Five Things You Should Do For Your Foster Dog

What other activity gives you the opportunity to both save a life and cuddle with a creature that adores you?

Photo by Jake Schramm, Save-a-Bull Rescue

I often recommend that people foster before they adopt a dog. For many, caring for a dog as an adult is a much different experience than having a dog in childhood. Fostering allows you to share your time with different breeds, ages, and personalities in your quest to find the perfect long-term partner. What an invaluable side benefit!

Well, yes, I said side benefit. The primary benefit belongs to the dog, and it would be foolish to foster without understanding that you begin your adventure with a promise to him that you will do your best to put him first. It's not always easy, but it's worth it. Here are my five top recommendations to help you prepare for the worst - but also to expect the beautiful best.

  1. Commit. Commit commit commit
  2. Commit to your foster dog, even if he has a few faults. Many foster dogs are not quite ready-made pets, and a rescue can't always predict exactly what issue your new foster may have or develop. Be prepared for accidents in the house, jumping on people, and dogs that may like to "creatively improve your landscaping." Great rescues will provide you with access to professional trainers, so it is a good idea to ask your rescue how they can support you before you sign up for fostering.

Commit to your foster dog, even when it takes time. Older dogs, dogs with health issues, and some breeds may take months or even years to find the right adopter. You'll also need to take time out to meet with potential adopters. And don't forget that vacations require planning ahead so that your foster has a caretaker.

Not all rescued dogs come from abusive or tragic situations, but it is a stressful experience for dogs to be placed into new homes. Some dogs even find this traumatic, and may struggle with behavior issues related to being relinquished. This includes separation distress, which can be a very destructive, expensive, and time-consuming issue to rehabilitate. Commit to care for your foster until he is adopted. Your pledge minimizes the risk of emotional and behavioral issues, and sets him up for better success finding and keeping his new home.

  • Train your foster

  • So, after reading number one, you're probably not surprised that I recommend training your foster. Sure, you can live with some of his doggy issues. But it is much better to help him learn the things that you do want him to do, instead.

    This does more than make your life easier. It will make it easier to find an adoptive home, and increases the chances that your foster will remain in his adoptive home. One study found that behavioral reasons were the number one reason that dogs were returned to a shelter (Salman et al). Another study found that shelter dogs in a training program were nearly 1.5 times more adopted than untrained dogs (Luescher et al). Tip the numbers in his favor. Preparing your foster to be a good family member is perhaps the best gift you can give him.

    (I don't want to move on without mentioning that in some extreme cases, you may not have the skills to work with a dog with a complicated behavior issue, and in this case, it is not in his best interest to remain in your home. This may take courage, but it is the right decision).

  • Let him pick the pace

  • You might have hopes and dreams and training plans already laid out for your foster. But make sure you are listening to what your foster has to tell you!

    Most fosters need at least two weeks, if not a month or longer, to settle in to your home. During this time, you should minimize extra activity, as adjusting to a new home and schedule is already stressful. It is best to avoid play dates, events, and other potentially tiring situations until you know your foster a bit better. Then, ease into new activities, and keep things short and sweet. Remember that quality of socialization (i.e. positive, not neutral or negative) is more important than quantity. Learning about signs of stress in dogs will help you monitor his behavior to make sure he is having a good time.

  • Be honest about his needs - and yours

  • This one is pretty simple. Know your foster, and know what kind of home that he needs. If you're honest about what it is like to live with him, you'll attract the right adopters. This might even mean dismissing some potential adopters, but it betters your chances of your foster staying in his new home, rather than being returned to rescue.

    Confide in your rescue so that they can help you screen for the right adopters, as they probably have significant experience with interpreting the applications and pre-adoption interviews.

    Also be honest with yourself, and your rescue, about your needs. First time foster? It's best for the rescue to find a calmer, older dog for you. Do you have kids? Fostering might be risky, as not all dogs have lived with children before. You might want to limit your involvement to puppies under 4 months old. Keep in mind that even dogs who have lived with children might not be great with kids after the stress of losing their family and moving to a new home, so proceed with utmost caution.

  • Ask for help

  • The top of my wishlist as a professional trainer and a rescue volunteer: ask for help right away. I am more than happy to answer phone calls and emails that are over-cautious, or to schedule short training sessions. It's much harder, and sometimes heartbreaking, to tackle a training or behavior issue that has been developing for months.
    Many times a well-meaning and loving foster just thought their dog's behavior was "probably normal," or that is wasn't something you can "train away". You won't know unless you ask. So, even if a behavior issue seems small, mention it to your rescue. Believe me, they want to know.

    Photo by Lacy Schramm, Save-a-Bull Rescue

    These five principles will support your foster dog to become the best family pet he can be. Your effort means the world, quite literally, to your foster. Sure, there's sacrifice, but there's also unconditional love and butt wiggles. And perhaps the most heartwarming of all - receiving new family photos of your foster, happy and safe with his forever home.

    Do you have a happy story to tell? Share it in the comments!

    • Salman, Mo D., et al. "Behavioral reasons for relinquishment of dogs and cats to 12 shelters." Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 3.2 (2000): 93-106.
    • Luescher, Andrew Urs, and Robert Tyson Medlock. "The effects of training and environmental alterations on adoption success of shelter dogs." Applied Animal Behaviour Science 117.1 (2009): 63-68.