Want to foster dogs? It’s rewarding, but can also be a challenge, as we discovered when we took in an elderly beagle.
She wasn’t a herding dog that would try to round up my cats, or a puppy that would need to be housetrained. Just an aging beagle with a slight limp. A nice, easy dog to foster, I thought.
“You’re taking Joy? Oh, thank you!” the harried shelter staff said. My partner and I foster dogs and cats from the city’s public shelter, or what used to be called “the pound”. I noticed the relief in their voices but thought: How hard can one little old dog be?
Soon after I got Joy home, I noticed drops of moisture on the floors. I wasn’t sure which end was dribbling, but when Joy finally flopped down on the hardwood floor, a puddle began to form under her hindquarters.
My dismay was quickly replaced by the realization that Joy’s incontinence probably would have gone undetected and untreated if she’d remained at the shelter. Going into problem-solving mode, I picked up the rugs, turned the couch cushions upright to prevent her from leaking on the upholstery, and ran to the pet store to see if they sold diapers for dogs. I had committed to caring for Joy until we found her a permanent home, and it’s not easy to find someone who wants to adopt a ten-year-old dog, especially one that’s incontinent – and that barks as much as Joy did.
Our own dog informs us about all the comings and goings on our block, but at least she stops barking when the trespasser moves along. Joy, on the other hand, would get stuck in on mode. We called it “auto-bark” because she would emit seal-like “arfs” with the maddening regularity of a metronome. Riding in the car, being left alone in the house, or the possibility of food sometimes started her on barking benders that could last hours.
I attempted to “reward quiet” by giving Joy a treat when she stopped barking, even for a moment. The problem was, there were few pauses to reward, and the prospect of food only fueled her frenzy. Other times, I’d fi re off a string of “Quiet! Shut up! Zip it! Enough!” in the hope I’d find the magic word to make her stop. Sometimes my interruptions would cause Joy to pause, like someone who has lost her train of thought mid-sentence. Then she would throw her head back and form her wrinkly lips into another “arf”.
We also worked with the vet to resolve Joy’s leaking problem. After more than a month, we cleared up her kidney infection and incontinence. Things were looking up – we might be losing our hearing, but at least we were no longer stepping in puddles of urine. Best of all, we could return the couch cushions to their horizontal position.
Finally, Joy was well enough to put up for adoption. I posted her profile online, along with several adorable pictures, on the slim chance someone might fall for her.
Within ten days, we had a call – from Montana. The Bower family was looking for a second small dog to adopt, and were taken with Joy’s resemblance to their own beagle. I warned them about her barking and gave them a full account of her medical issues, but I could tell they had already made up their minds. When they saw Joy’s profile, Mr. Bower simply told his wife: “Get that dog!”
I felt uncomfortable about sending Joy to live in another state with people I’d never met, but I figured it was her best chance of finding a real home. The Bowers paid for Joy’s plane ticket, though I warned them they would have to pay for a return flight if things didn’t work out.
I don’t remember whether Joy barked on the way to the airport. Even though I was relieved she had found a home, I worried about whether I had made the right choice. I sat with her before the flight and ran my hands over her velvety gray ears. “Be good. Have a good life,” I whispered.
When people find out I foster animals, they frequently ask: “How can you stand to give them up?” It’s always difficult, and I usually whine to my partner “can’t we keep him?” even though I know the answer. We can’t keep them because there are still too many animals out there that deserve a second chance.
I know the shelter came close to giving up on Joy. I also know she ended up there through no fault of her own. Like the rest of the animals there, she wound up there because of a human failure – a failure of compassion, responsibility or just common sense.
Last we heard, Joy was learning about snow and chasing deer in Montana. I imagine her “arfs” echoing through the wide Montana wilderness, and feel grateful I was able to give her a second chance.