Contributor Debbie Marks volunteers and fosters dogs for the Blind Dog Rescue Alliance (BDRA), a Grey Muzzle grantee. She has two adopted visually impaired older dogs, Watson and CC, and provides hospice or forever foster care to dogs from BDRA that are too sick or frail to be adopted. A grant from The Grey Muzzle Organization helps BDRA provide medical care for permanent fosters, including Debbie's past and current hospice foster dogs Leo, Maria, Claire, and Kimi.
Debbie and her dogs were recently photographed by Jane Sobel Klonsky, whose photo series Project Unconditional is dedicated to capturing the bond between senior dogs and their people. We thank Jane for sharing those photos with us. For this article, we asked Debbie about her experience caring for hospice foster dogs.
One year I thought about moving. I didn't think about schools in the new neighborhood. I didn't think about shopping. I didn't think about traffic. I thought about whether I could find a good local vet, and what their after-hours emergency policy would be.
If you are a hospice foster parent, an excellent vet and good and easily accessible after-hours care are essential.
Hospice fostering provides a home and care for dogs who, through no fault of their own, find themselves in a shelter or other desperate situation, without family, in their most urgent time. These dogs usually are very old or very ill, and do not have long to live. They may also be incontinent, or have difficulty eating.
I have been a volunteer and foster for the Blind Dog Rescue Alliance (BDRA) since 2011. The Blind Dog Rescue Alliance is a nonprofit rescue with volunteers spread throughout the United States and Canada. We are dedicated to helping blind and visually impaired dogs by rescuing dogs in shelters, assisting blind dog owners, and educating the public about these wonderful dogs.
In 2012, I fostered Leo and Maria, two blind dogs (Leo was also deaf) for BDRA, both of whom were seniors, and neither very healthy. They came to us from a failed sanctuary that had to close. Leo and Maria became hospice fosters and stayed with me until it was their time to pass.
Currently, I have two BDRA hospice fosters dogs in my care, Kimi and Claire.
To me, these dogs are heroes, living life to the fullest of their ability without complaint, and with a grace and acceptance that I can only hope I will have if I am ever in the same situation. I am honored and blessed to share their end-of-life journeys with them, no matter how long or short they may be.
My foster dog Kimi had been found hobbling in the streets of Philadelphia in March of 2014 and was picked up by Animal Control. She was a mess! Quite frail, blind and deaf, with a huge mammary tumor, cysts and lumps, a heart murmur, and who knew what else. She left the shelter just in time, for she started showing respiratory symptoms shortly after she arrived here, and she got worse very quickly. She was diagnosed with three different respiratory infections and came very close to dying.
She spent several days in isolation at a veterinary medical center, where I was only allowed to look at her through a glass wall. When I picked her up to take her home, the vet tech holding her was wearing gloves, booties, and a "cover up suit." I will always have that image in my memory. We estimate Kimi to be 15 years old.
I remember meeting her van on October 5, 2013, in Maryland. It was colder up here in NY, but the further south I got, the warmer it became. Claire was the first one carried out, huddled and looking so small. She was wearing a pink and green dress. Claire had moderate renal failure (her bloodwork now is much better) and one tooth in the back. She could barely walk. She was severely infested with Demodex mange (she had no hair) and had several skin infections, as well as eye infections. She had to be kept isolated for several weeks after she first arrived. On that day, though, I looked into Claire’s eyes, and I had never seen a dog more beautiful. She is estimated to be around 16 years old.
At BDRA, hospice dogs are forever fosters, dogs who will never be adopted, but who will stay in their foster homes for the rest of their lives. These dogs receive all medications, care and support needed to remain as comfortable and pain free as possible, but will not undergo invasive testing or painful procedures. They are also too frail for surgery.
Practically speaking, BDRA pays for vetting for all fostered dogs including hospice / forever fosters, and we will always be grateful to The Grey Muzzle Organization for their generous funding which allows us to place hospice dogs. Vetting for Kimi and Claire was high initially, as they were both quite ill upon intake and needed to see the vet often. As time has gone on, each has made progress and is feeling much better, and vetting costs have gone down. Claire is actually no longer on any medications.
I belong to a wholesale club store and buy Poise pads by the carton. I buy cartons of wee wee pads and unscented baby wipes. I sometimes wonder what people think when they see my shopping cart!
I know that the prospect of caring for hospice dogs may seem intimidating, but the pleasure I get from being with them, watching them “be”, caring for them, and loving them, makes me smile every day. The love I get in return is immeasurable. The dogs that I foster face particular challenges. In addition to being quite old, Kimi, for example, is blind and deaf, and Claire, as a former hoarder victim, suffered from severe neglect. Even so, I can think of nothing I would rather be doing.
I find enormous joy in the small things.
One day Kimi walked around her food bowl and licked up the food that fell out of her bowl. I couldn't believe how excited I was. Finding food that fell out of a bowl is not that exciting for most dogs. But for Kimi, who still can't find her food bowl unless I guide her, this was a huge step that took several months.And the joy and satisfaction I felt when Leo, a 17-year-old blind and deaf terrier mix, discovered the trash (and how could I ever move the trash after that!) or when Claire started wagging her tail, or I saw the first few hairs sprouting from the top of her bald head, or when Maria, a blind and frightened senior Chihuahua, fell asleep in my lap for the first time, is unequaled.
Can it be difficult? Absolutely! I am a teacher and work full time. While I live close enough to school to be able to come home for lunch every day, at times I'm not able to. And then I have cleaning to do when I do get home. I haven't spent a night away from home in a long time. Yes, there are certainly wonderful dog sitters and boarding facilities out there, but this is the personal choice I have made.
Can it be frustrating? Absolutely! There have been many times when I've come home for lunch to find Kimi had pottied and spent the morning walking through it before finally falling asleep in it (she can't wear diapers). I sigh and clean her up as gently and carefully as I can. And go back to school hungry, but somehow, it's perfectly OK.
Can it be heartbreaking? Absolutely! Saying goodbye always seems to come much too soon, and it is always devastating. I think my heart must look like a checkerboard, with some pieces out, and later, new pieces in. But I wouldn't trade any of the time I’ve had with these special dogs and I treasure each moment (well, almost each moment!) with each dog.
So why do it?
The rewards are endless and each day with them is a gift. Love a million times over... from both sides. From my side and from theirs. I could not love them more even if I raised them from when they were puppies. I can think of nothing better than to come home to these special dogs who ask for nothing, but give everything they have. I am truly blessed.
For updates on Debbie Marks's fosters, visit the Facebook page set up in honor of her first hospice foster, Leo. You can read about Blind Dog Rescue Alliance, caring for a blind dog, as well as more of Claire's story in Debbie's post: "Blind Dogs See With Their Hearts."
For more about Jane Sobel Klonsky's photo series Project Unconditional, read our "To Know the Love of a Dog: An Interview with Photographer Jane Sobel Klonsky."
Visit Who We Help for additional information about The Grey Muzzle Organization's grant recipients, including Blind Dog Rescue Alliance. The Grey Muzzle Organization improves the lives of at-risk senior dogs by providing funding and resources to animal shelters, rescue organizations, sanctuaries, and other nonprofit groups nationwide.