A few weeks back, one of my reference authors (Kim Kavin of “The Dog Merchants”) led me to a new author about whom I did not know before. There had been an issue with difficulty getting a shelter in South Carolina to release a dog to a rescue group following Hurricane Michael and I was asked what I knew about the shelter operation. As it turns out, the shelter has nothing to write home about, as mom used to say. (The live release rate at the shelter is around 60% which means that animals have about a 50/50 chance of making it out of the shelter alive).
Cara Sue Achterberg, however, does have something to write home about and she did just that in her enchanting new book about her experiences as an animal foster - “Another Good Dog.”
Cara takes the concept of fostering to a whole new level, having fostered more than 50 dogs in a 2-year period and then writing a book about her experiences. No one is keeping score, of course, but the sheer number of animals flowing from shelters, to rescue groups, to Cara’s home and then on to new lives is just mind boggling to me. This is a very organized process in terms of the logistics of the rescue group getting dogs out of shelters and transporting them to foster homes, but the outcome is anything but certain. Foster families who take in rescue animals never really know what will happen when a new animal enters their home and never know how long their visitor will stay. It is a fascinating process to me which I think far too few people know about.
Fostering animals for shelters and rescue groups quite literally keeps them alive. While many communities have become more progressive regarding how tax-funded animal shelters operate, healthy and treatable animals are still destroyed in our nation’s shelters for no good reason than the fact that they are in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is easy to tell ourselves that dogs are destroyed by the millions in our nation’s shelters either because something is wrong with them or because there is no other way to function. The truth is that with very few exceptions, all the healthy and treatable dogs in our shelters are good dogs and they just need our help to start new lives. Animals rarely behave like themselves in shelter environments which can be scary, loud, foreign places which are nothing at all like the homes and lives they once knew. Animals placed in foster homes are being prepared to become someone’s beloved companion through socialization and structure. When they are in foster homes, we help them decompress, help them get the veterinary care they need and we learn about their personalities so that we can help people learn more about who they truly are and not just how they behaved in the shelter.
But on to Cara’s wonderful book.
One of my favorite passages from the book is this:
In the beginning, fostering for us was about having fun with a new dog, trying each one out as if it could be our own. Each adoption was a decision for me – should we keep this one? And each time when the decision was made to let the dog leave, I felt sad, guilty event. Somewhere along the line, though, I’d stopped thinking of the dogs as mine. It didn’t hurt less, but it was easier. I didn’t imagine any of them staying. I had an important job here. It was to prepare the dogs for their new home. If I did my job right and OPH’s (Operation Paws for Homes) adoption coordinator team did their job right, there was a very good chance that the next home these dogs moved to would be their last. So when each dog left it wasn’t because I decided not to keep it, it was because I’d helped it find its home, and now could save another dog.
Q: Early on in your book, you talk about a foster kit you get which includes a number of items which I found fascinating: vitamins, probiotics, coconut oil and cranberry extract. Do you still use the same items for your fosters? If so, would you recommend them to anyone who adopts a dog from an animal shelter?
A: Because so many shelter dogs have a spotty health history at best, we try to bolster their immune system and help them fight off potential health issues with vitamins and probiotics. The cranberry extract is given to female dogs to try to prevent (or treat) urinary tract infections that can be common in dogs who have to hold their pee for a long time on transport runs that can be as long as twelve or more hours. The coconut oil is not only a natural wormer, it’s good for lots of things like their coat. And yup, we still use the same stuff and I always recommend the probiotics to adopters.
Q: We hear all the time about shelters with high kill rates which make it incredibly difficult for rescue groups to pull animals. Even though there are rescues out there that are willing to pull dogs that are heart worm positive, may have some behavioral issues, are older or may have come from a really bad situation, it seems like some regressive shelters would rather destroy the dogs than release them to rescues. Have you ever encountered this attitude?
A: I do think it’s rare. I haven’t encountered it with the shelters we have established partnerships with, but this past fall I did run into it for the first time with a shelter in South Carolina that took in evacuated hurricane dogs. They put up quite a fight, insisting that we shouldn’t pull a dog because they had labeled him heart worm positive and dog-aggressive. Because I’d met the dog in person while on my tour, I argued that we should still pull him and offered to foster him myself. As it turns out, he was heart worm negative and not the least bit aggressive toward dogs, people, or even cats! Quite the opposite actually. I think the vast majority of shelters are working hard to save every dog they can, but as I learned this fall, occasionally there are shelter workers who become jaded or frustrated or maybe just burnt out, and find it easier to euthanize than go the great lengths it sometimes takes to save a dog.
A: Even though I work from home, I still crate my foster dogs for part of the day. I do this because I know that the vast majority of adopters will have to crate them while they work. Most of the people who foster with OPH (the rescue I work with) work full-time away from their house. People who work outside of their homes are actually the perfect people to foster most dogs.
Q: What do you think about the concept of Sleepover fostering where people foster either for a weekend or for a couple of nights?
A: I think that any time you can get an animal out of the shelter for any period of time, it’s going to benefit that animal. It’s also a great way to ‘try out’ fostering a dog you aren’t sure about and to help shelter workers assess a dog’s temperament in a home setting.
Q: In your book you talk about the fact that you may have a puppy addiction. Do you still?
A: Oh, yes. Puppies are my crack. Even worse, I love to foster pregnant dogs. Fostering puppies is much more time consuming than fostering dogs, plus it’s very messy. We quarantine our puppies who are not fully vaccinated, which means for at least 8 days, the puppies stay indoors in a restricted area. That means there’s a lot of potty detail. But all of that pales when you hold it up against the joy of being with puppies. No one can be unhappy in the presence of a puppy.
Q: It seems as though fostering has become a way of life for you, as it has for many of my other contacts. Do you envision yourself doing this forever?
A: Well, I hope I won’t be doing this forever. I hope we will solve this absolutely solvable problem our country has of euthanizing adoptable dogs. But until we do, yes, I will continue to rescue. Having met so many good dogs whose only crime was landing in an overcrowded shelter and knowing how many more are still dying, there’s no way I could stop.
As of the date of this blog, Cara has fostered 136 dogs. She is currently fostering two adult dogs and three six-week-old puppies (in addition to her two personal dogs)