Fostering Emmett for ChristmasFoster A Lonely Pet for the Holidays – The Kick-Off

Being a foster mother to several dogs over the years (and keeping an eye on one now who enjoys dragging the Christmas tree skirt out through the dog door), I was happy to watch Hallmark’s Hall of Fame movie A Dog Named Christmas (airing on CBS Nov. 29) kick off the Foster A Lonely Pet for the Holidays program. The program, spearheaded by Petfinder.com, works with over 2000 shelters and rescue groups across North America. The aim is to ease the holiday burden on rescue organizations, to provide an animal with individual attention, and to offer families the experience of having a pet in their homes.

A Dog Named Christmas – The TV Movie

“A Dog Named Christmas,” based on Greg Kincaid’s novel, is a sweet holiday movie about Todd, a young man with a developmental disability who works to convince his family and community to join in the local animal shelter’s Foster a Dog for Christmas Program. The story focuses not only on how the family helps the dog, but even more-so on how the dog helps his new foster family. It is the latter that makes the dog named Christmas seem unrealistically independent and I find it important to point out one specific scene that concerns me.

When Todd and his father first leave the shelter with their new foster dog, the dog is let off leash and expected to jump into the back of?a pick-up truck. Even if the dog had done as expected, without a dog crate firmly secured in place he could have jumped out at high speed or been bruised and bounced about on the long dirt road back to the family farm. Thankfully, this dog avoids any immediate danger by heading straight for the front seat. In fact, he’s so smart that he can already do many tricks as well as protect the family from danger later in the film. Unfortunately, this kind of dog awareness typically happens only in movies.

Fostering – The Real Story

Animals need people to watch out for their well being, not the other way around. They need safe modes of transport for the same reason that the law requires people to use seat belts. Animals need leashes or cat carriers to prevent their return to the very streets from which?many were rescued. And, as for dogs thinking on behalf of their own best interest, really they just want to be dogs. They have no drive to exhibit a high IQ, obey rules without reward or to be the family hero. That said, never let a dog off leash that you haven’t personally trained with the knowledge that – for a fact – your dog will respond to a “come” command without question.

While I have never let Emmett, our foster, off-leash, he has managed to escape from us on several occasions. Once, when I was injured, he pushed past me as I stepped through the front door. Before I could get up off the ground, he was gone. That same week Emmett pulled a similar maneuver with Tim at the dog yard gate. We have since learned to deal with Emmett’s unacceptable habit of ramming his way out, but it caught us off guard as much as our freshly rescued Newfoundland did when he thought, at nearly 100 lbs., that it was fun to take us out at the knees from a running start.

Everybody can appreciate a good survival story, and it’s wonderful when things work out, but fosters and rescues can be unpredictable. This is my journal entry from the day Emmett charged out of the dog yard:

I was in PJs & on the throne when my husband yelled “SH!T!” and our foster broke through the gate. FLUSH AND RUN. It was all I could do. No time for pants or bug spray. After an hour of mucking around in the mud, I’m now obsessed with the itch of ten thousand bites from trekking through the woods in the rain wearing a measly tank top. The good news: I tracked the dog down with treats and a leash, brought him home and somehow managed to avoid contracting poison ivy while wearing capris bottoms with no socks.

Funny as my tone may read, and fostering is often fun and funny, Emmett later encountered a dangerous situation after he found a weak link in the fence and slipped underneath. In the film, when Christmas escapes under a fence, he is trying to go home. When Emmett did so, it was to track every scent through the woods with no regard for returning. Sometimes the story just doesn’t end humorously. It’s nice to see Emmett sleeping in front of the fire as I type knowing that – this time – everything worked out. Still, I often think he is simply smarter and definitely quicker than we are. We are always on our toes, and that fence required a new chain link section as well as reinforcement at six inch intervals all the way around.

My point is that the perfectly trained and well behaved dog in the film is not likely the kind of dog found in a shelter. As “A Dog Named Christmas” well outlines, many animals are turned over because people lose jobs and care becomes too expensive, because people move to places where animals aren’t allowed, or because the owner has failing health. Others are turned loose in the streets because, without proper guidance, they become possessive?of certain people or toys, they may not be well socialized with other dogs, cats or new babies, or they simply aren’t loved. As emotional beings, animals coming from any one of these situations can become withdrawn, sad for the loss of their owner, protective of food and toys, unsure or frenetic. These are the most crucial moments when positive human contact is so important.

How You Can Foster a Dog for the Holidays

As committed as shelters and rescue groups are, there is nothing more settling for an animal than to be in a home, even if that home is temporary. My husband, the Dog Adoption Director of AnimaLovers.org for more than 10 years, has seen the benefits countless times. To watch an animal emerge from his or her shell and learn to trust is incredibly rewarding. The growing sparkle in a dog’s eyes, many wags of a tail and the purring of  little cat engines make the commitment (and, in Emmett’s case, $200 worth of eaten concert tickets) worth every minute.

Make a difference. Give the gift of teaching a dog or cat how to better behave in a family setting and provide them and their new adopting family with a solid base to start from. These new beginnings create a lifetime of change for the better.

If you decide to foster a pet for the holidays, please visit Petfinder.com to locate participating shelters and rescue groups near you.  Don’t forget to drop a note about the adventures you have!