The life-affirming joy of being a dog foster family

A lifetime ago I was studying medicine. I don’t remember when I decided I wanted to be a doctor, but as far back as I can remember I’ve imagined that moment when I would get to save a life.

s it turns out, on my hospital rotations, I discovered that the job just wasn’t for me, so after five years, I dropped out. The hardest thing about that decision was giving up the dream of being able to save lives.

But here I am, 25-odd years later, not a medical degree in sight, and I’ve had the honor of saving 12 lives, with hopefully more to come, because we are a dog foster family.

I guess you could say we unofficially started fostering about 15 years ago. My little sister — out of the goodness of her heart — told her friends that I would be happy to take care of their dog while they went away on holiday for three weeks.

The couple lived in the midlands and commuted up and down to Dublin every day for work. It meant the dog was alone for most of the day. So, long story short, that dog is currently curled up on the mat beside me, snoring away.

He’s almost 20 years old now and still going strong. He’s not as sturdy on the pins as he used to be and his joints are a bit stiff in the morning, much like myself. The vet thinks he might have a touch of dementia but it’s hard to say really. He was never the sharpest knife in the drawer.

He’s a cross between a Belgian Malinois and a border collie (we think) and he’s the sweetest soul I’ve ever met. No matter what kind of creature comes through the door, he greets them all with a wagging tail.

I’ve never heard him growl — except in his sleep. I don’t know what he’s growing at in his dreams but whatever it is it makes his right hindleg start running independently of the other three.

Then came Toby. The bane of my life. Toby is a small black wire-haired terrier cross and he’s a little brat. He’s the kind of dog who is a natural bully. Small dog syndrome. There isn’t a scrap he won’t have. German shepherds, pit bulls, it doesn’t matter. He’ll take them on. I’m convinced that under his fur he’s covered in prison tattoos. All he’s missing is a switchblade and a set of brass knuckles. I

officially started fostering about six years ago. One day I just sent an email to the DSPCA about becoming a fosterer. Within a few weeks, Nina arrived. She was a greyhound who had been found straying with a large gash on her flank. She came to stay with us while she recovered.

I’d never been around a lurcher before. I had the impression that they were high-energy dogs that would spend all their time zooming around and needing lots of walking. As it turns out, I was very wrong. Nina just lay in her bed all the time. I thought she might have clinical depression. I was starting to get worried until I learned that lurchers are lazy lumps.

Nor did I know what drama queens they are. Nina had a blood test during one of her check-ups. With the howling and wailing of her in the treatment room, I thought they were killing her. Lesson number two, lurchers are prima donnas. A bit like a premiership footballer; the slightest injury and they drop to the floor writhing in pain.

Boss was next and is the reason we love pit bulls. Boss and his two Yorkshire terrier siblings were found tied up in the back garden of a house after their owners moved out and left them. Not an uncommon occurrence as it turns out. Dogs are left behind with no shelter, no food and no water. Left there to die.

It never ceases to amaze me how cruel human beings can be. Lady was found with pellets under her skin and cigarette burns. Martha was bred to the point that her womb had prolapsed. Sadie spent the first three years of her life tied up in a dark shed. She has been left so traumatized that she can’t be moved out of her current foster home. She is one of those who are left so badly broken that the scars never heal.

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Dawn says the dogs she fosters have taught her what it means to forgive and to love completely

Dawn says the dogs she fosters have taught her what it means to forgive and to love completely

The first time I met Boss, he was so terrified that he came crawling towards me on his belly, his big brown eyes pleading with me not to hurt him. We all fell head over heels in love with him. He just wanted to be curled up by the fire or even better, curled up with a human.

And the zoomies were hilarious. We’d be watching him running in and out of the bushes in the garden driving Toby mad. And there’s a reason why they are called the ‘nanny breed’. I’ve never seen a breed bond so quickly with children. They have a natural parental streak.

I won’t say we haven’t had our hiccups. Until Boss, we knew nothing about pit bulls. We didn’t understand that they can sometimes love too much. He began to get protective of myself and my youngest daughter. I thought it was cute, but he eventually nipped my husband on the leg — an occupational hazard. Boss was immediately signed up for training and I was blown away by how quickly he caught on.

