Dog Days

5 Ways to Love and Let Go of Foster Dogs

by Lisa Lanser Rose

People tell me all the time they admire me for fostering dogs. “I could never foster,” they say. “I’d get too attached.”

My secret is a heart of steel.

I know they mean to praise me, but the compliment sometimes feels backhanded. They love too much, therefore I must have something wrong with my heart.

The truth is, I’m passionate about dogs and naturally clingy. Yet, somehow, (so far!), I’ve let all my fosters go–even the ones with whom I deeply bonded.

Here’s how I love and let go of them. I compare them to other strong but temporary attachments in my life. I tell myself:

  1. Lisa’s Dog School includes swimming lessons.

    They’re my students. University students are in your class five months at a time, high school a whole ten months. As an educator, I got attached to some of my students; there’s a reason favorites are called the teacher’s “pet.” I tell myself I run a school in my home where lost dogs learn how to be lovable family pets again. I teach them basic obedience and a few tricks so they are good and charming. When they they get adopted, they “graduate.”

  2. They’re relatives from out of town. I tell myself things like, “These three puppies are my nephews. This is Grandma Gilly. Here’s Cousin Barkley!” Some I like more than others. Some I can’t wait to see the backside of. Just as when I have relatives visiting, while they’re here, we conflict,we connect. I’m stressed, I’m joyful. When they leave, I’m sad, I’m glad. I find myself looking forward to fosters leaving just so I can reconnect with my own dogs, Mick and Maisie. I know we’ll all be sad, but we have each other. Although I won’t necessarily see my individual fosters again, I will see their like again. (And we do have reunions!)
  3. Gilly Bear was a professional hugger.

    No matter their age, dogs are a lot like children. Like your kids, dogs belong to themselves more than they do to you. If you raise them right, children grow up and leave home. When my daughter was small and warbling enchantments that intoxicated me, I couldn’t believe it was my job to render myself obsolete. But it was. I did it, and the child of my heart lives in a home of her own now. Just like your child, foster dogs come into your heart only for a short time. While we’re together, we share a “now” that is our life together. When they go, the story of their lives goes on, and in it, I’m barely a paragraph. A year or two later, I’m nothing but a comma. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s marvelous that life stories are that rich.

  4. Barkley: The Most Interesting Dog in the World

    I’m not special. Some people have trouble letting go because it feels as if no one else will love this animal as much or as well as they do. When I feel that way, I remind myself that the world is full of love. It was full before I was born, and love will go on without me in abundance. Dogs are innately lovable, and lots of people love dogs. (I’m certain there’s a dog-person gene.) Maybe it’s because I’m a teacher, but I know if I can take good care of this dog, so can someone else. I hold tight to this faith. With the help of the rescue network, I try to make solid, longterm matches for the dogs in my care. That way I get to do my small part to bring the right dog and the right family together. This other family gets to be heroes, and I share in their joy from the sidelines. Most fosters I know say that making this gift possible for others is the most rewarding thing about this work. One said to me, “Sometimes I wonder when I agree to take 10 more puppies if I have rocks in my head. Then when I see the families so excited and know those puppies didn’t have a chance without us. In those moments, I know exactly why I do it.”

  5. Some I love more than others and will miss the rest of my life.

    I have to make room for the next dog. Think Schindler’s List: “I could have gotten more out . . . I didn’t do enough!” Every year, 7.6 million dogs and cats enter shelters, and 2.7 million are euthanized. I can’t adopt them all, and if I could, how would those accommodations look? Acres of kennels? My home would become a shelter. A puppy mill. A factory farm. A fellow foster mom told me, “Sometimes I’m tempted to ‘foster fail’ and keep a foster, but the more dogs come and go, the more I think I should stick to the three I have and continue fostering. The right one for me will come along, and I don’t want to rush it, just because they have blue eyes!”

An especially inspiring line also comes from Schindler’s List, from the Talmud: “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.” When you let your foster dog go to a new home, you create an opening in your life for the next dog in need, and, believe me, that dog is out there. That dog needs you. Whenever you welcome a foster dog into your home and then let her go to a new home, you do your small part to save the world.

So, whenever people tell me, “I could never foster, I’d get too attached,” I want to say, “You might be surprised!” You won’t love them all. Some aren’t right for you–but they are right for someone else. Bonds take time to develop, and often the dog isn’t with you long enough for that to happen. Sometimes you do get attached, but so what? Yes, love hurts. Life hurts. Dogs are out there hurting right now. I want to say to those people, “You can do it! At least give it one try!”

You’d be saving the world entire.

We need more fosters like you!

Lisa Lanser Rose is the author of the memoir For the Love of a Dog (Harmony Books) and the novel, Body Sharers (Rutgers University Press), which was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award for Best First Novel. Her publications and honors include the The Briar Cliff Review Nonfiction Award, The Florida Review Editor’s Award, and a Best American Essay Notable Essay. She blogs with awesome women at TheGloriaSirens.com.

