“How will you be able to say goodbye after all that time? Won’t it break your heart?”
This and similar questions were asked of me when I first shared with people that I would be fostering dogs again, this time for Guardian Angels for Soldier’s Pets. I replied with answers like “Oh, I’ve fostered many dogs before, I’m used to it” and “It’s not that hard since they are leaving for good homes.” But the truth is, like all the other times, I was bluffing. It’d been years since I fostered dogs, but I knew that when the day came to let go, it would hurt. The more you foster dogs, the easier it gets – but it never ceases feeling like an arrow in the heart when the time comes for them to leave, no matter how good the home is they are going to.
How did I end up fostering for Guardian Angels for Soldier’s Pets, anyway? Well, like I said, it’s been a few years since I fostered dogs. Back then, I fostered mostly rescue dogs with special behavioral needs that needed lots of attention and energy. So when health problems started to get the better of me, I had to give up my “work” of fostering and rehabilitating those dogs, as well as actual paying jobs. I ended up on assistance, feeling pretty useless and sorry for myself for a number of years. I wanted to contribute somehow, but was always limited by either lack of money or lack of physical resources to donate my time with.
Then I read about Guardian Angels for Soldier’s Pets in a newsletter from a rescue group I get email from. I instantly realized that this was something I could do. I could specify that I would need the soldier to provide complete funding for his or her pet, so my lack of finances wouldn’t be an issue. And since these were pets, and not rescue dogs with special needs, they wouldn’t be as much work as the dogs I’d worked with previously. Any behavior issues would likely be minor and easy to work with. I could take care of them at my home. All these dogs really needed was a home to live in and be loved while their soldier served overseas or was otherwise incapacitated. And I have a big yard for them to play in for exercise, as well as a great dog park close to my house. This could work!
And best of all, I would be serving my country in a small way, by giving a soldier peace of mind that their beloved pet would be well cared for, freeing them up to focus on their jobs and stay safe while serving overseas, or healing, or getting their lives back together. Some people, including soldiers, feel that their pets are like their children. I knew that it had to be hard enough to leave them behind with family and friends. I can’t even imagine the pain of those who had no choice but to give their pets up to shelters. So I felt this would be meaningful and make a difference. I signed up right away.
I wasn’t sure they would find a match for me. I was “needy” in terms of what I could foster. I needed a dog that was housebroken, didn’t jump low fences, fully financed, got along well with other dogs and was not prey driven since I have tiny dogs at home. That’s a lot for a coordinator to work with! I did not put a size restriction – I knew that the majority of the dogs needing foster homes would be larger dogs, since family and friends of people who need a temporary home for their dogs are a lot more willing or able to keep smaller dogs than they are the larger dogs.
A few months after I applied to GASP, the coordinator sent me a foster request. She included a picture of the dog, named Ruffus, and some information about him. He was adorable. We exchanged a few more emails in which I asked a few questions to be sure he wouldn’t jump the fence or eat my little dogs, and I accepted. His mom, Jessica and I exchanged emails after that, where I asked her more information about Ruffus and told her a bit about myself, she explained her dog’s needs and routine, and we planned when he would be dropped off. Then I had to “big-dog” proof the house. You know, remove food from the counters, cover the trashcan, clear off the coffee table, chain the fridge doors, that kind of thing. I’m just kidding about the fridge.
I found myself getting very excited about having another dog around. I am the kind of person where, when it comes to dogs, the more the merrier! I couldn’t wait to meet him and Jessica. But I was also nervous. What if Jessica didn’t like me? What if she forgot to leave money for his food and vet care? What if Ruffus didn’t like me? Would he have any behavior issues that would be a lot of work? I use only positive reinforcement methods, but those can take time, so would he pee everywhere or chew things up before I worked it out? What if I bit off more than I can chew and he wears me out? Will my dogs be nice to him? What if he gets sick or breaks a leg, will she fly home and paint my house pink to get revenge? Lots of things went through my head, but in the end I knew that after what I had been through with the rescue dogs, I could work just about anything out.
