I got an email a few days ago from one of our adopters, who told us that their dog, one that we had fostered a decade ago, had died. Princess (name changed) was a dog with a tragic past. She’d lived her life to that point in a filthy pen surrounded by inches and inches of dog waste, eating moldy food and drinking dirty water. The email said that she had a merciful death after a long life.
During the relatively brief time we spent with her, we tried to get Princess to the point where she was adoptable. She had been the leader of the other dogs, the one who protected them when the rescuers arrived to pull the dogs, literally, out of the muck. We thought that a dog with enough nobility and strength to defend and mother the smaller dogs would be the one who would make the best transition to normal life. We were wrong. Princess was completely lost in her new environment. With no one to take care of, she was bewildered and frightened. In the face of all of these changes, she froze.
We figured out how to get her to climb stairs (answer: put her on a leash and run at top speed upstairs); how to get her to stop immediately stepping in her own waste when we took her for walks (answer: go with two people and have one person take her away from the location the second she finished going, while the other person scooped); and how to get her out of her crate sometimes (answer: squeaky toys). By the time she was adopted, she went from a traumatized mess of a dog, albeit one with a valiant heart, to a project dog who would probably be limited all of her life.
Her adopters took her at that point, and in their care she became the dog she always should have been, intelligent and confident, elegant and funny. She lost her dependence on her crate and again became important, this time to her loving humans instead of her fellow dogs. Those limits I anticipated did not exist. We never saw her again, although her excellent adopters kept us up-to-date with pictures and stories, and I can honestly say I never worried for an instant that she wasn’t receiving everything we had ever dreamed for her.
Even so, when I got the email learning of her death, I was reminded that my fostering mantra had come true: I had played a brief role in this dog’s life, one that was just a preamble to her real life with the people she was meant to be with. And it turned out I was right: I could live with only having that.
The more dogs I fostered, the easier it got to give them up, for the most part. I learned to love them without becoming emotionally engaged, for the most part. (The one exception, Penny, still makes me wistful years later.) Learning to love fully and let go freely has been one of the most valuable, if hard-earned, skills I have learned in my life.
Yes, it was sad to give up Princess at the time, but because we let her go, we could foster Theodora, and after her, Jackie and Daisy and Penny and Suzy Q and finally, Eustace. All of them had run out of time, but by our giving them a few months at our house, they went on to have long, happy lives in the homes they were meant to be in. I can’t honestly say I’ve been in touch with all of their adopters, and it’s possible some of them aren’t alive anymore, and amazingly, I’m OK with that.
In each rescue dog’s life, there is a team of people in addition to the foster who play a role in getting the dog to a good home. In Princess’s case, there was the woman who alerted our rescue to her plight. There was Victoria, the director of the rescue who evaluated the dogs and arranged for foster homes for them. There was Victoria’s husband, Albert, who physically retrieved the dogs from the filthy pen and received a kangaroo kick from a terrified Princess that sent him sprawling into the excrement and muck. There were the people who transported Princess to the vet and to our house. There were the vets who gave us a discounted rate so we could give Princess the care she needed. There were the volunteers who did the home visit and updated the Petfinder site. Every one of these people cared about Princess. Every one of them only played a brief part in her life. Every one of them would do it again.
Yes, fostering means you love a dog and then lose them forever, but it’s still worth it. If you’ve been afraid to do it because you are worried your heart might break, just ask people who do it regularly. You can learn to let go and still allow yourself to love your foster dog wholeheartedly.