I am writing about a topic I was hoping I wouldn’t have to revisit, one that I had imagined was closed forever with the emancipation of our guinea pig several years ago. But alas, here I am, writing about pets again. Before I launch into this, I’d just like to add that we currently have a small, statue-like hermit crab that lives in my daughter’s room in a container. The first night, it clawed at things in its habitat a lot, and one time snipped my daughter’s finger, but after that, it basically ceased to move. It’s questionable to me if it’s even still alive, or if it is just an empty shell, and nobody seems to care enough to check, so we just keep on pouring in food and water, hoping for the best. I must say, it’s a really easy pet.
The real agenda here is that we currently have a dog. Yes. Pet-hating me has a barking creature in my home. I bet you are wondering what on earth happened since the guinea pig left us, to inspire me to allow a furry animal to freely roam my house. The answer is that two of my children are paralyzed with fear whenever they see dogs, due to some unfortunate and negative encounters with unleashed animals. They cannot relax at meals in other’s homes if there is a dog wandering around under the table. They become rigid and scream when a dog comes too close to them on the street. Zoos are also a fearful spot—too many unpredictable animals with seemingly sharp teeth and sudden movements. This didn’t feel like a healthy relationship with animals, and I was determined to change it.
I have tried to expose my kids to some friendly, tame dogs but they couldn’t seem to warm up to this. I realized that it needed to be in our own environment, for extended periods of time, to push them past their comfort zones. But I couldn’t commit to getting my own dog because that seemed like a big undertaking, and I had been down that road before, before I’d had kids. I didn’t want to be responsible for a pet for 10 years, in order to have my kids comfortable with animals. So what I did was I signed up with an agency, Pet ResQ in Tenafly, that rescues dogs from shelters and tries to place them in new homes. In between the time that these animals are removed from the shelters, until they find a new family, they live with “foster families,” and it can be a few days to a few months. This type of short-term commitment seemed perfect for us.
I also felt that it would be a great living example of helping something less fortunate (giving a homeless animal a home, and preparing it for a second chance at life). It would also teach the children what it’s like to love something, and then be forced to part ways. They would learn responsibility by taking the dogs for walks, helping with feedings and playing with it. And finally, I hoped they would grow comfortable in the presence of animals, and if they loved her, and interacted with her, all the better.
A few months after our interview process, I picked up our first foster, a sweet, 7-year-old Shih Tzu named Bella. Within the first minute of bringing her into our home, she bit one of my uber-scared children, sending my daughter back into a cycle of fear. But instead of allowing this fear to consume her, the constant, continued exposure to Bella, who had been very frightened and confused at the time, allowed her to proceed slowly and with great caution, and to grow content and comfortable around Bella.
Bella came to our home with fresh stitches from a recent spay surgery, terrible kennel cough and tangled, matted fur, but a week and a half later, she was on her way to a new family, thanks to the great efforts of Pet ResQ, and all of the volunteers that make miracles happen for these animals. Bella emerged, prepared for her new life, as a clean, healthy dog, friendly and comfortable around children.
It was a great experience for my family, one that involved a lot of cleaning up accidents, but also a lot of excitement and laughter. I watched as my two youngest kids became brave enough to pet her, to hold her leash and to feed her from the palms of their hands—activities that were so far from their wildest dreams a few days earlier. They still felt startled by her occasional barks, or when she’d unexpectedly brush up against one of their legs, but they were able to be left alone in the room with her and feel content. My bigger kids fought over who could walk her, whose room she could play in and who could curl up with her on the couch. She brought a lot of happiness to our home, and was mellow and easygoing.
For the entire week and a half that she lived with us, my children never took out toys to play. Typically, they set up activities on the floor in the kitchen, but the closet doors remained shut all week, and the kids spent their afternoons sitting on or at the kitchen table, doing art projects or just watching Bella, from a safe distance. Being on the floor with her and sharing her domain felt too weighty for them, and Bella seemed to adopt this arena as her own. Perhaps more time would have helped them with this.
Another unexpected benefit of having a dog was that the kids got into the habit of closing the door to the bathroom and to their rooms. They didn’t want to be surprised by her jumping onto their beds while they were sleeping or licking up water from the edge of the tub while whey were bathing, and so they adopted this as a method of security, and even after Bella left, it is still pleasantly continued.
My kids miss her a lot; I even found one of them curled up in Bella’s empty dog bed after she had been adopted, just pining for her presence. But I was kind of enjoying the return to a bark-free home, to not having to clean up accidents and to removing the barriers and gates I had installed in order to quarantine a small area of our home just for her. The kids even commented the second after she left, “Yay, we can run around again without having a dog chase us!” and went a little wild. But four days later, we found ourselves with another foster dog. As I drove home with her, excited and nervous to introduce her to my kids, I asked myself, “What am I doing?” because really, this is so far removed from my own comfort zone, and I definitely don’t love dogs or pets or more work. And the dog in the back of my car was hauntingly skinny.
But when I carried the petrified dog inside, wrapped in blankets, and set her down, and my 3-year-old comfortably stuck out his hand to let her sniff him, my heart momentarily swelled with the thrill that he had overcome his personal challenge. Here was a new dog invading his space, and he didn’t even flinch. And when I saw the way my husband tenderly sat on the floor with her and patiently stroked her bony limbs, whispering to her that we’d love her and care for her, I realized that this is why I took her in. So that we could reach into our own recesses and pull out the softest parts of ourselves that we don’t always use or see.
But the greatest joy is seeing the dog’s grateful eyes, the fierce wagging of her tail as if she hit the jackpot. She is no longer on the snowy streets scavenging for food, or in a crowded kennel, but is surrounded by a patient, loving family, who is dedicated to helping her find a forever home. I never thought that would be us, that life would take me down that road, but it did. And we are all enjoying the change of scenery, on this exciting ride.
By Sarah Abenaim
Sarah Abenaim is a writer living in Teaneck. She can be reached at [email protected] If you are interested in learning more about fostering or adopting a pet, visit www.petresqinc.org.