Five years ago, Dawn Christesen scoured the internet looking for a dog for her elderly mother to foster to keep her company. When she found two dogs at Midwest Animal Rescue (MARS) that needed a home, they couldn’t bear leaving one behind so they took both. Christesen fostered Skippy, a toy fox terrier, and her mother adopted Buddy, a Lhasa Apso. What began as an innocent pairing has since turned into a passion that exceeded Christesen’s expectations. Today, she can proudly say she’s fostered more than 350 dogs.
Christesen is just one of a growing number of people who have become involved in dog rescue in the past few years, according to Amy Swenson, director of operations at MARS, headquartered in Brooklyn Park. But ask anyone and they’ll tell you 350 pooches is an extreme number for fosters. Without the time, space and passion from Christesen, a lot of suffering dogs wouldn’t get a second chance at life, Swenson says.
Dogs that find themselves at rescue agencies come from a range of histories and situations, from being kicked out of a car to surrendered by grieving owners who can’t afford them anymore. If there were no rescuers like Christesen, these pups would likely be euthanized in shelters.
This summer Jace, a mountain dog mix, limped through the doors into the warehouse-like building where MARS is located. His back left femur was cracked in half but he didn’t seem in pain as he ran/hopped to his bed and the chew toy laid out for him in the wide-open lobby. He was staying with Shelley Rehling, the manager of the adoption center, while she looked for a fosterer to house him. Foster-based rescues like MARS don’t house the dogs as shelters do; they find foster homes to take care of the dogs until they are adopted.
Christesen hid a treat behind her back as she asked Buster, a terrier-collie mix, to sit. He eagerly wagged his tail, waiting for her to give him the treat, but she was persistent. “Sit,” she repeated sternly. He quickly lowered his bottom onto the ground, then gobbled up the treat.
There is more personal involvement and attachment for the dogs in foster care, as they work on rehabilitation by teaching basic commands and trying to correct behavioral issues, Swenson says. “Quite frankly, they wouldn’t be a rescue dog if they didn’t have issues,” she added.
Christesen agrees. “You really get to know the personality and issues, whether you want to or not,” she laughs.
One of Christesen’s talents is correcting behavioral issues. She works closely with the dogs and a trainer as long as needed until the problem is fixed. “She is definitely committed to the dogs,” Swenson says. “It’s an innate calling. It’s just something you believe in from the bottom of your soul.”
Some adopters are “dog shoppers,” says Laurie Plante, placement coordinator for MARS, as they look for only one type of dog to adopt. MARS has a group of fosterers, like Christesen, who will pick up any type of dog at any time of day, whether or not they are potty trained or have no teeth. “We could sure use a lot more people like that,” she says.
Christesen was once a dog shopper herself. She loves shelties, so her work began with Minnesota Sheltie Rescue. Only when she became more extensively involved at MARS did she expand her breed horizons. “I’ve had just about everything here,” Christesen says—and by everything, she means more than 60 different breeds.
Her home is 100 percent puppy-proof. Christesen has wall-to-wall linoleum, which makes for easy cleanup with accidents. She throws sheets over her furniture (or as she will tell you, the dogs’ furniture) to prevent the permanent stamp of muddy pawprints. And of course there’s no shortage of chew toys. She owns cats, too—three of them.
With all the blood, sweat and tears she puts into it, Christesen’s work in rescue has never been about the pay—you put a lot more time in than you get paid for, she explains. “We joke that the manager probably gets negative-$5 per hour,” she says. “You do it more because you have a passion for it. It’s not something you’d quit your regular job for.”
Christesen’s “regular” job is teaching fifth-graders in Minnetonka Public Schools, but that hasn’t halted her work with rescues. During the peak of her rescue days, she would spend at least eight hours a day finding homes for dogs, taking breaks to teach in the afternoons and eat dinner at night. Then, after supper, she’d find herself in front of her computer again, responding to the 100 to 200 rescue emails she got each day. Her sessions sometimes lasted until 3 a.m. “Time would fly,” she says. And while the number of rescues at her house at any one time varies, Christesen is certified by the city of Minnetonka to keep up to 10 dogs at home, and she has reached that max before.
