What Fostering 400 Animals Has Taught Me About Parenting
When I was in college I landed a job as an Animal Care Specialist at a shelter near where I lived. This was a dream come true for me, as I had always had a passion for animals. They had been a great source of healing throughout my childhood (although I wouldn’t realize that until much later).
Within a year of working at the shelter I was promoted to the new position of Foster Coordinator. I became the lucky person who got to find temporary homes for all of the puppies, kittens, and sick, and under-socialized animals. I was in heaven! I had all-day-every-day access to as many beautiful creatures as I could dream of. The shy dogs were my favorite. The more neglected and abused they seemed to be, the more obsessed with them I became. They were pure love just waiting to unfold.
We fostered dogs and cats with every ailment you could imagine…Everything from parvo, to ringworm, to puppy strangles. Dogs with broken legs. Cats with missing eyes. Animals who were so malnourished we thought they wouldn’t make it through the first night. I took so many animals home just to make sure they didn’t die in a cold shelter with no one to cuddle them in their final hours. We did lose some, but by and large our fosters thrived. Two of the most sick and skinny animals I ever fostered both made it, and landed themselves permanent spots in our household. We still have one of them today and she acts as C’s therapy animal. She is a true angel.
At one point (before kids!) we were fostering a litter of 12 German Shepherd puppies. At first we had their mama and it was *easy* because she cleaned up after them (I’m talking we never saw a single poop until the babies were 5 weeks old). But that didn’t last long! Once mama went up for adoption, we suddenly had 12 wild and giant pooping, mess-making machines. One day I came home from work and to my great HORROR I was greeted at the door by those 12 disastrous creatures. They had escaped their x-pen.
My house was DESTROYED.
I’m talking “What the Dinosaurs Did Last Night” level of destruction. They had chewed up
everything in their wake and had peed and pooped on every single rug and carpet in our house. They ripped the rug under our kitchen table to shreds. Chairs were knocked over, and pillows thrown on the ground. I walked into total chaos.
After this incident I remember telling my late Father-in law that there was no way raising kids could possibly be harder than fostering animals like these ones. HA! He laughed in my face, of course. I thought in my head, “This guy has no idea what it’s like to foster puppies! How dare he!?” Little did I care that I had never actually raised a human being. But just like everyone to ever become a parent both before, and after me, I only knew what I knew, and there was no possible way to understand how challenging being a parent would be.
Fostering taught me so much about being physically responsible for someone other than myself. Going into parenthood I was well prepared for the messiness. Changing a dirty diaper is nothing compared to washing a puppy after he’s taken his de-worming medication (I’ll spare you the details!). I was even prepared for what it was like to stay up all night with a baby as I had fostered so many bottle-fed and deathly ill animals.
And, they also taught me a lot in ways that I never could have expected…
Here are some of the most important things I learned about parenting from my fosters over the last 13 years:
1. UNCONDITIONAL LOVE
Let’s start with the obvious. If we are all completely honest, unconditional love is not something most of us experience in our lives. Most love is actually very conditional. Parents like to believe the illusion that they love their children unconditionally, but often don’t even realize that their love is dependent on expectations that their kids will look, act, and believe they ways they want them to. When our children don’t meet these expectations, we ask “what is wrong with them?”. We give them more attention when they are “good” (meaning meeting our selfish desires) and withhold attention when they are “bad”. The traditional parenting paradigm has actually taught us to do this! Think Supernanny. Conditional love is actually the only love most of us have ever known.
Well, that is, unless you’ve had a dog. How many of us yell at our dogs and tell them how bad they are when they poop/pee on the floor? And what do our dogs do? Look deeply into our eyes and beg for forgiveness. We love our animals just as conditionally as the humans in our lives. But their love for us TRULY is unconditional. They are right back at our sides after we scold them. They are there for us when we are sad and upset. They don’t care if WE smell bad, make horrible food choices, slack off at work, watch tv all day. They love us if we are $50,000 in debt, or if we need a drink to get out of bed in the morning. They just love us.
Imagine for one day if you could love your child unconditionally like that. Imagine you wake up to find that your kid had wet the bed again. They whine endlessly over the breakfast you made them. They hate the shoes you picked out for them and refuse to go to school. They tell you how much they hate you over and over again in the car. They cry hysterically and pull your hair in front of the teachers and all the other parents at drop-off. After school they tell you that you are the worst mom ever because you brought the wrong snack. They lay on the floor and fit for 20 minutes because you won’t let them watch a show after school. They hate every game you pull out for them and throw the pieces of one of the games across the room...and on and on until bedtime...
Could you love your kid unconditionally on that day? Would you remember that they would not wet the bed if it was their choice, not just a bodily function that wasn’t fully developed yet? Would you remember that they didn’t want to go to school because it feels too long to be separated from mama? Would you remember that they are often starving after school and they can’t regulate their emotions when their brain needs food? Would you remember what it felt like when you wanted to veg out and watch tv after an emotional day and your mom wouldn’t let you? Would you remember what it felt like to be controlled in every possible way?
Or would you yell at your child and put them in time-out? Would you tell them how ungrateful they are?
It’s hard, right!?
But our animals show us how to do this with no effort. They just LOVE. They love our flaws and our bad days just as much as our good days. What they give us is the truest form of unconditional love.
2. WHAT TO DO WHEN OUR KIDS ARE CHRONIC LOSERS
Well, not the losers you are thinking of! I’m talking about those kids who can’t seem to keep track of their things for the life of them. I’ve spoken to so many parents who struggle with their kids’ constant meltdowns over losing their favorite toys and lovies. This was a problem with one of my kids for a long time. I’ve got one child who loves to keep everything in perfect order. On Christmas, his favorite part is to gather all of his loot and organize it in his room. He knows where everything lives and even keeps track of things for other family members. But for my other little guy this is a lagging skill. He’s got too many other interesting things happening in his brain to pay attention to where he puts something down!
