Confessions of a (Canine) Foster Parent

Confessions of a (Canine) Foster Parent

I have been told there is a special place in heaven for people like me. I hope so, because God knows I do my best, as pitiful as my best is sometimes. And I’ll be in good company, because I’ve learned I’m not alone in this world. There is a whole underground movement of people just like me – I privately refer to us as “the suckers club,” but society calls us foster parents.

No, I don’t do children – I want to get that straight right up front. It’s not that I don’t like children, but I barely have the patience for my own semi-normal offspring. I wouldn’t begin to know what to do with damaged human young. As it so happens, I’m somewhat damaged myself, but rather than giving me compassion for other bipeds, it’s made me impatient, short-tempered, and all around mistrustful of people in general and children in particular. So no, I don’t, can’t, and won’t do children.

I’m a dog person. I’ve been a dog person for as long as I can remember. I’m not going to go into all the dogs I’ve known & loved – not here, not today, maybe not ever. There’s a lot of pain involved in going back and that’s not the story I’m telling today. Suffice it to say there were always dogs, from the time I was born forward, and even when I didn’t have a human friend to speak of, I had dogs.

I said I’m not going down that road today, but there is one stop I need to make before I do get where I’m going, and it’s a painful one, but it’s necessary. Let’s briefly touch down in the late summer of 1991. My mother had met a man that summer, and that man was a surveyor who worked for a multi-national construction company and travelled a great deal with his job. My mother had been looking for love and when she found this man she was willing to do what she had to do to stay with him – including and not limited to uprooting her teenage daughters and family pets and moving us all to a back-woods community the likes of which I’d never experienced in my life. He became my stepfather, and my children’s grandfather, and while he had his faults – some of them extreme – he was all in all a good man at heart, and like the rest of us, he did his limited best. Along for the ride on this first move were his brother, his brother’s emotionally unstable wife, and his brother’s equally unstable dogs. The dog that could have changed my story for the worse – but didn’t – was an Akita.

I don’t know how much you know about Akitas, but they are a breed that needs special handling, and my step-uncle and his lunatic wife were NOT the sorts of people who needed this sort of dog. They also had a sheltie, which is fine. Shelties are not Akitas. I don’t blame the dog for what happened. I blame a stupid fourteen year old girl (that would be me), and a dysfunctional married couple (step-uncle & deranged wife), and a move that was traumatic on all involved – including the dogs.

I had three lab mixes & a small terrier mix in those days, and the first thing the Akita did, after a long, trying, two-day car trip, was to attack my labs. The men broke up the fight, no one was hurt, and the Akita was tied out back. I know now he should have been put in one of the quiet upstairs bedrooms & left alone to calm down. None of us had the sense to know that then. He weathered a thunderstorm while tied to the clothesline, and after the storm I, being the fool I was (and still am sometimes), went out back to check on him, alone, with no idea that my headlong rush out the back door could be construed as a threat.

He bit me – he got my lower lip and ripped it nearly off, then lunged again, and would have gotten my throat had I not had the instinctive response of throwing up my arm after the first bite. I was taken by car directly to the local hicksville hospital, which sent me across the street to a family practice, which sent me – again by car – to a large city hospital two hours distant. I got shots, emergency reconstructive surgery, and stitches – lots and lots and lots of stitches – and spent the next several weeks eating soup. Lots and lots and lots of soup. To this day I have trouble with soup.

The poor dog was quarantined, and eventually euthanized. I still feel bad for the dog.

About three weeks after the attack, I headed out to explore our new woods, and mountains, and creeks. My labs were delighted to see me and insisted on accompanying me – they had missed me while I was shut up in the house. These dogs were around five years old at this point, and we’d had them since they were puppies. They jumped and frolicked and I was terrified of them, to the point I finally climbed up on a large rock and wept inconsolably. They sat down around the rock, understanding something was wrong, unable to comprehend what. I looked down at them, their smiling faces, lolling tongues, wagging tails, and loving, compassionate eyes – and I swore angrily at myself for being a fool. These were MY dogs, and they would NEVER hurt me.  Children would hurt me, other dogs might hurt me, but not these. Never these. I got down from the rock and sat on the ground, and my dogs swarmed all over me, licking my face, my neck, my hands, my bare legs & feet – they loved me, they loved me! I cried some more and hugged them all and buried my face in their fur. Later I picked lots of black and yellow hairs out of my stitches, and THAT hurt like anything – but it was okay, I didn’t mind that it hurt.

