Fostering a dog makes you feel things

Shortly before the weather in Western New York turned into Satan’s idea of a joke, Matt and I were out walking Nelson and our foster puppy, Stewie. A nice lady stopped to coo over Stewie, as people are wont to do over puppies, and in the brief conversation that followed, we mentioned he was our foster.

“Oh, I just don’t know how you could give him up! I think you should keep him,” said the nice lady, who didn’t know us at all.

“Well, it is hard,” Matt replied. “But he’ll find a good home and we’ll be able to help more dogs.”

Fast forward to yesterday night, when I had to literally pry Stewie away from a tearful Matt to take him to his home visit. Thanks, Matt, for being secure enough in your masculinity to let me write this.

Before I brought my first foster home, I thought getting emotionally attached would be the least of my worries. Generally speaking, I have the sensitivity of the average cinder block. These people have to go through a fairly rigorous process before any adoption is finalized, I thought to myself. If I’m confident the dog will be loved and cared for, there’s No Logical ReasonTM for me to get upset over it. In fact, I’ll probably be celebrating!

Well, I was wrong, but I was also right.

After my first home visit with my first foster, Teddy, I didn’t want to foster ever again. I fought back tears the whole way to the applicants’ house and was simultaneously relieved and disturbed when he came back home with me that night. Even though the application had looked good, I wasn’t comfortable with the family, and suddenly what had seemed like a straightforward process looked extremely messy. Should I write them off because of a few comments I didn’t care for? Was my discomfort a trustworthy gut feeling, or was I biased because they clearly had different ideologies and socioeconomic priorities than I had? Was I finding excuses to keep Teddy, or was I protecting him from people who only looked good on paper? Was I naïve to expect that some families would just “feel right”? Would every application mean agonizing over a list of pros and cons?

Shortly after that, we got an application that restored my faith in the process. They were the perfect family. They had one child, a big house, a fenced yard, flexible schedules, and they’d lost their previous dog to cancer. The vet reference was glowing. After the phone interview, I had no doubt they would be the loving, attentive, responsible family I wanted for Teddy. I was ecstatic.

This is the one I’ve been waiting for, I thought. I was right to hold out.

The home visit was practically perfect. He loved them, they loved him. They adopted Teddy.

They returned him the next day.

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I wasn’t mad at them. I couldn’t be. They were lovely people who just weren’t ready for another dog. I was, however, more doubtful than ever that Teddy would find a home other than ours. If the perfect family didn’t work out, who would? Who could I possibly trust with this dog I wasn’t supposed to be attached to? Everyone was telling me we should just keep Teddy; he and Nelson did love each other, so maybe this was a sign. Maybe we were supposed to keep him.

The person I trusted with Teddy did not look so perfect on paper. The house and yard were not exactly what I picture when I imagine a dream home for a dog. During the home visit, Teddy pulled anything and everything off the counters, the fridge door and the coffee table, and part of me doubted this would be a good fit. I drove home, too skeptical and too tired to bother crying.

And yet, the call at the end of the two-week trial period was everything I’d waited for. To hear someone say, “Teddy has filled the void in my life” was more than I dared to hope for. All I’d wanted was for him to be safe and happy and loved, but realizing he made someone else feel safe and happy and loved? That was something else. It was something I hadn’t even considered. As self-proclaimed animal person who is perpetually losing her faith in humanity, I hadn’t thought much about the adopter’s happiness. If I’d spared half a thought to the adopter’s feelings, I’d placed them third in line, behind the dog’s and my own. Realizing that it was about Teddy and his person and not about me at all was what made me decide to keep fostering.

Of course, it still sucks. Stewie was our third foster, and, after acting like a complete hard-ass in order to extricate him from Matt’s grasp, I still had to hold back tears all the way to the home visit. I was still plagued by thoughts like what if he thinks I’ve abandoned him? I still had to practically sprint for my car to avoid looking like a hysterical ninny in front of the family.

And it’s still worth it. The adoption isn’t finalized yet, but the family is so wonderful I was almost overwhelmed. Today, I’m getting photos of him playing with and snuggling and loving everyone in the house — dogs and cats included — and seeing not only how happy he is, but how happy they are makes me believe in this process.

So yes, fostering is hard. Yes, we do want to keep almost every dog that comes into our house. Yes, we feel sorry for ourselves when they leave. Really, though, it’s not about us. It’s not about our temporary happiness or our temporary discomfort; it’s about the dogs and their families, and when we’re done crying about it, we’re just happy we got to be part of their lives.

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