When a child has a lagging skill in one area, we want to set them up for success. Here is where the kittens come in….
When I worked at the shelter I used to teach classes to brand new fosters. We always told kitten fosters to keep the babies in a very small confined area while they were learning how to use a litterbox. The farther away they were from the box, the more likely they were to have an accident somewhere else in the house. Over time as they build their potty skills, you can open up their area and they will remember exactly where their litterbox is.
One day it dawned on me that my kid (and so many other kids out there) was not being set
up for success, and in turn making my life way harder because our house was too long for him to keep track of his things. He had free run of the house of course, but I could give him “litterboxes” in each room we spent time in. So, I decided to put baskets in different rooms and reminded him that if he had his lovie out, he could put it in the basket of whichever room we were in so that he never lost it. I started recommending this to my clients, and it worked for them too! Our kids just need a little help, just like the kittens, to set them up for success until they develop the skills they need to keep track of their own things.
Makes sense right!? Thank you kittens for this important tip!
3. POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT
In the shelter I worked at, positive reinforcement was the ONLY way to train an animal. They rejected punishment and other fear-based methods of discipline. I am so grateful I got to have the experience of watching trainers positively train those rescue dogs because I learned so much from them. We had so many shy, fearful, anxious, and neglected dogs and there was just no other way for them. They would not thrive with punishments and isolation. Just like kids!
Rather than punishing a dog for an instinctual behavior, such as separation anxiety, a savvy dog owner will learn to anticipate what might trigger an inappropriate behavior and pre-empt it with a treat-stuffed toy that keeps the dog busy.
And so, the same thing goes for our children. The best response to a child’s instinctual behaviors, such as impatience or possessiveness, is to figure out how to engage him/her in an appropriate behavior before he/she engages in an inappropriate behavior. In these situations distracting a young child before they act out is more effective than waiting to punish them. Of course, over time, their brains will develop further and distraction techniques will not be needed as they are able to develop more impulse control.
A positive approach to all matters parenting and “discipline” creates a relationship with our children in which they are more intrinsically motivated to choose the behaviors that parents prefer. It’s a win-win for everyone.
4. RESOURCE GUARDING
Resource guarding is a term you hear a lot in the shelter and dog training world. When a dog engages is this type of behavior, it means they are protecting a valuable resource, such as food, treats, toys, or their person.
True resource guarding showed up in my home when our second baby was born. Suddenly C’s most valuable resource, MAMA, was spending the bulk of her time with someone else. This did not work for him at all. And it only got worse as the baby got older and started showing interest in his big brother’s toys!
So, how do we cure resource guarding?
Two of the most important tips to help dogs be successful:
1. Positive reinforcement. See #3!
2. Keep high value treats handy all the time.
So what does that mean for our kids?
1. Positive reinforcement: Praise, praise, praise! We have to really empathize with our kids when they are feeling possessive. It’s hard to share toys and even harder to share mom (their life-force!). We praise their positive interactions, we praise their moments of empathy, we praise them when they show self restraint in moments of frustrations. We do NOT yell at them when they are feeling jealous, and acting out as a symptom of that big, hard feeling.
2. Do not force them to share! Forcing children to share actually creates more resource guarding. Instead, we invite children to take turns. When we let the child hang on to something they really like for as long as they want, they get the experience of giving the other child the toy once they feel done with it. In turn they naturally want to be more generous, rather than feeling like they are always fighting for something they don’t get enough time with.
I never force my kids to share anything with each other. First of all, there are some things that are just way too meaningful to them (their lovies), and secondly, I have seen this work! Don’t get me wrong, my kids fight all the time, but it is rarely over toys because they know they will each get their time. They know that they have a choice about when they are ready to share something and they know what it feels like to share something they love and to feel confident that it will come right back to them.
And lastly, what I have learned more than anything else is that pets are here for our healing. If you’ve ever had a companion animal, you know this is the HOLY TRUTH.
Research shows that just looking into the eyes of your pet can lower your heart rate. One of the earliest studies on the pet/human bond, published in the 1980’s, found that heart attack patients who owned a pet lived longer. Another early study found that petting one’s dog reduces blood pressure. Companion animals help all kinds of people with special needs, from anxiety to diabetes. More and more people are seeking “emotional support” animals. These therapy pets are providing support that humans either can’t, or won’t give to each other.
When I was a kid I had a cat named Fluffball. She was a torti cat and she was my best friend. Fluffball was with me through all of the rough parts of my childhood. She was my angel. That cat was the first thing I went to when I was sad and scared. She was such a comfort to me and she took on a lot of my pain. I’ve heard many times throughout the years from healers that pets take on our negative energy and send it back into the Earth. This makes sense to me.
Now I watch my kids with animals and I see the same thing happening as when I was a kid.
The minute my older son feels upset, he runs for his cat. Sometimes if he’s had a hard day at school, he walks in the door and straight to her.
Our pets provide our kids with so much comfort, in a way that humans just can't.
These animals are here as our teachers and our healers, just like our kids. In my dream world, animals and children would be given the reverence they deserve as our most cherished beings on this planet. I am endlessly grateful that I get to spend this life in harmony with so many beautiful creatures.
Thank you for reading! And if you are interested in learning how to foster, please send me a message!
P.S. Here are a few more pictures that I just did not feel right about leaving out!