The foster learning curve


Back when I had that contest to ask for blogging ideas, Jill wrote:

I'm with Julia: more about your dogs. I'd like to know how you introduce rescues to your permanent pets, do you walk all of them?, do you do anything (obedience, etc.) to make the fosters more adoptable...that type of thing.

Those are good questions. I'm afraid my answers aren't going to be that enlightening, though. I'm not really a great dog advice person. I've been around a lot of dogs now, and done quite a bit of work, but I don't have a real philosophy or guidelines or anything. For a real dog expert, I highly recommend checking out Joanna's blog. That woman knows her shit.

Me, I just sorta do what works.

Grace and Chance 2The whole dog rescue journey started quite by mistake. Mark and I adopted our first dog, Chance, from a rescue in 2003. In retrospect, adopting Chance was a big mistake. I wouldn't change a thing, of course, but we went in pretty blind. You should NOT choose a totally untrained 120 lb Rott-Anatolian cross to be your first dog. But we did, and we loved him from the beginning. Which is good, because if we'd loved him any less, he'd have ended up being put down. Chance was aggresisve. Aggressive enough that he was dangerous. We spent a whole lot of time and money fixing that issue, which the help of a really high quality trainer. Those training sessions (and there were a lot of them) are pretty much the sum total of my dog training expertise. And much of what was suggested for Chance, particularly regarding establishing dominance, I don't bother with when relating to my current dogs. Chance needed it. They don't.

7 napping puppiesAbout a year after we adopted Chance, we found ourselves fostering seven five-week old Lab mix puppies. The how and why of that is a long story, which you can read here if you are interested. By that time, Chance was pretty mellow (well, all things considered). But seven five-week old puppies is a lot by anybody's standards, and we were completely unprepared. It was, as well as being one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, hell on Earth. Weeks of cleaning up after them, running after them, not getting any sleep, worrying about them...but they all lived to be happy, healthy dogs, and we found homes for all of them. It was expensive, it was frustrating, and it was amazing.

After that, we just knew we could do it. We didn't actually do any more rescue for a while, as we weren't quite sure how Chance would react to having another adult dog in the house (he loved the puppies), plus we were in a rental, but the seed had been planted.

Then we bought our house, and Chance died. We adopted Leo, and when we went to pick him up from the rural rescue where he was living, I fell in love with the idea of having land and being able to rescue large scale. We didn't take any more fosters for a bit, though, as we wanted to give, Leo, who turned out to be elderly and have some health issues, time to adjust. Then we met and unexpectedly fell in love with Ata, and so we had two dogs. They got on so well together, we figured it was time to take the plunge.

Ata, Bridgie, and LeoOur first intentional foster was Bridget, the Anatolian Shepherd. We had Bridget for about six months. She was not an easy dog. Unlike Ata, Bridget was a very typical Anatolian--very standoffish and difficult to get attached to. Plus, we learned about the difficulty of walking three dogs who are all 90 lbs+. But we kept at it, and she came out of her shell. She never really fit in as part of our pack, but she was safe and healthy with us, and we eventually were able to find her a great home.

The bug had bitten us by then. We started looking more seriously for a rescue with whom we would like to work. And, a bit later, we hooked up with Hound Rescue. Neither of us had any particular hound-love, but I heard or saw a call for fosters from them somewhere, and called on a lark. I liked the person who got back to me so much that we decided to give hounds a try, with the specification that we wanted bigger hounds, not the beagles the rescue specializes in, since they'd surely be yappy and annoying.

Mark and Friday on the couch 5Our first HR foster was Friday, who was an absolute nightmare. He was a basset hound/fox hound mix. When we first got him, he was sick with kennel cough and seemed very mellow. The healthier he got, the worse he was. He was destructive, he howled non-stop, and he refused to be housetrained. It was such a headache! He clearly knew he was supposed to go outside to go to the bathroom, but he would get mad at you and look straight at you and pee on the floor. We made him wear a doggie diaper. He peed in it, then peed through it. We checked for a health issue. The issue was determined to be behavioral. We pulled our hair out.

And then Friday got adopted, and we learned from his new owner that he never peed in the house. We realized it was us, or our other dogs, or our house. Sometimes dogs are good matches for your family and sometimes they aren't. You do the best you can. The thing we learned from Friday was that the key to being succesful in rescue is support. We had lots of people to talk about our issues with, they made suggestions, they offered supplies, and when it became clear Friday just wasn't going to work out at our house, they offered to house him elsewhere (which ended up not being necessary). Even though our experience with Friday hadn't been great, our experience with the rescue was, so we went on to foster through them again as soon as Friday was adopted out.

oliverAnd since then, we've fostered, by my count, 10 dogs through Hound Rescue. Four beagles; three beagle mixes; two larger hound mixes; and a bloodhound. One of the mixes was a puppy. The bloodhound was a disaster and did have to go to another home (suddenly, it became clear just what it means for a house to be too small for a dog). Three of them I would have kept in a heartbeat. Two of them had fairly major medical issues. Nearly all of them had ear infections, mange, fleas, or all three. All of them taught me something. And, most importantly, all of them had a home with us, and now have homes with other loving families (well, aside from Huey, but he will).

I've never done anything else that has filled me with such a sense of wonder as dog rescue. These animals NEED us, and they give us so much for what amounts to so little. But it's not always easy. I've had to learn to be more patient, for sure, and deal with more extreme nastiness than I ever could have guessed (there is seriously nothing grosser than seven puppies being dewormed). It's been hard on my permanent animals, particularly the cats. It's been hard to let them go. It's been hard to keep them.

grace and eug 5My major piece of advice for anyone considering doing rescue is to focus not on the type of dog you want to foster, but on the organization with whom you are going to work. The support you are offered by the organization makes ALL the difference. It turns out that we love beagles, and I can't imagine not having more of them in my lifetime, but I doubt we'll foster beagles in Virginia, unless we happen to find another fantastic hound rescue. It's generally harder to find fosters for larger breed dogs, and we're comfortable with the big guys, so we'll likely look in that direction. Also, since I am going to work from home, we're open to puppies again, which we haven't been. Mostly, though, what we're going to look for is an organization that supports its fosters, provides resources, and never makes you feel like you should do more than you can. We've found that here, and we never would have gotten this far into rescue without it. I very much hope we can find it there, too.


What amazing forgiveness and perseverance you embody to work with such a wide range of challenging animals. I don't know how you find enough time in your life or love in your heart to do it, but it's amazing that you do.

We were very briefly thinking of becoming cat fosterers this fall, but then we had the kitten debacle, where I learned for the first time what it meant to encounter a truly bad animal. Now I think I'm off pets for at least another five years.

Awwww, Chancers ...

So nice to see his face. Y'all did such a great job with him. I remember him licking my head repeatedly when I sat in front of him. So, yes, he could be aggressive--though never with Tosca, thankfully--but also very affectionate. A cuddly handful, perhaps.

And gone way too damned soon.

Thanks, Grace. This is exactly the type of info I was hoping to read. (I've been away from blogs for a couple of weeks so I'm late to the game.)

I've got two giant breed dogs, a St. Bernard (from a shelter) and a Bernese Mountain Dog (owner turn-in), who both love other dogs. I've thought about trying to foster someone. Your perspective is helpful as I consider it.

My sister in Maryland has some experience with beagle rescue there if you're interested after the move.

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