10 tips for first-time dog fosters

Before we adopted Eden, we fostered six German shepherds for a shepherd rescue in our region. Eden was our sixth foster, and we decided to keep her, that little terror. We haven’t fostered since Edie, but it was a great experience for us and especially for our shy dog, and I’d love to do it again.

Serving as a foster home for a dog is a wonderful gift both to the dog and to her future family. By welcoming this dog into your home and teaching her how to live peaceably with people, you are setting her up for a successful life and reducing her chances of getting returned to a shelter or rescue.

First morning with Brynn (Trina)
Pyrrha with Trina, one of our foster puppies.

Here are 10 things I learned that I would want to share with any prospective foster parent.

1. Start slow. Make introductions to people and your pets with gentleness and caution.

Moving is stressful for everyone, and moving into a new home with new people will likely cause even the most gregarious dogs a bit of stress. Go slowly on your first day. Don’t take her to the park or to a busy pedestrian mall that first week. Don’t mob the dog with too many new people during the first week, and be especially careful and slow when introducing your foster to your other pets and children.

Calming signals
Pyrrha and Rainer giving each other space and exhibiting some calming signals.

Introduce dogs in a low-stakes environment, with plenty of outdoor space for them to navigate. One of the best techniques, I think, is to enlist the help of another human and have both dogs on leash in a wide, open area. Walk the dogs parallel to each other a very large distance apart (20 feet or more), so the dogs can see each other and get a whiff, but not get too close to interact. If that seems to be going well and both dogs seem calm, start moving a little closer. Really LOOSEN UP on that leash when they get close enough to touch each other. You don’t want to transfer any tension at all. Then, when ready, let them get to know each other off leash in a fenced area, if possible.

2. Assume that all dogs are not house trained. Start house training on Day 1.

Even if the dog is an adult, even if he has lived in a home before, start with the assumption that the dog is not house trained. Again, moving into a new place is stressful, so even dogs who were formerly house trained may have forgotten what that means in a new environment. To make this first and important training step easier on yourself, see the next tip…

3. Use crates and baby gates.

Crates and baby gates will be your best friend as a foster parent! They will help you both house train and keep an eye on your new foster, especially during those critical first few weeks.

Still getting used to each other

Follow basic positive reinforcement guidelines with crates. Crates are happy, safe places; never use them to punish a dog. Feed meals in crates if the dog is having a hard time getting adjusted. Treat and praise the dog for entering the crate, and start training a “crate entry” cue (we use “Go to your house!”) for bedtime.

4. Start socializing gradually.

Once your foster is comfortable in your home and sufficiently house trained, start exposing him to the wide world. Observe how he performs on car trips. How does he behave at the vet? Is he anxious or leash-reactive to people or other dogs on walks?

Out back with baby Laszlo
Foster puppy Laszlo.

If possible, introduce him to a wide variety of people, children, dogs, and cats, always under very close supervision, so that you can develop a more complete adoption profile for your foster.

5. Take tons of photos and videos!

High-quality photos and videos are one of the best ways to attract potential adopters. Smartphones obviously make this very easy, so take photos and short videos of your foster all the dang time. Post them on the rescue website and share the heck out of them on social media.

First night with Draco
Handsome Draco, one of our former fosters.

Really, this is one instance in which more is more. There is no such thing as too many photos of your foster dog!

6. Teach the dog basic commands after she has settled in.

Using positive reinforcement and plenty of praise, start teaching your dog some basic life behaviors that humans appreciate in dogs, such as waiting politely to be fed, not pulling on the leash, sitting, and staying.

Trina the shark
Pretty, shark-y Trina.

This is not only a way to impress future adopters but also to build a bond of trust with your foster dog—and improve her chances that she won’t be returned.

7. Put the dog on a high-quality diet.

Dogs coming from rough backgrounds (e.g., from a hoarding situation, like our foster Draco; or from the streets, like our foster Rainer) generally have had poor nutrition, and one of the best things you can do right off the bat is switch them to a high-quality diet. Whether you feed raw or a quality kibble, it’s so immediately helpful to begin your foster on a nutritional diet.

8. Keep good records.

Your shelter or rescue organization will likely help with any vet check-ups and the transfer of any background information, but be sure to keep all vet records, bills, and information in a neat and tidy manner. This will obviously be important and helpful to your foster dog’s future family.

Take good notes on the dog’s health as well, even beyond official vet visits. You will be the best person to assess the general well-being of the foster, and so take vigilant notes about what you can observe of your foster’s wellness.

