By The Farmer's Dog | April 15, 2020

Amid all hardships that the coronavirus pandemic has presented, there have been a few bright spots. One of them has been the dog-fostering phenomenon—animal rescue organizations have reported record numbers of people stepping up to provide dogs with temporary homes as shelters across the country have been forced to close due to social distancing measures. According to Google, in April, the phrase “foster a dog near me” reached an all-time high in the U.S.

But make no mistake, there are still dogs in need of a temporary home.

Before you take that (inevitable?) step and bring a new dog home, even for a short time, there are a few things to consider. Here’s our guide to making fostering the best experience possible for you, and your foster dog.

Why foster a dog?

Temporarily welcoming a dog into your home until their forever family is found is a genuinely selfless act. It also happens to be extremely rewarding—a dog can enrich your life in many ways, helping alleviate stress and loneliness, and, in the process, even improving your health.

When you foster, you are giving shelter and care to a dog who really needs it, and helping set that dog up for success in finding a forever home. You are also helping animal shelters accommodate more dogs by freeing up a spot in their facilities. Most rescue organizations consider fosterers a hugely valuable resource in helping them care for as many dogs as possible. Some of the dogs who benefit from foster homes need that extra bit of care that they can’t get in a crowded shelter, and that one-on-one attention can make a big difference when it comes to finding them a permanent home.

Whether you’re fostering as a sort of trial run for adoption or you’re lending a helping hand to dogs, and shelters, in need, there’s no wrong answer.

While some may hesitate to foster a dog because they fear getting too attached, or are concerned about the financial or time commitment involved, the good news is that rescue organizations are better equipped than ever to provide fosters with the ongoing support they need. “We’re realizing more and more that fostering is the best way to take care of homeless animals, so many organizations are making sure that anyone who chooses to foster a dog has everything they need to make the process as seamless as possible—for both the dog and the human,” says Kelly Duer, foster care specialist for Maddie’s Fund in California.

How fostering works

Most shelters ask foster candidates to fill out an application and provide some information about their living situation. Shelter or rescue group staffers may conduct a home visit prior to your first foster experience, or you may be asked to attend a training session.

According to Anna Lai, marketing director for Muddy Paws Rescue in New York, every shelter or rescue organization will have a slightly different process, from the level of detail covered in the application and home inspection to how much hands-on support fosters will receive. The commitment required will also vary; some shelters will ask for a minimum two-week commitment, for example, while others allow foster families to take dogs either just for the weekend or on a long-term basis in the case of animals who have proven more difficult to place.

Many organizations will welcome anyone who is interested in fostering, even first-time dog owners, and may even partner their fosters with a volunteer “foster buddy” so there’s someone to call for questions or added support. “We’re open to anyone who’s interested in fostering,” Lai says. “We actually do see some potential first-time dog owners who want to try it out before making the commitment to adopt a dog, as well as families who are thinking about getting a second dog.”

Meagan Licari, president of Puppy Kitty NYC (PKNYC), says her organization’s fostering process includes filling out an application and providing references, including veterinarians (for current pet owners) to ensure that all candidates already provide appropriate medical care for their existing pets. PKNYC will also perform a home check via FaceTime to ensure that the home is pet-friendly and to address potential safety issues. “Once we’ve screened a potential foster, we’ll match them with a dog and coordinate the process of getting the animal to their home—and we’ll always be sure to provide some basic supplies to get them started,” Licari says.

Preparing to foster

The door may be wide open for fosters at most organizations, but there are still some important things to consider, and plan, before taking on this responsibility.

Be sure you have the cooperation of other members of your household—everyone needs to be on board, even if they’re not taking an active role in care. This cooperation extends to the animals in the house—make sure any existing pets will tolerate a new friend, and that the dog you’re fostering can be around other animals.

Be realistic about how much time you can devote to caring for a dog. Consider your experience with dogs, and your appetite for walking! Each dog’s situation is different, and each dog will require a different degree of time, patience, and attention.

