Sunday, September 26, 2010


This is a piece I wrote about Theo, the first dog I fostered. Sweet Boy #1, aka Mr. Velvet Ears, was with us for 3 1/2 months--the longest foster stay so far. (The shortest has been overnight.)

I Got Theo
When I thought about taking a foster dog into the 600 square-foot apartment I share with my four-year old hound mix Bella, I imagined the well-behaved, well-groomed lab of a family forced by the economic downturn to foreclose upon their well-appointed suburban home.

I got Theo.

Smelly, skinny, coughing, scratching beagle/basset Theo had a bb pellet lodged in his shoulder and both a heart murmur and an enlarged heart that may or may not have been the result of his heartworm. He didn’t come when called; he curled into himself and scooted forward on his butt, all but begging not to be smacked.

Lois, Theo’s adoption coordinator at Homeward Trails Rescue, met us in a local playground—‘neutral territory’ for Bella— weighed down with treats. Anytime Bella—friendly to some dogs but known to bark, ‘Get the hell off my street!’ to others—so much as looked Theo’s way, she was rewarded with one. Back in my apartment, Lois took my measure as a foster mom, exuding confidence in my non-existent ability to control the whirling dervish who knocked over the garbage repeatedly as we went over the paperwork. When she left, I drew Theo a bath.

That first night I lay awake in the dark as he snored, pinned to the universe in a way I had never achieved in formal prayer. This creature had been slated to die and he was here—loudly—with me.

I was less spiritual in the morning, when Theo joined our once-peaceful walks. He pulled me down the street, loudly baying. Whenever a man walked by, Theo dove belly first to the pavement and tried to slink away.

Despite the lousy time he’d had of life so far, Theo never showed aggression. But he gobbled his food so fast I feared he’d choke, and drank the entire contents of the water bowl no matter how many times I filled it (that little comedy routine ended with my realizing I needed to cut him off at 8 pm so we could all sleep through the night). He abruptly left the room if Bella tried to play.

For more than a week, I took on all of Theo’s stress. I rushed home from work to take him out (even though the dog walker took them both at lunchtime) and woke to the slightest noise, worried that he was hurt or peeing. Possible adoptive families were scared off by the heart issues and it looked like he would be with me awhile; my mother told me too many times she didn’t think he’d ever find a home.

One particularly exhausted morning, one arm stretching to accommodate Theo’s pace and the other close to allow Bella’s constant sniffing, I stubbornly—and fleetingly—threw up a white flag. I was in over my head. I work too hard, I told myself. I have no patience. One dog is plenty.

That evening, we three were back out when a crack of thunder sounded, far off. Theo immediately slunk down between a car tire and the curb and refused to budge. After I coaxed him home, he retreated to the closet for the duration of the storm. I sat just outside, my arm threaded between and under my suits and dresses. One hand firmly resting on his shaking flank, I promised him I wasn’t going anywhere.

With two heaping bowls of food a day and three treats for every one I gave Bella, Theo added six needed pounds to his scrawny frame. Indefatigable Lois carted him to the vet, returning with meds and advice. Antibiotics cured the cough and Benedryl subdued the sneezing jags and itching til eliminating corn and adding fish oil supplements relieved his allergies altogether. Lois brought over a wee purple harness and Theo learned to walk on lead. After several homecomings to strewn garbage, this old dog finally bought a smaller garbage can and parked it on the stove.

I took to stroking Theo’s long velvet ears and promising him no one would ever hurt him again. In really no time at all, he was walking with his tail held high. And one fine morning he saucily leaned back into a play bow, inviting the eager Bella to play.

Before my eyes, Theo had become “adoptable” and I finally got it. In agreeing to take Theo, I wasn’t just a way station between a shelter and his forever home. I was giving this dog a safe place to blossom into his true self so his family would recognize their newest member.

After about three months, Theo found his forever home. After even less time with me, so did each of my next two fosters, Win and Blue. Theo and Blue’s families still send grateful emails and photos of the dog they “couldn’t imagine our lives without.” (Win came and went in a week; I haven’t heard from his mom.) Bella and I now care for Mikey, who is pretty much the dog I imagined when I first agreed to foster. He’s a ten-year old black lab with the sweetest face and a stuffed squirrel he carries around in his mouth. He walks beautifully on lead; he’s never had an accident in the house. He didn’t lose his family to foreclosure, though; his owner died and Mikey was surrendered to a shelter. Used to living in a house and being someone’s best pal, Mikey fell into a depression, and the senior boy didn’t appeal to a single adopter. Homeward Trails swooped in before his slated euthanasia and, not to put too fine a point on it, saved his life.

And yet I feel like I’m the lucky one.

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