So you can see some foster magic for yourself, here’s a short video of one my fosters, Tango, a semi-feral corgi mix puppy, during his first hours with me. Then below it, you’ll find a video of him just two days later, learning his first trick–and you’ll see how satisfying the transformation is.

And here’s Tango learning to sit. (These videos are on my trick-dog training site, Mick’s Tricks.) Tango–now “Scotty”–has been a good and happy boy in his new home for nearly a year now, and his mom has become a friend of mine. Fostering enriches our lives in many unexpected ways.

48 replies »

  1. Love this story. Thanks for sharing your insider point of view with us. I would like to reblog this for Valentine’s Day to encourage my readers to consider fostering dogs, and of course, read your blog. 😀

    • Great story! It is rewarding to bring a foster dog into your life. Give that dog the love, training, and confidence it needs to move onto it’s forever family. I crying when handing the dog over to his forever family. The tears that I cry are knowing they will be forever safe and loved and I was privileged to be a part of it all.

  2. Thank you, so much for writing this. I have fostered almost 20 cats over the past five years and your words eloquently stated what I feel (and what I want to tell my friends who inadvertently make me feel less-than because they “love too much and get attached”). Thank you!

  3. Perfectly said. My husband and I have fostered many dogs for our collie rescue…and we always like to think of it as a way to have so many absolutely wonderful dogs be a part of our family in our lifetime. And it is a way to meet some terrific families who love our foster dog.

  4. I foster, mainly puppies, orphaned infants, mums and bubs and have had around 600 dogs in 10 years and every one leaves their pawprints in your heart. I recently got emails from the parents of pups i rehomed 10 years ago. When people ask how I can let them go my reply is always “I’d rather cry because I miss them than cry because they never made it out of the shelter.

  5. I love every word. Thank you. We have fostered for three years and some days I just with I could stop, but then I remember number 5 – there’s always a next one. Always. Thank you for your love.

  6. We foster and (mostly) live by your words, but never expressed them so well. We may be approaching a “foster fail” moment with our boy Regal. 8 year old pit bull that has been with us for 6 months and despite promotions, facebook posts, special adoption days — he’s still in our care. He’s had a hard life, taken in off the streets, found shot full of BBs, teeth worn down to nubs. And he’s snuggled his way into our hearts. I think Regal is home…

    • Six months is a long time! That bond must be deep in all of you by now. You have a big heart, and Regal is a lucky dog!

    • I think a real dog person knows when it’s time to foster fail. Each time a traumatized animal goes to a new situation there is more stress and upheaval. Sounds like Regal found his happy ever after, and assessing HIS best interests and keeping him is equally
      noble and more kind to passing him on. Congrats on your new baby boy💖🐾Maybe he needs a sister?😜

  7. I don’t think those people are giving you a backhanded compliment, that “they” love too much and something must be wrong with your heart, if you take a different perspective on what they are saying. I take it as they are saying they aren’t as strong as you are to risk loving a dog then sending it away.

    • Thank you–that’s a good way of looking at it! I’m a teacher, and I’m always ready to believe people can learn and grow, but strength is something else. You never know what people’s hearts have been through.

  8. I also rescue, (20 years worth) love most of my fosters, 99% anyway, and some I am happy to get them into another home. There seems to be a misconception among people who “just can’t foster” becasue “It’s just to much.” To much what? The dog does not have to get along with your entire household; the dog IS NOT staying with you, remember? It does not have to like all your dogs,,,It is not staying, remember? And the , ….”Oh, I could never let a dog be adopted.” Yes, you can. Not because you don’t love the dog, but because you are generous of heart and want the BEST for the dog, and that is not your family with 3 kids and 4 other dogs. Let your foster go, with love and respect, to a family where he/she is going to be the #1 Dog of the Castle. Then go get another foster and love that one; start over. Be a Rescue Angel.

  9. Thank you so much for this article. It was exactly what I needed. I’ve wanted to foster for a while, but am so scared to do so due to the emotional factor. This made a light bulb go off!

    My plan is, next year when my granddaughter starts school, i’ll have more time (since I won’t be babysitting) to start fostering. I currently have 3 dogs and 3 cats. I’m working on turning 2 spare bedrooms into 1 doggy & 1 kitty room for fosters.

    I have said before to people in rescues how much I admire and appreciate them because I didn’t know if i could do it because of how easily I fall I love with animals. I hope they didn’t think of it as a back handed compliment, and I hate that it came across that way to you when it was said. When I say it, I don’t mean that I love or bond more or that my heart is bigger. I mean that they, selflessly, love and open their hearts more than I do. I’m too selfish in protecting my feelings from pain. I hope that’s what other people really mean when they say it too.

