Why I Foster Dogs

Mary Jo and foster dog Pax
This is the shelter photo of Pax that convinced me I needed to foster him and find him a home. Memphis Animal Services

Pax is sleeping at my feet right now. This sweet pup has a bed in my office, but he prefers being as close to me as possible. Brodie, my actual dog, is sleeping upside-down in his bed across the room, but Pax is staying nearby, making sure I don't sneak out some super-secret back door he doesn't know about.

Pax is my latest foster dog. I rescued him from a hoarding situation in Memphis where a 90-year-old man had nearly 30 dogs. When he died, his family brought most of the dogs to a shelter and, because the dogs weren't socialized, the shelter couldn't put them up for adoption. Rescue groups had to step up or the dogs would be euthanized.

A lot of these dogs were herding mixes, and I foster for a border collie rescue group. One particular dog's photo kept haunting me. His eyes were soulful and he looked calm amidst the sure chaos. He was heartworm positive, which meant he would be expensive to treat and care for until he could find a home. I had to help him. With a lot of finagling and assistance from a Tennessee rescue group, Pax (named for the peace I hoped he would have) made his way to my home in the Atlanta area via private plane.

When he got here, he cringed if I touched him and wouldn't look at me. I had to carry him everywhere because he was afraid when I hooked on his leash. Now he's a 30-pound lapdog that loves to snuggle and hold hands (paws?) and is an absolute lovebug. The transformation, thanks to a whole lot of love and kindness, is overwhelming.

'How can you give him up?'

Pax and Brodie playing
Pax (left) is all relaxed and happy now while Brodie thinks he's the normal one. Mary Jo DiLonardo

Anyone who has fostered has heard this question over and over. Friends and family members often say they could never think about fostering because they'd never be able to give up a dog.

But it's not "giving up" a dog; the job of a foster is to take a dog and get him ready for a great new home. Sometimes that means nursing him through health issues, sometimes behavior problems and sometimes there's absolutely nothing to get through at all. There's just the wait for the right person to come along.

Pax has been with me for almost three months and will be here for at least a month longer as he finishes up heartworm treatment. To put it mildly, we are quite attached. I love this silly, sweet, affectionate, goofy dog. We went home to Cincinnati for a few days around Christmas and I left him with a vet tech in her home so he wouldn't be stressed by the long car ride and all the new people at my family get-togethers. My husband said it seemed like I was going to cry when I dropped him off.

Plus, he and Brodie are buddies. They share toys and beds and get along perfectly. They never fight over anything.

I can't imagine how I will be when I let Pax leave for his permanent new home. But I don't plan on being a "foster fail." That's the term when we get so attached to our charges that we add them to the family instead of adopting them out. It will be so incredibly tempting because he is right at home, but my goal is to find him someone who will love him as much as I do.

Plus, if I adopt him, I won't have room to foster another dog, which means saving another life.

Puppies are fun ... and not so fun

Crash with foster puppy
Our older dog Crash seemed to enjoy having young foster puppies around, especially when they were napping. Mary Jo DiLonardo

When I first started fostering, I exclusively fostered puppies. Puppies are awesome because ... who doesn't love puppies? You get puppy breath and puppy cuteness and puppy snuggles.

When puppies are available for fostering, fosters fall all over each other to get them. You can carry them around and they don't come with baggage and they just love you immediately.

Of course, you also get puppy accidents and crying during the night. I'm a light sleeper and we have old carpeting, so it wasn't a big deal when I had puppies, but it's something to consider. Accidents and lack of sleep are a definite trade-off for utter adorableness.

Puppies tend to get adopted very quickly. The puppies I fostered didn't stay with me for more than a week or two. One was adopted by a friend who saw a photo on my Facebook page. The other was quickly scooped up only days after I had him.

When you foster, you can specify the type of dog you want to bring in your home. I used to foster an all-breeds rescue. I decided to foster border collies when I realized what a nut my own border collie mix was and that sometimes they need a special kind of adopter to understand their focus and general antics.

Some people only want puppies and others only want seniors. Some only want those that are known to be housebroken or known to be good with cats or other dogs.

I was looking for a puppy to foster when I found Pax. But Pax definitely needed me more and I don't regret it one bit.

The hard parts

Fitz wearing the cone after surgery
A pitiful-looking Fitz wears a cone after surgery. Mary Jo DiLonardo

My foster before Pax came as a stray from a rural shelter in North Georgia. Fitz had no shots, wasn't neutered, and probably had never had a home. He was a border collie/cattle dog mix who was very sweet and friendly ... to me. He was not very fond of my husband. If John tried to pet him or look him in the eye, he gave a friendly little growl. It wasn't terribly menacing, but enough to make John back off. Then Fitz would return with a wagging tail and give him his paw, and as soon as John would pet him, he would growl again.

