It’s a rare dog lover who hasn’t at least considered fostering a dog. Woebegone canine faces in shelter and rescue appeals tug at the heartstrings. You could help save a life. And hey, surely there’s room in your house for one more dog, especially if it’s just temporary…
The recent spread of COVID-19 has animal adoption organizations pleading for even more foster homes for homeless animals. And, fortuitously perhaps, there are a lot of people stuck at home who have the time to foster.
You might think fostering would be easy. You sign up with an organization, they let you know when they have a dog who needs a foster home, you get the dog and take care of her until she’s adopted, and then you’re ready for your next foster. Easy peasy? Beware, it’s way more complicated than that.
If you’re thinking of taking the plunge – or even if you already have taken it – here are some things you will want to give serious thought to:
* Your household may experience serious disruption. Some fosters are no bother at all; they blend into the woodwork like they’ve always been there. More frequently, however, they come with lots of energy and potential for behavior challenges.
The most common reason dogs are given up to shelters (or not reclaimed) is behavior. Make sure you are ready for the impact this may have on your lifestyle and serenity and be prepared to provide a lot of management. The dog may not be house-trained – in fact, you should assume she’s not, and start treating any foster dog as if she were a young puppy. (For instructions on remedial house training, see “How to Potty Train a Dog,” WDJ July 2018.)
The dog also may search for things to eat or chew in wastepaper baskets and closets and on counters and tables. She may alarm-bark at the dropping of every leaf outside. You never know what you’re going to get!
If your own dogs don’t do well with new dogs in their home, don’t even think about fostering dogs. If you have your heart set on fostering, consider other species that your dogs will tolerate. If you have small companion animals and/or children, use extreme caution when bringing a foster dog into your home, until you know they will be safe.
* Environmental factors. It may be that the foster dog needs much more serious containment than your own dogs do. A yard that’s fenced by a cute little three-foot-high picket fence might be perfectly adequate for fostering small or senior dogs, but you probably shouldn’t consider a foster hound or other large dog. Before you plan to keep the dog in a crate at night, you should remember that not all dogs are comfortable in crate; he might not tolerate one without a serious counter-conditioning plan (or ever!).
Let the shelter or rescue group know what kind of dogs your home and yard is well set up for, and do your best to decline to take dogs that will push you past your own and your home’s limits.
* Family buy-in. Your entire family must be on board with the fostering project. Anger or resentment over a canine intruder can fester and damage human relationships, not to mention result in actual harm to the dog. The entire family needs to be positive about fostering before you bring a dog home.
* Financial considerations. Some shelters and rescues will pay all expenses for your foster dog. Others will pay some, while still others expect their foster providers to bear the entire financial burden of fostering. Make sure you are clear about finances before agreeing to foster – and make sure your own finances can weather the cost, if that’s the arrangement.
Also note that while some shelters or rescue groups provide food for the animals in their foster homes, the brand of food might not meet the standards for food that you give your own dogs. This puts many foster providers in the position of having to decide whether to feed their foster dogs a food that they consider to be low-quality or foot the bill for a higher-quality food.
* Legal considerations. In today’s litigious world, legal considerations must be taken seriously. Does your chosen group’s insurance cover you if your foster dog bites someone, or causes some other accident or injury? (Hint: They should.) If not, does your homeowner’s insurance cover you? Are you fostering a breed of dog that your insurance might exclude from coverage? Better to know the answers to these questions before there’s an incident, rather than find out afterward that you aren’t covered.
* Foster failures. People often use the phrase “foster failure” to jokingly refer to a dog they took on as a foster but decided to keep. But true foster failures include those where the dog doesn’t adapt well to his foster home, where the new family doesn’t have the skills or patience to work with his behavior issues, or worse, where the foster ends up not being a good candidate for adoption.
If your home is an unsuitable environment for that particular dog, perhaps there’s another foster home that’s better suited for him, and another foster dog who is better suited for yours.
An even tougher question: If it becomes evident to the organization you foster for that the dog isn’t a good adoption candidate, either for medical or behavioral reasons, can you deal with the strong emotions that are inevitable – and normal – if the organization decides that euthanasia is the appropriate outcome? Even lifetime animal protection professionals struggle with the emotional impact of euthanasia. It’s not easy, nor should it be. You should only consider fostering if you are prepared to face this possibility.
