Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Fostering Pets for Greater Well-Being With Brittany Derrenbacher
[0:00:02] PF: Thank you for joining us for episode 421 of Live Happy Now. This month is filled with holidays that celebrate our pets, so that’s what we’re going to do. I’m your host, Paula Felps, and June happens to be National Adopt a Cat Month, National Microchip Month, and National Foster a Pet Month. We also have National Dog Dad Day on June 17th, National Dog Party Day on June 21st, and National Take Your Dog to Work Day on June 23rd. That is a lot of partying with your pet.
Today, we want to focus on fostering and how it can help improve your well-being while changing the life of an animal forever. I’m bringing in Live Happy’s resident pet expert, Brittany Derrenbacher, Founder of Luna Bell’s Moonbows Special Needs Fostering in Louisville, Kentucky, to talk about how we can make the world a better place one foster pet at a time. Let’s have a listen.
[0:00:56] PF: Brittany, welcome back to Live Happy Now.
[0:01:00] BD: I’m so excited to be back.
[0:01:01] PF: This is such a natural topic for us to discuss, because it’s National Foster a Pet Month. You and I actually met, because of you foster animals, I needed an animal, we connected, it’s been a great thing. During the pandemic, a lot of people were adopting and fostering pets. It was shelters were empty. There were waiting lists. Where are we at now? What’s the current situation and the need for fostering?
[0:01:29] BD: I think despite COVID and how that drastically changed things, there is always a need. There will always, always, always be a need until we have legislation that changes, or some type of very serious systemic change politically to change the environment that is resulting, right, in these animals most of the time from overbreeding.
COVID was so interesting, because it’s like, it was such a positive boom. It was such a positive shift. All of these people wanted animals. They wanted to give love and they were going to shelters. They were going to rescues. People were stepping up to foster, because they had so much time. I think, even though we don’t really have enough adequate data, I think eventually, we will see how this has changed and affected. I think it’s only natural to assume that everyone went back to work, everyone went back to chaotic schedules and life. Because of that, I think that there has been a shift, especially in rescue.
There’s not a single volunteer in shelter and in rescue right now that I don’t know that it’s just inundated. I mean, at capacity, full of animals. I mean, it’s tough. I think we’re seeing it all play out in real time right now.
[0:02:50] PF: I wondered if it was just me, or my area that I live in, because I’ve seen so many posts lately about like, “Our shelter is full. We cannot take anymore. Please, if you can foster, if you can adopt.” I’ve seen this so much in the last few weeks. Is that a product of us pendulum swinging from having done the fostering, having adopted and now people are going back and saying like, “I’m not cut out for this”?
[0:03:16] BD: I think that is definitely a piece. I think, also, we’re seeing the result of breeding picked up. We needed to make money. I also think there was a need for it. It picked up in all areas, right? We’re just seeing a result of that. I just think that shelters literally all over the country, shelters that normally would have, or rescues that normally would have been more open for being the ones that would have been reached out to, to say like, “Hey, we’re full. Can you help?” They’re full. So, that I think is telling.
[0:03:52] PF: Fostering, you have so much, of course, it gives a lot to the animal. It gives so much to the person who does that. We’re going to get into that. First, tell us about your story and how you became involved in fostering, why you wanted to do that, because it really does take a special mindset and a special person to want to do it at the level that you do it.
[0:04:10] BD: Yeah. This is a topic that is just so heart centered for me, because it really comes from my relationship with my soul dogs, Sunshine and Zoe. They just taught me so much about myself. They brought so much joy into my life. My relationship with them is what led me into fostering, because I just had a lot of love to give. I was in my early twenties. I loved doing volunteer work. I loved giving back. Since I was a child, I think I’ve always had a really unique bond with animals. I’ve always played into that advocacy role for animals. I felt very passionately about caring for them.
