Saying Goodbye

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Letting go of a foster pet is simultaneously the happiest and hardest part of the whole thing. You have lived with this dog, loved her, spent hours training and socializing her. You've seen her transform from a terrified pancake dog or an uncontrollable DestructoBot into a stellar companion... and now you're sending her away. Her new life will be wonderful, and it would never have happened without you, but this is always a bittersweet time.

I've heard it said that letting go gets easier with time, and that the first foster is always the hardest to send away, but in my experience it's not always so. Some are easy, some are hard, some (hopefully very few!) you never let go.

But there are a few things you can do to ease the heartache of saying goodbye:

Keep mementos. Take pictures, make videos, maintain a journal. Cherish the memories. Record what your foster dog looked like when he arrived and how transformed he was when he left: it's a concrete reminder of what a difference you made as a foster parent to this dog. In a small but very real way, you changed the world for the better. And you have the power to do it again.

After you've fostered for a while, it can be really rewarding to make a gallery of all the animals you've saved and look at their pictures when you're feeling down. Remember that each dog on the list -- every dog you knew and loved and trained -- had to move on in order for you to save the next one.

Sophie, a hound mix puppy adopted from Robeson County Animal Shelter in February 2012

Make the best match you can. It is infinitely easier to let go of a foster dog when you are absolutely certain that she is going on to a wonderful home and that she loves her new family as much as they love her. Several of my foster dogs literally never looked back once they arrived in their adopters' homes; they knew, somehow, that these were their people now. It stings a little to be so quickly forgotten, but at the same time it is infinitely reassuring to know that your foster dog has found her happy ending, and that she knows it too. You did your job: you got her safely to a home that will cherish her forever.

Ask the adopters for updates. Hearing stories and seeing pictures of your foster dog being happy in her new home is always a delight. Ask for the adopters' contact information (or provide your own instead, if that feels less intrusive) and be sure they know that you would love updates on your former dog. Most people are happy to share anecdotes and photos of their beloved new family member.

Talk to other fosters. We've all been there. If ever you need sympathy or support from someone else who's experienced the same sense of loss that you may be feeling, please reach out to the network of other foster parents in WAGS. Sometimes it helps to talk things out with someone who has spent time in the trenches themselves.

Take some time off. Yes, there are always dogs in need. But your burning out won't help them. If you feel that taking and losing another foster too soon might be more than your heart can handle, step back from fostering for a while. You can still help in other ways -- fundraising, community outreach, social networking, processing applications for new adopters and foster homes, helping with home visits in your area, or a hundred other things.

Remember why fostering matters. This is the total opposite of the advice above, but different things work for different people, and sometimes what you need is not a break, but a reminder of just how urgently fosters are needed. Take a walk through a crowded shelter. Flip through a photo album of redlisted dogs. Remind yourself: they won't make it without you.

There's a hefty dose of emotional masochism in that practice, and it's definitely not for everyone, but sometimes it really does help to know how huge and pressing the need is. It gives you an incentive to keep going -- because while you might suffer a little sadness if you give up your current foster, all those other dogs will suffer a lot worse if you don't.

Foster Failures

And yet, for all your best efforts, you may find that you just can't let one particular foster dog go. Eventually (hopefully not the first time you foster, although that happens too!) a dog comes along who fits perfectly into your life from the first day. Or there's one who takes so much work, over such a long and arduous period, that at the end of it you've just been through too much together to part.

Whatever the specifics of your story, it happens to almost everyone sooner or later. If we didn't love dogs, and love them enough to be susceptible to foster failure, none of us would be doing this.

If you can continue fostering after adding another permanent dog to your household, that's wonderful. If not, the decision can be a little harder, but there is no point feeling guilty about it. You've given a loving permanent home to a very lucky dog. Isn't that what we all work toward, in the end?