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Julie’s intentions were honorable. “I don’t want to save one dog,” she would say. “I want to save all the dogs.” The pathway to such canine emancipation, she decided recently,

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Julie’s intentions were honorable. “I don’t want to save one dog,” she would say. “I want to save all the dogs.” The pathway to such canine emancipation, she decided recently,

A Happy Tail

The author scratches Honey Bee's ears

Julie’s intentions were honorable.

“I don’t want to save one dog,” she would say. “I want to save all the dogs.”

The pathway to such canine emancipation, she decided recently, was for the Nickens family to foster unwanted dogs, one at a time, and turn them into well-mannered fur babies that would be wanted, loved, and, ultimately, adopted by someone else. In Julie’s mind, there would be an endless stream of misunderstood mutts parading through our home as though it were some kind of Island of Misfit Puppies. She would sand off the rough spots, transform the minor miscreants into the perfect four-legged companions, and send her wards into loving homes across North Carolina. Or at least Wake County. She would be the Mother Teresa of passed-over pooches, the last chance for unwanted dogs whose next stop was, to be frank, death row.

And thus did Honey Bee come into our lives. She was our first foster dog. She is also our last foster dog. Because she is now our dog.

• • •

She’s a funny-looking dog. We’re thinking she’s half beagle, half corgi. And I barely even know what a corgi is.

What I do know is that when we rolled into the Red Barn Rescue facility in Johnston County, Julie’s maternal instincts were on full display. A few weeks earlier, when her application as a canine foster parent was approved, you would have thought she’d been drafted in the NFL first round. She was positively giddy. Red Barn Rescue is an all-volunteer, nonprofit group that specializes in saving dogs and puppies from shelters with high euthanasia rates. Many of these dogs have a bit of … character. Maybe they’re a little hyper, or they haven’t picked up fine table manners quite yet, or, to be honest, they’re kinda ugly (but in a cute way). Mostly, they’re dogs that struggle with making a great first impression. But who would, given the rough roads that many of them have trod?

There was Zorro, basically a big, toothy smile on four legs, who was just a little too big or we would have taken him in a second. There was Tammy, who leapt with such glee at our approach that we wondered if our backyard fence was tall enough.

The author's dog, Honey Bee, on his lap

“Julie finally got a cuddle pup,” Nickens says. “After three Labs, Honey Bee is our first dog that can curl up in her lap. Which she does frequently. Big butt and all.” photograph by Charles Harris

And there was a little yellow dog tucked into a back corner, barking a frantic, friendly bark and leaping up and dancing as we neared her kennel run. As we got close to the fence, though, she shied away from us and wouldn’t come closer, as if maybe we didn’t make the best first impression, either. That’s what likely kept her from getting adopted. (Well, that and her hilariously large butt.)

“Just ignore her, and she’ll warm up to you quick,” said Kit Creasy, who founded Red Barn Rescue on her farm south of Clayton. We took her word for it. On the ride home, Honey Bee curled up in a ball at Julie’s feet, unsure of what to make of a vehicle. No one knew for certain if she’d ever been inside a house.

Julie was smitten. We would love Honey Bee enough to make her forget about whatever tough times she had endured and save her from whatever fate awaited her. We would smooth out her rough-diamond edges, polish her up like a shiny new toy, and turn her into an adoption-ready pup to whom no one in their right mind could say “no.”

We did a better job of that than we intended.

• • •

By now, you’ve probably figured this out: Julie and I, shamefully, are foster fails. We didn’t follow the script, and we feel bad about that. The entire foster pet apparatus is predicated on participants sticking to the program. Foster a dog successfully — do your job — and the pup eventually finds a forever home. Then you foster another dog, and another. This is the multistep process to sainthood that Julie had originally envisioned.

But when a foster family decides to keep the foster pet, the pipeline gunks up. Rescue organizations need foster families as much as, if not more than, adoptive families. Six weeks after we took temporary custody of Honey Bee, we were downright nervous to report to Red Barn Rescue that we’d flunked out of the program, and that we weren’t giving Honey Bee up to no one, no how, no way. Thankfully, Creasy wasn’t surprised at all. “I can’t believe it took you this long to decide to keep her,” she said. “I knew she was a sweet one.”

She is a sweet one, and I’m not a sucker for sweet. We’d been dead set against adding another four-footed member to the family. We had a plan. Julie was on a mission. Save all the dogs. But Honey Bee began melting cold, hard — if well-meaning — hearts almost immediately. She’s a little dog — except for that caboose — and she runs up to you and puts her little front paws in your hands, and you can almost feel the happy flowing out of her and into your own heart, if you let it.

“Her little paws are like little dinosaur hands,” Julie gushes. “Aren’t they cute?”

Honestly, they do look like little dinosaur hands. And they are incredibly cute.

Honey Bee frequently just appears at your feet, silently. You’ll be putting up the dishes and look down, and there she is, gazing up at you with her liquid eyes, tail going like a windshield wiper. She’s not asking for a treat. She’s not asking for anything. I’m hardly a guy who anthropomorphizes animals, but I can almost hear her thoughts: I was headed for the gulag, and you came and saved me. Thanks, buddy.

And the transformation in our 10½-year-old black Lab, Minnie, was astonishing. For the first three days, Minnie wouldn’t even look at Honey Bee. She would leave the room if Honey Bee rolled in. But that didn’t last long. Even Minnie has been charmed. Now the two are inseparable, and you leave a sock on the floor at your peril.

All along, neither Julie nor I really wanted a second dog, not yet. And neither one of us wanted to be the first one to cave in. We each wanted to be able to say, at some point in the future, “Hey, you’re the one who wanted this dog. You clean that up.”

But here we are. Foster fails, and we couldn’t be happier about it.

And Julie hasn’t given up on her ultimate goal, which does concern me slightly.

“I may still end up saving all the dogs,” she said recently, with Honey Bee curled up in her lap and Minnie snoring at her feet. “I’m just going to start with this one.”

This story was published on Jan 01, 2024

T. Edward Nickens

Nickens is editor-at-large of Field & Stream and the author of The Total Outdoorsman Manual and The Last Wild Road: Adventures and Essays from a Sporting Life. His articles also appear in Smithsonian and Audubon magazines.