A Message to Foster Parents

It’s up to us to create success.  It’s up to us to manage safety for everyone involved.  It's up to use to train them.  It's up to us to help them recover and find a home of their own.  

Bottom Line -  It's up to us.   Assuming nothing.   Wait, make that assume that everything will go wrong and take the proper safety and management precautions.   Assume the dog you have just brought home will be overwhelmed, will bite, will jump your fence, will guard his food bowl and will pee in your floor.  Start from a point of view that you must manage safety precautions for everyone and you must teach him everything. It’s more than just good intentions. And every dog is different. If you haven’t been challenged yet, you will be by a life lesson you need to learn.

Unsupervised and without knowing both dogs very well - this could have been very dangerous.

 fos·ter   [faw-ster, fos-ter]

verb (used with object)

  1. to promote the growth or development of; further; encourage: to foster new ideas.

  1. to bring up, raise, or rear, as a foster child.

  1. to care for or cherish.

  1. British . to place (a child) in a foster home.

  1. Obsolete . to feed or nourish.

Replace Child with Dog – and we’re talking about Foster Dogs.

This topic has been on my mind for quite some time now.   The more involved I get in rescue the more I see of this issue and wonder how it’s possible that someone who wants to help an animal winds up being part of the problem.

Rescue dogs are not perfect.  There.  I said it.  Again.    If they were perfect whoever “owned” them first wouldn’t have dumped them at the shelter, left the alongside the road, or asked for them to be rehomed.   I used the word “owned’ intentionally.   Because whoever owned them did not promote growth and development or encourage these babies in any way!

You’ll notice that it’s obsolete to say fostering is about food and nourishment – though in some foster dog’s lives, even food was not always provided. Owners of dogs do not really care for them at all, the dogs are property and sometimes treated with less value than their sofa.

Rescue groups are trying desperately to save lives.  And yet the problem grows – but that’s a discussion for another day.

Rescuers are volunteers.   I can’t say I know of a single one that makes a living, or even a dime for that matter as a rescuer.  They have full time jobs and manage the rescue in their personal time.   Often at their own expense – financial and personal.

Rescue programs simply do not work without foster homes.  Getting a new foster to sign-up means another dog is saved!  Plain and simple fostering saves a life the very minute someone is approved to foster.

That is until the foster gives up on the dog.  I've seen fosters threaten to put the dog on the side of the road at I485 or take him back to the shelter.    I've seen them demand the dog go within the hour.

Yes, it happens daily.   And when it does, the rescuers who are trying to save lives, are now trying find a spot for a dog who already is in a home.    They scramble to find a new place to send the dog for safe keeping.  These rejections of foster dog create a frenzy for everyone involved and other fosters and rescue directors are spending time that could be spend on new dogs and fundraising programs or their own personal lives “re-saving” the reject.

Remember we said rescue dogs are not perfect.  I don’t know what people expect when they agree to foster or when they adopt directly from the shelter.   Even though a temperament test can be done at the shelter – you have no idea really who that dog is when he’s pulled.      An “owner” is going to lie more often than not about their dog’s behavior when they need to rehome them – after all they want someone else to take him.

Transitions are hard on dogs!  Some happy go lucky personalities just go with the flow.  But a dog who has not had proper socialization ever in his life, who was abused, neglected, has become fearful, shy, or even potentially aggressive may take a while to warm-up, to settle down, or to become his true self.

As a foster – your goal is to set the dog up for success.   It’s not about just food and shelter.  They may know nothing about living in a home.  It’s up to you to teach them.    Moving the problem to a new foster may not be the answer.

Dogs go through at least 3 transition periods – 3 days, 3 weeks and 3 months.   A lot happens in that time and the foster home is instrumental in managing those transition periods and helping the dog through them.

From a trainer’s point here are a few things I have observations in the scenarios when things go south (this is not intended to be all inclusive)

  1. Precautions were not taken.

  1. Things move way too fast, often within minutes of arriving home.

  1. Pack Introductions were not done properly

  1. Rescue / Trainer Instructions not followed

  1. Foster doesn't spend the necessary time crate training, house training, basic skills or working on behavioral issues.


Folks, I cannot tell you how important is to slow things down when you first bring home a dog.  Use the crate, more than you think is reasonable. Take time to crate train if necessary.   Take time to house-train if needed.  Take time to build a relationship between you and the dog before you introduce him to anyone else or take off on a walk down the street.  Don’t open the front door and give him free reign of the house.   If you can't walk down the driveway without him pulling, you can't walk down the street an expect to enjoy it.

