Baton Rouge program connects cancer patients with foster dogs

Partnership between Mary Bird Perkins and Companion Animal Alliance is the first of its kind in the country

By Lindsey Saucier

The dog she found, abandoned in a field at her workplace, was a stray.

He was crippled, the ACL ligaments in both of his back legs torn.

Barbara Keller and her husband couldn’t find him a home—and of course, Keller was a dog person. Dammit, they named him, because they had to keep him.

Keller kept him for six years, until his death. She took care of him through a surgery to fix his legs and through her own years of chemotherapy and radiation. During her entire breast cancer journey—a first diagnosis and a second—she kept Dammit at her side.

“From the time I was a little girl I was wanting to save the world one dog at a time,” Keller says.

Though she did save Dammit, he saved her too, in a way.

“With foster or rescue dogs … it sounds crazy, but they have this ability to know when you’ve helped them,” she says. “They’re very grateful. When I got sick, it was like he returned the favor. He was like, ‘We got this together.’”

And though he has since passed, Dammit is continuing to save lives. This time, though, he’s saving his own species.

A new partnership between Companion Animal Alliance and Our Lady of the Lake Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center is matching cancer patients and survivors with foster pets available for adoption.

And because of Dammit, Keller is the program’s first participant. She’s paying it forward in remembrance of her journey with him—a journey that would have been very different without him.

“When you have cancer, everybody tries to fix you,” she says. “I’m an outgoing person, but I found myself shutting down, bombarded with so many thoughts. There are so many people surrounding you who want to fix it, and you’re trying to be tough, and you tell them, ‘I’m good, I’m good.’ With dogs, you don’t have to tell them. You don’t have to talk.”

Dammit had a sense, she says, to just be.

“Dogs live in the moment. It’s hard not to shut down and be in your head and fill your mind with the what ifs. The dog brings you back to the here and now. He’d come up and put his paw on me, and it was like someone was holding my hand.”

That bond—the companionship that only a dog can offer—is what Fostering Hope founder Francinne Lawrence hopes the program gives participants.

Lawrence, director of survivorship at the Cancer Center, was first inspired to start Fostering Hope after watching the effects of a similar program offered by the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine. That program allows trained therapy dogs to visit with local cancer patients—but only for limited amounts of time.

“Seeing how the patients light up, I asked myself how we could elongate that so patients could have that at home when they’re not feeling well,” she says.

She tried to research similar programs around the country—only to find that there weren’t any.

So this April, Fostering Hope became the first program in the U.S. to offer cancer patients and survivors animal companionship through fostering.

Even when the cancer treatments are at their worst, the dogs are a bright spot in the darkness. The benefits from the animal’s companionship aren’t only emotional, but physical, too. Dogs often help enhance immune systems, slow heart rates and even lower blood pressure, Lawrence says.

Lawrence knows that when someone is battling cancer, they’re not in a position to make a new, long-term commitment. Fostering Hope is her answer to giving patients the healing benefits of pet therapy in a temporary yet still long-term way.

She also knows fostering a pet can be costly. Thanks to community donors, participants receive food, toys, a kennel and leashes free of charge. Vet costs are also provided.

“We take in every single stray and unwanted animal in the parish,” says Lily Yap, foster and rescue coordinator for Companion Animal Alliance. “We need more fosters.”

Hopefully, thanks to Fostering Hope, they’re about to get some. The program aims to have many more patients and survivors take part by the end of the year.

Today, Keller is in remission. And though she doesn’t need rescuing from her cancer anymore, she’s looking to do a little rescuing herself—and that’s why she took home the very first foster dog of the program.

Hope, a schnauzer who came to the shelter matted, shaking and scared, spent weeks in her care before being adopted permanently.

“I try to make them leave my house better than they came,” she says of her foster dogs. “Fostering is hard to do, but you just have to always know there’s another dog waiting, another dog that needs a home.” mbpolol.org/thrive