I'm a dog person through and through. No matter how big or small or slobbery, sign me up. But despite my passion for all things furry, I don't think I'm ready to make a lifetime commitment just yet. Then I read about the option of fostering. Though the idea of a temporary four-legged friend seemed perfect, I imagined that I wouldn't be able to say goodbye. Over time I'd end up with 300 dogs running wild in my two-bedroom apartment. My curiosity about the process led me to talk with a handful of foster parents who have paved the way for wannabes like me.
I started with foster mom Barb Getman, who has given a temporary home to over 250 dogs and cats. Getman explained to me that fostering takes dogs out of a stressful shelter environment, thus making them more adoptable as they begin to let their true personalities show. Getman told me, "At the shelter, the dog may have been exhibiting cage aggression. I can bring it into my home and put obstacles in front of it. Then I may be able to say, 'I'm not seeing any of these problems in my home. The dog you saw in the shelter is not the dog that I'm seeing here.'"
Abby Pratt of Charlottesville, Virginia decided to become a foster mom after adopting a German Shepherd about a year ago. Much like adding a new sibling to the family, Pratt explained to me that bringing a foster into a home requires sensitivity. However she told me that the process gets easier with each new addition to the house. She said, "We've found that when we try to impose human politeness on dogs, things go poorly. Humans greet each other face to face, but to a dog that's aggressive. They want to be able to make circles around each other and sniff butts without direct eye contact."
While fostering offers up a number of perks for both the adoptive parent and the animal, I still struggle with the idea of the goodbye process. I can't imagine how you can walk a dog, feed it, cuddle with it and then send it off to go live with someone else. Amanda Brigham of San Diego, California knew exactly what I was talking about when I voiced this concern to her. She's dealt with this with each of the eight foster dogs she's cared for.
Through her experience as a foster, Brigham has come up with a strategy for providing the care necessary without getting too attached. She explained, "You have to put it in your mind that this is not your dog, because the second you see the dog you're going to say, 'Oh my God, I need this dog. She's so cute.' It took me a few times to realize that you're doing this because her parents are out there somewhere, and that's not you. You just need to be the caregiver until she goes home with her family."
Brigham admitted to me that there are times when she's wondered whether she should permanently adopt one of her fosters, but told me once she sees pictures of the dog enjoying its permanent home she feels better. Getman is no stranger to these mixed emotions either. She discussed the concept of "foster failure" with a laugh, noting that her first foster is currently lying at the foot of her bed. Though this does happen, both Getman and Brigham agreed that it eventually becomes easier to recognize that losing a dog to a permanent home is always a positive thing, even though there is some initial sadness. The word "bittersweet" seems to describe it perfectly.
Though fostering presents a number of emotions, those who do it are absolutely essential for shelters around the country. Beth Curtiss, who up until recently served as the Secretary and Adoption Coordinator for Loki Grrl Rescue in Syracuse, New York, explained to me that the group relies heavily on fosters since Loki Grrl doesn't have a permanent shelter. She told me, "We believe it is important to give the dogs a normal home life as soon as possible. Foster families not only provide housing for our dogs, they give the love, attention, care and training that every dog needs and desires."
There are worthy rescue groups all over, so someone who's interested in fostering should begin by checking locally to find out about the organizations near them. It's important to get details about that rescue, as all groups operate differently. For pet commitment-phobes like me, fostering seems to be the perfect way to reap the benefits of furry companionship, while also helping out a pup in need. To be honest though, I'm still not convinced I'll be able to escape a severe case of "foster failure" at some point.