I just started doing research on my end and looking into breed specific rescues, because Zoe and Sunshine were beautiful Boston Terriers. Like, perfect. Yeah, so I started doing research. That’s how I found the rescue that brought us together. Boston Terrier rescue of East Tennessee, the Kentucky division. I started following them on Facebook. That is, I mean, that was all it took. I loved following the dog stories. I loved seeing them end up in forever homes. I put in an application. There’s a process that I had to go through, some interviewing and having someone come to my home and make sure that it was going to be a safe and supportive environment for an animal. I mean before I knew it, I had my first foster dog. His name was Louis Pierre. It started it all.
[0:05:40] PF: Fostering is such an interesting relationship. I used to tell people it was like dating, because it’s like, I know I’m not going to have a permanent relationship with them. I am just getting them ready for their next perfect relationship. It can be hard for people to understand how you can take a dog and give it your all, give it your entire heart, all your love, and then send it to another family. Talk about the mindset. I know that you’ve coached people on this and helped them get through it, because it can be tough the first couple of times. What kind of mindset and what does it take to go in and have that pet foster parent attitude?
[0:06:13] BD: Yeah, I’m glad that you asked this question, because I think mindset in this role and in this job is key. Intentionality is key. My advice is to go into this relationship and roll with curiosity with patients, an eagerness to learn and a genuine heart-centered approach for meeting the animal where they’re at. What I mean by that is like, we have to be able to meet this animal at this very traumatic stage in their life and be willing to allow them to grow.
They’re not going to come to us perfect. That is rare. It does happen. It’s like the unicorn and rescue work, where you just get this dog that it’s like, okay, this dog’s ready for its home. Nothing that we need to work on here. Many times when we get a dog into rescue and work to find a foster home for them, folks will ask, “Are they potty-trained? Do they like kids? Are they leash chained?” In a perfect world, those would be really easy questions, right? Every single animal has their own story. There’s no way that any of us can predict, or know.
Most of the time, they will not come with a story, right? They were found on the side of the road. I think their own past and experiences of how they ended up needing rescue, it’s a variable, right? Oftentimes, we just don’t know any of those things. All we know is that they need rescuing ASAP. I think the biggest thing that people don’t see behind the scenes is the immediacy and the urgency that often happens in needing to get that animal into care quickly.
We just don’t have the ability to stop and see, is this dog potty trained? Is this dog going to be okay with your kid? We just have to be willing to meet them where they’re at and give them time, give them the opportunity to be nurtured under care and safety of a loving foster home. Typically, this is the case. They will be nurtured. They will be loving, amazing animals. All of that will be super reciprocal, too. They nurture us and we also grow. If we’re willing to lean into that and have patience with that, I think that’s the mindset.
[0:08:31] PF: When pets come in, and to your point, they often are not perfect. I think I’ve had one dog in 20 years that he came in, he was potty-trained, he was good to go. They have a lot of damage to them. Let’s talk first about what the pet receives when we become foster parents.
[0:08:49] BD: For the pet, I just think that the field of animal sheltering has come a long way. I definitely want to say that. I don’t want it to come off like, this is in any way, shaming shelters. I just think that even in the best circumstances, animal shelters are a stressful place, right? It’s a stressful place for animals, especially if they’ve been traumatized to come into an environment that’s loud, uncertain, with a lot of moving pieces. That’s what I mean by saying that it’s stressful. Loud, overwhelming to the senses.
A lot of shelters will work on those sensory things. That is part of volunteers’ jobs is to literally go around and give a treat, to make a sound, whether it be chimes, just sensory things to keep the dog and engaged. But the environment is still so overwhelming for animals and it causes them to shut down emotionally. It enacts that freeze response in the animal. Sometimes they display reactive behaviors due to the stress, that then labels them as the bad dog, right?
[0:09:57] PF: Doesn’t that keep them from getting adopted?
