Fostering: Getting Involved

Thinking about becoming a foster home? Loving dogs is an important first step, but there are several points to consider before taking the plunge:

Amy with Brindle, Echo, and foster Ranger

What kind of training do I need?

Ideally, a foster volunteer should have some general experience with dogs. You should be familiar with basic dog care and training. Your shelter or rescue group might require some additional training, such as an orientation. If you plan to do breed rescue, you should have some knowledge of your chosen breed.

Should I start my own rescue or become a volunteer?

Starting your own rescue can be a tricky business, emotionally, legally, and logistically. Working with an established humane society or rescue group is much easier and less risky than trying to do everything on your own with no physical, financial, or emotional assistance. Most organizations will already have adoption contracts and other legal issues in place, and many shelters have a veterinarian on staff. In the event that you can't keep a foster dog (for example, due to aggression towards your other animals, or even something as simple as a weekend trip you want to take), it's good to know there's someone out there who can take the dog back, either permanently or temporarily.

Over time, running your own rescue will involve recruiting volunteers, raising funds for vet care, seeking legal assistance to enforce adoption contracts or avoid lawsuits, finding help with your website, researching the complicated and expensive process of getting your non-profit status, etc. There are many wonderful organizations overflowing with dogs that need your help. Instead of striking out on your own, why not lend them a hand instead of trying to duplicate their efforts? You can focus on what you really love -- direct care of the dogs -- and leave all the extraneous stuff to the employees and other volunteers of your organization.

When choosing a shelter or rescue, you'll need to do a little homework first to ensure a good fit with your own beliefs and preferences. Start with your local humane society. Discuss their policies on adoption contracts and requirements, selecting dogs for foster homes, vaccinations, quarantine, spay/neuter, temperament evaluations, and euthanasia. Find out what type of support they can offer you with training and behavioral issues, finding and screening potential adopters, vet care (especially after hours), or taking back dogs that aren't a good fit for your home. Make sure that you will be allowed to be as involved as you wish in the process of choosing new homes, or rejecting them. Having no input in your beloved foster dog's permanent placement can be heartbreaking.

If you aren't satisfied with the answers you receive, keep looking until you find an organization that you will be proud to support. Check Petfinder for an extensive list of shelters and rescues by zip code.

What kinds of dogs will I foster?

pugIf you work with a breed rescue, you could get dogs of all ages, temperaments, and backgrounds. Most will be adults or seniors. They might be owner surrenders, puppy mill rescues, or dogs pulled from shelters. If you foster for an animal shelter, you will most likely get a lot of medium or large sized, adolescent mixed breeds that were either strays or were surrendered by their owners. You might also get some purebreds (about 25% of all dogs in shelters are purebreds) or even some litters of puppies that aren't old enough to be adopted.

Regardless of the source, you will have some dogs that will be a challenge to foster. Some of them might have behavior problems that led to their surrender. Others might be sick. Many will not be housetrained. But there will also be dogs that are sweet, well-behaved, housetrained, and fun to have around.

What should I do before bringing the foster home?

Your own dogs and your fosters should be vaccinated for rabies, distemper, parvo, and other common diseases, as recommended by your vet. The bordatella (kennel cough) vaccine may also be recommended. There is a good chance that your foster could be harboring a disease, and it isn't wise to unnecessarily risk your own pets' health. It would be ideal to keep incoming dogs separate from your own pets for a period of time if you have the space to do so (and this is a must if you are pulling dogs that haven't been fully vetted), but this isn't always realistic since the foster dog will be living in your home as a member of the family. If possible, see if your shelter can vaccinate and quarantine the dog for two weeks before you agree to bring him home.

Make sure you have a well-fitted collar and ID tag for the foster dog. Your group might provide this for you. Some shelters will also implant a microchip. Remember that this dog doesn't know you yet and might get spooked and run. Take all possible precautions. Better safe than sorry!

dogs napping in cratesYou will have to treat the new dog like a puppy at first. Puppy proof the house before he arrives. If he is young or has not been raised in a house, he might be destructive and not housetrained. You should set up a crate for him with bedding that can be easily cleaned or thrown away if soiled or chewed (like old towels).

If you choose not to use a crate, you should have a small, dog-safe room (like a laundry room) for when you cannot watch the dog. If you use an outdoor kennel for unsupervised time, make sure it is very secure (a cover or top is recommended) and be sure to provide appropriate shelter, shade, bedding, and clean water.

How do I introduce the foster to the resident animals?

pit bull and cat snugglingIf you're lucky, the rescue group will have already found out whether the dog gets along with other dogs and cats. If you aren't very familiar with dog to dog communication, you should do the introductions under the supervision of someone who is -- such as other members of your rescue group. In the meantime, it's well worth it to become a student of canine communication. Spend time in dog parks watching how dogs interact. Invest in some books and videos on the subject.