9. Be honest about your foster dog’s behavioral issues.

It’s a disservice to your foster dog and to her potential family to gloss over her issues. We all have issues, and the more open you can be about your foster dog’s, the better off she will be in the long run.

When writing about your foster dog, start with all of her great qualities! Lead with the positive. But don’t leave out the things she will need help with.

Post-bath Brando
Brando, post-bath.

With our fosters, each one had a different and specific issue or set of issues that their future families would appreciate knowing about. Brando had a touch of separation anxiety and needed more work with polite walking on leash. Trina was easily startled by new people. Draco had a severe (genuinely heartbreaking) fear of bearded men. Rainer became almost catatonic when he had to ride in a car, and he was extremely dog aggressive when on leash.

You want to find the best (and most permanent) home for your foster, so you want to be upfront about your foster’s issues. Ensure that she goes to a home who is fully aware of and fully committed to helping her become a happy, well-adjusted dog.

10. Envision and describe the perfect family for your foster.

As you live with your foster dog, start envisioning the perfect home for your foster. Where would she be most likely to thrive? What makes her happiest? Would she love a family with children? Or would she do best with just a single woman? Does she love other dogs? What are her exercise requirements?

Draco and his new dad and sister
Happy Draco with his new dad and his (canine) sister.

Be clear in your expectations for your foster’s future family but also be open to being surprised. On paper, I pre-judged an applicant for a foster dog, but I was totally wrong in my assumptions, and the foster and this young man were the perfect fit for one another. Seeing them interact was all of the confirmation I needed. You’ll know when it’s right. And you’ll be full of joy (and a little bit of wistfulness) when you send that pup on his merry way.

Have you fostered before? What other tips would you add?

How do you train your dog to catch Frisbees?

Easter weekend

When I was 13, I managed to convince my parents to get an Australian shepherd puppy, and the primary selling point for my father was that I told him that Aussies were famously excellent Frisbee dogs. Dad, from whom I inherited my dog-crazy gene, was immediately persuaded. He grew up with two dobermans who played Frisbee with him every day, and a disc-loving dog is a big qualification for him for any dog. So, we get this beautiful Aussie pup, Emma. She’s brilliant, gorgeous, and extremely trainable. But… she has no interest in chasing a Frisbee. Like, ZERO. We could teach her how to army crawl, hop like a kangaroo, and bark on command, but we never succeeded in teaching her how to catch a Frisbee. She’d look at us with complete disdain when we would try to coerce her to chase it.

I open with this story for two reasons:

  1. Breed is not destiny.
  2. Some dogs just will not care about Frisbees. No matter how hard you try. And that’s OK. Dogs should get to do things they enjoy, and if they don’t enjoy Frisbees after your best efforts, it’s OK.
Easter weekend
Dad, playing with Eden. In her, he finally found his dream disc dog.

Our German shepherds are a case in point. Pyrrha, our first dog, has no interest in retrieving, even though she loves hunting. Eden, our second dog, has turned herself into a Frisbee fiend, and it’s the most important thing in her young life. Despite being a German shepherd, a breed that is not especially known for skill with flying discs, I have to say that I am pretty impressed by her skill and unflagging interest in the sport.

So, what if you suspect your dog might be a great disc dog?

Playful Edie

Five tips that helped us make Eden into a disc dog

1: Assess your dog’s build and disc interest

First, unlike some other canine sports, which have modifications for dog size, your dog’s build will certainly play a part in her ability to become a disc dog. For example, brachycephalic dogs (bulldogs, French bulldogs, pugs, possibly some boxers, etc.) will never be disc dogs, simply because of anatomy: Their snouts are not long enough to catch a disc. It is possible that toy breeds could enjoy catching discs, but sheer size will prove difficult (both in your skill at throwing appropriately and in finding discs small enough for your dog). Dogs who excel at catching flying discs tend to be in the 30–60 lb. range and in a fit and agile state of health. There can be obvious exceptions to this range, and many dogs who will never become champions can really enjoy disc catching, but this limitation tends to hold true. (I was interested to note, however, that there is a “MicroDog” division in the US disc dog competitions, for dogs under 25 lbs. Cute!)

Secondly, it’s important to determine if your dog is even interested in Frisbees. I think one of the simplest ways to assess disc interest is that the Frisbee itself should be a greater reward to your dog than food. For instance, if Pyrrha was given the choice between some cheese and chasing a Frisbee, she’d choose the cheese, every time. Eden is the opposite. The disc is more valuable to her than food. This is a great and clear sign that you have a potential disc dog on your hands.

