The little brown dog growled low and threatening, as if to say she’d rip my throat out if she had to. Her dull coat stretched thin over abundant ribs. She trembled, barricading six 2-week-old puppies from the sight of me. I had wanted a peek into the crate (it having just been loaded into the back of my car) to see what I was getting into. I closed the car door. My older son, 15 at the time, said, “I feel bad for her.”

When I had agreed to foster this homeless canine family, I’d pictured a merrier scene — visions of puppies dancing like sugar plums in my head, perhaps. I hadn’t thought out any snappish worst-case scenarios like this one.

A favorite pet rescue group in Montgomery County, Maryland, PetConnect Rescue, had put out a plea on social media: If someone could foster this mom and her pups, they could pull her out of the crowded, high-kill shelter where they’d been abandoned. Their alternate ending was grim.

At the pickup location, I saw something of myself in the worn-down dog’s eyes — perhaps the universal struggle of motherhood. My challenge involved a teen rough patch. Hers involved being dumped in a crowded shelter with a litter of puppies less than 24 hours old.

When I had broached the idea of fostering to my husband, I hadn’t expected him to think it was a good idea. The rough patch had left us both raw. Short fuses were set like traps around the house. Doors slammed. Voices raised. Much to my surprise, he agreed to my scheme.

I was new to fostering. A PetConnect volunteer helped me set up the nursery that first day. Outside of her crate for the first time, the bony mother dog accepted a liver treat from my hand. I scooped kibble and mixed it with canned food and bone broth. Her puppies, more like hamsters, piled on a plush bed.

I sat on the floor after taking the mother dog for a walk that night. She wagged her tail, and though she didn’t trust me enough to sit next to me, she leaned toward me as if she wanted to. The next day, we repeated the routine. She put a paw on my leg when I sat on the floor.

She let us help her. The boys gave her treats and took her for walks. They cradled the fragile 2½-week-old puppies while I replaced wet bedding and made their mom her kibble and broth.

As she softened, so did our relationship with our sons. Night after night, instead of splitting off to our own corners, we humans lounged on the basement floor, admiring the puppies, observing their toothless gums, naming them and renaming them. We named the mom Fifi because she reminded us of Ruffina, a friend’s dog who had died. My own dog, a German shepherd named Tabby, spied on the operation from upstairs.

On day four, Fifi, slightly less gaunt, sat in my lap as if we were old friends. The puppies nursed with greed and had also gained weight. By the end of the first week, Fifi would continue nursing when I opened the door instead of jumping up in alarm. On day 10, she played with her puppies in front of me, throwing toys in the air, chasing balls and racing around the basement. Fifi’s lackluster coat brightened to a beautiful fawn color. Her tail beat a happy rhythm. Her soft expression mirrored the softness I’d started to see on my boys’ faces.

Over the next few weeks, the pups’ timid play turned wild. We began daily outings into our fenced yard. The dogs discovered cool spring grass and puddles. Every evening ended with a perfect puppy pile.

It was a blissful time. Friends helped with walks for Fifi and donated dog toys and stacks of newspaper. Neighbors hung over the fence to chat and watch the puppies play. One curmudgeonly neighbor visited more than anyone for puppy snuggles while at the same time complaining nonstop about my time investment. Commuters on passing buses strained to catch a glimpse. Some got off a stop early to take part in our puppy parties. Bus drivers pulled over, pushing open their doors and holding up traffic on our corner to ask how to adopt. Eager teen visitors, having arrived on foot or on bikes hastily thrown down, miraculously ignored their phones for unprecedented periods.

We watched as the boys seemed to forget their complaints and aggravations with us and each other. We had something consuming and constant to talk about that didn’t have to do with homework or their behavior.

The first adoption application rolled in — for the male puppy my 12-year-old son called Slipper on account of his white feet — when the litter was eight weeks old. We cringed in horror and then, selfishly, decided to adopt him ourselves. But we had to let the rest go.

They all went on to solid happily-ever-afters. Still, I cried when each one left. Neighbors comment on how big Slipper has grown now that he’s seven months old.

Slipper continues to brings smiles to everyone he meets. He pays his good fortune forward every day with whipping full-body tail wags, snuggles and clownish antics that make our house merry again. Next spring, he’ll take a test for certification as a volunteer therapy dog to spread his magic to kids in schools and hospitals, like Tabby does.

The puppies forced our family into much-needed moments of mindfulness. What else could we be but present when there’s a litter of newborn puppies in the house? We needed that family project — a happiness project, a compassion and kindness project, a put-down-our-phones project, a rush-home-to-be-part-of-it project — a way out of the pit of tension we’d been stuck in.

Fostering required much time and effort. But making room for Slipper and his family’s kind of joy? I’m not sure anything has been easier, or more worthwhile.

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