As your family gathers together for the holidays this season, do you have space for one more?
Some animal shelters are hoping that people will open their homes for a week or two to give homeless dogs a temporary break from kennel life.
At LifeLine Animal Project's three Atlanta-area shelters, organizers are hoping to place 60 dogs in foster homes the week of Thanksgiving. It's the fourth year for the "Home for the Pawlidays" event and it's a win-win for everyone involved, says Karen Hirsch, LifeLine's public relations director.
"The dogs benefit because they get a break from the stressful shelter, they get lots of love and affection, and they get exposed to lots of potential adopters (their host's friends and family members)," Hirsch tells MNN. "Participants benefit because the dog brings love and light into their home. They get to experience the joy of having an animal, especially a shelter dog who is so appreciative of everything."
Although fosters only commit to having the animals for a set period of time, many end up adopting their temporary pets, becoming their long-term fosters or working hard to find them permanent homes.
When LifeLine did a similar program last year over Thanksgiving, 32 dogs got a break from the shelter for the week. Eighteen of the dogs ended up being adopted or long-term fostered by their holiday families.
Shelter employees also benefit from the program. Not only do they get a bit of a respite when there are fewer dogs in the shelter to care for, but there's also an incredible feel-good element.
"They finally get to see a dog they love who has been in the shelter for way too long get a deserved break and get showered with love," Hirsch says. "You can't imagine how happy this makes employees and boosts morale."
Fiction becomes reality
Author Greg Kincaid wrote about the idea in his 2008 novel, "A Dog Named Christmas," where a fictional shelter asks people to foster dogs over the holidays. A young boy with disabilities asks his dad if he can foster a pup over Christmas, but his father is hesitant, thinking there's no way the boy will be able to return the dog when it's over. Hallmark made the story into a popular movie, which prompted Kincaid to see if he could launch a public service program like that in real life.
When the movie was released, Kincaid says he heard from a woman who ran a Florida vet clinic where the runs were filled with strays instead of the dogs they were supposed to board over the holidays.
"They tried the idea and totally emptied the vet clinic out. She had so much fun with it, she drove down to the animal shelter down the road to find homes for more dogs. I thought maybe this idea will work."
So Kincaid worked with Hallmark and Petfinder to create a "Foster a Lonely Pet for the Holidays" program for shelters. The idea was simple, he explains. Families would visit a local shelter and foster a dog for a few weeks. The dog was able to hang out in a loving and home environment for a week or two and often never made it back to the shelter because the family fell in love. But even if they returned the dog, that was fine, too. It gave them a break from noisy, busy shelter life and let shelter workers learn a little more about the dogs' personalities when they were returned.
Kincaid encouraged shelters to jump on board and spread the word. But if families wanted to foster and there wasn't an official program in place, he urged them to simply go offer to take in a pet for a few days or weeks in December. The rewards were well worth it.
"The thing that amazes me about it, it's like a lot of things in life," he says. "You think you're doing something nice for someone else but you end up being the real winner."
Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was written in December 2017.