* Know your limits. We still live in a world where there are far more dogs than there are homes. You could foster every single dog in your local animal shelter today, and there would be more tomorrow. And the next day. And the next. An increasing number of horrendous hoarder cases are reported in the news weekly, often involving well-intentioned shelters, rescue groups, and foster providers who were unable to stop the impulse to take on “just one more,” even though they lacked the resources to properly care for the animals they already had. Don’t let yourself become one of these.
PARTNERING WITH AN ORGANIZATION
In order to prevent frustration, heartache, and/or financial difficulty, make sure that you carefully select the organization that you’ll be working with. Different groups have varying policies, procedures, and philosophies. Be sure that your philosophies and ethics are aligned with those of the group you choose.
There should be an interview process – where you are interviewing them every bit as much as they are interviewing you. Here are some suggested interview questions to ask your potential fostering organization:
* What is your organizational structure? Is the organization a municipal shelter, a humane society, a breed rescue, or all-breed rescue? This will guide its policies and procedures to some degree. Is it a 501(c)3 non-profit organization (in which case your fostering expenses, including travel, are tax deductible)? If they say it is, look it up here to make sure it is legitimate: apps.irs.gov/app/eos/. If it is a non-profit, who serves on its Board of Directors? If it is municipal, what governmental body oversees it?
* What is your organizational mission/philosophy? They should be able to articulate this – and you will need to decide if it is congruent with your own beliefs. There’s no right answer here; dogs in all kinds of shelters and rescues benefit from foster programs.
* How many animals do you take in per year, and how many get euthanized? No animal welfare group likes being asked about euthanasia, but you want to work with a group that is honest, ethical, and humane, and you want to know under what circumstances they do choose to euthanize. You can then decide your own comfort level. Some fantastic foster homes are able to deal with the dissonance of loving dogs and fostering for groups that have higher euthanasia rates; others are not. In fact, some choose to work with full-service shelters because those dogs may be at greater risk for euthanasia.
I’d suggest that you ask: How many animals do you take in and how many are euthanized? What conditions or behavior might prompt euthanasia? If you’re told that none of their animals are ever euthanized, they are either lying or keeping dogs alive without consideration for quality of life. Even if they are a limited-intake group and don’t do euthanasia themselves (because they take dogs to another group or a veterinarian for the procedure), they should acknowledge that some of their dogs are euthanized. All legitimate groups euthanize sometimes, for health or behavioral reasons, even the “no-kill” groups.
This sounds morbid, but I’d also suggest asking how the group euthanizes the animals they judge to be unadoptable. You don’t need all the details, but be sure they euthanize by intravenous injection (into a vein, not directly into the heart), not by carbon monoxide or decompression chamber, shooting, or worse; these latter methods are not humane, and would indicate that the organization is seriously behind the times.
* How much disease do you encounter? This is more often an issue for shelters that house large numbers of animals at a single location than it is for rescues that have their dogs in foster care, but rescue dogs can get sick, too. Does the group vaccinate dogs on intake? This is the standard practice in the industry and the best approach to minimizing disease transmission. Upper respiratory infections are the most common, but the more serious, possibly fatal diseases such as parvovirus and distemper also occur.
Bringing foster dogs home means potentially exposing your own dogs to these germs, and risking that they may become ill – perhaps seriously so. The more illness at the shelter, the greater the risk to your dog. Are you willing to take that risk? Who pays for treatment if the foster is ill? Who pays if your dogs become ill?
Will the foster dog be treated for parasites before being sent to your home? This is highly recommended; if your home is flea-free, the last thing you want is having to treat all of your animals because a foster dog arrived covered with fleas.
* Do you do behavior assessments? Despite recent studies that question whether behavior assessments are truly predictive or their results are replicable, good shelters and rescues use some kind of evaluation procedure. This is to identify behaviors that might need to be modified (or that may identify the dog as too risky for adoption) and to improve the adoption process by helping to match dogs with appropriate homes (and appropriate foster homes).