2: Buy the professional-grade discs

If you dog does have disc interest, pony up for the professional-grade dog discs by Hyperflite. Standard Frisbees are a thinner plastic that will splinter if your dog spends too much time with them, causing not only damage to the disc but damage to your dog’s mouth. The Jawz discs are expensive, but they are worth every penny.

Tip: Don’t leave these discs out and about in your home or yard. A determined dog could do damage to them, and plus, keeping them put away increases your dog’s interest in the discs. We store our discs in our shed in the backyard, and Eden freaks out any time we go into the shed for any reason, because it’s a signal that Frisbee is about to begin.

3: Buy two!

This was a great tip we encountered when we started training Edie with discs. The point of always working with two identical discs is to train your dog to always want to have a disc in her mouth. If you just have one disc, your dog is less motivated to bring that disc to you, because you are going to take it away from her and then what does she have? Nothing. BUT if by the time she chases a disc and looks back at you and you already have another disc in your hand, she is more motivated both to return to you and then to offer some dropping/waiting behavior to get that second disc in the air.

4: Start small

Baby steps! Start with some tracking exercises (e.g., rolling the disc on its side and encouraging your dog to chase it). Then start with short tosses (and practice your own disc-throwing skills!). Don’t throw the disc directly at your dog but rather up in the air, as if you were tossing pizza dough.

In the beginning, let your dog keep the disc only if she catches it in her mouth. If she misses it, praise her warmly, but hold onto the disc yourself and then try another small toss. Keep building on this repertoire until your dog can complete catches on her own.

Praise your dog generously and use food rewards if you think extra encouragement is needed. Once your dog has mastered these shorter exercises, start building distance and elevation into your throws.

5: Train polite behavior early

My husband did a good job working with Eden on this when we first started teaching her to catch Frisbees. We ask her to “drop it,” and he even has a cue for her to drop it closer to his feet if she’s dropped it too far away. Do not throw the second disc until you get that behavior you want (be it sitting or standing and waiting, etc.). The disc is the reward, so don’t give the reward until you get that specific behavior.

Edie still has a hard time ending games and will occasionally choose to “promenade” (what we call her running in huge circles so that the game won’t end) when she gets the sense that we’ve had enough, so we still have to work on that. I’d love to also start working on some more advanced disc dog tricks with her, now that she has nailed the basics. (My dad is especially set on teaching her how to vault off his back and catch a Frisbee. So, we’ll see about that!)

But she’s definitely all in to the game, and we love playing with her.

Easter 2016

Additional Resources

Does your dog catch Frisbees? What tips would you share?

Are you similar to your breed’s fans?

I am perpetually interested in how certain personality types gravitate toward certain breeds or breed types.

For instance, I have always loved dogs in the herding group most. I love their look, their intensity, their intelligence and drive to work with people. I grew up with a beautiful Australian shepherd, and I dream sometimes about getting an English shepherd. But I also have a soft spot for sighthounds and spaniels.

Through no clear intention of my own, I have become a “German shepherd person,” now raising two shepherds and having fostered six. (*German shepherds are technically in the herding group, according to the AKC, but many shepherds these days have lost that herding instinct. But there is a growing trend of getting working-line shepherds back into livestock herding, which I find very interesting.)

© Mike Hale (Flickr). Creative Commons license.
© Mike Hale (Flickr). Creative Commons license.

And yet I feel very different from the typical German shepherd person. Allow me to stereotype, will you?

The typical German shepherd person

  • ascribes to traditional, dominance-based training
  • often has a military or law enforcement background
  • is concerned with being “the alpha” or the “pack leader”
  • has no problem with shock collars, prong collars, and choke chains
  • finds schutzhund very appealing
  • is likely a gun owner
  • finds “toughness” and even mild aggression to be a virtue

Clearly, not everyone who has a shepherd fits most or even one of these stereotypes, but I find these traits to be more true of shepherd people than of other groups aligned with other breeds.

This person loves his or her shepherd as much as I love mine, and the generalizations are not meant to discount that but rather to say I often feel very, very temperamentally different from the typical German shepherd owner.

I am not tough, and I am not impressed by machismo. I do not and never will own a gun. I follow the science-based philosophies of positive reinforcement training and would never use a shock collar on my dog or on any dog. I do not think my dogs are trying to “dominate” me, a concept I find simultaneously laughable and dangerous.

