Last month, a news story really hit home for me and my family. A kind-hearted neighbor called to report an unattended dog left outside in freezing temperatures in a neighboring yard. When animal rescue came to pick up the dog, they found her face, paws, and side were frozen to the ground. It took a half-hour to pour warm water on the pup and get her off the ground. She was named Elsa (obviously) and thankfully, after a few days of care at a veterinary hospital, she is doing much better.
My heart goes out to abandoned animals like Elsa, which is why I volunteer with a local dog rescue shelter and foster dogs in my home until they’re ready to be adopted. I was compelled to sign my family up for this after seeing the uncomfortable and cold conditions of many shelters. Sickness spreads quickly among shelter animals, and even well-tempered dogs can become less social when they spend time at the pound. It’s a vicious cycle because dogs often become less adoptable the more time they spend in a shelter. But a dog that’s nursed back to health in a home is usually much healthier, happier, and better-behaving. Letting a dog stay with our family for a few weeks until it gets adopted seemed like a small kindness I could get behind.
When I tell people we’re a foster family for rescued dogs, a lot of them wonder if it’s hard to give up the dogs once we’ve gotten attached to them — especially for my kids. With our first few fosters, I worried about this happening too, but it actually hasn’t been an issue. We already have a dog, which I think has helped. Sure, I’ll admit that when we first get a foster dog, we often think, “This is a great one — let’s keep it!” but part of the fun is finding the right owner for the dog. After doing this for several years now, we all know the drill.
In fact, we’re happy when dogs find their permanent homes. It’s incredible to see the transformation in a scared, dirty, nervous shelter dog after a few weeks of having caring owners (even if we’re only temporary) and a warm place to sleep. My kids have always liked dogs but they’ve learned to be very comfortable around all types of dogs, from lap dogs to pit bulls, and have learned how to approach new dogs and behave safely around them. Moreover, the dogs have given me the opportunity to teach my kids about responsibility. They help feed the dogs, wash and brush them, train them, and clean their kennels. This is on top of my kids playing with them, taking them for walks, and helping me get them into a good routine so they’re more adoptable. When we think the dogs are ready to join a permanent family, we take them to adoption events together and meet with interested families. We talk to them about the dogs’ personality and temperament to make sure the perspective adoptive family is a good fit.
Fostering dogs is also teaching my kids to feel a sense of stewardship over animals and is giving them an understanding that they can help. It teaches them that animals who were discarded by someone still have value. You can’t just get rid of something when you get sick of it. I think this quality has transferred to their school work and interest in track and field. They know the importance of following through with something even when the novelty wears off. It helps them stick to doing their homework and continuing to go to practice even when they don’t feel like it. This mentality is not only great when it comes to school and sports, but will help them down the road in their careers and relationships.
I’m also grateful that these dogs are teaching my kids the transforming power of compassion. We’ve seen “ugly,” unwanted dogs transform just because we had compassion for them and decided to take care of them. It isn’t uncommon for 2 to 3 adoption applications to come in on one of our foster dogs. I love that my kids get to see the animals go from being unwanted (and sometimes even abused) to having multiple adopters interested. It’s really wonderful. I want my kids to be mindful of simple things they can do to ease the suffering of others, even if it’s “just” a dog. In fact, my youngest daughter is very interested in taking care of animals when she grows up. She talks about being a veterinarian and often pretends to be one with her stuffed animals and toys.
I recommend fostering for any family who thinks they may want a dog. It’s a great way to find a dog that is right for your living situation, and foster families always have the opportunity to adopt their foster dog if they want to. It also helps you get to know the dog and see if your kids are ready for the responsibility. You can think of it as a trial run. Even if you don’t end up adopting, it’s an amazing way to teach children responsibility and compassion, and more importantly, it gets them thinking about something other than themselves.