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.”
I know it’s meant as praise, but the compliment sometimes feels backhanded. They love too much, therefore I must have a steely 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:
They’re my students. University students were in my 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.” When I foster, 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 become good, charming dogs. The day they get adopted, it’s Graduation Day.
- They’re relatives from out of town. I tell myself things like, “These three puppies are my nephews. Gilly’s my grandma. This is my Cousin Barkley!” Some I like. Some I can’t wait to see the backside of. When I have relatives visiting, it’s complicated. 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 ever see my individual fosters again, I will see their like again. (And we do have reunions!)
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 children, my foster dogs come into my 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.
I’m not special. Some people have trouble letting go because it feels as if no one else can 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 bet there’s a dog-person gene.) Maybe it’s because I’m a teacher, but I know if I can learn to 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. The adoptive family gets to be the heroes, and I share in their joy from the sidelines. Most people I know who foster say that giving this gift to others is the most rewarding thing about fostering. One said to me, “Sometimes I wonder when I agree to take 10 more puppies if I have rocks in my head. Then, 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.”
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 keep 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 part to save the world entire.
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.
Lisa Lanser Rose is a dog trainer and 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.