[0:09:59] BD: Oh, yeah. They quite literally will be moved to a different part of that shelter in quarantine, away, and you can’t go past that area, right? It completely denies them the ability of being seen. Foster homes uniquely allow that animal to be seen, right? To decompress from the stress of living in the shelter. They just work wonders for an animal’s nervous system. It gives them the chance to live in a home, where they have the grace and the ease to safely express their personality. It’s amazing to see that. It is amazing to see that animal come in that doesn’t even play with a toy. That won’t even come near you. It gives them such an opportunity and a chance to overcome fears and many times, recover and decompress from that trauma, right?
[0:10:53] PF: Yeah, it does. One thing that I’ve had people – I wouldn’t say it’s their argument, but they say that, well, isn’t it hard on the animal because now you’ve taken them out of an unknown situation, which we don’t know before they dumped, where they lost, whatever it was, and you’re giving them a home. Then you pull them out of that home again. I know you’ve gone through this process many, many times. Can you address that?
[0:11:17] BD: That is probably one of the most frequent questions that I’m asked, is how do you just continue to pass the dog along? That’s how it’s perceived to others.
[0:11:25] PF: Right.
[0:11:26] BD: To me, it’s like, this is the safe landing pad. I’m going to empower you. I’m going to give you all the skills that you need to succeed. I’m going to find you your perfect match. That family is out there that can meet every single one of those needs. When you move into that space, when the animal moves into that space, it’s going to flourish. Animals are the most resilient creature. I think a lot of the times, we project our human emotions onto these animals. Really, they are a shining example of post-traumatic growth.
[0:12:03] PF: Yeah, because I’ve seen dogs who have been through an amazing amount of trauma and abuse, and the way that they’re able to love and heal and become kind and tender. Beans has always amazed me. That was one thing that attracted me to fostering was because I was dealing with some trauma in my own life that I was trying to work through and being able to work with animals during that time and see them come from abusive situations and become whole was really, they were teaching me. I was learning a lot from them about that. I think it’s just been an incredible journey for me to watch how animals do heal and how they teach us to heal our hearts.
[0:12:43] BD: Right. Because, essentially, we’re giving a voice to the voiceless. You will see that a lot of people that are in some type of animal care work will have had trauma at some point in their life. Because I think this work just so deeply is connected to that need to help and to give a voice and to advocate. That comes from a place.
[0:13:09] PF: Talk to me about the mental health benefits that we receive as foster parents. Because I’ve discovered so many benefits from it. It’s just an incredible experience.
[0:13:19] BD: Yeah. Shout out to one of our past episodes together, right? We love to talk about animals and mental health. If you haven’t listened to the episode already, it’s called celebrating our pets, and we really go super deep on all the benefits of that. Literally, animals improve everything, everything. They improve our mental health period. Mentally, physically, spiritually. Another thing that we’ve explored together is that they improve our lives cognitively.
I think the unique thing that fostering does that can be really important for people that have busy lives, or don’t really have the ability to have an animal in their home full-time is that it gives them companionship and joy with an animal without that lifelong commitment. It can be like, “Let me do this for a couple of weeks. Take a little break. A couple of weeks, a little break.” It’s like being the cool aunt, or cool uncle, right? You get to send them home. You get to send them to their forever home. I think that’s really cool. Most importantly, in regards to mental health, is that it gives us purpose. That’s huge.
[0:14:31] PF: That can be big for someone who say, is suffering from depression and has trouble. Doesn’t have a reason to get off the couch. Doesn’t have a reason to do something. If all you have to do, like let me get up and feed this cat. Let me take this dog outside for a walk. You start making these small things, because you have to. It starts snowballing into an upward mental health improvement.
[0:14:56] BD: Yeah, you’re needed. You’re giving back. You’re enacting change in someone’s life. That’s rewarding. That gives a person hope. That gives a person confidence. I think that animals do such a good job of relieving stress in our life and helping us cope easier with life changes. They more than anyone know that, too. They can teach us all of those things. They know the best ways to relieve stress. They know how to cope with changes and transition. This foster will know all of those things.
[0:15:32] PF: They’re living it.
