“How do you do it?” I asked Rosie’s foster dad, Lee, when I picked up the little Jack Russell/Beagle mix to transport her to her forever home two States away. On my long journey across the country, I wondered if I’d ever have the strength to foster. “How do you love a dog with all your heart and then let them go to their forever home?”
Lee shrugged. “People tell you it doesn’t hurt. But they’re lying. It hurts like hell. But you see how happy they are with their new family, and the pain starts to go away. You cry and get through it, and then you do it all over again. Rosie is going to her forever family, so now there’s space in my family to take another in, and the rescue can pull another from the shelter, and then the shelter has one more open kennel. It’s all worth it.”
I looked down at Rosie who was perfectly content in my passenger seat, ready for whatever adventure lay ahead. That’s a testament to her foster dad. Rosie had come to him shy and timid. Her person had passed away and the family didn’t want to care for her, so they let her loose in the neighborhood. Russell Rescue, Inc. took her in. In the months Lee had had her, she grew in confidence, letting her true self shine as a temporary member of his Jack Russell pack. She worked through her own grief of losing her person, the only home she had ever known, and being abandoned by her person’s family. With Lee, she was given the time to heal, to feel safe again, to be ready for the next stage of her life. Through love and time and many adventures—going camping, attending dog events, and spending time with the family—Rosie was ready.
I went in to the truck stop restroom to give Lee a private moment with Rosie. When I returned I asked if he was ready. “Yup, it’s time,” he said with a sigh.
While Rosie and I headed west toward her new life, Lee returned home to have dinner with his wife, reminisce about the good times with Rosie, cry, and then talk about all the wonderful hopes they had for her in her new home. And then they’d wash the bedding and get ready for their next foster, the next dog in need of a pit stop on their journey in life: a place to heal, to relax, to get ready for a brilliant new future.
When I returned from transporting across the country, I started to foster for a little more than just a few days. I’d take them for a couple of weeks, and do as Lee did: allow them to decompress after a shelter stay, get them used to home living, provide them the safe space to open up, and just be themselves again.
“But how can you not just adopt them all?” people would ask as if I was heartless to just be able to let them go.
A friend of mine who had worked at a shelter in New Mexico gave me sage advice during my cross country trip: “When you start rescuing, you have to wait to adopt. You have to figure out the difference between a good dog and your dog. Cause every dog is a good dog.”
She was right. Every dog is a good dog, but that doesn’t mean they’re your dog.
But it also doesn’t mean I love them less. I connect and love every foster I have ever held under my roof, in my arms, and in my heart. But they aren’t my soul dogs. They are my friends, the super cool guys and sweet girls who I want desperately to help find their true love. I help them heal from the past so when their soulmates find their way to them, they’re ready to start a new life together.
And when that soulmate arrives, you let your foster go not because you don’t love them; but rather you let them go because you do love them. You love them so much, you want the very best for them, and you see where they truly belong.
Lee was right: it does hurt to let them go. But that pain isn’t theirs; it’s yours. It’s the same pain every mother experiences when her son drives off to college with all his earthly belongings; it’s the same pain every father feels when they watch their daughter get married. But that doesn’t mean they regret raising a child. The pain of that loss is worth every second of joy along the way.
From my own experience, just about every dog I’ve ever fostered has somehow known that I was merely a step toward something bigger, something greater. While they bonded with me as their caregiver and “rebound person,” something electric happens when they meet their new family or soul-person. The way they gaze into that person’s eyes, or take joy in a child handing them a toy: you feel their energy, and your heart registers that they’ve found home.
Before they leave, I always get a big dog hug or final jump in my lap with a lick on the nose or an enthusiastic tail wag of thanks to me and a final goodbye. They know I was there to help them along, but that I wasn’t their soulmate. I watch them leave me, knowing their time has ended with me but only because their new life has begun. The tears in my eyes are bittersweet. They contain the loss I feel to no longer have them in my home, but they also contain the hope and joy of their life to come.
I didn’t think I’d ever be strong enough to foster, but it turns out I am. And so are you. Everyone is. It doesn’t take any special training. You just need an open door and an open heart. The human heart is stronger than we think it is. It is boundless love, and while it can get bruised and beaten up in the travels of life, it remains ever hopeful, able to heal and come back even stronger.
This summer, consider fostering a homeless pet in need. Make that dog or cat or bunny your project: find them true love. Take them into your home, show them what it is to have a family again (or maybe for the very first time) and prepare them for the amazing adventure that is their life to come. You are their best friend and wingman. As you walk your foster dog, tell everyone who passes all about him. When you go out at night, tell your friends about your foster cat you have who finally came out of the bathroom of his own accord that morning. Share your stories, post your pictures, and let the world know that your foster pet is on the lookout for his or her soulmate.
Fostering isn’t as hard as you may think it is. It’s simply loving. You love by letting a pet in need into your home and into your heart. You love by giving them food and shelter and a safe place to heal. You love by recognizing that they have a big life in front of them and you are helping them along the way. And you love by letting them go when their soulmate arrives. That last step hurts, but only for a moment, as the joy of seeing your foster pet flourish and love his or her person takes all that pain away. That joy, that love, is what will make you return to the shelter or rescue after each adoption and ask, “Who can I help today?”
Please contact your local shelter, rescue or Bark Avenue Foundation to find out about fostering opportunities. Be just one chapter in the book of life for a pet in need.