Dog owners sometimes talk of “the dog that changed everything” for them. Fostering rescue dogs who have been abandoned or abused makes you “the human who changed everything” for that dog. One fosterer tells of her experience
“It’s an honour to be their caretaker and personally I receive so much back from it,” says Catherine Morris defiantly. The fashion PR director and volunteer for Pro Dogs Direct, a dog rehoming charity in the Greater London area, has looked after around a dozen rescue pooches since she adopted her own dog, Brody, from the organisation 10 years ago. And although she has seen the effects of the reprehensible treatment of dogs by some breeders, she also knows that with gentle patience and love, you can turn a dog’s life around.
"I had quite a few ex-puppy-farm dogs," Catherine says. "They don’t bark, because they know nobody will come. They would have to fight for the food with the other dogs, so are often malnourished, had never been on a walk and had not even been given a name. They were often terrified of the outside and going out for walks. Some were also terrified of leads – I was told it was because their legs were sometimes tied up forcibly so that they could be mated.”
When a new foster dog arrives at her door, she holds them for as long as it takes until the dog feels safe, sometimes for hours. It doesn’t matter if these dogs, often ex-breeding, are smelly, confused, aggressive or trying to run out. Once they arrive here, they are safe and, with an awful lot of kindness and attention, they transform from a money-making commodity into a loving pet.
Catherine certainly doesn’t see herself as a dog savior, though – quite the opposite. “It’s this whole ‘who rescued whom?’ thing, isn’t it? I get so much satisfaction from it. People say that I am doing a good thing, which is very flattering but the truth is I find that fostering is really quite self indulgent.” She reckons it’s a mutual need: dogs need the basics, such as food and attention, plus some play time from us. In return, humans get love, support and warmth – and humour, especially after a bad day.
She was born in the UK but grew up in Canada. Catherine's family didn’t own a dog, but her dad would occasionally look after rescues. Eventually, her parents got a little terrier called Jack and her boyfriend at the time had an English bulldog called Martha. “She had a massive underbite," Catherine recalls. "She looked quite scary but was really quite gentle and affectionate. As I got to know her, I thought she was beautiful.”
It was after one more trip from her parents to her home in London that she realised she wanted a canine companion. “I was ready, but I am also not good with commitment. If you get an animal, you have to work your life around it. I take Brody to work with me but, if I go out from work, I find places where dogs are allowed and I plan meetings around this,” she explains, as Brody jumps on her lap and settles in while we sit outside at Bill’s on Hoxton Square, east London. (Bill’s doesn’t allow dogs in, but the water bowl on the terrace brought without asking by the waitress was welcome.)
Brody, a petite Westie-Yorkie mix, caught Catherine’s eye on the Pro Dogs Direct website. “I kept looking at his profile as if I was on a dating website. I went to Canada for three weeks over Christmas and when I came back he was reserved. I was in the process of emailing them on the off chance when at the same time I got a phone call from Sally [one of Pro Dogs Direct’s volunteers] to say this dog might be right for me.”
Brody couldn’t have landed more on his feet. “His owner had two dogs and decided she didn’t want them any more. When she surrendered them, she didn’t even look back,” Catherine says. “He had been in a foster home for a month and when I went to meet him he put his arms up for a cuddle. I adopted him then and there. When we came home, I’d made myself dinner, but he jumped straight on the table to eat the rest. He must have been hungry as he usually has very good manners. He buried his head under my arm for while, but then walked to the front door and looked back as if to say ‘Well, it’s been very nice to meet you but I need to go home now’. He must have felt confused at yet another new place and started crying. I took him to bed with me to comfort him, where he has slept ever since, and told him, ‘you’re home forever now’.”
Catherine was so happy with Brody and wanted to give something back as a thank you, so she started to foster for the charity, although she is anxious to say that she doesn’t foster as much as some of the other members who take dogs all year round. Pro Dogs Direct is a charity that never puts dogs in kennels and instead places them in private households to avoid the trauma of dog prison. They often pay for the treatment of damaged dogs and rely on donations and the small adoption fee.
Brody is by and large a good host too. With male dogs, rivalries emerge, but vulnerable dogs are almost mothered by him. Among the most heartbreaking cases perhaps was Wilson, who was 10 years old when his owners gave him up. They had moved into a new flat where Wilson was alone when they went out to work. He would bark because he was confused. The neighbours complained, so Wilson was out. “The owner just left when they brought him to me. Wilson kept looking out the window for three days with his head on his paws waiting for his owner to come back.”
Luckily, Wilson found a new home with an elderly man in Brighton, whose own dog had died and who missed the companionship and social life around walkies. “When he called, it felt a bit like a blind date,” Catherine says. “He asked ‘Does he like chicken? And I would reply ‘Why yes, he loves chicken!’’” Wilson was initially apprehensive, having stayed with Catherine for a month, but he has found a happy new home by the coast, and his new owner sends Catherine regular updates.
Fostering may not be for the faint hearted, but dog rescue charities have plenty of experience to know what level of care a fosterer can provide. What’s more, many volunteers end up keeping their furry foster charges, as was the case with Wunderdog’s Pippa, who also came from Pro Dogs Direct as a fosterer into Nina's home. Catherine remains in contact with some of her former dogs who still live in her neighbourhood, after she met their new owners out on walkies. They never forget their lion-hearted caretaker.
Most rescue centres require volunteers, so contact the one local to you to find out more. Apart from fostering, these organisations usually also need help with transporting dogs, walking and home-checking prospective new owners.