Ideally, have an idea of the type of dog you’re looking for and communicate your preferences to the rescue organization right from the start of the process. Since some dogs are generally harder to place—such as dogs with medical conditions—it’s important that applicants are clear about what type of pet they’re willing to welcome into their home.

“You’ll want to be able to tell the shelter or rescue if you’re looking for a dog of a particular size or activity level, if you’re willing to work on training, or if you have any experience with dogs who have particular medical or behavioral issues,” Licari says.

“There are a lot of things to think about…some dogs will have house training issues or food aggression, some won’t be able to adjust to your current pet, while others who may have come in as strays have never even seen a toy before…so they’ll likely need some time to adapt to your household and become a family pet,” says Kristin Noggle, who has fostered more than 50 dogs with PetConnect Rescue in Maryland since 2014.

Be honest with the rescue organization about your lifestyle and living situation—your work commitments, financial limitations, as well as how you will be able to provide the dog with the necessary attention and exercise, particularly if you live in an apartment or condo and don’t have a fenced-in backyard. “It’s always important for us to discuss the potential foster’s lifestyle —if they work a 9-to-5 job, for example, we wouldn’t recommend a puppy because they require so much attention and training,” Lai says (this is one of the many reasons you may consider adopting a senior!)

You may also want to take into account whether the shelter will cover medical expenses such as veterinary visits or medications like flea and tick preventives, as well as basic supplies like bowls or collars. Lai notes that many organizations will provide a “foster kit” with basic supplies. “Though we do ask foster parents to cover general supplies, if they’re unable to afford the added expense we can typically provide what they need—it takes a lot for someone to open up their home to an animal, so most rescues will do whatever they can to support their fosters,” she says.

SEE OUR FOSTERING CHECKLIST BELOW!

Make a plan for where your foster dog will hang out, and sleep, and spend some time “dog-proofing” your home. Remove any safety hazards, like exposed wires. Place plants out of reach (keeping in mind that dogs can stand on two legs, and jump, when motivated). Don’t leave food, or other tempting chewables, like shoes, within mouth’s reach.

The first few days…

Every dog reacts to being in a shelter differently, but it’s a stressful situation for just about every dog. Your foster dog may be a ball of energy when you bring them home, or they may be shy, and reticent about interacting. They may whine, or pace, or have accidents. Give them time to adjust without introducing any additional stress, or major new activities. Some experienced fosters recommend that, if it’s possible, you clear your schedule on the first day your foster dog comes home, to give both of you the time to bond, build trust, and to deal with anything unexpected.

Keep in mind that no matter how you prepare, you probably can’t predict how your fostering stint will go. You may not have a complete picture of the dog you’re fostering, or it might be more, or less, work than you think it will be. What you CAN count on, though, is a memorable, and ultimately rewarding experience.

Fostering responsibilities

The most important ingredient in making fostering work for you, and your new dog, is a genuine desire to welcome an animal into your home and make them feel secure and cared for. But it’s also important to be clear on exactly what’s expected of you, in addition to love and attention.

Before you welcome your new, (possibly) short-term friend into your home, potential fosters should be sure to ask the rescue organization what their day-to-day responsibilities will be, such as house training or crate training, in order to help make the dog “adoptable” and prepare them for the transition into their forever home.

Every situation will be different and the shelter will specify any special needs, like a dog who won’t do well left alone all day every day. There are, however, some basics.

Best Friends Animal Society says foster families are expected to provide:

    • A healthy and safe environment

Transportation to and from the adoption center and all vet appointments as needed

Socialization and cuddle time to help teach dogs positive family and pet relationships

Lots of exercise and positive stimulation to help them develop into great dogs

Any extra progress you can help make with training and good manners will increase a dog’s adoptability. Licari notes that some organizations partner with trainers and behavior experts to work with dogs so they’ve already learned the basics, but many dogs will still need hands-on work in their foster home, such as house-training. “As an ongoing foster, I couldn’t imagine not having the support of the rescue organization for everything from training questions to what happens if I have to take the dog to the vet—so potential fosters should know that while it’s certainly a commitment, they will likely have help addressing any issues that come up along the way,” Noggle adds.

