Fostering Dogs Saves Lives (and Makes Your Heart Hurt)

The number of pets killed in shelters increased for the first time in 5 years.

Brodie, Hawk, and Mary Jo

Mary Jo DiLonardo

My heart hurts. This weekend, I sent a puppy off to his new home and I so wanted him to stay at mine.

I foster puppies, often dogs that are blind and/or deaf. I’ve been volunteering with animal rescues for more than five years and so far have taken care of nearly 60 pups. It’s always bittersweet when they leave to find their forever homes, but sometimes it’s so much harder than others.

That’s what happened with Hawk. He was part of a litter of 10 border collie mix puppies that were turned over to two different rescues. I fostered him and a brother and sister. His siblings found homes first, and the little man was the last to go.

Part of that was purposeful. I was smitten with him from day one and wanted to keep him around a little bit. He is a mini-me of my rescue dog, Brodie. Not just his handsome looks, but his fascinating personality. Hawk is brilliant and aptly named. He was constantly surveying his world, never missing anything. And once his siblings left, he became glued to us, his temporary family.

He raced up and down the steps behind Brodie, fell asleep in my lap while I read or watched TV, and helpfully reorganized the toy box and my office closet. Once he learned “sit” and “shake” he was constantly parked at our feet or batting at us with a paw, showing off and hoping for treats.

After swearing I would never be a “foster fail,” which is someone who decided to adopt their own foster puppy, I was precariously close to adding a second permanent pup to the family.

Why This Matters to Treehugger

At Treehugger, we are advocates of animal welfare, including our pets and other domestic animals. The better we understand our dogs, the better we can support and protect their well-being. We hope our readers will adopt rescue pets instead of shopping from breeders or pet stores and will also consider supporting local animal shelters.

Fun, Hard Work

Fostering is fun. And it’s also hard. Puppies typically stay with me for a month or less. During that time, we work on potty training, nighttime sleeping, no nipping, and cues like “sit” and “down.” When they find their homes, then it’s time for new pups and we start all over again.

Some puppies are harder than others. I almost always foster high-energy dogs like border collies and Australian shepherds so there can be a lot of ankle-biting and herding behavior. They’re all way too smart and some find ways to climb out of their pens, navigate over puppy gates, and shred all of Brodie’s favorite toys.

Brodie doesn’t exactly love puppies, but it’s amazing how well he tolerates them all. I think he knows they’ll only be around a few weeks and he’s particularly sweet with the blind and deaf ones. Maybe that’s just because he knows it’s easy to hide from them.

He was very tolerant of Hawk and even kinda liked him a little.

Sobering Statistics in Shelters

I have lots of friends (and strangers) who follow Brodie’s foster puppy exploits on social media and in person. They will sometimes tell me there’s no way they could foster. They say they would get too attached and couldn’t stand to let them go.

I try not to interpret that as they think I’m not attached to my puppies and it’s easy for me to let them go. A friend in rescue says fosters have to love selflessly. No matter how much we love a foster animal, we have to get them ready for a forever home. That gives them an amazing life, as well as the humans they share it with.

But after spending weeks (sometimes months) with these little lives, it’s so hard to hug and hold and carry them one last time.

I do it because I know there will always be more puppies waiting for a place to land. No matter how hard it is to give up “your” dog, there are never-ending requests to help another and another.

According to Best Friends Animal Society, the number of dogs and cats killed in U.S. shelters increased for the first time in five years. In 2021, the number of pets brought into shelters increased by 8.1% and the number of dogs and cats euthanized increased by just 2.3%.

Fostering is key to saving lives.

Always More in Need

The only other time I truly lost it when a foster pup left was with Pax, a once-feral, now-sweet pup that stayed with us for five months as he recovered from heartworm treatment and learned to trust people. Brodie loved him and they were inseparable.

Every time I was sad Pax didn’t stay, I remembered all the foster puppies that were able to come after him. Like Hawk.

When he left last weekend, I sobbed and sobbed and was convinced that I was making a mistake. 

I had whispered to him earlier that, “I love you, but your new family will love you even more.” He tucked his head into the crook of my neck after licking my chin. I think he understood.

And I know there’s another puppy waiting for my help.

Follow Mary Jo, Brodie, and their foster puppy adventures on Instagram @brodiebestboy.