For these reasons, I stay off the German shepherd message boards and have honestly distanced myself from a lot of our dogs’ rescue representatives, most of whom have bought into a shock-collar “training” franchise and encourage adopters to put their shepherds through their expensive programs, which promise fast results for “problem” dogs by the widespread use of e-collars. I’m OK with being an outsider.

My idea of a good night: wine, "Breaking Bad," and a shepherd sleeping in my lap. #draco #gsd
Draco, one of our fosters, and me.

It makes me curious, though, about other breeds, so I’d love to hear from you. What are some of the stereotypes of people with your dog’s breed? Do you fit those generalizations? 

Do you use BAT and leash skills?

Out with the girls

While I’ve been separated from our two monsters this summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about my poor leash-handling skills and the need to approximate off-leash walks in our small (but busy) town when we return in August. We have a lot of training to do, and I am excited about the continued challenge of working with our leash-reactive shepherds.

We have leash laws in my town and in our parks and on trails, so it will still be rare for our dogs to experience off-leash freedom, but I want to be able to simulate the experience of off-leash walking with them, as they are both leash reactive to other dogs.

I started thinking about Grisha Stewart’s Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT) again after reading Patricia McConnell’s recent review of Stewart’s new book, BAT 2.0. I read Stewart’s first book, but I don’t think I really let the principles of BAT sink in. (Clearly, I didn’t, because I still have two leash-reactive dogs.) I was also grateful to find this recent post from Anne at All Dogs Are Smart, which is very helpful and includes some great videos on how to teach loose-leash walking (with harnesses) as well.

I would like to apply some BAT leash-handling principles but also add a food reward. Our dogs are highly food motivated, and BAT often seems a bit too “mystical” for my taste (and I am not sure our dogs would discern any reward or positive reinforcement from some of its techniques, such as “mime pulling”).

Thanksgiving in Davidson
My husband walking Eden this past fall.

Accordingly, here’s my game plan for modified BAT:

  1. Start working each dog, individually, on 15-foot leads (I like these biothane leashes from All K-9). The “individually” part is what is going to be a pain and be time-consuming, but it’s essential to work with them separately until they both have a handle on the new regime (and until I am totally up to speed with my new leash-handling skills).
  2. Start training inside, in the basement. Graduate to the backyard and then to the front walk, on up, over the weeks, until we are ready for a full walk.
  3. Implement rewards for sticking with me (and not pulling; looking at you, Eden), coming to my side when signaled, and ignoring triggers.
  4. Teach a “leave it” cue for other dogs/people, which means “don’t look at that; look at me and wait for a treat.”
  5. Then, finally, try some walks in the real world!

Do you use BAT techniques? How do you help your reactive dog on walks?

Previously in this series of thinking about dogs off leash:

Is a (relatively) leash-less life a key to well-adjusted dogs?

Mint Springs Valley Park hike
Practicing some off-leash hiking, September 2014.

Related to my thoughts on the impeccably mannered British dog and to my dad’s practice with our dogs off leash this summer, I have started to piece together some conclusions about why European dogs have their ish together so much more than American dogs seem to, on the whole.

Some generalizations based on my limited time living in London:

  • Europeans seem to have high expectations for their dogs. They certainly dote on them, maybe even more than Americans do on the whole, but they also expect them to behave well. The (urban) European dog needs to be able to compose himself at a busy café, wait patiently outside a store, and stroll through a park without picking fights or harassing strangers.
  • Accordingly, “training” seems less formal and more about exposure to the world at large. This is also much easier to do than in America, because leash laws—even in a city as large as London—are much more relaxed here than in the States. Dogs only wear leashes occasionally and thus they have to conduct themselves appropriately in public beyond the limits of a leash.
  • All of this exposure and leash-less-ness creates dogs who are, on the whole, relaxed and well-adjusted.

Obviously, not every dog in Europe is well-adjusted. (I saw a miniature schnauzer try to bite the head off a baby Maltese in the street, but this was mainly because the schnauzer was straining at a leash and his owner was shouting, “BE NICE! BE NICE!” which was definitely ineffective and only escalated the situation.) But overall: Such polite dogs.

All of this compounded off-leash time in giant parks has created a culture of European dogs who

  1. have excellent recall;
  2. don’t have reactive outbursts to other dogs or people, in general;
  3. seem calm and self-controlled in almost every public circumstance.