And so my life did change forever, but not like it could have. Someday when I get to heaven I hope that Sandy, Mandy, Scruffy and Pepper are the first dogs I see. I plan to let them swarm over my lap and lick me all over, and I’ll probably cry all over them again – but it will be fine, they’ll understand. They saved me that day down by the creek, and they didn’t know it then, but they’ll know it when I see them in heaven.

So I didn’t mean for that story to take up so much space, but I can’t think of how to make it shorter without losing the meaning, so I’m leaving it.

I want to talk about other dogs today. I’ll start with Rosie, who was a Pyrie mix, one of those “free to good home” puppies you see at ball games and K-Mart. It was my birthday, my 26th birthday, and I wanted a dog – I felt incomplete without one, something my husband, who is not a dog person, will never understand. Rosie was at a soccer game, and so was her mama, who was an AKC registered Pyrie with championship bloodlines – mama’s dog show days ended with this litter, and she was spayed. That’s kind of too bad in a way, but Rosie’s daddy, to whom I’ve always referred as “Sneaky Male Dog,” climbed an eight foot fence to impregnate mama dog, and so I think mama dog’s family made the right decision. Rosie came with an “about me” paper, a list of suggestions for puppy care, and the owners’ phone number, in case I decided I didn’t want her after all.

They had nothing to worry about with Rosie. She was my darling girl, in spite of all of her stubborn, headstrong ways. She cost me a great deal of money – vet bills are not cheap, and neither are door frames and windows – but she was worth every penny I ever spent on her. In June 2011, just two months shy of her ninth birthday, Rosie had some sort of medical incident – maybe a stroke, maybe organ failure, we don’t know. She fell down when my mom came to let her out to potty, and when she was finally able to get up, she went to my youngest daughter’s bedroom and stayed there. Mama didn’t think anything of it – Rosie was getting old, and Mama thought she’d just been in such a hurry to get outside that she fell & wore herself out. After supper that night, when Rosie still hadn’t joined us in the family room, Mama remembered and told me that she’d fallen.

I knew, then. I went down the hall and sat down on the floor beside her. She wagged her tail and licked my hand but made no move to rise.

“Don’t do this here,” I told her. “I know as well as you do that this is it – but not in Bridget’s room. Come to the living room and I’ll stay with you, and you can go whenever you’re ready – just not in Bridget’s room. Please.”

After awhile I left her and went to the living room to brood. Mama had gone home; Vannesa was at the beach; Charles & Damon were in Texas. It was just me, Bridget, and the dogs. Along about bedtime, when Bridget had gone to brush her teeth, I heard a terrible commotion from down the hall, several crashes and bangs – before I could even stand up Rosie had rushed, staggering, into the living room. She fell down at my feet & never got up on her own again.

I made Max & Peaches, my other dogs, spend that night outside. Bridget & I made pallets in the living room floor and spent the night with Rosie. None of us got much sleep. Rosie wasn’t in any pain, but she was scared. I could tell. I stroked her old faded cheeks and fondled her downy-soft ears and spoke to her softly, and she thumped her tail against the floor. Every so often she’d try to stand up and get scared all over again; I’d stroke her and talk to her until she calmed down.

Bridget & I took turns showering the next morning, so Rosie wasn’t ever alone. At seven o’clock I called Mama, and she came on over to help me get Rosie to the vet. I wasn’t worried about the trip stressing her – Rosie loved going places, and she adored our vet. When Mama got to the house, I set about picking up mine & Bridget’s bedding. That’s when I found the mouse.

Jackie Chan, my cat, had killed a mouse the night before. I saw him playing with it long before he killed it. He usually eats the head & top half of the body. We usually find the bottom half in someone’s shoe or under a chair. He had chewed the mouse in half, like he always does – but he’d brought the top half, his favorite half, and “given” it to Rosie that previous night, laid it right at her head where she could get it if she wanted it. I almost lost it then. Almost, but not quite.

