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Mac was the hardest for me. He arrived about a year ago, just before Thanksgiving. He was my sixth foster dog in about as many months, and the first one who truly tested my commitment to the big-picture cause of rescue.
He was still a pup, less than a year old, a purebred yellow Labrador who would command well over a thousand bucks from any breeder with a decent website. Mac’s body, though, made it clear that he’d been neglected. On the day he pranced into my back yard giving love and kisses, I could see not only his ribs, but also his collarbone and spine. I wondered if he’d been left tied to a tree, or was perhaps abandoned by a family who simply moved away, before he landed in the gas-chamber shelter that gave him three days to live. He had terrible diarrhea following his transport from the Carolinas to the rescue in Pennsylvania; at first, he didn’t even want to eat. Poor Mac’s stomach must have hurt every single day of his life.
Mac and my own dog, Blue, became immediate pals. They ran in the yard, played tug in the den and cuddled in front of the fi replace on chilly nights. I fed Mac the same high-quality food that Blue gets, took him with us on walks in the park and treated him like a member of the family. As his health issues vanished and his body recovered, his spirit exploded with an even stronger glow. He looked like a completely different dog, and everywhere we went, people stopped me to comment on how gorgeous he was.
They were absolutely stunned, literally set back on their heels, when I told them he was a gas-chamber rescue now available for adoption. The very thought of a dog like Mac being abandoned really messes with most people’s ideas about who shelter dogs are, just as the thought of a normal-looking person like me being a foster mom messes with many people’s belief that only “crazy dog ladies” have foster pups in their homes.
Valerie Price has been shattering those same misconceptions for the past fi ve years. A student adviser at a college in the San Francisco Bay Area, she has fostered more than 150 puppies for Smiley Dog Rescue  while working as a student counselor and studying for a master’s degree in business administration.
“People are always surprised when I tell them that these puppies were going to be put down in the shelter,” Price says. “These are beautiful, wonderful puppies. The problem is not with the dogs. It’s the owners who need to be more responsible. I wish people would spay and neuter and stop backyard breeding. That’s why I do this. There’s nothing wrong with these dogs, and I want to speak for them.”
Price has two dogs of her own, Whiskey, a Husky-Samoyed, and Misty, a mutt. Whiskey likes to be in charge, which is why Price sticks to fostering puppies instead of older dogs. Whiskey accepts puppies and often helps nurture them, even when the litters are as big as eight. Price went so far as to build a “dog room” onto her home, a space with a doggy door to the yard and furniture that looks like a bedroom. There’s even a television that the puppies can listen to between her lunch-time visits.
She’s had a few pups like my foster Mac, dogs who, for whatever reason, stuck out and made her want to adopt. But she found the strength to let them all go after the rescue cleared the adopters via its application process and an in-home visit.
“The first few times I fostered, I cried when they left,” she says. “I wanted to keep the second one that I fostered, and the rescue lady told me to be strong. She said the first or second ones are the hardest. It felt like I was losing a child. But the people who adopted those first ones live nearby, and I got to meet the families, and we still stay in touch. The only thing that made it easier is that if I kept the dog, then that would be the end of fostering. I want to have my home open because there are more dogs who need me.”
My first five foster dogs for Lulu’s Rescue  came and went so quickly, I barely got to know them. They were puppies, and puppies are usually adopted the fastest; some of my fosters stayed less than two days. I’d been nothing more than a way station on their journey, a place for them to be safe until their families could collect them. I thought they were cute, but we didn’t even come close to bonding.
Mac, though, stayed for six weeks. His sloppy kisses and wagging tail became a part of my daily routine, and my own dog’s playtime, too. A month and a half is a long time to steel your heart against a dog who wants nothing more than for you to love him back — especially a dog who lives with you through Christmas and gets his very own presents under the tree.
On the day the rescue told me they had a great application for Mac, I, like Price, felt as though I was about to lose a child. I thought about saying no and officially becoming a “failed foster,” an all-too-common label for folks who tried but just could not say goodbye.
It’s happened more than once to Charlene Jackson of Coming Home Rescue  in Rockaway, N.J. She’s had at least 300 foster dogs during the past 15 years, when she’s not busy at her job as an IT professional with Novartis. Her own pack helps with the fostering: Biscuit, a two-year-old Greyhound/Pit Bull mix; Emme, a five-year-old Australian Shepherd/Pit Bull mix; Sam-I-Am, a six-year-old Australian Cattle Dog; and Molly, an 18-year-old Golden Retriever.
“We call her Queen Molly. She came to me full of milk, so we think she was a thrown-out kennel bitch,” Jackson says. “To this day, she will investigate the puppies and sniff their ears to make sure they’re all right. I find that fostering is good for my own dogs. They learn to be sociable, and they learn to share. They open their hearts, too.” Dogs, like people, can become bonded to fosters — especially the ones who end up staying a while. “Time can make it hard, when they just become they’re happy, or it’s a special case and you start to feel like a protective mama bear,” Jackson says. “I’ve seen lots of fosters fail the first or second time. They often keep the first foster dog. Then with the second foster, they cry as they say goodbye. But then they get an email about how well that dog is doing, and they start to understand that this is a cycle. There’s another one waiting. You don’t have to cry for long. He’s in a crate waiting for you.”
For me, it makes things easier to think of that cycle as a pipeline, a pipeline that comes to a clogged stop if the foster person adopts the dog. Keeping that pipeline open is the only way that I could even conceive of saying goodbye to a dog as great as Mac. I kept telling myself that there was another dog just like him scheduled to die in a shelter tomorrow, and that I had to let Mac go, to make room.
The application arrived just before New Year’s. It was from a family about an hour away with a black Labrador who needed a playmate. The husband was willing to drive up to meet Mac even before the application was approved. He brought one of his three sons and their dog, Thomas, who played in my yard with Mac like old pals. The man apologized for his wife’s absence; if their application was chosen, he said, she’d quit her seasonal job early so she could be home to give Mac a proper first few weeks of settling in.
On the day Mac went home with them, I wept. My dog Blue wandered around the house in a daze, too. Mac, though, walked happily out my front door on his leash, his tail in a fullon wag. In my driveway, the family opened the door to their car and Mac jumped right in. He wanted to go for that ride. He didn’t even look back.
I’ve had 13 more foster puppies since then, each one just as deserving of happiness as Mac. Mine wasn’t the ideal home for every one of them — the poopers and chewers … well, I was happy to wish them good luck in life — but a few here and there have touched my heart deeply. For that reason, I’m glad I let Mac go. One of the greatest rewards of fostering is knowing that you’re not only helping one dog, but also the next one in line.
Another great reward is that they never forget you. A couple of weeks ago, I did a reading at a bookstore about a half-hour from my home. My dog Blue was with me, sitting quietly and politely as always. As the reading ended, Blue started tugging and tugging on his leash, trying desperately to get into the crowd. I looked up and saw a gorgeous adult Labrador with his tail wagging wildly, right there in the middle of the bookstore. Within five seconds, Blue was in a full-on play bow.
I looked at the man holding the Lab’s leash, confused about why another dog was inside. The man grinned and said, “You don’t remember him, do you.”
Mac had gotten bigger. And somehow even more gorgeous. His whole family had come to thank me for saving their dog’s life. More than a few people waiting for me to sign their books stopped, stared and wiped away tears.
I wonder if any of them are thinking about fostering now, too.
Imagery by Photo Lab Pet Photography