When a new dog arrives at my house – it is at least 2-3 days they greet my pack and about a week before they are integrated into my pack or have visitors or go for outings.    For some fosters, it might be several weeks.   The first days he’s crated the majority of the time – coming out only to potty and take a walk.   After a few days he’s allow some play time in the yard alone with me – no other dogs or kids.   When I do move to pack intro initial meetings with other dogs are brief – very brief.  Controlled.  On-leash and outside.  When I do give him some time in the house – my dogs are in a different space.      Some dogs progress faster than others – but it’s all about knowing you can read that dog, control your own dogs, and manage the situation - -you simply cannot do that in the first few days in most cases when a dog doesn’t have skills, doesn’t understand your language, and may not trust you.

Supervise!   Don’t give him opportunities to pee in the house and create frustration for you.  Don't give him an opportunity to eat your shoes or sofa.   Eyes on him.

Supervise!   If children are in your home or visiting, it is not negotiable that you supervise with eyes on the dog at all times that child is present.   Crate the dog as needed.

Supervise!   After you have done proper pack introductions – supervise them together in the house for days!   Watch out for resource guarding over toys, food, beds, etc.  Watch out for play that escalates too far or a dog that doesn't heed warnings or doesn't want to play.  Especially with different size dogs and different age dogs.

Supervise!   Interact them with 1:1 to train, socialize and otherwise address any issues they may be having.   We have to teach them the things they don't know.  Being frustrated because they don't already know them does no one any good!

If you cannot supervise – that foster dog needs to be in his crate!  Period.

As they settle into your house and family – issues may arise that they have previously not demonstrated.  Your own dogs may respond differently than ever before.    If you are not certain how to resolve the issues you’re experiencing - -please ask someone for help.

Your rescue director will do everything possible to give you the support you need.   Inexperience, inaccurate or incomplete assessments  and assumptions may lead you down a path that makes things worse.   Most things don’t get better own their own without training from us.  It’s not always difficult – when you have the right information.  Be open to following instructions and be patient.   Behavior don’t change overnight and they do require us to change sometimes and to be consistent.  Be open to learning something different – especially if what you’re trying isn’t working.   Sometimes what worked for 1 dog won’t work for the next.     Be willing to invest some time and effort, maybe even a bit of money for toys, training tools, a crate, etc – if that’s what will make things better for everyone.

Please know that most problems will NOT get better on their own.  But that with proper guidance, proper response from you as the handler, they can often be resolved quickly and easily if addressed early and are not allowed to escalation or become rehearsed behaviors.

Before you agree to foster – consider what you are truly willing to do and truly capable of.  If your foster dog has issues – what are you prepared to do?  If it were your own personal dog – what would you do? Would you abandon your own dog and kick him out of the house?   Above all – don’t fail the dog again.   Don’t be part of the cycle that finds them shuffled to yet another home.   It confuses them.  It frustrates them.  It creates setbacks.   It may make problems worse, especially for dogs with fear, abandonment, or anxiety issues.

Severe behavioral issues will be addressed through training, medical treatment, or other means the rescue director can advise you on.     The rescue will support you to provide support to that dog.  With a little direction and willingness to implement it – even if it’s somewhat inconvenient – you can create a resolution and see that dog transform right before you in a short time.

What doesn’t work for anyone is demanding the dog be kicked out of the home again that night.   When that occurs – it’s not fostering – it’s perpetuation of the problem.   Tire him out with physical exercise and mental stimulation (training, food puzzles, games, etc).   Crate the dog apart from other dogs or family members he may take issue with.   Take a training class with the dog – ask your rescue director about it.

Discuss your expectations and non-negotiable issues with the coordinator before you become a foster or before the dog is pulled.   No one expects you to keep a dangerous dog or to put family members at risk when severe issues are present.   If as a foster it’s not a good match for your experience, your kids, or your cat – there isn’t a rescue coordinator out there who will insist that dog stays with you.   Know that a few days of crating may be necessary to give the rescue group a chance to respond to the request.  In an all foster program – there is often nowhere to move the dog immediately.   Each foster vacancy is typically filled with the next pull from the shelter.  Everyone should want what is best for the dog.

Be willing to promote the growth or development of; further; encourage: to foster new ideas

I hope every day that more fosters (and adopters) are found.   I also know it is work.  It can be exhausting. It can be emotional. .  It could be expensive.   It could be risky.    It’s up to us to create success.  It’s up to us to manage safety for everyone involved.

fosterDana Brigman