Come Christmastime, I took Tala with me to North Carolina to visit my father. He’s the reason I have Aussies to begin with, and he adopted my very first foster dog, Tucker. I tried to convince him to adopt Tala, since there was plenty of reason to assume she was in fact Tucker’s mom (same county, I was just full of crap). He didn’t buy it, but we had a blast anyways. Tala enjoyed the snow and she was finally at the point where she could be completely off leash without issue. She still hated to be grabbed, and she snapped at me in the den when she had an accident and I jumped up with a “NO!” and went to put her out. Belly up, on the floor, I forgot about her little game and grabbed her. Whoops. This vacation, however, was a definite sign of our much better relationship. She trusted me, and she didn’t want to leave me.
January brought heartworm treatment, finally. She still hadn’t gained much weight, but we opted to go ahead. Tala was such a trooper; she never complained, never acted the least bit sick or in pain with the injections. Two months later we had a clean bill of health, and a month after treatment, our little blue bug weighed 36 pounds! Tala learned how to play with toys, and she loved tossing a tennis ball to herself. She no longer needed a crate to sleep in, and spent her nights on the rug by my bed with Rugby.
Okay, I knew this would happen. Here’s where I’m going to start typing through my tears. Curse my womanly emotions.
We were nearing the year mark with Tala in foster care. My hatred for this little dog had turned a 180 and blossomed into full-fledged, unconditional love. It was more than just me caring about her, and more than just me liking her. I loved that dog with all of my heart. I remember one morning laying in bed and looking down to where she and Rugby rested on the rug together, grooming each other affectionately. I loved her, Rugby loved her, and I wanted nothing more than to keep her forever – whether forever was six months or three years. However, I was in undergrad, had two dogs already and couldn’t logically commit to a third. So I kept her up for adoption and fought back the tears every time I thought about her leaving.
It was nothing short of a miracle when my rep told me about a repeat adopter in North Carolina that only adopted senior dogs. They were interested in Tala. To date, nobody had been interested in my now eleven-year-old scrappy Aussie girl. I had lots of mixed emotions, but they came down to South Carolina for a visit. There wasn’t much to it – she was my dog, and didn’t care too much about visitors, but they liked her and so we arranged a weekend for me to drive to their place to see how Tala did with their other two Aussies and the cows.
Tala did wonderfully, of course. I was so happy and so sad when the adopters said they would like to keep her. My success was also my worst nightmare; I had to say goodbye to a foster that was just short of a “heart-dog” in my life. I stood there in their kitchen, choking on my words and doing a really crappy job of holding back my tears (exactly like right now, thank goodness there’s nobody around to see me and wonder why the heck I’m sitting in the back of the law school auditorium crying). The sweet couple smiled and said they would give me some time with Tala, and as they closed the door behind them I sunk to the ground, wrapped my arms around her little neck and bawled. I cried like baby for fifteen minutes before I gathered myself enough to stand up and walk out to shake hands with the adopters, and thank them for giving my sweet girl the opportunity to have a great rest of her life. Then I left, and I cried the whole way home.
Tala lived for two more years on her farm in North Carolina. She was pampered and adored, and could not have asked for a better “retirement” home. She passed away last spring; she had developed adenocarcinoma in her mammary glands – probably from years of puppy rearing – and succumbed to the cancer in her sleep one evening. Of all the heartbreaking calls I received last year concerning my foster dogs, hers was by and far the worst. I sat on the back steps and wept hard and long. I knew she was old, and I knew I would get the call eventually, but I was heartbroken all the same.
In the year that I fostered that scrawny little blue dog, I learned more about fostering and rescue than many people learn in decades. I learned, first, that patience is not just a virtue – it’s a necessity. Dogs will learn, and they will adapt. There will always be foster dogs that are more difficult than others. The key to success with these “project dogs” is to never give up. They feel your frustration and animosity towards them, and it hurts them and makes them anxious. On the flip side, they can also feel your resolve and your patience. It may take weeks or months, but when you and the dog do finally reach an understanding, there’s nothing that can break that bond.
Second, I learned that the dogs that touch our hearts are not the ones that we need or that we want or like, they’re the ones that need us. And we don’t get to choose which dogs need us – they just appear, and it’s up to us to recognize their need and be the rescuer they’ve been waiting for. I’m not religious, but I do believe that things happen for a reason. Tala came into my life to make me a better person, and a better rescuer. I might have saved her life, but I owe her more than I could ever repay. She is the dog I think of when I’m frustrated with a foster. She is a memory that makes me smile and laugh, and she is the reason that I do what I do. She didn’t deserve the life she lived, but damn if she was going to take the fire out of her. If only humans could learn to live with such positivity and resiliency.
Rescue is hard. Fostering is hard. Balancing school, work, and life in general with this mission of dog rescue is incredibly hard. The heartbreak when we lose a dog that we loved so very much, even when it wasn’t even “our” dog, is excruciating. It’s always worth it, however, because every dog and the lessons they impart during their time with us makes us better human beings.