Dave and Cindy Benedek, of Clarksville, are fostering, left, Giselle, a Great Pyrenees puppy. Giselle, born in Kentucky, is from a litter of seven with Super Bowl related names. Their dog George, a Great Pyrenees mix, is a \"puppy ambassador.\" March 22, 2021 (Karl Merton/Baltimore Sun/TNS)

BALTIMORE – In the dead of winter, and the throes of the pandemic, the Berman family chose to foster a passel of puppies and their mother, all desperate for shelter. Five dogs in all clambered into their Ellicott City home — a squirming, squealing brood from the Canine Humane Network, a nonprofit rescue organization in Highland.

The 4-week-old pups needed refuge until they could be adopted; their mom, a terrier mix, had Lyme disease and too little mother’s milk. So, for a month, Teresa and Michael Berman and their two sons nursed the lot until permanent homes could be found.

Challenges aside, they had the time of their lives.

“After dinner, we’d sit around and watch the puppies play,” says Teresa Berman, 48, a corporate attorney. “It was better than watching TV. I joked that this was my plan [to combat] seasonal depression; the pups really did improve everyone’s mood.”

The puppies tripled in weight during their stay — “We weighed them on a food scale to make sure they were gaining,” she said — and left in their wake more than 1,000 photos and videos of their antics. All of which took the Bermans’ minds off COVID-19.

“I loved their sibling rivalry. They would jump on each other, pull tails and play tug-of-war,” says Michael Berman, who owns an independent insurance agency. Like a proud dad, he says, “I sent pictures of the puppies to my colleagues, and now get text messages from their owners on how they’re doing.”

To date, the Bermans have cared for 12 dogs from the Highland organization in the past year. The virus has expanded his skill sets, he says:

“During the pandemic, I’ve learned to do two things: make bagels and foster dogs. I’m real proud of both.”

Overwhelming support

Nationwide, the story is much the same. In 2020, the coronavirus triggered a 15% rise in pet fostering and adoptions from the previous year — an increase of 26,000 animals overall, according to Shelter Animals Count, a nonprofit data group.

At Canine Humane Network, which fosters its clientele before putting the dogs up for adoption, public support exploded at a time when most shelters, like CHN, were temporarily closing shop.

“We put out a social media plea, and people really stepped up. We’ve gotten about 150 new foster families during the pandemic,” says Mona Hicks, including those named in this story.

Five years ago, Hicks founded the no-kill shelter, which has found homes for nearly 1,700 dogs to date. Besides Maryland, strays stream in from as far away as Texas, to be scooped up by foster parents who receive the food, medical care, crates and toys, all gratis. In return, families help acclimate the dogs to a normal life for anywhere from a few days to several months.

“The community help has been wonderful,” Hicks says. “Without it, we wouldn’t have been able to accept so many animals from other states; they probably would have been euthanized.”

‘To do something positive’

Each dog enters the foster home in Clarksville timid and fearful, eyes darting this way and that. Abuse and neglect may be all he or she has known; why should this place be different?

As always, Cindy Benedek leads the new dog into the kitchen, set off by baby gates, to sniff and to settle in. Then she trots out George, the family’s Great Pyrenees mix and a 90-pound galoot, for a meet-and-greet. The reaction is swift.

“The pups are nervous until they see George; then they physically relax,” says Benedek, who has fostered seven dogs in the past year. “George wags his tail and gets all wiggly. He gets down on the ground, the puppies jump on him and they wrestle. The whole time they’re here, the pups just follow him around.”

Like others, Benedek and her husband, Dave, began taking in shelter dogs during the pandemic “to do something positive while we’re stuck at home,” but also to give George a friend.

“Before, he would come up while I was working at the computer and want to play,” says Benedek, 54, a biology instructor at Howard Community College. “George would bop me on the back with his nose and then stand there and stare at me.”

Now, he has a job to do.

“George teaches each pup how to be a dog,” Benedek says.“How to go outside and go potty in the grass. How to sit for a treat. How people aren’t really so bad. He helps them to get used to us, and he’s a good babysitter.”

