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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Parts of Fostering

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My current fostering project is a little different from what I usually take on. Ordinarily, my local shelter will contact me if they have a large litter of puppies that need some TLC. I will keep them until they are healthy and old enough, in the shelter’s judgment, to undergo spay/neuter surgery and go up for adoption at the shelter.

This time, for the first time, it’s me who has dragged the shelter (as well as my closest friend here in town) into a fostering project.

I follow a few Facebook groups for lost and found pets in my local area. More than once, I’ve been able to reunite a found dog with his owner by searching through these group posts. But in mid-August, I saw a post for a “found” dog who looked like she had a litter of puppies somewhere, and a looong string of comments from concerned people in our community. Dozens of people suggested that the finder take the dog to the shelter; this was countered by dozens of other people saying, “Don’t do it! Wherever her puppies are, they will starve without her!”

Then there was a comment from a woman saying she was a friend of the owner. She said that the owner was homeless, that the dog had eight puppies, and the owner was struggling to keep the dog fed and contained.

Without really thinking it through, I left a comment on the post: “I would be happy to foster this mother and her puppies, if the owner would agree to turning over all the pups to (my local shelter) and let me get her spayed.” The offer was genuine, but I thought the likelihood of the owner agreeing to this was low.

To my surprise, the very next day I received a message from the woman who said she knew the owner. She told me that she had discussed my offer with the owner, and that he agreed to my terms. She also mentioned that he was a drug addict and that his family was trying to get him into treatment – so if his dog could be cared for somewhere safe for a while, it would be a blessing. And she asked if I could meet her that day to pick up the dog and her pups.

She also mentioned that the people who were currently hosting the homeless guy, the mama dog, and her puppies had no dog food on hand. And that she herself was out of food for her own dogs, having given what she had to this homeless crew days before.

Yikes! At that point I realized I had better check with the shelter, to see if they were on board with all of this; otherwise, I was going to need to do some fundraising! Fortunately, the shelter manager saw the wisdom of getting ahead of this problem. By spaying the mama dog and preventing the puppies from being given away or sold, intact, in our town, we were likely preventing many more puppies from entering the shelter down the road.

I asked my friend Leonora if she would come with me to meet the woman and pick up the dog and pups. But first, we went to a pet supply store and bought dog food – for the woman, for the mother dog, and a bunch of canned food for the puppies.

It turned out that the owner of the dog was living in someone’s backyard. When we got to that house, I immediately recognized the mother dog I had seen in the photos on Facebook; her name is Luna, and she has a distinctive ridge pattern on her back. She approached us immediately in a very friendly fashion and hopped right into my car. People were rushing around the property, trying to locate all the puppies, as I handed over a bag of dog food to the woman who had brokered this whole deal, for her dogs. She told me thanks, and then asked, “Do you have more? These people have other dogs here, too – including one of Luna’s puppies from last year…” As she said this, I saw another dog who looked just like Luna, complete with the crazy, intricate swirling ridge on her back, running around the yard. I opened the large bag of food I had bought to feed to Luna, and scooped about half of it into a grocery bag to give to these people.

At this point, seven puppies had been put into the back of my car; Leonora was keeping track. We asked, “Where is the eighth pup?” The woman waved her hands around and said, “I’ll…I’ll tell you later.” I was left assuming that something awful had happened to it, or that they couldn’t find it, or something. It seemed like it was best to get out of there.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Parts of Fostering
One puppy was half the size of the biggest ones, so I tried to give her extra time with her mom; in the first days of our fostering arrangement, she was always getting edged out.

Settling in

Leonora and I got Luna and the puppies situated in a 10-foot by 10-foot kennel with shadecloth over it, with a big doorless crate serving as a doghouse. We opened a can of food for the pups, who appeared to be about four weeks old – walking around, though not well or that quickly. They scarfed up the can of food like they were starving; I could believe the people had been out of food. I opened a second can of food, which quickly disappeared. They only slowed down into the third can. I fed the rest of that can and a fourth can to Luna, along with a heaping helping of dry food. Though it appeared that she had plenty of milk still, she wasn’t all that enthusiastic about feeding the pups.

The next day, I exchanged a few messages with the woman who brokered our foster arrangement. She asked if I could send her some pictures of Luna and the babies, and I complied. I asked about the eighth puppy – and that’s when she confessed that the owner had already given one of them away! At 4 weeks old! I was a little angry about this development; I had been trying to prevent any of the pups from having an opportunity to add to the pet overpopulation problem. As it was, I think we snatched the litter away in the nick of time; the rest of those pups would likely have been sold or given away within days, otherwise.

A couple days later, while the pups were sleeping, I took Luna to the shelter so she could be scanned. She was excited and happy to enter the shelter and greet everyone there. It turns out that she had been picked up as a stray several times before; on a former stay at the shelter, the staff had implanted her with a microchip that was registered with Luna’s owner’s name and the woman’s name and phone number.

