By Rebecca Hornick
Dog Placement Coordinator
It takes all kinds of folks to take on all kinds of dogs that need temporary foster homes each year. Here at GDB, our volunteers have taken in pups, breeders, training dogs, boarding guides and dogs awaiting placement - just to name a few. We are extremely fortunate to have a remarkable pool of people that make up our group of volunteer Foster Care Providers.
Most foster needs are relatively short in duration - just a few days or a few weeks at time. Some dogs pose more behavioral or physical challenges, so we try to match each dog with an ideal caretaker, while still respecting the needs of both the dog and the volunteer. But one particular need stands out in our minds and gives us reason to acknowledge and celebrate a small group of particularly brave souls: the special volunteers who provide end of life care for our terminally ill or elderly dogs.
Thankfully, the need for fostering dogs at the end of their lives is rare since most of our dogs happily live out their lives in the homes they have already known for years. But the need does come up from time to time and it is comforting to know we can provide these dogs the love and care they deserve because of the effort of these dedicated volunteers.
Understandably, most foster care volunteers are reluctant to take on this kind of potentially heartbreaking task - and who can blame them? We know how hard it is for our volunteer raisers to give up their pups after a year of life together. Similarly, we know how difficult it is to take in a dog you don’t even know and care for him/her through all the challenges that accompany age or terminal illness.
These folks have physically carried dogs outside for relieving, or in and out of vehicles; cleaned up all kinds of accidents; spent hours in the vet clinic for exams and tests; and watched daily for the eventual signs that reveal the end is near. When given the choice if they want to be with the dog when the vet has to put them to sleep, all of these amazing caretakers have chosen to be there, providing comfort and a familiar face so the dogs can be as peaceful as possible. The amazing clinic staff is always there to support the volunteer and of course, the dog, through this difficult process, making a hard task much easier.
When a young dog in training came into the clinic with some odd symptoms recently, we were all devastated to learn he had developed melanoma and his condition was terminal. It was so far along, that no medicine or cancer treatment could stop the inevitable speedy progression of his disease. The doctors felt he had just a few weeks before he would start to suffer from pain caused by the tumors. But this bubbly, silly, happy-go-lucky Labrador made it quite clear that he had a lot of joy left in him. So it was determined that he should enjoy his final days in the home of a local loving foster care provider.
It was no surprise that foster care volunteers Larry and Diane Rich stepped up to the plate and took this young boy home to enjoy the rest of his short life with them. They had fostered many dogs over the years, but two of their previous dogs were elderly and needed a place to call home before the end of their lives as well. Retired breeder German Shepherd Daily and career change German Shepherd Neon enjoyed their final days in the Rich’s home, and Larry and Diane were happy to have been there for them.
Another example of our foster care heroes is Heidi Sanders, who cared for retired guide Fallbrook (the two are pictured, above). Fallbrook outlived everyone’s expectations following a cancer diagnosis in August 2004. In her good care, he went on to live five more years and became a treasured member of her family, and a doggy super hero here at Guide Dogs.
And finally, we'd like to recognize sisters Linda and Suzanne Ryan. When they met retired guide Haley in January 2008, they said they’d be happy to help foster this elderly dog for a while, but end of life care would be too hard for them. As it turned out, Haley had other ideas and convinced them she had found her final home in their good care. She remained happily with them until she passed at the ripe old age of 15 and her longevity can certainly be attributed to their attentive, doting care (she is pictured below at her 13th birthday party).
It can be hard to think about losing a pet, especially one you have known for all of its life. But it takes an incredible person to take in an unknown elderly or infirm dog and show them the love and devotion they deserve, as if the dog had been a part of their lives all along. We are forever grateful to the kindness and selflessness these volunteers have shown our dogs at the end of their lives. The gift of their time and love deserves the highest praise and we salute them for this heroic effort.