You’ll also want to ask what the organization expects from you as far as marketing—in other words, will the shelter be taking on the full responsibility of finding the dog’s forever home, or will they be expecting you to post about the dog on social media, take dogs to adoption events, or interview potential adopters?

“Social media sites like Instagram and Facebook have become our biggest marketing tools, so it’s easy for both the organization and the foster family to help promote the dog…but you’ll want to be sure you understand what the organization’s adoption process looks like,” Licari advises.

Duer notes that fosters should also inquire about what happens in instances where more than one person is interested in adopting the dog. “If you do end up having the dog in your home for a while and you get attached, you’ll want to know what your role is—will you have a say in the matter if two people want to adopt the dog, for example?” she says. “Some fosters don’t want to be involved with interviewing potential adopters, while others do, so you’ll want to be sure to communicate about how much you want you to be involved in the process.”

Saying goodbye

There’s no question that while fostering can come with some challenges, the most difficult aspect is saying goodbye. After all, you’re living with a dog for an undetermined length of time, and it’s almost impossible not to get attached. In fact, it comes as no surprise that many foster families end up adopting the dogs—it’s a phenomenon known as “foster fail.”

“Our organization has conducted market research to determine the reasons that people choose not to foster animals, and the first one by far is the emotional attachment—and there’s just no way to really prevent that,” Duer says.

But Lai notes that it may get easier as you go along, particularly if you end up fostering again and again, and as long as you keep in mind that the pain of saying goodbye is more than worth it in the end for the dog who has found their forever family.

“People need to keep in mind that fostering is just a way of dog-sitting for a pet who just doesn’t happen to have a family yet,” she concludes. As noted, in some scenarios, shelters will encourage fosters to help look for and choose the dog’s forever family. Having this active role may also make saying goodbye easier, knowing that your foster friend is moving into the best possible permanent home.

“And never forget that when you take a dog into your home, you’re not only saving that dog’s life and making sure they have a safe place to be loved and cared for, but you’ve just made room in the shelter for another dog to have the chance at finding a forever home.”

A fostering checklist

While every foster situation will be different, here’s a checklist of things you’ll probably need to have in your home to be prepared for your new friend:

Food! The shelter will alert you to any specific dietary needs your dog may have. If you’re responsible for food, a subscription service that delivers fresh food to your door will eliminate one thing to wrangle, and provide a healthier option than processed, dry food.
Food and water bowls: Some seasoned fosters, and health and behavior experts, recommend slow-feeding bowls, which can reduce the speed at which a dog gulps down food, providing some mental stimulation, and helping prevent gas!
A collar and leash: The shelter may provide you with a collar, or advice on which kind of collar to use with your dog. If not, many adoption sources recommend a correctly sized martingale collar. Collars should have ID tags.
A crate: Another item that the shelter may provide. If they don’t, ask their advice on acquiring and using an appropriately sized crate to give your foster dog a place to go in your home, and to help with house training, if necessary. The crate should be large enough for the dog to stand up and turn around in.
Bedding: It doesn’t have to be fancy, but be sure to provide your dog a soft place to lie down and a place to sleep. Ask the shelter about any specific requirements (for example, dogs who struggle with joint pain, or a senior dog, may require more padding in their bedding).
Toys: Keep them simple and safe, like hard rubber Kongs. Do not give your foster dog hooves, rawhide, or cooked bones.
A baby gate: If your dog has issues with stairs, or you want to limit their range in your home, a baby gate can be a helpful addition.
Grooming supplies: You may be expected to get your foster dog ready for meeting the public, and a clean coat will give them a better chance at finding a forever home.
And don’t forget poop bags!

Photo by Tadeusz Lakota on Unsplash.