25/01/2019 08:05 GMT | Updated 25/01/2019 08:22 GMT

Fostering 136 Dogs Has Taught Me A Lot About Pets, But Even More About Humanity

After we fostered Frank, I scanned the pictures and stories at the kennel and told my husband, "there are too many good dogs still down there"

It all started with a tiny terrified beagle we picked up at a bowling alley on a cold winter night. Galina had arrived from South Carolina on a transport van along with dozens of other dogs stacked in crates like a Jenga puzzle. That first night after we’d picked up Galina we got a flat tire on the drive home. And maybe that should have been a sign fostering rescue dogs would not be easy.

It inconveniences us more times than not. There is no longer a stuffed animal left stuffed in our entire house, the rungs of our chairs bear teeth marks, and certainly our carpet will never be the same. But neither will my heart.

Never planning to foster more than a few dogs, we started fostering rescue dogs to find ‘our dog.’ We’d recently lost, Lucy, the dog of my heart for 17 years. Replacing her would be a tall task, and we figured fostering would be a way to audition dogs to find the perfect pet.

Cara Sue Achterberg
Cara with Frank, the Catahoula with one blue one and one half-brown, half-blue eye, who changed everything

That plan nearly worked. Frank was our eleventh foster dog, a skinny worm-addled Catahoula who had one blue eye and the other eye split remarkably straight down the middle, half blue and half brown. Frank followed me everywhere. I’d made a list of what I was looking for in a dog, and the first requirement was that a dog come when called.

Frank had only been ‘Frank’ for less than a week, and he leapt furniture and children to come to me if I called. Once, when he heard me outside, he nearly dove through a screen to reach me. He had a big goofy smile and a Mick Jagger like tongue. I was smitten.

My husband, Nick, was all for it. The kids weren’t too picky at that point. They’d already had to say goodbye to ten dogs before Frank, so they were fine with my choice. I filled out the application.

Frank followed me from room to room, settling behind my desk when I sat down to work. In my email was the latest list of dogs in need of foster homes. I almost deleted it. But instead, I scanned the pictures and stories. So many good dogs.

Cara Sue Achterberg
Cara with litters of puppies from adopted dogs

Keeping Frank meant saying no to all those faces. Dogs whose only crime was landing in a rural shelter with little resources and not enough room. I knew what the term ‘economic euthanasia’ meant. That night I told Nick, “We can’t keep Frank. There are too many good dogs still down there.”

It was at that point that we began fostering in earnest, taking dogs and puppies and eventually pregnant dogs into our home to help them on their journey to a forever family. Many of the dogs came from sad situations, but for a lot of dogs it was the time in the shelter that really wore on their souls. Twice a month they arrived off the transport van in that bowling alley parking lot, confused, frightened, and sometimes shut down after their twelve-hour drive.

One six-month-old puppy, Hadley, would not come out of a crate for a week and wouldn’t eat unless we hand fed her while she huddled on a dog bed avoiding our eyes. Momma Bear, a large white dog from Iraq, had her ears and tail cut off by village children. Through unknown miracles, she survived, was transported to the US by dogs charity Nowzad, and landed in foster care with us. She was a loving and gentle giant but to this day three years later, her adopter tells me she still will not walk down a narrow hallway.

Estelle was the first pregnant dog we fostered. She was only eight months old when she gave birth to four puppies in our mudroom. One of those puppies turned out to be a swimmer puppy. At a month old, his legs splayed out like a starfish, he could only drag himself forward like a seal while his littermates cavorted around him.

Cara Sue Achterberg
Fruitcake, a puppy born with swimmers syndrome, in his sling and specialised walking chutes

A quick search online revealed that most swimmer puppies die early of congestive heart failure (from the pressure on their organs) or are humanely destroyed. But we weren’t about to lose a puppy we’d worked so hard to save. 

Nick built walking chutes, my neighbour who is also happens to be my vet fashioned hobbles out of medical tape, and we installed donated yoga mats as flooring to give his little feet better traction. Countless volunteers joined ‘Team Fruitcake’ and streamed through my door to help with therapy. In less than a month, little Fruitcake was walking and playing with his siblings, and a few weeks later he went home with his forever family.

Fostering dogs has taught me a great deal about dogs, but it’s taught me more about humanity. These dogs come to us because they have been tossed aside, and sometimes cruelly treated by people. It would be easy to become bitter and angry at the situation, but there really isn’t time for that.

Cara Sue Achterberg
From top left, a selection of good dogs fostered by the Achterbergs: Homeboy, Charm, Rollie, Peggy, Whoopi, Rooney, Oberyn and Ginger

There’s too much work to be done, and so it’s the people who step in the gap to transport, care for, train, fix, love, and adopt these animals who prove over and over again that there is no such thing as hopeless. I call them dog-hearted people, these selfless crazies who go to such extremes to save a dog. I never imagined I’d be one of them, but at 136 dogs and counting, I find I am.

I have also learned to let go of my own preconceived notions, not just of what a good dog is, but about people. The people who come up my drive to meet and adopt a dog (now well over a hundred families) come from every walk of life.

Some are people who I might never encounter otherwise and might presume to judge, yet we connect over our mutual affection for a dog. Many of them will later tell me how ‘my dog’ changed their lives. Often, I hear the refrain, “I don’t know who rescued who.”

Cara Sue Achterberg

When my book came out, I had the chance to travel to the shelters where many of our dogs originate. What I saw broke my heart. Kennels crammed with dogs whose only hope was a rescue. Surrounded by noise and chaos, their sad eyes and grim situation was hard to look at. It was countered only by the dog-hearted people I met in my travels, people who were working to change the situation, as overwhelming as it was.

The organization I foster with, Operation Paws for Homes, has a saying: “together we rescue.” It’s how I sign my books and it’s what I believe is the only hope for the dogs I met in the shelters and the ones that will surely come behind them. Changing the situation will take all of us. So, I invite you to join me and the other dog-hearted people in this world—rescue, foster, adopt. Save a life. You never know, it might be your own.

Cara Sue Achterberg is a blogger, rescue dog foster mom and author of Another Good Dog: One Family and Fifty Foster Dogs

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