[0:15:34] BD: Absolutely. I just think that it’s such a very special reciprocal relationship in regards to mental health and to those benefits.
[0:15:45] PF: One thing that you brought up, you mentioned that if you don’t have the time, you don’t have to have this as a full-time foster. I think that’s something that’s really important to bring up, because there are several programs where you can do something for a day. When I was in Nashville, there was a guy who, his dog had died and he didn’t really have the time to take on a new full-time dog. He would go on his lunch hour and he would walk dogs at the shelter. I’ve got friends who take their kids every weekend and they meet dogs. Part of their job is to learn how these dogs do with children. There are other things besides having this dog full-time. Can you talk about that, how you can find some of these opportunities?
[0:16:23] BD: Yeah. Every single volunteer position matters. I cannot stress that enough. It is rescue work. Shelter work is a well-oiled machine that requires a lot of people in different pieces, right? It is not just one person fostering. It’s not just one person adopting. There is so much happening behind the scenes that require sometimes very minimal effort that’s still super rewarding. Like you said, you can go and stop at the shelter and walk the dog, or stop by the shelter and pet the cats. You can pick an animal up and you can take them out for the day and socialize them, right? You can give them that one-on-one attention.
You can be the transport driver that picks the animal up from wherever it is, takes it to the vet, or takes it to the foster home. Every single piece matters. As a volunteer, you really are in a valuable part of this life-saving team. It’s teamwork.
[0:17:18] PF: You feel that reward, because it has that same – it doesn’t really matter what role you’re playing. You still have that same team mentality. It’s like, we place this dog, we found her this home. Now we get to watch her flourish on social media. Yeah, it really does become this great team effort.
Let’s talk about children and what children can learn. The last dog that I adopted had been fostered by a woman who had two young children. I thought that’s so great, because I saw how her children were with Rocco. I thought, man, that’s really incredible for them to be raised in that environment of fostering and knowing like, “I’m going to care for this dog and then I’m going to give them to this forever home.” Tell me what that can do for children and how that’s going to affect both the children and future animals down the road.
[0:18:07] BD: Fostering is a very unique and empowering way to teach your children responsibility, right? Responsibility and pet ownership, but also just responsibility and things around them, compassion, helping others. I think that parents worry a lot about their kids getting too attached. But in my experience, the kids are the most resilient. Again, it’s like these adult humans projecting a lot of their – a lot of their stuff on these animals and the kids and really, the kids are the understanding ones. They’re so, so helpful and essential in these transitions.
What’s most helpful, again, is the intentionality you take before stepping into this role as a foster. Taking the time to really be diligent about talking to your kids about this important job that they have. You are going to be doing such an important job in this animal’s life and preparing this animal to go to their forever home. How cool is that that this is your job?
By letting them go to the families who will love them, we’re doing the best thing for them. In turn, we’re getting to help more animals. That’s the message that you want to give the kids. Also, give it to yourself. Personal advice, give it to yourself.
[0:19:22] PF: Listen to yourself while you’re talking.
[0:19:24] BD: Yeah. I think that kids in general raised around animals have better self-esteem, better confidence, connections to love and compassion, empathy. The coolest thing is non-verbal communications. Animals uniquely teach us that. Kids are able to learn that. I think, something also worth mentioning here in regards to kids is most high schools across the US require service hours from their students. Animal care services count for that. I want to give a plug for that, because that’s something that I really loved anytime that someone reached out to the rescue and talking about their kid needing service hours like, “Hey, can we foster a dog?” “Yes, you can.”
[0:20:08] PF: Yes, as a matter of fact.
[0:20:09] BD: It’s a win-win. Yeah.
[0:20:10] PF: Right. Oh, that’s terrific. I hadn’t even thought about that. I do love seeing when kids are involved in it and how that changes it. That’s super, super cool. I know that you’ve seen so many different situations and you went next level with your special needs foster group. Tell us a little bit about that and how it started.
