By Isabel Alvarez
I fostered a mama dog and her eight puppies over the holidays — an unforgettable experience.
The family was pulled from a shelter in rural Virginia. The shelter, considered high kill because of the amount of strays it takes in, could no longer care for them. A local rescue organization that I regularly volunteer with reached out to me in the hopes I could take them for a week while their long-term foster parent was out of town.
I was happy to help. In retrospect, maybe too happy considering how busy I was with holiday business demands. But, the hound puppies looked like little piggies in the pictures. I just couldn’t resist.
I picked them up five days after they were born, oblivious to what their care would entail. I had never before managed a litter or been around such young puppies, not to mention a new canine mom.
I was apprehensive but excited. I felt confident that I could learn the ropes rather quickly. What I learned was heartwarming and enlightening. Some of it also was pretty gross.
Mama, whom I named Maya — she was rescued on the last day of the Mayan calendar — was a sweetheart. She was very concerned for the well-being of her puppies. She hesitated to leave them and was very much aware of who was in their presence. It is natural for a mother of any species to be protective, and Maya was no exception.
She never showed aggression but clearly communicated her disapproval of my handling the puppies when she felt as though they had had enough. All it took was a sniff of my hand to know that it was time to return the baby to its pen. I respected Maya’s boundaries and, at first, did a lot of watching from the sidelines. Maya was skin and bones when she arrived. I fed her at least 12 times per day, even overnight, and she still appeared famished.
Eight puppies nursing is a sight to see. And it’s a never-ending feeding frenzy. It seemed every time I looked over at their pen, Maya had at least two puppies attached, and it was only a matter of time before the majority went back for more. One hundred meals a day could not have kept her satiated, poor thing.
The puppies were too cute for words. They had not yet opened their eyes. Mostly white with random brown and black spots, they awkwardly dragged themselves all over the pen and made the sweetest baby noises I have ever heard.
It sometimes got loud. Screeching was an indication that milk supply was below par, and Maya had to be fed. High-pitched yelps were the result of mama stepping on her offspring, which made my heart stop. Maya was completely undaunted. Apparently newborn puppies are really pliable. Thank goodness!
Sounds of utter delight filled the air when bellies were full and hearts were happy, but then there were sounds of struggle as the puppies screamed bloody murder when, entirely disoriented, they begged to be directed back to the pack.
Maya was a trooper. She did not have the luxury of diapers. She kept the pen clean by ingesting the puppies’ waste. Licking them encouraged them to eliminate, and she did so often. I quickly realized that human moms have it way easy comparatively. Yuck!
Maya barely wanted to go for walks. She would hold it for hours and hours to ensure that the puppies were constantly in her care. I begged her to go out to relieve herself. She put the brakes on more often than not.
There was a lot of negotiating. I quickly learned that new canine moms can ruthlessly resist the offer of treats, love and encouragement when it means leaving their children behind. When she finally gave in and went outside, she would quickly do her business and pull me back upstairs. “The puppies! The puppies!” I could imagine her saying.
I didn’t get much sleep the first few nights. They started to settle in around night three, but mama Maya’s overnight feeding was nonnegotiable.
Maya was utterly grateful to me. She would repay me for my dedication in loving looks and the happiest of tail wags anytime our eyes met. Her gratitude and contentedness was palpable. I started to fear that she was getting too comfortable. I knew that their time with me would fly by. It went by too quickly for us all.
On our last day together, I sat in the pen with them and, much to my delight, watched as the puppies assembled themselves against my leg. Maya laid comfortably by my side.
In just one week, I had earned the trust of the most responsible, nurturing and patient mother I have ever met. She was now the one watching from the sidelines, and I was more fulfilled and genuinely humbled in that moment than I could ever have dreamed.