This is the trifecta of good behavior that I feel like the majority of US dog owners I know (myself included) just dream of for their dogs.

And so who is to blame for maladjusted dogs acting up in public? Obviously, we humans are. These are the conclusions I’ve drawn:

  • For all of my reading, I am a sadly lazy trainer, and I have unwittingly allowed my dogs to practice reactive behavior.
  • I have bad leash-handling skills. And having two reactive German shepherds has proven to be a large stumbling block for my ability to train myself.

Leashes are very helpful and an essential safety component of the 21st-century dog’s life, but I daresay we misuse them more often than we know. I know I am at fault here and that my poor leash-handling skills are often to blame for my dogs’ reactive outbursts. I transfer a lot of tension to the lines when I see another dog, because I also get anxious.

I also have not trained Eden in loose-leash walking, at all. Pyrrha, being so shy, naturally has always wanted to stick close to me, and so I assumed I was just an awesome dog trainer and was magically teaching her how to loose-leash walk, through mind transfer or something. False. Pyrrha just had no interest in pulling. Eden, on the other hand, thinks she’s a husky. Sigh!

So, up next in my chain of pondering all of these “perfect” European dogs: How can I improve my leash-handling skills? More thoughts to come.

Freedom for the pups in Davidson. We're all so delighted to be with family. #doglife #carolinachristmas

What do you think? Are leashes (and thus humans) partly to blame for a lot of the reactive dog behavior we see stateside?

My dad’s off-leash experiments with the dogs

Dogs at summer camp
Photo from Dad; Eden in far background, waiting for the team to catch up; Pyrrha dragging her rope; my mom in the foreground.

Dad calls me every so often to give me dog updates. Unequivocally, Pyrrha and Eden are loving life with him and my mom this summer. They get tons of exercise, personal attention, and play time with Dublin (which is especially great for Pyrrha, who really depends on other dogs to teach her how to behave, and Dublin is a model canine).

He also really likes taking them to a nature preserve and letting them roam off leash. This makes me very nervous, because of all of the contingencies and because we haven’t had a lot of solid practice with off-leash recall, but he doesn’t ask my permission and only tells me about their outings after the fact. Which I am honestly OK with. I would be an anxious mess if he asked me about it beforehand.

Dad called me last week to say there was an “incident” with Pyrrha at the preserve, and I almost had a heart attack waiting for him to tell me what had happened. Did she bite a child? Did she get in a dog fight? I felt like I couldn’t breathe.

But this was the incident: Pyrrha saw a deer and took off into the woods after it. Instead of going after her, Dad said he decided to keep hiking along with Eden and Dublin, who always stick close to him, and hope that Pyrrha would figure out how to find them. He said they walked for a good while, and Pyrrha was completely out of sight. After some more time passed, he started to get concerned that she was lost for good. Just as he was about to backtrack and start hunting for her, he said he heard these pitiful whines from the forest, and Pyrrha was darting around, crying, because she couldn’t find them. When she finally made her way back to the pack, he said she was the happiest he’d ever seen her. I am not sure if she learned anything from this “incident,” but I’m relieved that nothing more dire happened.

Dad said that shortly after she rejoined the group, two big dogs who were also off-leash came into the clearing, and everyone did their greetings politely and tossed off a few play bows. No barking! No lunging! No inappropriate greetings whatsoever. Pyrrha and Eden love other dogs, but they absolutely cannot greet them on leash. They lose their minds and look like vicious monsters if I can’t divert them or increase distance. So, this was a very happy outcome to hear about. Both of our dogs really love other dogs, but you would never guess that if you saw them pass dogs on leash. I’m always happy when they get to interact in an appropriate, happy way with other dogs off leash.

More to come on some theories about off-leash life and well-adjusted dogs, particularly reflecting on my time observing dogs in Europe…

Lacuna

The anxious one
Pyrrha, dear.

Just a friendly note to say that I may be taking some time off from Doggerel. Nothing is wrong; the dogs are still alive; I am not depressed. I just feel like I need to take a breather — and I feel like I’m running out of original, thoughtful content, which is never a great feeling.

So, this is just to say: Hello, I am thankful for all of you. We are not dead; we are grateful for you and your sweet comments and wise advice.

Expectant
That ring of mud on her nose, from illicit digging.

We’ll still be online via Instagram and Twitter.

Happy 2015! Love to you and your pups. Let’s talk again soon.