You should introduce the foster dog to your own dog in a neutral location if possible. If you are concerned about either of the dogs' potential reactions, you might want to try introducing them on opposite sides of a chain link fence.

pit bull and yorkie kissI introduce most of my fosters to my own dogs one at a time in my fenced yard, starting with my friendliest, most stable dog first. I try not to intervene more than necessary while the dogs are getting to know one another. A squirt bottle can be a useful deterent to correct inappropriate behavior.

This method has worked for me because I know what to expect from my own dogs. You know your own dog better than anyone else, and you will soon be fairly astute at predicting his reactions to the various fosters that you bring home.

A fight is brewingUnless you have reason to suspect bloodshed, you can expect most dogs to work things out pretty quickly without any major issues. You will notice a lot of circling and sniffing. You may initially see some posturing and growling but in most cases it will be mostly noise, and usually sounds much worse than it really is. If the dogs approach each other stiffly with a direct stare, ears erect and tails held high, you may be in for a serious confrontation and should intervene.

If the dogs seem basically okay with each other but still slightly uncomfortable, a leash walk side by side often seems to help. You may need to enlist a helper and start with the dogs under good control at a close heel and several feet apart. After a few walks like this, friendly dogs sniffingeven my grumpy Echo was able to accept all of my foster dogs and I could easily walk them side by side. I don't know why this method works, but I have had good success with it.

Soon the dogs might begin to play with each other. If not, they will usually at least tolerate each other's presence. Even if the dogs seem to get along, it's a good idea to keep them separated when you are not around to keep an eye on things. Crates are a worthwhile investment, even if you haven't used one with your own dog. I have one in nearly every room in the house. Baby gates are also good to have on hand.

If you have cats or other small animals, please be careful. If you wish to introduce your foster dog to your resident cat, keep the dog on a leash. Small pets should have their own safe, dog-free retreats in your home. Baby gates are good because your cat can jump over (or sneak under) them. There are also some gates on the market that have small kitty access doors. Be sure the cat's food and litterbox are in a dog-free zone, or you might find that your beloved kitty is not eating or going to the bathroom because it's trying to avoid the scary new dog. Above all, never leave them alone together.

What are my responsibilities?

You will need to provide basic care such as food, water, shelter, grooming, and exercise. Your foster dog will need his own leash, collar, bowl, and toys. You will probably need to give the dog a bath when he arrives (unless the dog just had surgery -- if so, you may need to wait a few days), and be sure to check foster dog with Elizabethan collarfor fleas. If the dog is sick, you might have to give medications or transport the dog to vet appointments. The cost of vet care is typically covered by the shelter or rescue group, but all arrangements must be made through the group. If you choose to take the dog to a different vet without approval, you may be responsible for paying the bill. This is because most shelters and rescues either have a vet on staff, or have made arrangements with a specific vet who will treat all their rescue dogs at a reduced fee.

It's also important to provide some training. Housetraining is an essential skill for the dog to master. Crate training is useful, especially for young, destructive, or unhousetrained dogs. Basic manners such as appropriate greeting behavior, walking nicely on a leash, and coming when called will make your foster dog more adoptable and help to ensure his success in his new home. You might make the dog more appealing to potential adopters by teaching a fun trick, like shake hands, fetch, or take a bow.

By far the most important thing you need to provide is love and attention. Whether your foster came from a loving home or an abusive situation, he will probably be confused and anxious. Spend time cuddling, fetching, playing tug, and just hanging out watching TV together. Be patient; it might take him a few days or weeks to really settle in.

How do I find permanent homes for my fosters?

Put up posters at animal shelters, veterinarians' offices, pet supply stores, community bulletin boards, dog parks, dog training clubs, etc. Create a web page, or find existing online sites that are willing to post his picture. Put an ad in the paper. Participate in mobile adoptions at pet supply stores.

Some dogs will only be with you for a few days. Others will be around for months, and you might start to wonder if they will live with you forever. Be patient. The right home will come in time.

Check out Placing Your Foster Dog for more info.

How do I know my limits?

If you're like me, you would like to be able to rescue every dog that needs help. Recognize that you can't save them all. Learn to say no! You have other commitments that must take precedence at times -- family, job, your own pets. If you try to do too much, you will burn out. You need to be selective about which dogs you will take, and realistic about how many you can keep at one time. Above all, don't feel bad about wanting some time off between fosters. You deserve it.

foster dogs Avery and Dion with FinnPersonally I will only take dogs that I am reasonably sure will get along with my own dogs and won't endanger my cat. I can only take one or two fosters at a time. I like to take a few weeks off after placing a dog, especially if I have had him for a long time. It gives me time to enjoy a slightly more normal life with my fiance and our own pets, and I find I appreciate them more after I've "been away."

Then again, getting a new foster always helps to heal the pain of giving up the last one....

I'm ready! How do I get started?

Start with your local humane society or animal shelter. If they don't have a foster program, maybe you can help them start one. If you are interested in doing rescue for a specific breed, contact your local breed club, or the national club. They should be able to give you contacts for local rescue groups. Many rescue groups have websites, so you can do some research on the internet. Check out Petfinder for an extensive listing of shelters and rescue groups by zip code.