By Dr. Karen Becker DVM
Congratulations! You’ve made the decision to bring a foster dog into your home — or you’re seriously considering it. This is an altruistic act that will change the animal’s life forever, and is key to helping the approximately 3.3 million dogs that enter U.S. animal shelters annually.1
Not only is there simply not enough room to keep every dog in need of a permanent home in a community animal shelter, but such shelters are notoriously stressful places to be. As a result, dogs don’t show their true personalities, making it harder for them to get adopted.
It’s also common for animals to become sick in shelters, and the typical animal shelter environment, with its concrete floors, kennels and chaotic environment, is so traumatic for many dogs that it brings out behavioral issues, like fearfulness or excessive barking, that may keep them from getting adopted.
Imagine, then, that a dog that would otherwise end up cowering in a corner in a shelter kennel is able to instead spend his days waiting for his forever family while cozying up on a couch, in a home, with a temporary family to show him love and get him used to the routines of a household environment. Fosterers like you make that possible.
Getting Prepared for Your Foster
Once you fill out an application to foster a dog, be aware that your new foster could arrive sooner than you expect, so it’s a good idea to get prepared right away. While the animal shelter or rescue group that you’re fostering for will typically pay for veterinary care for the animal, you’ll need to supply basics, like food, shelter and other supplies.
Not knowing the personality of the animal you’ll be fostering, it’s also smart to prepare your home for your new guest much like you would do for a human toddler coming to visit: put away all items on the floor you don’t want investigated, keep electrical cords out of reach, and close off rooms you don’t want the foster pup to have access to.
Items to have on hand include food and water bowls (preferably non-plastic), a leash and harness, a pet bed, toys, food and treats. You’ll also need poop bags and a crate or pen. If your foster has had a negative experience with the crate, time in your home is a perfect opportunity to help them reframe this experience.
Next, decide where in your home you plan to keep these items, particularly where your foster dog will sleep, eat, go to the bathroom and spend time in his crate.
The biggest part of being prepared for a foster animal is knowing that your time with your pup will vary, and you’ll be working together to develop a relationship during this time, as well as care for a dog that may come with physical and behavioral challenges that need to be positively and appropriately addressed.
According to Second Chance Rescue, based in New York, the average time a dog spends in foster care is two weeks, but some dogs get adopted in a couple of days, while others may spend a month or more in foster care.2 In addition to caring for the dog in your home, some rescue organizations will ask their foster volunteers to bring the animal to adoption events to increase their chances of being adopted.
Making Your Foster Feel at Home
As soon as you bring your foster pup home, show him where to use the potty and where he can find a safe place to rest. This will help the dog feel less anxious, as he’s just been through a number of sudden, unpleasant experiences. You’ll want to do your best to keep his first hours and days in your home as calm as possible to help him feel at ease.
According to Karen B. London, Ph.D., who co-authored the book, “Love Has No Age Limit: Welcoming an Adopted Dog into Your Home,” “For introductions, that means having him meet every person in your household one at a time in a calm way with no pressure and perhaps some treats or toys if he likes them. He should also meet other dogs, cats and any other species in your household one at a time, with a break between each introduction.”3
During this time of transition, London also advises keeping the dog on a leash when you take him outside, even if you have a fenced yard. A stressed-out dog may run away and be difficult to convince to come inside when you call him, and he may also appreciate having you nearby when he’s outside.
Helping your foster dog feel safe, secure and loved is the primary goal of foster care. While you may want to engage in some brief positive training sessions, the goal right now isn’t to teach him obedience but rather trust and acceptance.
“He may know a lot or he may not even know his name or how to sit when asked. Perhaps he is too overwhelmed to learn much right now. Keep training relaxed and low-key. Consider it a fun way to interact with him rather than a way for him to learn any particular skills,” London says, suggesting that you want your foster dog to associate you with love and attention more than anything else.4
Fostered Animals Are More Likely to Get Adopted
Fostering a dog is rewarding for those who want to make a difference in a dog’s life without making the full-time commitment to adopting. And it’s a proven fact that fostering makes an immense difference to animals, helping dogs to get adopted into permanent homes.
In a comparison of 30 dogs put into foster care and 30 dogs that stayed in a shelter for one week or more, those given foster care had significant improvements in behavior and wellbeing. Specifically, dogs in foster care were rated as being more playful, happier, friendlier and confident than the shelter dogs, as well as showing less signs of insecurity, anxiousness, barking and repetitive behaviors.5
Not only will your love help your foster find a home faster, but it will open up space in shelters and rescues so more animals can get the help they need. It’s a win-win scenario for everyone involved — and sometimes foster parents even end up falling for their foster and becoming their permanent home.
The possibility of “foster failure” is just one more part of the job to be aware of, but when it happens, it’s still a winning scenario for everyone.