Usually, after a week or two, the dogs are adopted, leaving George in the lurch.

“He gets a bit mopey,” Benedek says. “Once, a pup’s new family came to our house to pick up their dog, and George got really upset. Now, we do the giveaway at a separate location.”

There’s always another critter to replace the one who left.

“It’s rewarding, doing something to help another creature,” says Dave Benedek, who says they have no plans to stop fostering. “Others manage to do this when there’s not a pandemic, so we can, too.”

Finding family

The pictures on the living room table tell all: framed photos of the half-dozen dogs that Katherine Brown has fostered of late. Six times in the past year, Brown and her partner, Sam Swanner, have opened their door — and their hearts — to care for shelter dogs. Four of the strays eventually found “forever homes” elsewhere; the other two never left.

“We couldn’t part with either, so we adopted them,” says Brown, 26.

Now Flossi and Hope, both with histories of abuse, romp and tussle in the Elkridge town house their owners bought. Hope chases tennis balls and Flossi chases Hope until, tired, they plop down in a heap.

Their antics amuse Brown, who marvels at this twist of fate. A year ago, she and Swanner had an apartment, busy jobs and no thoughts of raising pets. Then the virus struck and, while working from home, they chose to foster a dog in need through the Canine Humane Network. Enter Flossi, an Australian cattle dog mix suffering from heartworm. For two months, they nursed the 3-year-old back to health and when Flossi was fit — and adoptable — the couple hedged. The dog was family; they couldn’t give her up. Moreover, in the midst of the pandemic, they bought a home to give her more room to roam.

“We’d been talking about [getting a house] anyway, but Flossi was the tipping point,” Brown says. They continued to foster and then fell for Hope, a pit bull mix who arrived scrawny, sick and terrified of men. Now, months later, the two dogs go for woodsy walks, romp in a nearby dog park and generally have the run of the house, including the office where Brown, a therapist, sees patients.

“They’ll come into the office through a doggy door where clients can see them. It’s an icebreaker, for sure,” she says. Flossi and Hope lift Brown’s spirits as well.

“I can end a session, go downstairs, sit on the sofa with them and recharge,” she says. “And on days when I’m frustrated and just want this whole [pandemic] to be over, Hope will cuddle in my lap. She came with that name, and it fits. These dogs have gone through hard times, yet they are still willing to give humans a chance.”

A sense of purpose

Elizabeth Burrage fosters shelter dogs in order to look after them until their big day comes. Sometimes, it’s the other way around. Burrage, 31, was seven months pregnant on New Year’s Day when the family welcomed Cookie, a lab mix who soon took the woman’s condition to heart.

“She curled up on the couch, in my lap, and put her head and paw on my ‘bump,’ " Burrage says. “It was comforting.”

Eventually, Cookie found a stable home, as have the other five dogs that Burrage and her husband, Tyler, have fostered in their Elkridge residence since the start of COVID-19. They’ve had Faith, a deaf Pomeranian mix who arrived on the mend from a fractured jaw; Boston, a three-legged mutt who now goes for hikes with his new family; and Rocco, a mongrel who’d had both hips fused, forcing him to sit with his feet to one side, like a mermaid.

“They were all my first babies, and they have a special place in my heart,” says Burrage, a resource development manager for The Arc of Howard County. She and her husband, a civil engineer, have two dogs of their own but chose also to foster others “to give us a sense of purpose during the pandemic.”

“When you’re quarantined, unless you’re a front line worker there’s not much you can do to help in situations where there is a whole lot of despair. I love giving dogs a second chance and being part of their journey to find families that want them. You don’t have to have a perfect house or yard to foster; these dogs just need to know that they’ll be safe.”

While parting with each adoptee is “bittersweet,” the goodbyes are always cathartic, she says.

“The night before [each adoption], I make some one-on-one time,” she says. “We snuggle on the bed and I tell them everything will be OK — and that they don’t have to worry about anything in their lives that has happened before.”

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