It was definitely mixed signals, and we even worked with a dog trainer to figure him out. We thought it was likely an issue with men, but when our son, Luke, came home from college, Fitz loved him. So we figured it was a problem with effusive men versus laid-back guys.

Once Fitz got comfortable, he also decided I was his person and didn't want Brodie anywhere near me. He would guard me when Brodie came close, warning him away with a mean look. It's not fair when a foster guest takes over from your resident pet, so I would have to play games with both dogs, and Brodie and I would also have separate alone time.

I had to nurse both Fitz and Pax through neuter surgery and neither one loved wearing a cone. Neither one was housebroken, but they were both quick learners. Neither knew any commands but both also learned extremely quickly. It helped that Brodie has quite a repertoire of tricks and they both learned by following his lead. They easily learned to sit, stay, down, wait, shake, touch, and more.

The easy parts

Mary Jo with foster dog Fitz
Roadtripping to Charleston to take Fitz to his new home. Mary Carter

The very first night I had Pax, I put him in a huge crate in the basement. That's where foster dogs spend the first few days. It gives them a chance to decompress and it also keeps Brodie safe while we're letting all their vaccines and deworming kick in.

I put on some music and filled the crate with soft blankets. He crept to the back corner of the crate, refusing to look at me and I made my way upstairs. Not long after I went to bed, I heard some horrific howling coming from the basement. Hairy Houdini had let himself out of the crate and was racing around the basement. I let him back in and found some makeshift ways to secure the latches. But when I started back upstairs he began howling again.

He wanted me close, but not too close. So I found my son's old sleeping bag and slept on the floor ... close enough that he didn't howl and far enough away that he didn't cower in the corner.

He started to take comfort from me a little more each day, gradually coming over for treats and then pets and eventually climbing up in my lap. Eventually, he greeted me with excited tail wagging and barks when I would return from getting the mail or taking a shower. He now knows that people are pretty awesome, and it feels spectacular to know that I helped him come to that realization.

The other easy part is also the hardest part: taking foster dogs to their perfect new home. Fitz is now with a retired couple in Charleston. They take him on walks every day and they play ball and Frisbee in the backyard. He has a houseful of toys and treats and a matching leash and collar. It's a wonderful new life.

I have to admit I got very teary when I dropped off that handsome boy, but I knew that his life was going to be stellar.

A whole bunch of benefits

Mary Jo and foster dog Pax
It's sure going to be hard to give up Pax, but I know he'll go to the perfect home. Mary Jo DiLonardo

In case you need a reason (or eight) to consider fostering, here's just part of my laundry list.

It's incredibly fulfilling. You take a scared/sick/unloved pup, and you help change that definition. It's amazing what some love and attention can do.

You're saving lives. The dogs we rescue mostly come from high-kill shelters. They often have days to live if a rescue doesn't take them in.

It's flexible. You can foster for a few weeks, a few months, or whatever fits into your schedule. You can foster puppies, seniors, dogs that need extra attention or easy dogs that will fit right into your household. Rescues will work with you.

It can be fun for foster siblings of the human and canine variety. My dog Brodie loves to have playmates, and when my son is home from college, he loves it too. Plus, he's a veritable dog whisperer. Just a caveat, though. When I fostered puppies, we had an older Jack Russell. It turned out his immune system was no match for some of the viruses that came with my charges, so I stopped fostering as long as he was with us. Make sure your resident pets are healthy, up to date on all their vaccinations and are good-natured enough to welcome the occasional temporary visitor.

It's not expensive. Most rescues pay for all medical bills, while you pay for food and incidentals like collars, leashes, and toys. Some rescues even supply you with food; you just provide the home and love.

You get to test your dog training and marketing skills. Except for maybe the potty training, I have fun teaching the dogs. And when it's time to find them homes, it's key to write up great descriptions that really capture their true personalities so you get the right fit.

You get to have all the dogs. I saw a sign that said, "Life is too short to have just one dog." With fostering, you get to at least temporarily have a whole bunch of them.

Foster pets know you love them. I grudgingly had to interview a pet psychic years ago and was very much a skeptic until she "talked" to my rescue dog, who had been abused and didn't trust strangers. He rolled over on his back and as she stroked him, she said, "He says you saved him. You are his person. You rescued him." My belief in pet psychics may still be questionable, but I sure believe in the power of fostering and rescue.