When I first got the pups, the weather in my area was still quite hot – over 100° F. most days. Though they were in the shade, the pups would grow visibly uncomfortable and whiny as the day heated up. I started bringing them into my office at about 11 a.m. each day, so they could hang out in a cooled environment until the day’s temperatures dropped to a more tolerable range and they could go outside and play on the dampened lawn. Of course, that meant taking them outside for frequent potty breaks – and cleaning up more than a few “accidents” between their giant crate (a Great Dane-sized crate someone gave me years ago for the Great Dane foster pups I was raising then) and the door to my office. With seven puppies to wrangle, there is always at least one who stops and pees while you are trying to hustle the rest outside.

A couple weeks later, I brought Luna and her pups to the shelter. She received a dewormer and a flea treatment; they received dewormer and their first vaccinations. They had their weights and temperatures recorded and their first little “mugshots” taken.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Parts of Fostering
Feeding the pups in this child’s play tent helped keep the yellowjackets out of their food!

Fostering at two addresses

Soon enough, the pups were starting to explore my yard when they weren’t in the 10-foot-square kennel I used to contain them when I couldn’t supervise their wandering. And it was time to separate Luna from them; her milk needed to dry up entirely before she could have spay surgery. Thank goodness for my friend Leonora; she has a much larger fenced enclosure where the pups could be more safely contained, even as they had a ton of space to play in. And she lives just over a mile from me! I kept Luna at my house, and the puppies (and the lion’s share of caring for them) moved to Leonora’s house. For the first week or so, I went to Leonora’s house in the middle of her work day, to check that the pups were ok and to do a noon feeding, until it was clear that they could make it through Leonora’s work day on their own.

Fostering pups is a lot of work. Keeping them safely contained takes a ton of attention to the infrastructure. They are sure to find every possible hazard they can get into. They stick their heads into gaps in their enclosures and panic when they can’t pull their heads out immediately. There is a LOT of poop to be picked up – and in the first few weeks of getting weaned, much of the poop is a runny mess that requires a lot of hosing. At this time of year, “meat bees” (wasps) appear from out of nowhere any time we bring out the puppy food, and flies are drawn to the aroma of the hosed-down poop areas. Both Leonora and I have wasp and fly traps hanging all around the puppy enclosures – and we started serving the puppies’ meals to them in a child’s tent that had the zippered door unzipped just enough for the puppies to push their way in; only a few wasps got into the food that way. We were both constantly fussing with moving shade sails around, innovating pools of water for them to wade into and drink from, and spraying down the grass and sand in their enclosures in an effort to keep them cool.

Though Luna is a very sweet dog, and is house-trained and has reasonably good manners, she’s a mother, and like most mama dogs, thinks she ought to run the show around here. In her first few weeks here, though my younger dog Woody made numerous overtures to introduce himself, she would run toward him with enough ferocity to make the much-larger dog turn tail and run. My senior dog, Otto, just avoided her like the plague; he had no interest in kindling any sort of relationship with her. But to protect his rights to freedom from tyranny in his own home, I made Luna sleep in my office; I invited her into my house only when my dogs were outside.

Once the pups started staying at Leonora’s house, though, Luna started to be much friendlier to my dogs. She and Woody have turned into great buddies, enjoying similar “run, crash, and bash” play styles – though she takes every toy away from him and won’t let him fetch in her presence. She is a very funny little dog.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Parts of Fostering
With the puppies at my friend’s house, Luna has decided she can now be friendly with my dog Woody. He likes to play chase games with her, but after being chased away for weeks, he’s remaining cautious!

Our work is nearly done – or is it?

Last week, Luna was finally “dry” enough to undergo spay surgery, which was performed by the shelter’s veterinarian. She has recovered and healed nicely.

Over the past week, I have been talking to and meeting with prospective adopters and getting appropriate homes lined up for all the pups – active homes for the high-octane pups, and more quiet families for the mellower fellows. They should all be placed by the end of next week, and I feel terrific about all the families they are going to.

Here’s the tough part: As I write this, I’m supposed to meet Luna’s owner to return her to him tomorrow. I’m going to make sure he knows that if he ever wants Luna to have a permanent home at a fixed address, I can find a family for her. And I already bought a big bag of food to send with her – for her and (probably) all the other dogs living at the home where her owner was camping in the yard. (When I asked the woman who has been acting as our intermediary whether Luna’s owner would have food ready to feed her, she told me, “Well, we’re pretty low… and I sure could use help getting my three dogs spayed…” Ay yi yi!)

I know that, all things considered, Leonora and the shelter and I have done a lot of good here – but at the moment, it just doesn’t feel that great.


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