Ohlin is a beautiful, 16-month-old chocolate lab and I have what you might call "shared custody" of him in his spare time. Ohlin's main foster mom is Jean Findley, and I take Ohlin home when she's got other life commitments. And, much like two custodial parents, we sit down together and talk about how our pooch is doing at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, what behaviors need reinforcement, changes in diet and good reports from his trainers.
The main fosters devote enormous time and attention to the dogs. They make sure they are at the Center for their full day of training Monday through Friday. Fosters have the dogs at home nights and weekends—and because the dogs start as young pups, that includes some sleepless nights early on. But for all the serious nature of the work, these are puppies, who also bring fun and games.
Findley explains some of the games. "He is definitely a social guy," she said. "When I am at home and he hears the doorbell ring, he will come running from wherever he is in the house."
"So," she continues, "sometimes just for fun I will know he is upstairs and I will ring the doorbell and he comes bolting down the stairs like we have company and then he looks up and he sees me!"
Ohlin got the last laugh on me recently when we were in the car and he was safely in his car crate—until we hit a Philadelphia pothole and I heard the door spring open. You could amost hear the panic in my mind... and the pure joy in Ohlin's.
In addition to the laughs, like all family pets, the dogs bring something intangible. Dr. Gia Croce is a
veterinarian and head of the Center's husbandry team, which looks at the overall health of the dogs. She also fosters Kaiserin, a female Dutch Shepherd.
"Most surprising is the way she sort of relates to our son who has special needs. They are both high energy. It's really brought us together in many ways. My husband and I have to work together and she's been great; she's really amazing with our son."
Another dog foster parent, Clint Kuban notes that his dog, Tsunami, helps with much-needed work/life balance and says, "The bond that you develop with the dogs really hits home after a long day of studying— I'm a veterinary student at Penn Vet in my second year and that's very, very difficult. Being able to come home and enjoy a nice relaxed dog who spent all day detecting ovarian cancer, playing on rubble piles and training behavior and obedience, and when I come home you can sit down and get that love and best friend that I need."
Still, deep and loving as these relationships are, all fosters know that one day their charge will leave, and go on to a full-time career saving lives. Cathy von Elm fosters Ronnie, a German Shepherd who will be leaving soon for duty in police work.
"I never thought that he was my dog," says Von Elm. "And as I got to know him I realized that he's kind of everyone's dog. I love sharing him with people and it's been a huge privilege to have him, but I really do think he belongs to something bigger than just my little house."
And it's that final bittersweet moment when the dogs move on to their life-saving careers that is the real reward for the foster families.
For now, Ohlin is sponsored by the Ovarian Cancer Symptom Awareness Organization and will continue his work at the Center in the Ovarian Cancer Detection Study. And that means I'll be on the look-out for those car-crate releasing Philly potholes!