Home Our Diocese St. Elizabeth student Eric O’Neill wasn’t sure at first, but he fell...

St. Elizabeth student Eric O’Neill wasn’t sure at first, but he fell in love with Mom’s idea to foster dogs

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Eric O'Neill poses with two of his pals. Dialog photo/Don Blake

A Wilmington family’s home life has gone to the dogs, and the results are spectacular.

For the past year, St. Elizabeth High School sophomore Eric O’Neill and his family have been giving dogs brought to Delaware from high-risk shelters elsewhere a new chance at life. Without foster families working with these dogs to become someone else’s pets, they would likely be euthanized.

The O’Neills got their start in fostering last year when they adopted their hound, Archer, from the Delaware Humane Association.

“There were foster people there, and my mom was wondering, ‘What do they do?’ And they told her the background story, and my mom was like, ‘We’re going to start this.’ One day she came home with two dogs, and we were like, ‘What are you doing, Mom? We have our own dog,’” O’Neill said.

The family, which includes Eric, his four siblings and their parents, have always been pet owners. But the idea of nurturing other animals was new.

“She just brought them home. It took a while for my dad to start enjoying it, but now he loves it,” he said.

Michelle Iorii, the volunteer manager for the humane association, said the agency has dogs brought in from high-kill states. Foster families are asked to train the dogs they receive, then bring them back to the Humane Association, which introduces them to their forever families. She said the O’Neills typically help with puppies that aren’t fully vaccinated and that need work on socialization.

“It’s a huge responsibility to take on, and they’re always willing to help with that,” Iorii said. “It’s been a full family effort every time they take on fosters.”

She said puppies are just one group of animals that have foster needs. The humane association also gets some who need medical attention and others that are pregnant and shouldn’t be at the shelter. Sometimes, the dogs need more space than they could get at the humane association, or being in a kennel stresses them out. Putting them in a home helps determine the best fit for the animals. The organization also has a need for assistance with cats, she added.

O’Neill said many of the canines arrive in Delaware in bad shape.

“They’re skinny, you can see the bones, even the little puppies,” he said. “We love them, take care of them. We have a website that my mom runs. She posts pictures of them and videos of them playing together. They usually get adopted. We haven’t had one dog that hasn’t gotten adopted out of our house yet.”

The family normally has dogs anywhere from two weeks to a month. The Humane Association sets fosters up with supplies, so all that is needed is some time, patience and TLC. The O’Neills usually have two to four dogs at a time. O’Neill said it took them some time to get used to having dogs around that needed to be trained, especially with a well-behaved Archer in the house.

The entire family takes part in the process, he said. His parents work different schedules, and his older brother and older sister work around their schedules. His younger brothers are home-schooled, so they pitch in when others are not around.

House training is a major component of the work the family does, but getting the dogs to be comfortable around people is just as important. Often, the animals avoid human contact for a few days after arriving at their home.

“Then after that, we start feeding them – water, food, treats – and then they start warming up to you. They’re a whole different dog. It’s awesome,” he said.

Dropping the dogs off back at the Humane Association was hard the first few times, he continued, “but after that, I knew they were going to a really good home, so they all have a special place in my heart. I know they’re in a good home and they’re fine.”

The Humane Association often posts pictures of adopted dogs as they age, so the O’Neill family can keep up with their rescues. O’Neill said his mother has a photo album of the dogs they have fostered, and the Facebook page occasionally has posts with news about them as well.

Unfortunately, there never seems to be a shortage of dogs looking for forever homes. Their home states do not have the resources to take care of them, and if they cannot be adopted out, they are euthanized unless another organization steps in to rescue them.

O’Neill, who plays football and baseball at St. Elizabeth, said he would like to continue fostering dogs into the forseeable future.

“It gives so much heartwarming pleasure to see a little dog with bones, skin, scratches all over it to being a full-grown dog that’s perfect.”