[0:20:30] BD: My favorite story to share, our rescue is named Luna Bell’s Moonbows Special Needs Rescue, and it’s named after our first special needs dog. Her name was Luna Bell. She came to us at three-days-old and had a cleft palate. It taught me so much about myself. It taught my husband so much about himself. We really thrived in that environment and advocating for her and learning about her. When she ultimately – she had a lot of other complications that typically happens when you have an animal that has a congenital issue. We had her for little close to two months. We just wanted to honor her life.
Once she passed, we just felt so strongly that we wanted to continue to give back in that way and learn as much as we could. I feel it universally opened this door, where people started reaching out to us. It really grew over time, because how we started to conceptualize what this work meant really started to broaden, where we were taking in elderly animals, needed some medical care, or needed to be permanent fosters. We took in animals that maybe had behavioral challenges due to trauma and we worked with them for long periods of time and found them very special foster homes.
[0:21:54] PF: I wanted you to tell that story, because I really do want to bring this up. I’ve heard people talk about like, “I can’t take in an elderly dog. I can’t take in a special needs, because it’s too heartbreaking.” You and I, one thing that we share is when I was doing fostering, I always went with the elderly dogs. There was just something to me about being able to care for a dog, knowing that they were going to spend the last days of their lives being loved, that I knew they would not die alone.
That took the difficulty out of helping them pass somehow. Talk about that. When you foster special needs, or elderly pets, what keeps you fostering, despite the fact that you know you’re going to lose them?
[0:22:37] BD: It is such a gift to be able to give love in that way and create space for that animal, who often would have been overlooked, who often would have maybe been euthanized. Giving them the opportunity to find peace and love and wholeness in a home. To me, there is no greater gift. It has been the most rewarding years of my life to be able to give back in that way to these animals. I have gained so much from that. Like, confidence, empowerment, advocacy tools, empathy. It really drove me to become a therapist, right? It drove me to continue to broaden this idea of what our relationships are with people and with animals and to lean in to providing pet loss care and grief support for people. I just think that our relationships with these specific animals, especially uniquely abled animals and elderly animals who show up with so much gratitude to us. Just gratitude for the opportunity to just be.
[0:23:53] PF: What’s hard to explain to people, it’s obvious what the pet is getting. It’s obvious that the animals getting a lot of love. They’re getting a lot of care. It might be more difficult from the outside to see what we as the carer and the care provider is receiving, but the gifts are incredible. It’s such a huge award that you get from just being able to have the honor of being that person in that pet’s life that that gives them that soft landing place and takes them through to the end of their life. If someone’s interested in fostering, where do they start?
[0:24:28] BD: Say, you want to foster breed specific. What’s your favorite animal, right? Say, your favorite animal is a Boston Terrier and you live in Maine. Start googling those rescues and just start following them. Just be a curious observer and ask questions. Keep asking the questions. Keep being involved in the process.
[0:24:51] PF: That’s great. That’s great. We’re going to give them some information about your site and where they can find more about the work that you’re doing and maybe some links on where they can start looking into how they can foster. As we let you go, knowing that this is National Foster, or Pet Month, what is the one thing that you want everybody to take away from this?
[0:25:13] BD: Fostering saves lives, and it is the most reciprocal relationship that you will have. Just do it.
[0:25:22] PF: Love it. Brittany, thank you so much. You always have so much to tell us about living our lives better with animals and I appreciate you doing that.
[0:25:29] BD: Thank you so much.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[0:25:35] PF: That was Brittany Derrenbacher, talking about the many benefits of fostering a pet. There’s such an enormous need for foster homes right now and we’d like to encourage you to consider fostering a pet from your local shelter, or rescue group. If you’d like to learn more about Brittany and Luna Bell’s Moonbows Special Needs Fostering, or follow her on social media, just visit us at livehappy.com and click on the podcast tab.
That is all we have time for today. We’ll meet you back here again next week for an all-new episode. Until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day a happy one.