Boss was eventually adopted by a couple in Sweden. Because they were small and fluffy, his siblings were adopted here quickly, but nobody wanted Boss. A lot of the adult dogs I’ve fostered have ended up being adopted abroad. In contrast to Ireland, other countries have much stricter breeding laws — if you want a dog, you can either go to a rescue center and adopt, or get in the very long queue for a custom-made, designer, non-shedding, hypo – allergenic puppy accessory.

All the traumatized adult dogs I meet were cute little puppies once upon a time too. It’s surprising how many puppy people end up not being dog people. If you have bought a dog in the past, so be it, but if you’re ever considering getting another dog, please take a look around your local rescue center or pound. Your dog is there just waiting for you to find him or her.

An important part of fostering is learning the dog’s personality so that when they are put up for adoption, it’s already known if the dog is good with other pets and children, for example.

We were heartbroken when Boss left but he is now living his best life in the Swedish countryside with his rescue Pittie brother.

And then there’s the puppies. Sweet Jesus, the puppies. The teething, the peeing, the pooing, the food frenzies. Let me stress the teething. I can’t tell you how many shoes have been sacrificed in the name of puppy fostering. Not the cheap Penneys flipflops I picked up at a wedding somewhere. Oh no, it has to be the favorite ones or the most expensive ones.

Also critically injured in the teething massacres have been furniture, the doors, the skirting boards, the pipe off the back of the house, and a pedal on two different bikes. There is one leg of the kitchen table that is still standing thanks to gravity alone. We’ve had blue-eyed Bianca and Milly, the pooping sisters Bibi and Belle, and Vegas.

Vegas is what is referred to in the business as a failed foster. One of those dogs that you make a special bond with and just can’t let go. He’s a black and white Staffie-shaped bundle of love and happiness. He’s always smiling. When we’re out for a walk, people see him smiling and they start to smile back. It’s like happiness sparks off him.

His most important bond is with my youngest daughter. Hey adores here. She was 10 when we got him and the two of them spent hours together out on adventures and just shooting the breeze in her room. Twice he’s gotten out and followed her scent to the school. He still waits at the door for her to come home.

I normally don’t mind giving the puppies back. I know they’re going to get adopted. It’s the older ones that break my heart, the ones that have been terribly let down by their humans but are still desperate for someone to love.

I think that I have gotten more out of fostering than the dogs. Firstly, caring for those in need is good for the soul. There is lots of research showing that volunteering in any way improves your mental wellbeing.

More than that though, these dogs have taught me what it means to forgive and what it means to love completely. They judge humans based on what’s inside. They don’t care about skin colour, religion, politics or occupation. They see the best in everyone.

I’ve met some amazing dogs and amazing people along my fostering journey. There is a small army of ordinary people out there involved in rescuing animals. Some drive pound to pound every day saving animals from death row.

These groups are desperately in need of your support, either by making a donation, signing up for fostering or — best of all — adopting a dog. I cannot think of any greater honor than being able to save a life.

Facts about fostering

If you are thinking about fostering there are a few things to know:
⬤ The foster agency covers all vet fees and will provide bedding, bowls, toys, food, leads and collars.
⬤ You are not paid for fostering.
⬤ Before you are given your first foster animal you will be required to undergo a home check.
⬤ Somebody will need to be home for most of the day so the animal is not left alone for too long.
⬤ You will need a secure back garden.
⬤ The foster animal must sleep in the house.
⬤ You will need to make time for regular walks.
⬤ You may be required to bring the dog to vet appointments.
⬤ The foster agency will provide ongoing support and will be happy to find the dog a different foster home if things don’t work out.

where to start
A quick search on Google for foster dogs in Ireland will bring up dozens of rescue centers that are looking for fosterers.
Complete the online application form on the website or give them a call.
My go-to foster agencies are Protecting Pound Dogs, Dog Angels and Dogs in Distress, all of which you can find on Facebook. The following groups are also good to check.

Dog’s Trust: dogstrust.ie/rehoming/fostering/
CDPA: cdpa.ie/how-you-can-help/fostering-dogspuppies/
CORK DAWG: dogactionwelfaregroup.ie/fostering/
Madra: madra.ie/fostering/
DSPCA: dspca.ie/how-to-help/foster-care