all,” she concluded, “if I decided to keep one of them, I couldn’t keep fostering other dogs.”
I wish I could be more like Suzanne. I confess that I’m too wedded to an orderly house and an orderly schedule to take on a behaviorally-challenged or sick animal. Also, my husband would protest. Much as he loves our adopted shelter dog, Ruby, one dog is enough for him.
So I go to the dogs – spending regular time at the shelter, walking and cuddling them.
But, despite the caring staff and fine facilities at the shelter, some dogs just can’t take that environment — the noise, the smells, the proximity of so many other dogs, the constant parade of strangers past their kennels. Kept too long in institutional care, a few will “decompensate,” which is shelterspeak for “lose it,” or “go crazy.” Foster partners can intervene before it’s too late, take the dog out of the stressful situation and into a calm home until an adopter or rescue organization can be found.
If anyone reading this feels called to be a foster hero, contact your local animal shelter or rescue organization. You are sure to be welcomed with fanfares and a tickertape parade, but the real reward will be when you see your frightened or sick foster dog grow confident and healthy under your care, and possibly go on to a loving forever family. You will know that you have truly made a difference — maybe a life or death difference. How many of us can say that?