Our latest contest winner inspires with pet fostering and therapy dog training

Recently we at earthbath sponsored a fun contest on our Facebook page, where we asked our fans to submit pictures of their animal “kids” during or post-earthbath for a chance to win our “Spring Cleaning Pics for Products” contest, worth $100 of a selection of earthbath goodies. We had almost 40 entries, and hundreds of votes poured in! The race was super-tight, and came down to the wire at the end between Bella the Bulldog (who won first runner-up with 110 votes) and GusGus, the neurologically-impaired rescued chihuahua puppy (the winner with 120 votes, pictured!), who won everyone’s hearts with his sweet demeanor and touching story.

We already knew we have the best fan-family out there, but when the winner wrote to us that:

“GusGus is donating his prize to the rescue we foster for (Lizzy’s Lodge)… We also work with Greener Pastures No Kill Animal Rescuedogs often come into rescue pest ridden and filthy! It doesn’t matter if you send gallons or pints- we’re just happy to be getting such high quality grooming products!!” we thought: what a great opportunity to learn a bit more about fostering animals, as well as get to know “the story of GusGus!”

So we called GusGus’s mama Lianne, who shared many insightful things with us about supporting no-kill rescue organizations, therapy dogs, and fostering! Read on and be inspired!

How did you get involved with fostering animals?

I started fostering animals last June when I heard of a group of local chihuahuas in North Carolina that were going to be euthanized in a gas chamber because they were shy. A rescue organization rescued the chihuahuas and was looking to place them in foster homes. Lizzy’s Lodge, a Maryland-based rescue organization stepped in to help.  GusGus is actually from that chihuahua’s litter of puppies. The mother was exposed to distemper at some point, so our vet thinks that part of GusGus’s brain is underdeveloped. He displays some evidence of brain damage in that he’s “a bit wobbly” on his feet, but he is so sweet.

Since I started fostering animals last June, I typically have between 1-3 foster dogs at a time, in addition to my own three dogs (GusGus, Emma, and Gawyn,) though my record was 6 fosters at once! Right now, we have two with “behavioral needs.” In general, I try to take the “problem” dogs because I am comfortable with them and these dogs need the most help. The goal is that they will become rehabilitated after time in a caring foster home, so they can be adoptable.

Do you ever have trouble getting so attached to your foster dogs that you can’t let them go?

People always ask me this – they say, “I could never foster any animals because I love animals too much and I’d get too attached!” and my response is: “So you love animals so much that rather than get attached to a dog or cat you’d rather have it die in a kill shelter?” You get attached to every single dog, of course! It’s definitely the case that I usually cry for a day after one of my foster pets gets adopted, sometimes I might even cry for two days! It’s always hard to give them up but in the end, it’s so worth it. You know you are saving an animal’s life and even better than that, giving it a better home. Rescues are SO much more thorough with doing background checks and determining if the dog and the adopting family will be a good match. It’s so much more personal too. We often stay in touch with most of the adopted families. In fact, we just had a whole family reunion with GusGus and his mom, grandma, and sister! Also, I have so much gratitude to the foster family who had my Emma. Emma was supposed to be euthanized and I think of them every day for saving her. Fostering is so much fun! You really make these great connections to people and to animals and know you’re making a difference in lives.

What is the process if someone wants to start fostering animals? Is there any kind of “foster training?”

Talk to your local animal shelters. Usually they will have someone assigned to the new foster homes so they will come out to do a home visit and interview you, and then send you dogs (or cats) that match your household. For example, they wouldn’t send very high-energy dogs to someone living in an apartment, or to someone who doesn’t have the time or space to ensure the dogs get a lot of exercise.

Is it expensive to be a foster family?

No, because the rescue organization pays for the vet bills and many pay for the food too. In fact, most people don’t think about the expenses that rescue organizations incur, so if it’s impossible to be a foster family but you still want to contribute, donations are absolutely critical and every penny is used for the animals.

It can be really expensive to cover all of the health problems for rescue animals, which is why sometimes the adoption fees seem high. However, people should realize that the adoption fee is covering spaying/neutering, vaccinations, deworming, and addresses any health problems like heartworm, mange and other issues, which can be expensive to treat.

If people want to get started with fostering, the easiest thing to do is to foster kittens, and it’s the perfect time of year to do so. It’s actually “kitten season” right now (spring and early summer) all over the country, and because kittens can’t legally be adopted into homes until they are 8 weeks old, shelters across the nation are overrun with kittens and have no choice but to euthanize them. In fact, last year in Philadelphia, an average of 77 cats and kittens per day were euthanized because the shelters were so overwhelmed. It’s so easy to foster kittens too – all you need is a large crate or an enclosed area. Often they will give you the mother cat with the kittens too, which makes things easier because you don’t have to bottle-feed them. The kittens need to be weaned onto kitten food, and once they hit 8 weeks, they are ready for adoption. They are the cutest little things and so easy to maintain, and there’s no better way to relieve some of the pressure on the shelters and save a cat’s life. After all, once they are of adoptable age, it’s so easy to place them in homes – everyone wants little kittens!

You mentioned that GusGus is in training to be a “therapy dog.” What does that mean?

Yes, he’s training to be a therapy dog through Therapy Dogs International (TDI), which is a volunteer organization dedicated to regulating, testing and registration of therapy dogs and their volunteer handlers for the purpose of visiting nursing homes, hospitals, and wherever else therapy dogs are needed. He’s passed his AKC S.T.A.R. puppy certification and is on his way to passing the AKC’s “Canine Good Citizen” (CGC) test to be certified to be as a therapy dog once he reaches his first birthday. Therapy dogs have to have a good temperament, and be comfortable around all kinds of people, as well as equipment like wheelchairs, crutches, etc.

That’s wonderful. What are some of the benefits of volunteering to be a therapy dog handler and contribute your time and energy with GusGus to being a therapy dog?

It’s well known that simply petting a dog or cat can cause lowered blood pressure and a state of calm, peace, and relaxation. For older people in nursing homes, hospitals, or hospice care, who are often sick, in pain, and/or lonely, the comfort offered by a therapy dog can bring joy and alleviate loneliness, as well as give people something to look forward to!

What kind of commitment is required to register as a therapy dog and volunteer?

Well, if you have a sweet-tempered dog, it’s as easy as joining TDI and reading up on the requirements. There are annual health standards and vaccinations that are required, and the dog has to pass the CGC test as administered by a TDI certified evaluator. There is a lot of information on TDI’s website about the tests and various requirements, but it’s really a wonderful thing to do… as any pet owner knows, there’s nothing like the unconditional love and sweet temperament of a dog to cheer you up and make you feel loved and happy.

Is there any other advice you’d offer to people who are thinking about adopting a dog?

The number one thing to make sure you do before you adopt any dog is to research the breed(s) you’re interested in and get to know their personality. For example, two breeds commonly turned into shelters and rescue are labs and Border Collies.  Both are breeds that need tons of stimulation and activity, but people don’t often know this, and only adopt them because they’re beautiful or adorable as puppies, but later are unable to give them the exercise the dogs need to be happy. As a result, the dogs become frustrated, which comes out all too often in destructive ways. People can’t handle them, and so they give them up. It’s so sad.

I’d also recommend taking your dog to a training facility in your area. Most people think of training facilities as only for problem dogs, or for show dogs, but in reality these facilities are so great for socializing your dog, which is another critical element of being a responsible dog owner that many people don’t even think about. Dogs need to be able to socialize well with other dogs to be happy and healthy!