The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Parts of Fostering


My current fostering project is a little different from what I usually take on. Ordinarily, my local shelter will contact me if they have a large litter of puppies that need some TLC. I will keep them until they are healthy and old enough, in the shelter’s judgment, to undergo spay/neuter surgery and go up for adoption at the shelter.

This time, for the first time, it’s me who has dragged the shelter (as well as my closest friend here in town) into a fostering project.

I follow a few Facebook groups for lost and found pets in my local area. More than once, I’ve been able to reunite a found dog with his owner by searching through these group posts. But in mid-August, I saw a post for a “found” dog who looked like she had a litter of puppies somewhere, and a looong string of comments from concerned people in our community. Dozens of people suggested that the finder take the dog to the shelter; this was countered by dozens of other people saying, “Don’t do it! Wherever her puppies are, they will starve without her!”

Then there was a comment from a woman saying she was a friend of the owner. She said that the owner was homeless, that the dog had eight puppies, and the owner was struggling to keep the dog fed and contained.

Without really thinking it through, I left a comment on the post: “I would be happy to foster this mother and her puppies, if the owner would agree to turning over all the pups to (my local shelter) and let me get her spayed.” The offer was genuine, but I thought the likelihood of the owner agreeing to this was low.

To my surprise, the very next day I received a message from the woman who said she knew the owner. She told me that she had discussed my offer with the owner, and that he agreed to my terms. She also mentioned that he was a drug addict and that his family was trying to get him into treatment – so if his dog could be cared for somewhere safe for a while, it would be a blessing. And she asked if I could meet her that day to pick up the dog and her pups.

She also mentioned that the people who were currently hosting the homeless guy, the mama dog, and her puppies had no dog food on hand. And that she herself was out of food for her own dogs, having given what she had to this homeless crew days before.

Yikes! At that point I realized I had better check with the shelter, to see if they were on board with all of this; otherwise, I was going to need to do some fundraising! Fortunately, the shelter manager saw the wisdom of getting ahead of this problem. By spaying the mama dog and preventing the puppies from being given away or sold, intact, in our town, we were likely preventing many more puppies from entering the shelter down the road.

I asked my friend Leonora if she would come with me to meet the woman and pick up the dog and pups. But first, we went to a pet supply store and bought dog food – for the woman, for the mother dog, and a bunch of canned food for the puppies.

It turned out that the owner of the dog was living in someone’s backyard. When we got to that house, I immediately recognized the mother dog I had seen in the photos on Facebook; her name is Luna, and she has a distinctive ridge pattern on her back. She approached us immediately in a very friendly fashion and hopped right into my car. People were rushing around the property, trying to locate all the puppies, as I handed over a bag of dog food to the woman who had brokered this whole deal, for her dogs. She told me thanks, and then asked, “Do you have more? These people have other dogs here, too – including one of Luna’s puppies from last year…” As she said this, I saw another dog who looked just like Luna, complete with the crazy, intricate swirling ridge on her back, running around the yard. I opened the large bag of food I had bought to feed to Luna, and scooped about half of it into a grocery bag to give to these people.

At this point, seven puppies had been put into the back of my car; Leonora was keeping track. We asked, “Where is the eighth pup?” The woman waved her hands around and said, “I’ll…I’ll tell you later.” I was left assuming that something awful had happened to it, or that they couldn’t find it, or something. It seemed like it was best to get out of there.

One puppy was half the size of the biggest ones, so I tried to give her extra time with her mom; in the first days of our fostering arrangement, she was always getting edged out.

Settling in

Leonora and I got Luna and the puppies situated in a 10-foot by 10-foot kennel with shadecloth over it, with a big doorless crate serving as a doghouse. We opened a can of food for the pups, who appeared to be about four weeks old – walking around, though not well or that quickly. They scarfed up the can of food like they were starving; I could believe the people had been out of food. I opened a second can of food, which quickly disappeared. They only slowed down into the third can. I fed the rest of that can and a fourth can to Luna, along with a heaping helping of dry food. Though it appeared that she had plenty of milk still, she wasn’t all that enthusiastic about feeding the pups.

The next day, I exchanged a few messages with the woman who brokered our foster arrangement. She asked if I could send her some pictures of Luna and the babies, and I complied. I asked about the eighth puppy – and that’s when she confessed that the owner had already given one of them away! At 4 weeks old! I was a little angry about this development; I had been trying to prevent any of the pups from having an opportunity to add to the pet overpopulation problem. As it was, I think we snatched the litter away in the nick of time; the rest of those pups would likely have been sold or given away within days, otherwise.

