I first found Love and a Six Foot Leash, an addictive journey through the eyes of foster pups and parents, during the Gonzo Bunny Ears era. (He’s an animal lover’s must see.) That same day, I read the blog from start to finish, then I spent the entire night telling Scott about Aleksandra and her foster adventures. That could be us someday! I told him; he agreed. While this is certainly a detour from our usual home-y rambles, it should come as no surprise that I’ve asked Aleks to share her story – our adoration for puppy (and kitty and bunny and…) noses and fostering super heroes knows no limits.
In October 2004, I walked in to the Town Lake Animal Shelter in Austin, Texas, as a volunteer looking for a way to contribute – a mission. In November, I walked out with so much more.
His name is Chick, and he is a pit bull. Something about the enthusiasm in his tail wag and the emotion in his eyes just called out to me, saying, “I love you, I love you, I love you, I’ll love you forever. Please love me too.” As I watched other dogs leave the shelter for the homes of happy families, he was overlooked, time and again. On the last day before his time ran out, he became mine.
I had never met a pit bull before. To me, Chick has always been just a dog – the best dog I’ve ever met. But as we’ve passed the years together, I have been surprised with how quick some people are to judge my Chick just because of his big square head, his wide goofy grin, and his muscular physique. Like maybe there is something dark and sinister hiding under his soft fur, expressive eyes, and floppy ears.
At first, I was content with Chick’s role as an individual mind-changer. He worked with me at a homeless shelter and we paraded around town together, licking hands and kissing babies, showing how lovable and mild-mannered a pit bull can really be.
But over time, the different treatment of Chick crept under my skin. Like most loved, cared-for pet dogs, my Chick is just a loyal, brown-eyed pet on a six-foot leash. Like many shelter dogs, he was abandoned or mistreated in a previous life and went on to find redemption and peace in the arms of a loving, responsible family. So why was he treated so differently?
The mission that I was looking for when I walked in to that animal shelter had found me.
Bringing it home.
It turns out my family was in on a strangely well-kept secret: pit bulls are great family dogs. We knew we could talk about it all we wanted, but talk would only get us so far. What if we showed people by bringing homeless pit bulls into our home and documenting our lives with them as normal, well-adjusted members of our family?
I started Love and a Six-Foot Leash, my fostering documentary project, and brought home our first foster pit bull in October 2010. Lollie Wonderdog was a shelter favorite – everyone’s darling. She had been bred, starved, beaten, and thrown in a dumpster, where animal control found her. Despite her poisoned past, she was the happiest, most affectionate dog the shelter had seen in a long time. Unfortunately, her prospects at the shelter were not good: very few families will stop to consider adopting a three-year-old pit bull with stained, patchy fur and scars on her face. I knew that she was exactly the kind of dog who we could help.
The foster home difference.
In our home, Lollie blossomed. She learned how to play with toys, eat snacks, and solve puzzles. She learned how to trust and how to snuggle, and even how to dance. After a few months, she was like a different animal. She was clean, groomed, and beautiful. She was no longer emaciated or awkward around strangers. She had gone from being a stray dog to being a house pet – an emotional transformation to watch. Lollie met her perfect family in February, and was adopted, by a family who had never considered a pit bull before they met our girl. With eyes full of tears and hearts brimming with love and pride, we let our little girl go off into the world to start her new life – a gentle, happy life that would not have been possible without our care.
Since then four other homeless pit bulls have passed through our home and found their way into our hearts. Each one charming, each one unique. Thanks to them, we have opened hearts and changed minds. Many people just don’t know what these dogs can be like, and can’t picture one in their lives. But fostering is a perfect way to counter this all-too-common lack of imagination. If we, a busy young professional couple, bring a homeless pit bull into our home and successfully demonstrate how perfectly she can fit in, the least we will do is make some people think twice. It’s hard to make any sweeping generalizations, but since we began our adventure, handfuls of people have confessed that their eyes have been opened.
If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone say, “I could never foster, it’s too hard to let them go,” I could buy a whole mountain of dog treats. Absolutely, it’s hard to let a foster dog go. But for us, it’s not as hard as knowing that we could have saved a life but didn’t. Every dog who enters a foster home is not only improving his own prospects for adoption and elevating the image of shelter dogs to a higher level, but also opens up a shelter cage space for another needy dog – a dog who won’t be euthanized due to lack of space. There is no question, fostering saves lives. In light of that, letting a dog go is not so hard.
And in truth, I’ve learned something over the past year: we fall in love with every dog we foster. While that makes it hard to let each one go, it also makes it easier in a way. Sending a dog off to its perfect forever-home gives us a chance to fall in love again, and again, and again.
Aleksandra is a social policy analyst by day and a pit bull advocate, photographer, and blogger by night. She lives in Takoma Park, Maryland with her husband, and two pit bulls – her own darling Chick, and an adorable, adoptable foster. Her blog, Love and a Six-Foot Leash, chronicles her family’s quest to win hearts, open minds, and save lives through dog fostering.