I actually did really well. I carried Rosie to the car, and she was thrilled to be going for a ride. I rolled the window down so she could put her head out, and held her so she wouldn’t fall. When we got to the vet I carried her in – she said “hello” to all of her friends there. I didn’t cry until after she was gone. Then I buried my face in her neck and bawled like a baby. I told her she was and would always be my friend. Corny, maybe, but I meant it with all my heart.

She’s buried behind Mama’s barn, with many, many other good dogs & cats, and one horse.

We all fell into a funk after that, and couldn’t come out of it. Even Max & Peaches were sad. Don’t tell me dogs don’t grieve, because they do. Jackie Chan gave me more dead mice. Cats grieve too, just in a different way. I said I’d get another dog someday – but not yet. I said I’d rescue one from the shelter – when I was ready, but not yet.

Sometimes you find a dog who needs you before you’re ready to admit you need her too.

In July 2011 a person I only knew through Facebook sent me a message and asked if I knew anyone who could help. This lovely young lady has very young children, and was uncomfortable bringing an adult dog into her home – but there was a young black bitch with a litter of newborn puppies at the shelter, and the shelter staff had called her for help, because if no one saved this dog & these puppies they’d be euthanized. Ours is a poor rural county and our shelter has neither the space nor the funding to raise a litter of puppies to adoption age.

Now, I’d been seeing Rosie around our place – and I’d felt her there too. I’d see her in the evenings waiting for me at the mailbox when I came home from work. I’d speed up a little but she was always gone by the time I got there. She’d be waiting for me on the other side of the front door when I was unlocking it – but I’d tear the door down to get it open and she’d already have gone. She’d come stand beside me sometimes when I was cooking supper – but she slipped away between seconds. I was always too late.

So call me crazy – the ghost of my dead dog was hanging around and taking care of me, like she’d always done in life. It’s February 2012 now and she’s STILL sitting at the mailbox some evenings when I drive down the road. You don’t have to believe it – this story doesn’t depend on whether or not you believe it. All that matters is that I know when she’s around.

That night Rosie’s ghost came and put her head on my shoulder and whuffed at my hair, and told me, “I want you to do this.”

I didn’t sleep a lick that night, thinking about that dog and those puppies.

The next day I put in a request to leave work an hour early. Before it was even approved I called the shelter and told Sara that I would be there as quickly as I could to get that dog and her puppies, and would she wait for me if I was a little late?

She and Phil waited for me. Don’t tell me that animal control is staffed by a heartless bunch. I know better. I was five minutes late – my mom was there right at five, but I was late – and they waited on me. Sara was so relieved she cried. Don’t tell me they don’t care.

Maggie and her puppies lived in the house for the first four weeks, and then moved outside, where they absolutely flourished. I had to have one of the pups euthanized because of severe birth defects – he was messed up inside, but it wasn’t obvious until he was four weeks old. His name was Baggypants. I cried over that puppy just like I cried over Rosie. I buried him beside her. Of the remaining seven pups – five have been adopted, two seven month old males are left, and Maggie is mine. Rosie would approve. Rosie would say that Maggie is pack, and she’d be right.

Maggie and her pups caught the attention of the Stokes County Humane Society, who contacted me and offered to help me out if I would volunteer for them. I agreed and never looked back.

In November 2011, when I still had five of Maggie’s pups, that same Facebook friend contacted me about another dog with puppies – this one had nine four-week-old puppies, and her owners had surrendered her, just gave her up, along with the pups. I went to the shelter first thing the next morning to see them. I’d been lucky with Maggie – would I be lucky again?

Her name was Baby, and she’d been someone’s pampered princess. She was beautiful, if quite a bit overweight, and her puppies looked like a tribe of Ewoks. I told Sara not to do anything with them – I wanted to go home first and set up Rosie’s trusty old crate that had housed Maggie and her pups and now would house Baby and hers. Over the course of the next few weeks I learned a few things:

  1.  Baby is too good a dog to have been dumped at the shelter, puppies or no puppies.
  2.  I got lucky with Maggie, who was a good mama and took good care of her babies.
  3.  Sometimes litters of puppies are demon-possessed and exist only to make humans miserable.
  4.  Even in those cases they don’t deserve to be dumped at the shelter.
  5.  I am, beyond a shadow of a doubt, insane and ought to be institutionalized.

