Within three days of moving to Arizona, I’d attained my life-long dream of having a dog.
Temporarily, at least. I was already in the Best Friends Animal Society volunteer database from a day trip three years earlier, so when I submitted my foster application, they eagerly returned my call: would I be willing to take two puppies?
I’d never been responsible for puppies for more than a few hours at a time; it felt overwhelming to accept two of them within days of driving eight hundred miles to my new home in the desert. But it was my longing for a dog that set me on the path to nomad in the first place, and I’d moved to Arizona specifically to be close to Best Friends. So I said yes and dove right in, beginning three months of serial fostering opportunities.
Meet the dogs
Before I introduce my fosters, I want to thank Best Friends, especially employees Taylor and Kate, for being so gracious and flexible. They answered all questions, allayed my fears, and accommodated my and my Airbnb landlord’s requirements. While there are many worthy causes out there, Best Friends would appreciate your support.
Rocket & Nebula
This seven-week-old brother-sister pair of hound mixes came from a litter of seven; their siblings were Gamora, Groot, Drax, Quill, and Mantis. I quickly learned that puppies are a handful and require constant surveillance. As Rocket and Nebula weren’t housebroken, I kept them in an exercise pen or crate anytime I wasn’t able to give them my full attention. Puppies can hold their pee for as many hours as their age in months plus one, which meant I had to let them out every three hours. Fortunately, whereas adult dogs sleep twelve hours a day, puppies sleep up to twenty, so I was able to occasionally get some work done.
Nebula, the tan dog, was the bolder of the two, more willing to try new things — but she was also the first to retreat when things didn’t go as expected. Rocket was slower and more methodical, willing to watch his sister, learn from her mistakes, then make a more successful attempt on his own.
Rocket was also slightly pudgier than his sister, yet Nebula was more territorial about her food, growling anytime Rocket came near. I tried separating them at dinner time, but they’d ignore their food and howl until they were in each other’s company again.
Puppies are in demand, and Rocket and Nebula were adopted immediately after they were spayed and neutered, less than a week after I brought them home.
Mr. Big was an adult pit bull recovering from a self-inflicted sunburn — he just didn’t know when to quit sunbathing! I had him for a week while he recovered. Due to his photosensitivity, all our walks had to be before sunrise and after sunset. Not being able to go out in between except for brief moments to relieve himself made for some long days, but we got through.
I had Mr. Big for a week; he was adopted less than a month later.
When I was given a list of four foster dogs to choose from, Lesh shot to the top: I’d always wanted a brindle (a dog with a tiger-striped coat), and Lesh met that aesthetic. At only 18 months old, he was a bundle of happy energy, eager to walk, play, and cuddle.
Clearly this pretty boy was in demand, as I’d had him for only two days before Best Friends texted me: “Lesh has been adopted! Could you please bring him back in five days?” Up until that moment, I’d been considering whether Lesh would be a foster fail: a dog that I intended to only foster but which I would end up adopting. I’m glad someone else didn’t think twice about giving him a furever home!
Feebee, a six-year-old lab-collie mix, is the only dog I fostered for more than a week, which unfortunately is because she wasn’t adopted. But it gave us five weeks together, in which time I grew to love this snugglebug.
Feebee is also the only dog I had time to take hiking, on a trek through the Dixie National Forest. She stayed on leash the whole time, loving the sights and smells. She also cottoned quickly to my hiking partner, who happily shared Feebee’s leash with me.
Alas, Feebee didn’t much care for other dogs — or cats or goats. Whereas I could bring Lesh or Mr. Big right up to the fence of my neighbors’ farms, Feebee would lunge and grow increasingly agitated as we got closer to other animals. Since many unfenced, off-leash dogs roamed my neighborhood, this could quickly turn a bucolic walk into a stressful affair. I knew I’d never be able to bring Feebee to one of my favorite places in the world: the dog park.
She was otherwise a wonderful pet, and one I would love to see go to a good home — she’s still available for adoption!
Over the eleven weeks I lived in Arizona, I shared eight of them with dogs. Our time together taught me three valuable lessons about myself.
I love all dogs — but some more than others
I’ve long known I have some superficial canine preferences — primarily, that they be larger than a beagle and not have a curly coat. My favorite breeds are vizslas, blue heelers, and silver labs, but any dog that meets those other criteria, from border collies to Shiba Inus to Rhodesian Ridgebacks, are ones I’ll swoon over.
This summer gave me the opportunity to see past those cosmetic qualities and get to know a dog’s personality. While I’ve loved every dog that’s come through my door, not all of them were the right dog for me.
For example, Mr. Big was a great dog, but we didn’t connect. After a week together, I never got a sense for his personality. He never interrupted my work wanting to play, and he never jumped onto the bed at night wanting to cuddle. He was just sort of… there. Maybe with time, his personality would’ve shone through.
Lesh, on the other hand, I was smitten with immediately. Not only was he beautiful, but he was also funny as heck. Instead of barking or pawing to get my attention, he would climb onto the back of the couch and then right onto my desk! If I didn’t stop him in time, he’d stroll right between me and my monitor, making him hard to miss. Lesh also loved toys, but only if they squeaked. He loved to cuddle at night, fidgeting not an inch. And if I tossed him a treat, it would simply bounce off his face, after which he’d eat it off the floor.
