I remember the day we completed the application to foster dogs for a local basset hound rescue group. We decided our children were old enough to begin doing community service, but as an active family with five children, we knew scheduling time to volunteer was going to be a challenge. Fostering dogs in our home seemed the perfect way to give back while fitting in to our busy schedule. We knew that when it came time for the dogs to be adopted, we would be sad to see them go. We explained carefully to our children that we were not going to keep these dogs. That it was our job to love them and heal them from any medical issues they had and then find the perfect family for them. What we had not anticipated was how fostering dogs would help our children process their adoption stories.
Our first foster was named Penni. She was a stray dog that had been used extensively for breeding and then dumped. Unfortunately, in Texas, this is not unusual. Penni came to us exhausted, skinny and wary of people. We knew she’d been a good momma to many litters of puppies and we decided we were going to spoil her. We gave her bubble baths and taught her how to play with toys. She learned the finer things in life like laying on a couch in the sunshine during the day and going for walks. She learned she would get food regularly. She began to trust that people could help care for her and she didn’t have to fend for herself.
When it came time for Penni to be adopted we found the perfect family. They too had young children and another dog for her to play with. They had been wanting a Basset Hound for a long time. The family came to the house and fell in love and took Penni home. This scenario repeated itself again a few months later with Kenzie, then Snickers followed by many others.
While we knew we would be sad when the dogs were adopted, I hadn’t anticipated the depth of the grief in our adopted children. What I soon realized is that this wasn’t a sadness of missing a foster dog, but rather intense grief as they processed their own adoption stories.
I learned four things about how fostering dogs helped our adopted children process their stories.
- Love: Fostering allowed my children to love unconditionally. We were not caring for this dog to benefit our family but rather to benefit a family we had not met. This is similar to the “nannies” in China who cared for our children in the orphanages until they were adopted. It also parallels the role foster families play in the US foster care system.
- Trust: Foster dogs are many times distrustful of humans. They have experienced that not all humans are good. Foster dogs may have learned that they need to depend only on themselves to get their needs met. Many children in foster care and who are adopted have unfortunately had to learn similar lessons. Our children were overjoyed when our foster dogs learned to trust gentle touch and kindness.
- Worthiness: Every dog who comes into our home has value. Not because of anything they have done, but just because they exist. Even if these dogs are dumped, sick, injured, flea infested or have heart worms they are precious. Children who are in foster care or are adopted many times have a shame core and a deep sense of unworthiness. Through fostering dogs our adopted children came to understand that they are precious regardless of how they came to our family.
- Abandonment: We have fostered dogs whose owners took them to the shelter because the dog needed medical care they couldn’t provide. We have fostered dogs whose owner’s living situations changed and while they loved the dog, they could no longer care for it. We have had these owners sob as they handed their dogs over to us to foster. This experience helped our children process their own abandonment. Two of our adopted children came to us with medical needs that their parents were financially unable to treat. This allowed our children to come to understand that their parents were selfless in making the decision for them to have an opportunity to get the medical care they needed even if it broke their hearts.
When we first began our adoption journey our social worker told us that all adoption is born from loss and if we were going to adopt we had to be comfortable with grief. While adoption may be a wonderful, joyful, exciting time for parents it is a time of tremendous loss for children. We learned the same thing is true of foster dogs. While we may be excited to welcome a new dog into our home. the dog is fearful and unsure. While fostering dogs was intended to be our family community service it has helped our adopted children process their stories. Each time a foster dog is adopted we shed tears but those tears have evolved from deep grief into the joy of a dog going on to its new life and so it is for our children too.