    Thank you for all you do, by fostering and encouraging others to do so. Not only have you helped to save the lives of the pups you personally fostered. Who knows how many more precious souls will be saved by the fostering sparks you have ignited by sharing this article?!

  10. My husband and I have fostered twice now. The last time was a few weeks back and I took home two german shepherd mix puppies. They were so much fun. Maybe a bit much for me in a small house. I see fostering as a win, win. Your helping the poor dog / cat to be placed in a home and out of a cage. You gain a friend for awhile to love and it costs you nothing nothing. Yes, you will have to part with your friend you hope. On to a loving forever home.

  11. I foster as well, so far I’ve let go many, but I have “failed” 3 times! LOL, I am a sucker for the old ones. Everyone wants a young pup or even a middle aged dog, but not too many want a senior with issues, so….. Here we are, a house of 5 where was once 2. But I still volunteer and probably will take another foster soon as well. It is wonderful to see them thrive in their new homes, but heartbreaking to see them go.

  12. Thank you! I also want to say a BIG thank you to my abused and frightened Casper’s foster mom!! I have never owned a dog before and Casper and I are “soul” mates!! He is my best friend and adopting him led to my family adopting a “sister” for him…Whisper!!

  13. Here is a poem for all Foster folks. The author is unknown:
    ********To My Foster Mom*********
    There I sat, alone and afraid,
    You got a call and came right to my aid.
    You bundled me up with blankets and love,
    And when I needed it most, you gave me a hug.
    I learned the world was not all that scary and cold
    That sometimes there is someone to have and to hold.
    You taught me what love is, you helped me to mend,
    You loved me and healed me and became by first friend.
    And just when I thought you’d done all you do,
    There came along not one new lesson, but two.
    First you said, “Sweetheart, You’re ready to go.
    I’ve done all I can, and you’ve learned all I know.”
    Then you bundled me up with a blanket and a kiss
    Along came a new family, then even have kids!
    They took me to their home, forever to stay,
    At first I thought you sent me away.
    Then that second lesson became perfectly clear,
    No matter how far you will always be near.
    And so, Foster Mom, you know I’ve moved on,
    I have a new home, with toys and a lawn.
    But I’ll never forget what I learned that first day,
    You never really give your fosters away.
    You gave me these thoughts to remember you by,
    We may never meet again, and now I know why.
    You’ll remember I loved with you for a time,
    I may not be yours, but you’ll always be mine.

  14. Thank you for this article. I have been fostering beagles for about 5 months now. Of the 9 I’ve fostered, I’ve gotten super attached to 3. I have to tell myself that they are going to great homes (I’m friends with 2 of the 3 on Facebook) and that I must make room for the next beagle who needs a home. It’s very hard sometimes, but totally worth it in the end.

  15. These are great words about fostering. I will be quoting more of them as I keep trying to find fosters to help the rescue I work with. My well used explanation for being a successful Foster is #3. They are my kids…I raised my human children to be a loving and useful part of society, and to go out and have a family of their own. And so my family can get bigger. I don’t want my kids forever hanging out on my couch being a debt to society. I treat my fosters the same way. I find them a great home, and I have SOOO many more friends and “family” now. My phone book is full!! I ask them to keep in touch and send me pictures and stories about the dogs as they grow. It is wonderful when I am having a bad day and my text beeps with new pics.
    Yes, I cry when they leave my home, but I cried at my kids weddings too. Doesnt mean I want them to stay. I cry because when my foster dog picks his family, and the family loves him back, I know I was a part of that families lifetime of happiness. Fills my heart.

  16. Thank you for writing this. I also foster and have heard those words often. I only foster puppies. One of my dogs is my service dog so I try to watch who he comes in contact with. Right now,I have 3 puppies still here from the litter of nine that I started with. I have had the joy of fifty plus puppies in the last two years, and fall in love every time. My youngest babies were a few hours old as momma passed away giving birth. Talk about a special place in the heart.

  17. This is oh so true. I have fostered for years and have had a few times when it was hard to let go, but I always remind myself of the next dog on a transport that needs me. I now have a foster/hospice dog. She is a 14 year old lab mix who was dumped at the local shelter. They called our rescue and asked if we could take her in as they did not want her to die alone at the shelter. You see, she is partially blind, partially deaf and has cancer. She is now living in our home receiving all the love we can give. She will be happy here until she passes. And yes it will be sad, but to honor Joy, we will then take in another foster.

    • I can only imagine what heartbreaking trouble must have led her owner to do such a thing. Thank you for being such a force of goodness and love.

  18. i never realized how the remark ” i can’t do it. i get too attached” sounds like a round about insult. thanks for the insight. i kept my first and only foster. she was a handfull to say the least. however she has come around nicely and my other dog adores her and so do i. my hat is off to fosters. they are very special people.

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