Friday, November 18, 2011

Why I Foster Southern Dogs

There are never enough homes to go around in animal rescue. Foster or forever, they're in short supply, and the deluge of needy animals -- while a fraction of what it was 30 years ago -- is still unending. There are still plenty of irresponsible people in the world who don't spay or neuter their pets, who want to have "just one litter" to show their kids "the miracle of life," who get animals without much commitment and discard them once they prove to be messy or noisy or destructive. And then there are people who, as a result of death or divorce or job loss, have to give up beloved pets to the uncertainties of the shelter world.

So there are lots of animals who need homes. None of us can take them all. And deciding which ones to save is always a difficult decision.

I adopted Pongu from a local shelter, but I foster Southern dogs. Most of our mutts have come from rural Georgia; Gremlin was from North Carolina. One of these days I may pick up a foster pup when I visit my parents in Alabama.

There are several reasons for this.

One, those are the dogs who seem to be in the most serious need. Animal abuse is a horrific crime that happens everywhere, of course, and local dogs are not immune. But there is not a culture of casual neglect and disregard in the urban Northeast as there is in the places where these dogs come from. People do not habitually keep their dogs chained outside all day long here, nor do they regularly dump pregnant mothers or entire litters of puppies by the roadside. They take basic precautions so that their dogs aren't constantly dying of illnesses that could be cheaply and easily prevented, like parvo or heartworm.

Up here, shelter dogs are kept in reasonably clean conditions and are walked, visited, trained, and played with by dedicated volunteers and staffers. If they need veterinary care, they generally get it. They don't sit in dank, flea-infested cages with bleach burns on their feet (from their kennels being hosed down with disinfectant solution while the dogs are still inside) and poop matted to their fur and no air conditioning in 100-degree summers. But our Southern dogs have been rescued from exactly those conditions.

Two, the dogs in the Northeast already have a strong support network. PAWS and the PSPCA do great work, and I give them money whenever I can, but they already have a small army of volunteers and fosters, such that any dog I might want to foster is likely to be spoken for promptly. (I actually tried for a couple of months to get started as a PAWS/PSPCA foster, but every dog I applied for was already taken within hours.) Not only do I feel like the dogs don't need me as badly, I feel like the organizations can get by without.

In the rural South, there is no such safety net. Rescue operations tend to be tiny and run on shoestring budgets by volunteers who pay for everything out of pocket. They have no grants, organized fundraisers, or government support. In these groups, every penny counts. The difference that my individual contribution makes is a lot more obvious here.

Three, the population of dogs is different. In the Northeast, the culture of responsible pet ownership is sufficiently widespread that, as Sue Sternberg put it, "we have educated the educable." It's rare to see entire litters of puppies show up in city shelters; mostly what you get are adolescents and young adults, 6 to 18 months old, abandoned by their owners when they got big and stopped being cute. And, overwhelmingly, they are pit bulls, because those are the dogs favored and massively overbred by people who want tough-looking dogs to guard their houses/drug stashes, intimidate other people in their neighborhoods, and use as fighting dogs. The family pets are spayed and neutered in the Northeast. The breeding dogs are what's left.

These dogs make hard fosters. Because of their sketchy breeding, many of the good traits of the pit bull breed may be weakened or lost. Many of their owners intentionally breed for aggression, both against humans and against other dogs, and sometimes they succeed. On top of that, these dogs generally have no training whatsoever -- which is true of almost all rescue dogs (because, as a rule, people who care enough about their dogs to train them do not dump them on the street), but it's a lot easier to live with a quiet 30-pound mystery mutt in a small condo than it is to handle a rowdy, powerful 65-pound pit in the same space. And as if all that weren't enough, many people simply can't or don't want to adopt pit bulls, so they tend to stay in foster care a long time. Months to years is not uncommon.

By contrast, in the South, most of the dogs are descended from hunting or working breeds: golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, foxhounds, beagles, coonhounds, German shepherds, and so forth. Although many of them are also pit mixes (because dog fighting is, unfortunately, not unique to urban poverty), the percentage is lower, and often these dogs don't look or act like stereotypical "pit bulls," so people who might have been leery of adopting a big, muscular, dog-aggressive pit have no problem falling in love with a small, cute, sweet mutt whose main pit bull trait is having a lot of patience with kids.

As a group, these dogs tend to be temperamentally "softer," are easier to rehab (often they don't even really need rehab, they just need a sense of security and some basic training), and are easier to place. Thus, in the same amount of time it might have taken me to save one hard case, I can save multiple easy dogs.

The combination of all these factors means that I feel I can do the most good, and address the most severe needs, by fostering Southern dogs. And so that's what I do.

1 comment:

  1. Hi! My blog, "From Alone to Home: Stories of Adopted Pets" (, collects adoption stories and, I hope, will encourage other people to adopt. Would you be interested in sending me an adoption story and photo(s) for Pongu? I'd be happy to link to your blog in the post. If you're interested, email me at