By Sommerville Harris Culbertson
As told to Jill Novotny
I grew up with golden retrievers, and I’ve always loved the breed. A friend of mine was one of the founding members of Adopt a Golden Knoxville, a nonprofit golden retriever rescue, and reached out to me to see if I wanted to be involved. Of course I said yes! At that time I had Max, a golden I had adopted from a rescue in Kentucky. The experience had been wonderful, so I was excited to have an opportunity to pay it forward.
My first foster dog was the hardest. I had expected to pick up a dog like Max. This dog, who was named Courage, was as close to death as any dog I’d ever seen. He weighed roughly 40 pounds, but should have been close to 100. He had no hair, infections everywhere, and severe muscle atrophy.
Driving home I just cried and cried. I didn’t think I could do it. Then I decided I could either cry and do something about it, or I could ignore it and not be sad. I decided I wanted to do something.
At first, I fostered any kind of dog that needed it. As I got more experienced with medical and behavioral issues, I began taking in mostly special-needs dogs. I had a flexible schedule, so I could dedicate lots of time to the ones who really needed it. Some had never lived indoors or been around people. It’s so rewarding to take in a dog that is completely un-adoptable and rehabilitate it.
Once my daughter, June, was born, I knew I needed to take a break from fostering and focus on motherhood. When she was 3, I felt like I was ready to foster again, but I also knew I was limited as to the type of dog that I could help. I couldn’t have a young dog knocking her down; that wouldn’t be fair to her. And I couldn’t have a fearful dog in a house with a crazy toddler running around; that wouldn’t be fair to the dog. So I decided seniors and puppies would be a safe choice.
My first foster dog with my daughter was a 14-year-old golden named Dexter. He was blind and deaf, so I was unsure how it would go. I’d fostered dogs with a variety of disabilities, but never one completely blind and deaf. Within a week, I knew he’d be with us for the rest of his life. He loved everything about having a little girl: the brushing, the dress-up, the tea parties, and probably the fact that she usually smelled like ketchup. And June loved that he sat there quietly while she read him books or painted his toenails. I thought senior dogs (goldens especially) and toddlers are basically a perfect fit.
Dexter also taught her that we are all different, and that’s ok. She interacts naturally with people with various disabilities now because it’s just a normal thing in her eyes. Fostering senior and disabled dogs has taught her a level of compassion and empathy that is lightyears ahead of most children her age, and at the end of the day, are there any better qualities to instill in our children?
Once we decided Dexter would stay, I had three dogs over 11 years old in my house! I didn’t plan it that way, but everyone kept commenting, “Are you running a dog nursing home?” I decided “nursing home” felt negative. The dogs that come to stay with us aren’t coming to die, they are coming to live! So I changed it to “retirement village” because it felt more positive!
We’ve had several residents come and go. Some left because they were adopted, which is always the goal. Others stayed until it was time for them to cross the rainbow bridge. We’ve had two dogs who were both blind and deaf, a three-legged puppy, a terribly abused senior…I could keep going. They are all so special to us!
They all live in my home, just part of the family. The new ones adapt pretty quickly to our routines. Naps are a crucial part of the retirement village, as well as a before-bed treat, popcorn on movie nights, and, of course, everyone gets a birthday party. Goldens are incredibly social dogs so everyone gets a turn going to the pet store or to our local ice cream spot or playground.