How to Foster a Dog and What It Means to Take on the Role
Taking in a foster dog is one of the most rewarding things you can do for animals in need. When you sign up to foster a dog, you aren't adopting her as your own. Rather, you're giving her a safe, loving environment to live until she gets adopted into a forever home. Foster homes are temporary, either for a specific amount of time or until the animal finds an owner.
"We know animals respond better in a home environment than they do in a shelter," says Amy Nichols, vice president of companion animals with the Humane Society. "It could be a really important in-between step for the dog."
Why a Dog Needs a Foster Home
A dog may need to be fostered for several reasons. The first is that the shelter doesn't have enough space to keep the dog, but they still want her available for adoption. The more animals they can get out of the shelter and into foster homes, the greater availability they have to take in other homeless dogs.
Pups may also need extra attention before they're ready to be adopted. For example, a dog may be skittish around people and need a safe environment to be socialized. She's better able to learn positive behaviors in a home than in a kennel, where the dogs have little to no human contact. This also gives the foster dog parent the opportunity to observe her behavior and identify the type of owner who may suit her.
Why Foster a Dog
To succeed as a foster parent, you must be an animal-lover at heart. These dogs need compassion and love from a family to prepare them for home life, especially if they have specific health or social needs.
"People have assumptions that they should only foster in the perfect environment with no kids, a fenced-in yard, if they work from home, or work limited hours. But that's not always the case," Nichols says. "Dogs need different environments. [Understand] what would make the most sense in your home and family environment first."
Dogs recovering from illness or injury heal faster in a foster home with a loving family to keep them comfortable. If a puppy is too young to be adopted, a foster family can raise him until he's old enough for a forever home. Identify which situations you're comfortable handling, and seek out the perfect foster dog for your lifestyle.
How to Foster a Dog
Sites such as Petfinder and AdoptaPet let you look at dogs from a wide range of shelters and rescue groups near you. You can filter by age, energy level, comfort levels with other pets and kids, and special needs.
However, keep in mind that talking with local shelter staffers may be the best way to find your match. "Every shelter has a unique population of animals and no one knows them like the people who work with them every day," says Kelly DiCicco, manager of promotions at ASPCA Adoption Center in New York City. "Plus, shelter staff have expertise in making successful matches and can help prospective adopters or fosters decide whether an animal is a good personality and lifestyle fit."
While all organizations have different policies and procedures, most shelters will have you fill out an application to begin the fostering process. You may also need to attend a training session or meet with the shelter before taking home your foster dog.
Foster care coordinators work with you to identify which animal is best for your situation: dog or cat, small or large, healthy or recovering. "All cats and dogs have different personalities, and some may not require as much exercise as others," DiCicco says. "For example, while some dogs may benefit from living two streets down from a great dog park, others may show no interest and will prefer a nice, quiet walk around the block. Likewise, some animals may enjoy having long periods of alone time once you go back to work, while others may not enjoy being left alone so much."
Coordinators also take into consideration whether you have other pets in the house and may request vaccination records for them to ensure they're all up-to-date and healthy.
How to Prepare for a Foster Pet
Vaccinations aren't just needed to protect your new foster pet—they're necessary to keep your existing animals healthy. In some cases, your veterinarian may suggest different vaccinations or immunizations as precautions for your furry family members. Check with your vet to get suggestions before taking in a foster dog.
Choose an area in your home for the foster dog to live, a place she can get familiar with and be comfortable in. You'll need to pet-proof the area similar to the way you'd child-proof your home. Keep food and medications out of reach, latch cabinets, organize cords, and put away valuables that could get damaged.
Get down to the dog's eye level and pick up any small objects like paper clips, string, rubber bands, or bobby pins that could get in her mouth. Also, pick an area that's easy to clean—hardwood or tile floors are easiest to disinfect in case of accidents.
What You Need to Foster a Dog
After puppy-proofing your home, gather the supplies necessary to care for a new animal. While the shelter may provide certain things like food or toys, you may need these extras on hand:
- Crate: Your foster dog will feel less anxious if she has a familiar "home base." A shelter like a crate, dog bed, or even a cardboard box gives your foster dog a safe retreat.
- Blankets: Use old towels, blankets, or pillows to give your foster dog a comfortable place to relax.
- Food and water: The rescue group should give you instructions about how much to feed your foster dog and when. It'll also let you know about any special medicines she takes. Leave fresh water in a specific spot at all times, and make sure the bowl isn't too deep.
- Toys: Especially if a dog needs to be socialized, play sessions and other activities can help her come out of her shell.
- Collar and leash: Take your new pal for walks to get her much-needed outdoor time and exercise.
- Gate: A dog gate comes in handy to keep your foster pet in a certain area of the house.
- Dog treats: Rewarding positive behavior with treats will help you build a relationship with your foster dog and prepare the furry companion for home life.
- Grooming supplies: Give the dog baths as needed. Consistent brushing and care will ensure the dog is ready for adoption when the time comes.
How to Introduce a Foster Dog to Your Current Pets
If you have dogs, bring them on a leash to the shelter to introduce them to the new foster dog in a safe environment. Take things slow and allow the animals to get to know one another. When you're ready to bring the newbie home, keep all the dogs on leashes until they feel secure around each other. Closely supervise until you know everyone is comfortable.
If you have a cat, you may be able to ask the shelter to "cat-test" a new foster dog to see how she reacts around cats. If the potential foster dog can't handle other animals, she may not be the right foster pet for you.
Always ask about social tendencies before bringing a foster dog home. Allow the dog to get comfy in the new surroundings before introducing your cat. When you do, keep the foster on a leash and let him sniff his new pal. In the best case scenario, your cat will be indifferent.
Letting Go of Your Foster Animal
After building such an amazing new bond with your foster pet, the day will come when it's time to let her go. This can be especially tough for animal-lovers who wish they could take in every dog. It's important to remember how beneficial your bond has been for the foster.
Here are a few ways to make the transition smoother when it's time to let go of your precious foster baby.
- Choose a foster dog that doesn't 100 percent suit your lifestyle. If you prefer big dogs, seek a smaller one to foster. If you prefer a non-shedding dog, pick one that has more grooming needs. Love to lounge on the couch? Choose a foster dog that has high energy and requires regular walks. This isn't to say you should pick a foster pet you can't handle, but choosing one that isn't right for you long-term will make things easier when the time comes to pass her along to her forever home. You'll be sad, but also be eager to get back to your normal routine.
- Help your foster find her fur-ever home. You'll feel a lot better about giving her up if you know she's going to loving pet parents. Ask the shelter how you can help in the adoption process, whether it's posting videos and pictures of the dog or screening potential owners. If you meet your dog's adopter, don't be afraid to ask for an update down the line.
- Remember why you fostered in the first place. Adoption is saving a life, and fostering is saving many. While it's hard to let go, you can feel fulfilled knowing you played a role in rescuing so many dogs. "Our job is to get them started, to prepare for their next best life. [Letting them go] gives more pets the same opportunity," Nichols says.
By helping heal or socialize your foster dog, you're preparing her for a lifetime of love from a perfect family. And once you let go, you can open your heart and home to a new foster. The cycle saves lives, makes more room for homeless animals in shelters, and ultimately helps more dogs find forever homes.
Additional reporting by Lisa Milbrand.