Ultra Vires


Reflections on Fostering a Dog

Dog fostering can make you more empathetic

I don’t know how, but the pandemic has heightened my affection for dogs. Although I am mildly sleep-deprived because of my foster dog, giving him a temporary home has 100 percent been worth it. 

My foster pup Rockford (aka Rocky) is a senior rescue. Despite his age, Rocky is a spry boy who loves going on walks and begging for food. On many accounts, he acts like any other dog. He is, however, impressively calm around people and impressively erratic around other animals. 

Despite Rocky being generally well-behaved, he has upset me at times. During the first week of his stay, he would sometimes nip at me when I picked him up or pet him. These moments not only shocked me but hurt my feelings, as I took his aggression to be an expression of contempt. I began backing off from Rocky, carrying him only when necessary and petting him only when approached. I might be a touch dramatic, but Rocky disliking me weighed heavily on my self-esteem.

However, I soon noticed that Rocky has impaired hearing, at least partially so. Given his background as a stray, the volunteer organization and I didn’t know much about his medical history. Nonetheless, Rocky’s hearing impairments became clear when he did not react to neighbouring dogs’ barking, vacuuming efforts, or calls of his name. Although I initially thought Rocky was astonishingly calm, or even mildly dense, I soon realized that his hearing impairment precluded him from interpreting the world through sound.

Importantly, I realized he couldn’t hear my footsteps when I approached him. This information contextualized his seemingly aggressive behaviour. Rocky’s attempts to bite me were not acts of aggression per se, but more likely acts of shock. Because he could not hear me, my efforts to make contact startled him. With this in mind, I knew I could make behavioural changes to make him feel more welcome and secure. 

From that point on, I caught Rocky’s attention before picking him up. I also stopped petting him from behind. He stopped biting me in response. We soon developed a close bond, and he soon began following me everywhere—even waiting by the door when I left my apartment! Because he could not hear much, he overwhelmingly relied on his vision to observe me. Despite Rocky being unable to verbally communicate with me, my newfound understanding allowed me to understand more of his communicative cues. 

I have now fostered Rocky for a little under a month. He has been the sweetest boy, and we have had amazing experiences together, from daily walks and hikes, to nightly cuddles. Importantly, he has been so much more than a cute dog. Rocky has taught me an important lesson in making assumptions. We tend to judge others or grow frustrated when individuals behave in ways that deviate from the norm—and we shouldn’t.

With some patience and empathy, we can identify why someone might act in ways we aren’t accustomed to. We can also make small but impactful changes to make someone feel more welcome. And finally, we can bring the best out of others if we offer spaces that allow them to flourish. Rocky has shown me that. 

Ultimately, dogs are creatures who show you just how much impact your actions can have. Rocky went from being a scared, startled boy to an affectionate one within a few days due to a few small changes in my habits. 

Although Rocky is by no means perfectly behaved, I can now more easily distinguish between actual misbehaviour and when he’s just reacting in a certain way due to his impairments. As a senior gentleman, I know Rocky may have more ailments. However, if I come across them, I will be patient before jumping to conclusions. 

If you can, I would highly recommend fostering a dog. While law school is undoubtedly busy, you learn invaluable skills from taking care of an animal in need. I believe developing this kind of patience and empathy will serve you well in the legal profession. 

Editor’s Note: Since writing this article, Rocky has been adopted. Yay!

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