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.”