A couple days later, while the pups were sleeping, I took Luna to the shelter so she could be scanned. She was excited and happy to enter the shelter and greet everyone there. It turns out that she had been picked up as a stray several times before; on a former stay at the shelter, the staff had implanted her with a microchip that was registered with Luna’s owner’s name and the woman’s name and phone number.

When I first got the pups, the weather in my area was still quite hot – over 100° F. most days. Though they were in the shade, the pups would grow visibly uncomfortable and whiny as the day heated up. I started bringing them into my office at about 11 a.m. each day, so they could hang out in a cooled environment until the day’s temperatures dropped to a more tolerable range and they could go outside and play on the dampened lawn. Of course, that meant taking them outside for frequent potty breaks – and cleaning up more than a few “accidents” between their giant crate (a Great Dane-sized crate someone gave me years ago for the Great Dane foster pups I was raising then) and the door to my office. With seven puppies to wrangle, there is always at least one who stops and pees while you are trying to hustle the rest outside.

A couple weeks later, I brought Luna and her pups to the shelter. She received a dewormer and a flea treatment; they received dewormer and their first vaccinations. They had their weights and temperatures recorded and their first little “mugshots” taken.

Feeding the pups in this child’s play tent helped keep the yellowjackets out of their food!

Fostering at two addresses

Soon enough, the pups were starting to explore my yard when they weren’t in the 10-foot-square kennel I used to contain them when I couldn’t supervise their wandering. And it was time to separate Luna from them; her milk needed to dry up entirely before she could have spay surgery. Thank goodness for my friend Leonora; she has a much larger fenced enclosure where the pups could be more safely contained, even as they had a ton of space to play in. And she lives just over a mile from me! I kept Luna at my house, and the puppies (and the lion’s share of caring for them) moved to Leonora’s house. For the first week or so, I went to Leonora’s house in the middle of her work day, to check that the pups were ok and to do a noon feeding, until it was clear that they could make it through Leonora’s work day on their own.

Fostering pups is a lot of work. Keeping them safely contained takes a ton of attention to the infrastructure. They are sure to find every possible hazard they can get into. They stick their heads into gaps in their enclosures and panic when they can’t pull their heads out immediately. There is a LOT of poop to be picked up – and in the first few weeks of getting weaned, much of the poop is a runny mess that requires a lot of hosing. At this time of year, “meat bees” (wasps) appear from out of nowhere any time we bring out the puppy food, and flies are drawn to the aroma of the hosed-down poop areas. Both Leonora and I have wasp and fly traps hanging all around the puppy enclosures – and we started serving the puppies’ meals to them in a child’s tent that had the zippered door unzipped just enough for the puppies to push their way in; only a few wasps got into the food that way. We were both constantly fussing with moving shade sails around, innovating pools of water for them to wade into and drink from, and spraying down the grass and sand in their enclosures in an effort to keep them cool.

Though Luna is a very sweet dog, and is house-trained and has reasonably good manners, she’s a mother, and like most mama dogs, thinks she ought to run the show around here. In her first few weeks here, though my younger dog Woody made numerous overtures to introduce himself, she would run toward him with enough ferocity to make the much-larger dog turn tail and run. My senior dog, Otto, just avoided her like the plague; he had no interest in kindling any sort of relationship with her. But to protect his rights to freedom from tyranny in his own home, I made Luna sleep in my office; I invited her into my house only when my dogs were outside.

Once the pups started staying at Leonora’s house, though, Luna started to be much friendlier to my dogs. She and Woody have turned into great buddies, enjoying similar “run, crash, and bash” play styles – though she takes every toy away from him and won’t let him fetch in her presence. She is a very funny little dog.

With the puppies at my friend’s house, Luna has decided she can now be friendly with my dog Woody. He likes to play chase games with her, but after being chased away for weeks, he’s remaining cautious!

Our work is nearly done – or is it?

Last week, Luna was finally “dry” enough to undergo spay surgery, which was performed by the shelter’s veterinarian. She has recovered and healed nicely.

Over the past week, I have been talking to and meeting with prospective adopters and getting appropriate homes lined up for all the pups – active homes for the high-octane pups, and more quiet families for the mellower fellows. They should all be placed by the end of next week, and I feel terrific about all the families they are going to.

Here’s the tough part: As I write this, I’m supposed to meet Luna’s owner to return her to him tomorrow. I’m going to make sure he knows that if he ever wants Luna to have a permanent home at a fixed address, I can find a family for her. And I already bought a big bag of food to send with her – for her and (probably) all the other dogs living at the home where her owner was camping in the yard. (When I asked the woman who has been acting as our intermediary whether Luna’s owner would have food ready to feed her, she told me, “Well, we’re pretty low… and I sure could use help getting my three dogs spayed…” Ay yi yi!)