Baby’s rear knees slide in & out of socket, and she’s going to have to have surgery soon. That’s the reason she wasn’t taking good care of her puppies. They hadn’t been neglected – they were as fat as she was – but once I figured out that they were hurting her I bought formula and taught them to lap it out of a dish. I also started making puppy soup for them using formula or goat’s milk, chicken broth, and soaking dry kibble until it was soft & mushy. I knew it was early but I started only making Baby nurse them three times a day – the rest of the time they got formula or puppy soup. Once they were seven weeks old we moved them to another foster home, and shortly thereafter Stokes County Humane Society arranged for them to be transported to North Shore Animal League – a long trip, from Danbury, NC to Port Washington, NY, but we knew NSAL would take care of them & make sure they went to good homes.

As for Baby – she’s spoiled rotten, self-centered, dog aggressive, and tends to pout if she’s NOT the center of attention. But she’s also a wonderful, people-oriented, loving dog who deserves to live a pain-free life as an only dog with someone who will care for her. Baby has broken my heart in ways Maggie didn’t – Maggie was a stray, a street dog, used to fending for herself. Baby was someone’s pampered princess, a loved family member, and for whatever reason she was abandoned. Maggie took awhile to trust us. Baby trusted us right off. Maggie’s been hurt by people. Baby has never been hurt by anyone – not physically, anyway. Sometimes I think she’s thinking about her family – she gets sad, and quiet, and will go lay down in her crate with her back to the door.

I had intended to write this blog about Baby, but this is bigger than Baby. It’s bigger than Maggie. I thought it started with Rosie – but when I started writing I realized that it’s older than Rosie, too. In some ways it starts with Dakota, the Akita who bit me – in others it goes back and touches every single one of those dogs I’ve known and loved. In some ways it’s about all the friends I didn’t have, and the dogs who took their place. And then again, in some ways it really does start with Rosie – because if not for losing Rosie when I did, I’d never have met Maggie, and if not for Maggie I’d never have taken the plunge for Baby.

This is about us. It’s about the suckers in the world who understand with our heads that we can’t save them all – but who know in our hearts we’re not going to stop trying. It’s about what we do and why we do it. And it’s about all the dogs we’ve known and loved, and the dogs who have hurt us and changed us in ways we never would have imagined.



8 thoughts on “Confessions of a (Canine) Foster Parent

  1. My gosh heather you are indeed the most incredible person I know. Yes there is a special place for you in heaven with all the wonderful dogs you have helped and loved your entire lifetime. I laughed out loud in parts and teared up in others . This is fantastic and for Charles not being a dog lover – well he had me fooled 🙂 keep up the good work and love for those babies 🙂

  2. OMG… Heather.. I would pay for a book if you wrote it.. which I truly feel is your calling.. I found myself feeling as if I was in these situations with you.. wow….. I cried.. I laughed.. I mourned for you… your truly a special person and I am honored to know you… your blog will definitely be a bright spot in my day.. can’t wait for the next installment!!!! THANK YOU for all that you are… thank you.

  3. You really do have a gift for writing because I felt each and everything you described and it had me in tears alot! I think you should definitely keep writing about your experiences with the fosters because it is something that people need to know more about and your style of writing is as real as it gets. Thank you for sharing!

  4. Wow. I saw the link to this on the ASPCA status and just had to read….I cried, I laughed, and I know exactly where you’re coming from. My pup led me to fostering and has become the vest foster brother ever. We may soon foster fail with our current rescue. He touched my heart from the first time he appeared on our local shelters Facebook page. There’s something to being a “crazy dog lady” and I wouldn’t change it for the world. Thanks so much for sharing your story. It truly touched my heart.

    1. So that’s what they call it – I totally foster failed with Maggie! And you’re right – being a crazy dog lady is the best thing ever. 🙂 Thank you so much for stopping by. I’ve waxed a bit political lately but I don’t intend for that to be a regular thing. My word on it.

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