Ask if you can observe evaluations being performed and see if you are comfortable with them. If they don’t do some kind of evaluation, consider carefully whether this is a group you want to be involved with and whether you want to take on the additional risks of fostering a dog who hasn’t been evaluated. Even with evaluations, you will inevitably discover additional behaviors when you bring the dog into your home – desirable ones as well as undesirable ones.
* Who pays expenses? Does the organization you are interviewing provide food and veterinary care? Do they reimburse you for those? Or are they expecting you to pay for the care of your foster dog out of your own pocket? If the foster dog – dog forbid – attacks one of your animals, will the organization pay for any required veterinary care for your dog or cat?
If they put a cap on veterinary expenses, and the dog you foster needs more veterinary care, will they allow you to pay for costs above and beyond the cap?
If the dog needs to work with a training/behavior professional, will they pay for that? If you go away on vacation, will they pay for boarding, or a pet-sitter?
* Are you insured? Perhaps more to the point: Does the organization’s insurance cover you? You may think you’re not worried about this until your foster dog bites someone and you get sued. If you lose your home in a lawsuit, you won’t be able to help future foster dogs. Legitimate organizations have insurance to cover their volunteers. Get it in writing.
* What are the rules and restrictions for the foster dogs? Can you take your foster dogs with you in public? Traveling? Hiking? Camping? Can they go to dog parks? Should they go to dog parks? Are there things the dogs can or cannot do in your home? What happens if your foster dog bites someone?
* How does the adoption process work? Are you, the foster parent, allowed to be a part of that process? (The answer to this one should be “yes.”) Are potential adopters carefully screened? Do you get veto power if you think the prospective family is not appropriate for your foster? Are the dogs adopted directly from your home, or do they have to go back to a shelter or kennel?
There aren’t necessarily right or wrong answers to these questions – just answers that will help you decide if this is an organization you can work with.
BRINGING YOUR FOSTER DOG HOME
When you are ready to bring home your foster dog, take all the precautions you would if you were adopting and introducing a new dog to your family. Ideally, the introduction happened before you agreed to take the foster, but if not, neutral territory is best for introductions. Take it slow and have at least one other experienced dog person there to help if things go wrong. (See “Great Introductions,” WDJ January 2008.)
It will take some time for your foster to settle in. Be prepared for house-training accidents – even a well house-trained dog can take some time to adjust to a new schedule and new environment. Again, it’s best to treat your foster as if she were an 8-week-old puppy, with constant supervision, until you know it’s safe to relax.
Some rescues talk about a 30-day settle-in period for all fosters when you should mostly leave the dog alone. I shudder at this. If there’s one thing I’ve learned during my 40-plus years of working professionally with dogs, it’s that each one is an individual and there isn’t a cookie-cutter formula for any of them. Take each dog as she comes. If she wants attention and interaction, give it to her. If she seems to want to be left alone, honor that. If she needs a lot of management, supervision, and training, do it.
Even something as simple as mat training (with her very own mat that goes with her to her new home) can contribute significantly to adoption success (see “Mat Training Tips,” January 2020). If you and your organization agree she needs more formal training or behavior work, be sure you are working with a qualified, force-free training/behavior professional. The last thing a stressed foster dog needs is coercion and punishment.
Be sure to document everything you do with your foster dog, and everything she does with you. You can find out if she adores kids or if she’d be better off in a home with no small children. You can tell potential adopters if she’s good with cats, or maybe not so much! It’s helpful if you can pass along specific information, such as that the dog is wary of men but will warm up if they don’t push her, or that she does tend to counter-surf if you leave food on coffee tables but the kitchen counters are safe.
Finally, be ready for that happy day when your foster finds her forever humans. Since you now know your foster dog better than anyone, hopefully you will have significant input (even veto power) into the adoption match.
It would be wonderful if every foster could walk into her new home and lie down in front of the fireplace as if she’d lived there all her life, but that’s not reality. You are in a perfect position to help make sure your foster’s transition to her new home is as smooth as possible, which can significantly increase the potential for this truly being her forever home.
And when this coronavirus craziness is over, there will still be thousands of dogs in need of foster homes to help give them a second chance for a first-class life, just as there were before the pandemic.
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