I know that, all things considered, Leonora and the shelter and I have done a lot of good here – but at the moment, it just doesn’t feel that great.


  1. I really admire you for the work you do for the dogs. Having done some work with rescue groups in the past, I know how it feels when you do everything within your power and it hardly seems like a drop in the bucket. But, if you can, focus on what you’ve done for those puppies and how much better off they are because of what you and your friend did. You made a tremendous difference in their lives. You made a tremendous difference in the lives of the puppies that won’t be born to perhaps very poor conditions, little to no vet care, and perhaps not enough to eat.

  2. The work is never-ending, and yes, there will always be more and more animals who need your help and your shelter’s help. But please never underestimate the amount of good work you’ve already done, and the number of lives you’ve already saved!! It’s huge. I’ve been working at a shelter for 16 years and coordinated with many rescues, and we all know that the work will go on, long after we’re gone. But what we all do is huge, and we do make a difference.

  3. Great job, not just helping this mom and pups but educating these folks they cane from on spay/neuter. Maybe you can ask who took the eighth puppy and arrange for its neuter/spay, too? I have fostered a handful of mom and pups, I know all the work you describe intimately. Fostering is not for wimps, for sure! Thank you for sharing this uplifting story. It’s like the starfish story, every one counts!

    • Thanks for the starfish analogy; I keep trying to focus on the good we’ve done with the pups, and for poor Luna. I’m so glad she doesn’t have to go through any more pregnancies.

      When I returned her, there were FIVE intact dogs already at the address where I met her homeless owner. Two were her female pups from her litter last year. There was another seemingly dog-aggressive female dog (who immediately attacked Luna and had to be pulled off) and two small male dogs. Argh! I’ll be looking into whether I can organize some free spay/neuter days in this community. (There is one lower-cost clinic in town, but their management is so disorganized, no one can get a call returned to inquire about prices or set an appointment. I have long advised interested people to just go there on their open days — it’s the only way to communicate with them. This difficulty means that lots of people just give up. And ANY price is too much for people like those I’ve been dealing with. If it’s not free, it’s not going to happen.)

  4. Is the shelter or anyone helping with this: “Well, we’re pretty low… and I sure could use help getting my three dogs spayed…” Ay yi yi!)

    Will anyone be helping the woman who helped you rescue the pups get food for her three dogs and have them spayed? Is there a fundraiser for them that we can contribute to?

    • There is a group that helps the homeless in this area (The Hope Center), and pet food is one of the things they make available. Because Luna’s owner has been staying in people’s yards — people who are NOT homeless and who have lots of dogs themselves — I’m not sure how much food he would be able to get from the pantry…

      I’m going to be looking into how one can engage a mobile spay/neuter provider. Stay tuned!

  5. Are there no pet food pantries in your area? We have several around us. One out in the rural area I live in and some at two shelters in the general area. I am sure that there are others in the state. I try to donate as much as possible. I also think they are subsidized by some of the pet supply companies. Might be something to start where you are. I can’t fathom not being able to feed our animals. Makes me ill to think of that.
    You did an amazing thing to help. Thank you.

  6. As the saying goes, “You can’t change the world by saving one dog, but you can change the world for that one dog” (or something like that). It’s the good fight! Thank God there are enough of us to keep encouraging each other. Thank you for, once again, sharing your life with us.

  7. Hopefully the dog aggressive dog does not go after Luna again. Does anyone there realize they need to keep that dog away from other dogs? Wow it seems like you were taken advantage a bit but I would have done what you did just to save who I could. Thank you for all you do.

  8. So often I complain about neutering/spaying dogs when they are still young pups, knowing that the hormones are much needed for full proper development. But then I read a story like yours, and better appreciate the reasoning behind such early surgery.
    Thank you for all you do!

  9. You are describing our daily reality here in Mexico – maybe not drug addicts, but low income – too many dogs, filthy living conditions for humans and animals. A huge need for spay and neuter the pets and a lot of education for the owners.

  10. Nancy, you are a saintly individual. The way you give so much of yourself, your time, energy and financial resources to help so many dogs and puppies takes my breath away.

    I understand why this mostly feel good story has left you feeling less than happy. Poor Luna probably has some more difficult days ahead of her back with the irresponsible owner. It’s a shame that there isn’t a way to prevent dogs like her from being returned to bad homes.

    • For SURE not saintly, lol. I feel SO privileged to have a job that allows me to tie my work and personal interests together. I do what I can but always wish I could do more. There are lots of UNfostered pups in our shelter, too!

      And a huge shout-out to my friend Leonora. She always has my back with these projects, and does just as much work for the pups as I do.