The day finally arrived, and a very large dog with long yellow fur came bounding through my door, followed by a girl with long yellow hair and behind her, a crate with legs, which turned out to be Jessica’s boyfriend Andy helping to carry Ruffus’s belongings in. We introduced ourselves and talked for a bit while Ruffus explored the house, I showed them around the house and the backyard so they’d know where he’d be living for the next 6 months, and we went through the paperwork and talked for a bit. It was late at night and she still had things to do before flying out the next day, so they didn’t get to stay very long.
As I watched her say goodbye to Roo, I could tell it was hard for her to entrust him to a complete stranger she’d only just met. I am not sure that I could bring myself to do something like that, so I admired her for it. I did my best to assure her that I would treat him as though he were my own and would take very good care of him. I hoped she believed me. I also promised to regularly send her pictures and updates via email about Ruffus was doing, and regular Skype dates. After she left, I expected Ruffus to have some separation anxiety as many dogs do, but he didn’t. He seemed to take to me right away, and just went with the flow. He handled meeting my neurotic dogs better than any dog I’ve ever seen and fit in right away. I could tell this was going to go great.
I ended up creating a Facebook page for Ruffus, because I thought it might make it a little easier for Jessica to access his pictures and updates that way. Well, he got lots of attention and lots of fans, so I started posting as much for them as for Jessica. It was heartwarming to see that so many people cared about Jessica and Ruffus, especially when they left messages of support for Jessica. We also had regular Skype dates, where Jessica got to watch him on webcam for a while and chat with us at the same time. I hoped that helped make her deployment a little easier. I was thankful that she had access to internet to be able to do that!
6 months went by very quickly. Ruffus turned out to be a wonderfully behaved, friendly, loving, clown of a dog, if a bit more energetic then the rest of us combined. He was only a year old after all, so he was still a puppy at heart. He was even still growing a little bit. I started taking him to the dog park nearly every day to help burn off some of that energy, which turned out to be a very fun thing to do for both of us. Every dog and human at the dog park loved Ruffus as much as he loved them. He would greet everyone, whether 2 legs or 4, as though they were old friends and he hadn’t seen them in forever. He quickly became a park favorite and people talked about how friendly and generally awesome he was.
He got along well with my dogs, too. In fact, he became best friends with one of the smallest, Juliet, a Papillon/Chihuahua mix. They adored each other and played together constantly – under supervision of course, because Juliet weighs 5 pounds and Ruffus weighs nearly 70. He can, and frequently did, fit her entire head in his mouth. She has long hair, so she spent most of the 6 months looking like she’d had an accident with a bottle of hair gel. But for the most part he learned to be gentle, with a few spurts of rambunctiousness.
Ruffus has the kind of personality that you can’t help but fall in love with. He’s a big, silly, playful, lovable oaf, but also very sweet and affectionate. My favorite part of his personality is how laid-back he is. Nothing seems to really faze him. Well, he’s not too fond of getting baths, but outside of that he put up with just about everything. At the same time, it was super easy to make him happy and excited. He really was a joy to have around. And I enjoyed the security I felt thanks to his protectiveness along with a big, deep bark. We are pretty sure that twice, he scared away people that were up to no good. All in all, he was a blessing and added to our lives in ways we didn’t expect.
The day finally came to say goodbye. Jessica and I arranged things so that we could completely surprise him – I would go out in the backyard with him when she pulled in the driveway (and get the camera rolling) and she would come right out and greet him before he had time to figure out something was up. It worked! He was so very happy to see her and pretty much went loony over her. She stayed to visit a while more and bought us pizza, and the whole time he barely left her side. It was very heartwarming to see the two of them back together again – you just can’t break that kind of bond. And that right there is the whole reason I decided to do this.
The relationship between a person and their pet is very special and meaningful. Pets are not merely property, but member of the family. For some people, their pets are an extension of themselves and their hearts. A person who serves our country and makes other sacrifices that come with being in the military deserves for that relationship to be respected and preserved. We wouldn’t ask them to give up their relationship with any of their human family, or leave a member of their family in questionable situations, in order to serve the country. Pets should be no different, and they should never be a sacrifice. They need their pets, and their pets need them. What better way to repay them for their service than to ensure their beloved pets are well cared for and will be there for them when they return?
So how can I say goodbye after all that time? Well, the truth is, my heart is full and my life is better for having had this experience, and it was a way for me to serve my country too. And as a bonus, I made a wonderful new human friend. So I’m not saying goodbye. I’m saying “thank you”.