I had been waging a low-level pro-pet campaign against my husband for several years. So far, all of my tactics had failed to yield the desired result: a dog.
This was four years ago, before the pandemic had turned even the most canine-resistant among us into proud dog-parent Instagrammers. I had a puppy breed all picked out, and had started researching breeders. I wanted a miniature schnauzer (hypoallergenic and adorable). “We’ll name her Pepper!” my then 9-year-old daughter said. “She’ll be perfect!”
“We can’t get a dog,” my husband replied. “We travel too much. And she [our daughter] won’t take care of it,” he went on. “You should borrow someone’s pet for a few weeks. You’ll see.”
It just so happened that our local animal shelter was looking for foster care volunteers. Placements typically only lasted a few weeks, so it seemed like the perfect way to experiment with being responsible for a pet. I signed us up for an orientation.
My daughter and I learned that animals are only placed with foster families if they need special medical care — if a dog had kennel cough that might spread to the others, for example. The woman who led the orientation was kind, but also clear. “There are cases when a foster animal gets sick and isn’t going to get better,” she explained. She told us that, in rare cases, those animals had to be euthanized.
My daughter looked horrified at that prospect, but I explained that we were newbie volunteers — surely they would give us a dog with a cold or a case of the blues. Something we could handle.
According to the ASPCA, there are 6.5 million animals in shelters nationwide, and 1.5 million of them are euthanized every year. But the shelter we were volunteering with was considered “no-kill,” and would only euthanize pets that were considered terminally ill or dangerously aggressive.
I started receiving daily email alerts from the shelter about animals in need of a foster home. And one day, lo and behold, there was the perfect “practice” dog to take home for a few weeks. He was a geriatric Jack Russell terrier named Jojo, with infected ears and a skin condition. He would need pills, ear drops, and weekly medicated baths. He also had food allergies, and therefore a special diet.
My daughter took her role as foster caregiver very seriously. She walked Jojo and made an effort to play with him every day. She was my able assistant when we gave Jojo his weekly bath — which he hated. We even shot and edited a video of him, in an effort to woo potential families.
“This is going so well!” I said to my husband.
“Let’s see if she keeps it up,” he said.
Jojo had only been with us about a week when he had his first seizure.
I brought him in to see the veterinarian at the shelter, but she couldn’t find anything wrong with him. So I brought him back home.
We had expected Jojo to be with us for two weeks, but the weeks turned into months. Our video had over 100 views online, but nobody came to meet Jojo. Nobody seemed to want an old, half-bald dog with a laundry list of medical needs.
And honestly, those medical needs did wear thin after a while. Also, Jojo had some bad habits. He barked at every squirrel and leaf that moved. He begged at the table. And he snarled at anyone (me) who tried to give him eardrops. To my annoyance, Jojo’s favorite person in the family was my husband, who had crafted a daily ritual out of giving him various dog treats.
Some days, my daughter and I would talk about how relieved we would be when our “practice dog” found his forever home.
On Thanksgiving, Jojo collapsed after a seizure. He had another one the next day. We took him back to the shelter vet, who wanted to keep him overnight, but I didn’t want him to stay there alone. I took him back home, again.
Nobody seemed to want an old, half-bald dog with a laundry list of medical needs.
The next day, the shelter veterinarian called to say that she thought he should be on seizure medication, but seizure medication, not surprisingly, is expensive. Jojo was old. He had medical conditions that made him basically unadoptable. The shelter had 300 other animals to care for, she explained, and they couldn’t really justify diverting money to Jojo when it could do so much for so many others.
We were witnessing the worst-case scenario we’d been warned about in foster care orientation oh so many months ago. Unless an adopter came forward, the vet said, they would have to euthanize him.
Jojo was supposed to be our practice dog — a warm-up for a miniature schnauzer named Pepper, the perfect little hypoallergenic puppy. That was the dream, anyway.
We are taught that we fall in love with someone first and then feel the desire to care for them as a result. But, in this case, we learned the lesson in reverse: months of caring for our needy pup had taught us to love him. (No doubt everyone who adopted a pandemic puppy has learned this the hard way.)
“I know you wanted a puppy,” I said to my daughter. “But I think Jojo is …”
“He’s our dog,” she said. There it was. I had wanted my daughter to a valuable lesson about responsibility, and she had.
Even my husband had to admit it: Jojo’s forever home was with us. And it was, up until last April. Jojo died a few weeks after we went into lockdown. Our family was heartbroken, but my daughter pointed out the bright side — COVID restrictions had meant that we had spent Jojo's last few weeks at home, together.
He would growl softly until I picked him up and put him in my lap as I worked. He was my good old bad old dog, right up until the end.