By comparison, Feebee and I took awhile to warm up to each other — which is understandable, considering where she was coming from. Best Friends does great work, but any rescue that has almost two hundred dogs looking for adoption is sure to be a stressful environment. One of the benefits of fostering is that it gives a dog a quiet place to relax and let their true personality through, so we can learn how they’ll do in their adopted home.
Once Feebee learned she wasn’t going back to the rescue, and I wasn’t going anywhere, either, she began to relax and show me who she was. She started playing with toys, especially those conducive to tug-of-war. She demonstrated that she knew the commands for “sit”, “shake”, and “lay” — both verbal and gesture. And I learned that she’ll befriend anyone who comes bearing treats; otherwise, she can be a bit on edge around strangers.
I’m a good dog owner
In February 2019, I was getting out of my car at the Garden of the Gods in Colorado when I spotted a dog. My face lit up — and then more so when I realized it was a red heeler. Before I could say a word, the owner noticed my reaction and remarked, “Someone wants to say hello!” As I quizzed her about her dog, I learned she was an experienced dog owner who specializes in challenging breeds. I told her I’d never had a dog but was hoping to adopt later that year. She simply nodded and said, “You’re ready.”
I hope the dogs I’ve fostered would agree and that I’ve made them feel welcome and safe. Every time I brought a new dog home, I’d first let them explore my fenced-in yard. When they peed or pooped, I’d praise them with words, pets, and treats. Once they’d done their business, we’d go inside, where I’d keep a careful eye on them as they sniffed everything. If they detected evidence of a previous dog and tried to mark their territory, I’d interrupt the behavior and shoo them outside until they’d again do their business, once again praising them. Bad behavior was always either disrupted or ignored, never punished.
Once we were past those introductions, I let the dog know they could count on a routine. Each morning, we’d go outside so they could relieve themselves. (I never let the dog out alone; dogs are pack animals who depend on others to protect them during their vulnerable moments, so they were less likely to poop or pee if I wasn’t there to watch.) Then they’d watch me have breakfast before I gave them theirs in a Kong food puzzle, which both slowed their intake (Lesh would throw up if he ate too quickly) and keep them intellectually stimulated. I’d always ask Siri if it was safe to give a dog human food, from bananas and sweet potatoes (yes!) to onions and avocados (no!).
After breakfast and before dinner, we’d go for a walk of at least a mile, taking the opportunity to have experiences that couldn’t be had at a rescue — namely, meeting my neighborhood’s dogs, cows, horses, goats, pigs, rabbits, geese, and llamas.
When a dog hurt themselves while playing (as happened to Rocket and Feebee), I’d move them to a quiet space and feel the injured area for anything out of place. If it was a limb, I’d manipulate it to see if the dog responded with any sensitivity. If they reacted calmly to my examinations, I’d wait to see if they improved on their own. In both cases, they did, saving me a panicked call to the veterinarian.
Some of these things I learned from a lifetime of observing and admiring dogs. Others came as advice from my friend Pam or from reading ebooks. Still others I learned as I went, with each dog being different. (When Feebee tried to grab a freshly baked cookie off the kitchen counter, my first thought was, “Lesh never would’ve done that!”)
Two years ago, when I told my landlord I’d never had a dog but had always wanted one, he acquiesced to me getting one. Four months later, he used my inexperience as a reason he wouldn’t let me get a dog. Any doubt that exchange planted in my mind has now been thoroughly expunged. He could not have been more wrong: I love my dogs and prioritize their health, safety, and happiness, ensuring they are good pets for both me and my home.
I’m not a bad person
There are people who come into our lives with the best of intentions. They earn our trust through kind words and deeds, and as we begin to appreciate their perspective of us, we lower our defenses, letting them shape our self-image for the better.
Sometimes, those relationships sour, and like the proverbial frog in hot water, we don’t realize it until it’s too late. With our defenses still down, we start to internalize what we’re being told: that we’re too much of one thing, or too little of another. Before long, we begin to believe that we’re not enough and are not welcome.
The pandemic has affected everyone’s mental health in different ways. For me, isolation and quarantine have robbed me of my friends and supporters; in their absence, the void has been filled with hurtful voices from my past. As I putter around my Airbnbs, I can hear those old criticisms, telling me I’m doing it wrong, that I’m not good enough.
But when fostering dogs, those voices diminished, drowned out by my furry friends who could never get enough of me. There was never a moment my dogs didn’t want to spend time with me, and no matter how much attention I gave them, they always had room for more — not because they needed it, but because they wanted it. My dogs and I felt safe, welcome, and happy with each other.
Sure, I made mistakes, whether it was tripping over my dogs, or trying games that I found more amusing than they did, or never giving them enough peanut butter. But I learned from those experiences and tried to be a better person. They, for their part, overlooked my indiscretions, knowing I was trying my best and always focusing on my better qualities.
But it wasn’t as much about self-improvement as it was about self-love. You’ve likely heard the benediction, “Let me be the person my dog thinks I am.” Over the weeks I fostered dogs, what I slowly learned is that I am the person my dog thinks I am; it’s the rest of the world that conspired to make me forget.
Now that I’ve moved to Oregon, I find the mental health benefits of fostering dogs has persisted; my mind remains quiet of my critics. But I know whatever new challenges life throws at me will be better faced with a dog in my life. While it is possible to nomad with a dog, that is not a lifestyle I want to give any dog right now. But someday, I’ll meet the right dog, one worth settling down for. After all, dogs make everything better.
One Reply to “Life lessons from fostering dogs”
Beautiful post. <3
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