Patty Seiple worked with Christesen placing dogs in homes and said her ability to match pooches with people is inspiring. Seiple met Christesen when she was looking for a dog to adopt and was asked if she’d take an 8-pound rat terrier-Chihuahua mix even though she didn’t like small dogs. “Dawn has a way of getting people to do things they don’t think they want to do,” she says. “Well, that dog is laying next to me right now. I fostered her and fell in love with her.”
Christesen takes pride in her ability to match the right dog to the right home. “I’m so not about just placing the dogs and pushing them out the door,” she says. “Whether it’s a foster home or a forever home, it’s finding that right match for the dog.”
“Most people wouldn’t put up with the dogs that Dawn does,” says Christesen’s neighbor Jessica Phillips, who helps her walk the many foster dogs. Together, they’ve walked at least 10 dogs at one time. “We look pretty crazy in our neighborhood,” she says, “but I love it.”
While some of the dogs are difficult to walk, depending on the situation they came from, some just stand still and need to be carried. “It’s been extremely rewarding when we’ve known these dogs for a while and you can’t get them to walk, can’t get them to walk, and then they walk,” Phillips says. “They have their first steps out into the world.”
Phillips recalls when they tried to take Cupcake, one of Christesen’s long-time sheltie fosters, for a walk for the first time and Christesen had to carry her the whole way. “One day, she just started walking,” she says. “It’s an amazing thing.”
As Christesen holds Patsy, her Pomeranian “momma’s dog,” she says her favorite part of rescue can’t come without the initial heartbreak. While she loves the success stories of dogs she has placed, the beginnings of those stories don’t always start off in high spirits. “You deal with the hard stuff, but you get to see the happy ending.”
Christesen has a scrapbook to keep track of all the pups she’s fostered over the years. Check out the list of breeds she has taken in from A–Z:
American Eskimo, Australian shepherds, bagels (Basset/beagle mixes), Basset hounds, beagle, beagle mixes, bichon, border collie mix, Cairn terrier, Chihuahua (chi), chi mixes, chiweenie (chi/dachshund), chug (chi/pug), cockapoo, cocker spaniel, coonhound mixes, corgi mixes, dachshund mixes, feist, flat coat retriever mix, fox terrier mix, French bulldog mix, great Pyrenees mix, Havanese, hound mixes, Jack Russell, Japanese chin, keeshond, Labrador retriever, Lab mixes, Lhasa Apso, Lhasapoo, malamute mix, Maltese, min pin mix, papillon, Pekingese, Pekingese mix, Pomeranian, Pomeranian mix, poodle, pug, rat terrier, samoyed-golden mix, schnauzer, schnoodle, shar-pei mix, sheltie, shepherd mix, shiba inu, shih tzu, Skye terrier, spitz mix, spaniel mix, springer mix, terrier mixes, Tibetan spaniel, toy fox terrier, Vizsla mix, whippet mix, yorkipoo, Yorkshire terrier.
Interested in fostering a pooch of your own? MARS’ Swenson shares four simple steps for becoming a dog foster:
- Start by looking online at local rescue organizations for dogs that need a foster, such as midwestanimalrescue.org.
- Once you find the dog you want, fill out a foster application available from the website.
- The rescue organization will look over your application and schedule an at-home visit to make sure your house is safe place for that dog.
- Once approved, you can take home your pup!
Do’s and don’ts to keep in mind when fostering a dog:
DO remember these dogs come from hard situations, so many of them can have behavioral and social issues.
DO help teach them basic behavioral commands.
DO practice patience. These dogs need time to adjust to their new setting.
DON’T leave the dog outside alone for a long time.
DON’T keep the dog locked outside.
DON’T get frustrated when they have puppy accidents.