Just Add Heart: Fostering Dogs Made Simple

After close to twenty years and a variety of saves under his belt, Larry Abgarian is a force to be reckoned with in the San Diego rescue community. I met Larry last year when he was fostering's very own Rusty, a dog that many felt was unadoptable, but whom Larry took a chance.

Since the start of, I've received several folks who saw his name on a photo or as a reference on the site and had some story to share, so I felt it was about time to talk with him about a topic that he is well aversed: fostering dogs.

Larry and Lady Guinevere
SP: Tell us a little about yourself and how you got started fostering animals. How long have you been at it?
LA: In late 1993, I went through a volunteer orientation at a San Diego animal shelter. Afterwards, we were given a tour of the facility. In the medical section, I came across a puppy alone in a kennel. It was dragging the right rear leg, and crying in obvious pain. A friend of mine, who was already a volunteer at the shelter, happened to be there. The story was that this 7 week old little girl was turned in by an owner, with a broken leg. The leg had not yet been attended to.The puppy was not yet up for adoption, and there was a strong likelihood of her being put to sleep. I asked my friend if she could speak to someone about me wanting to adopt the puppy as she was. It all worked out, and the next morning I took her to the veterinary hospital for surgery. I was informed that there was a rescue group called F.O.C.A.S. (Friends of County Animal Shelters) that would financially assist me in the cost of the surgery. I guess you could say that's where it all began..I volunteered with that group for 10 years. 

"Nicky", that little black ball of fur, spent the rest of her 13 years with me, along with a host of other dogs and cats that I either fostered or adopted myself. 

I met some wonderful people over the years through many rescue organizations. I am still actively working as a volunteer for several different groups, primarily Coastal German Shepherd Rescue San Diego.

SP: We hear "dog foster parent", but it seems that every person has a different take on the role. How would you describe the responsibilities of a foster parent to someone who might be interested?
LA: As a foster parent, we sometimes care for sick or injured animals. Other times, it is a matter of giving a healthy animal a temporary home, until a permanent one can be found. Medical costs are covered by the rescue group, and so is food if need be. 

My very first foster situation was a mother dog and 3 puppies. I was thrilled beyond words to get them, only to have my heart broken when one puppy got distemper, and had to be put to sleep. Soon after, the remaining pups got sick with distemper as well, and I lost them. To say I was devastated is an understatement..the one saving grace was that I found the mother a wonderful home.

I was reassured by the veterinarian, that the pups had, no doubt, already been exposed to distemper at the shelter. I got them before symptoms appeared. Their immune systems were not yet strong enough to fight off the disease. Nursing pups get their initial immunity from their mother's milk. In all the years from that point on, I never lost a foster dog to illness. The rewards of finding permanent good homes for homeless animals is hard to put in to words. Sometimes they are young and relatively easy to place. Sometimes they are older, and it may take a much longer time.

Teddy and Rosie - Two of Larry's three senior pooches
SP: Is there anything that your found out early in your experience or wish that people would have told you before you started?
LA: I don't know that there is anything anyone could have told me before hand, that would have changed my mind about getting involved with rescue. I have seen some awful things done to animals over the years, but that hasn't stopped me from wanting to help. Early on, I do remember feeling discouraged for a time; being aware of so many animals being euthanized in the shelters. The numbers that were rescued was miniscule by comparison. Thankfully, things are much better these days, and more animals are being adopted  directly from the shelters, in addition to the ones saved through rescue groups.

SP: In our conversations, you've mentioned "Failed Fosters" before. Can you explain what that is for the readers?
LA: Failed fosters! That is something I am well versed in, as are many of my friends. It has become a standard phrase for anyone that fosters a dog, and becomes so attached before a permanent home is found, that they adopt their own foster. 

F.O.C.A.S. used to have yearly volunteer picnics in Balboa Park. Bernice Friedman who ran the adoption program for so many years, would always ask for a show of hands from the attendees: "How many failed fosters do we have this year?" Almost needless to say, many hands were raised. I thought, "Guilty as charged...again."

SP: What makes fostering fulfilling to you?
LA: I think I would advise anybody interested in fostering, to contact one or more rescue groups where they live, and talk to them one on one. There are many breed specific rescues out there, as well as the ones that deal with mixed breed dogs. Whether you have a fondness for anything from St Bernards to Chihuahuas, you are likely to find such a rescue group in most urban areas.

You will likely be asked to fill out an application; virtually the same as though you were adopting a particular dog.They want to be sure as they can, that you are willing and able to fulfill the commitment it takes.  

SP: That's awesome. Are there any of your own fosters that still stand out for you?
LA: One of my most memorable fosters was a German Shepherd named Benson. When he showed up at his first adoption event, I couldn't help but notice his physical appearance.  He had very small eyes, and a oddly shaped head. Something about Benson broke my heart. It may have been the way he stared directly in my eyes. It almost felt like he was trying to tell me that he needed someone to help him. I then got a thorough face-licking.

He was very anxious, and barked at anything moving, whether it was another dog, a car passing by, or a kid on a skateboard. He spent about a month at our kennel. 

One Saturday, a couple drove down from Los Angeles to meet Benson. The interview went great, and the application looked fine and we thought Benson had his forever home. It wasn't even a week before we got a phone call. The adoptors told us he kept falling down when running, and they decided to return him to the rescue.

We took him to one of our vets in Orange County, and it was discovered that Benson needed bi-lateral hip surgery. The poor dog had to spend 6 weeks in the hospital. We needed to find a foster home where he could finish his physical rehabilitation. To make a long story short, he went from one foster home to another, before he came to stay with me.

Seems no one could control his barking, nor deal with the level of anxiety he had. Still, I wanted to step in.  He was with me almost 6 months. 

I took him to see a neurologist for a couple of reasons. One to address his odd way of walking post surgery (kind of waddled his back legs like Charlie Chaplin), but also to address his levels of anxiety..After examining Benson, the veterinarian said that we could do extensive tests, to try and determine exactly what was going on with him, but also suggested that all observable things taken into account, she believed Benson had multiple birth defects.

Larry and Rusty
We opted not to do more tests, because in any case, there wasn't much that could be done, short of medicating him for anxiety.

Had it not been for major issues with my other German Shepherd,  Benson would have stayed with me permanently. In the end, a woman came and met Benson, and instantly fell in love.

She knew he had issues, but it has proven that over time, that they were no obstacle in providing him with a wonderful and loving home. That was over 2 years ago. Today, as I write this, I am happy to report that Benson is now a senior pooch living in suburban San Diego County. I know this because we called to check up on him this morning.

My thanks goes out to Larry on behalf of all the dogs that he's saved and all of those pets and owners that whom he's impacted over the years.