      The owner and his friend? Seemingly so used to the cycle of poverty that they can’t see the sense of keeping so many dogs they can’t afford. (Luna’s owner told me ruefully, as he signed the paperwork that officially turned over the pups to the shelter, “I was planning on keeping one of those pups.” Nevermind that he kept one the LAST time she had a litter, that he’s living in someone’s yard, and gave one of the puppies to those people before I could get there!) It’s irresponsible from our perspective for sure, but it’s more than that. It’s a completely different world-view or way of living. I understand it, but just barely.

      • …that “different worldview” can be jarring and so very challenging! Becoming vegan at age 51 and doing animal rescue in a diverse neighborhood present nearly endless opportunities to practice being non-judgmental. I need the practice. It’s hard.

  11. May God bless every act of kindness you do for people and dogs. You have amazing skills and some resources other dog fosterers can only dream of. It takes a special person to juggle and deal with all you do. Thank you for the saving efforts for so many and the least of them. You’re going to need another crown in heaven to hold all your stars. Thank you so much!!!

  12. This is depressing. A different world view is one thing, but the homeless owner can’t fathom that Luna and pups were hungry ie not getting enough food before? That with 5 intact dogs there’ll be more puppies that they can’t afford to feed? And poor Luna – from a briefly cushy home life back to an underfed backyard existence.

    It’s obviously great that you saved the pups and that Luna is spayed, but wow. 🙁

    • Totally with ya. And believe me, both Leonora and I are super sad about Luna. But I couldn’t just refuse to give him his dog back; we had made an arrangement and that was the deal. Also, she was VERY happy to see him– and I left them with 50 pounds of dog food, so no dog there will be underfed for a week or two at least. I did tell him that if Luna was too much for him, or if he wanted her to have a fixed address, to let me know. He said, “Never.”

      I’m wracking my brain about a spay/neuter solution for that household.

      (Also, I left one of my collars on Luna, one with my phone number on it. If he happens to leave that collar on, and she happens to get out and go wandering again, and someone calls me…)

    • Perhaps, when one is homeless, there isn’t money in the budget for vet care. Transportation to obtain free veterinary services and food pantry food is likely a problem. Especially when you’re dealing with your own survival needs.

      Although two very small studies found that the health and welfare status of dogs owned by people who are undomiciled was similar to that of dogs living in houses. They did have fewer behavioral issues.

      In the photo of Luna and her pup, she doesn’t at all appear underweight. She’s described as sociable and happy.

      I think she’ll probably be fine.

  13. Thank you for your loving, generous heart and the enormous amount of work you do on behalf of the dogs in need! I have such respect and admiration for you.
    A footnote about the Star Thrower. The original essay called The Star Thrower was written by the late Loren Eiseley, anthropologist and poet-scientist. A great writer and a great humanist. I see the star thrower analogy used fairly often, but I think not too many people know where this originated. The essay is well worth reading. It is in his book of that same title.

  14. Ugh! This the situation where i live in rural and nit-so-rural Texas. That is why we are up to 12 dogs…the shelters here are overflowing, dogs are euthanized daily and people still buy „designer dogs“.
    When my shepherds got out recently i went to our local city shelter and there were sooo many purebred dogs…and that is just a small drop in the bucket of dog misery.
    Down the street from us one dog is tied up in the yard and several others are in raised kennels…loks like a wanne-b pupoymill to me…
    Ugh, it breaks my heart.
    But yes, you did an amazing thing for poor Luna and her pups. Hopefully, the owner will actually get drug treatment and hopefully the other dogs can get spayed and neutered.
    As for a different world view…hmm, not so sure, it sounds like addict thinking and possibly a bit of mental illness mixed in….

  15. You and your friend, Lenora, are angels for what you did and continue to do! It is so heartwarming to read about it. I hope Luna will do OK and can only imagine how difficult it must have been to bring her back to her other. Thank you for being such a kind, generous and dog-loving person!

  16. Interesting comment about Luna being picked up as a stray but released without being spayed at that time. It was my understanding that it was the law that the procedure must be done before a dog is released.
    As a breeder of purpose bred dogs I live in fear that one of my dogs might get out and I would get back a sterilized dog.

    • I only now saw this comment, many months later. I am pretty certain that no shelter anywhere can spay/neuter a dog unless it’s been at the shelter, unclaimed, for as many days as the law in that state provides for the owner to find/reclaim the dog. In my shelter, it would be WEEKS before an unclaimed dog might be moved to the adoption row and slated for surgery. As long as an owner returns fairly promptly to pick up their dog, they will get the dog back intact… but they must pay a fine – and it will be more if the dog is intact. At my shelter, they will offer to waive (or return) the fine if the owner gets the dog spayed/neutered and shows proof of this.