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?

Rainer continues to settle in

Rainer in the yard

Although two potential adopters have since fallen through for Rainer (through no fault of his own), we hold out hope that he will find his perfect home soon. How could he not? Look at that adorable foxy face!

Life has been busy lately, so I haven’t had much time for dog updates, but rest assured that the pups are doing well.

Little dog-related events from the past week:

  • We have witnessed subtle, spontaneous bursts of affection between Pyrrha and Rainer, which is very heartwarming. It certainly took them long enough! Rainer tended to make Pyrrha pretty uncomfortable, especially indoors, but lately, I catch them sneaking kisses when they think I’m not looking. One of them will sidle up to the other and start licking the muzzle, pawing playfully on the side, or throwing out a play bow. It kills me every time.
  • Last night, Pyrrha had an unfortunate on-leash reaction to a small Australian shepherd while Guion and I walked her and Rainer. I just kept walking and tried to pull her away. I wasn’t sure what else to do; we couldn’t have turned around (or we’d be following the other dog) and we were walking alongside a busy street. She was fine as soon as the dog was out of sight, but whew. It’s so embarrassing and exhausting. And inconsistent! Some dogs set her off; others, she passes with no reaction at all. We kind of think she might be “showing off” for Rainer, who is still pretty shy when strangers/new dogs pass on the street. Sigh. I need to talk to our trainer about this in-depth.
  • I’m also interested in the different dynamics between the dogs depending on the location. For example, INDOORS, Rainer is in charge. She defers to him with the dog bed, the shared water bowl, going through doors, etc. But OUTDOORS, Pyrrha rules. She bosses him around; she knocks him over; she gets him to be belly-up when they play. It’s very interesting to me. I don’t intervene; if this is how their power dynamics shake out, that’s fine with me. It’s just curious to me. Have you ever had dogs interact that way? Different roles depending on the space?

Keep your fingers crossed that Rainer will find his forever home soon!

If you are interested in adopting Rainer and live in the southeast United States, fill out an application at Southeast German Shepherd Rescue! Or spread the word that he’s up for adoption! Here’s his online adoption profile.

To foster or to adopt?

Honey
Derp. Hey, P? Wanna sibling?

So… yep.

Lately, we’ve been contemplating the idea of adding another dog to our lives.

Here’s my quick question for you:

Should we foster or just adopt?

If we fostered, we’d be fosters for Pyrrha’s rescue, Southeast German Shepherd Rescue.

If we adopted, I’d like to find a male, mix-breed puppy from SGSR or another rescue. I am not particular about the breed or breed mix. I’d just want a happy, outgoing, dopey puppy — essentially, a little dude who would balance out some of Pyrrha’s anxious energies.

What do you think? Did you consider fostering before adopting? Is that a bad idea? Share your wisdom! I’m all ears!

(*All of this still kinda pending landlord approval, too, so… I’m trying not to get my hopes up too much!)

Review: Adopt the Perfect Dog

Adopt the Perfect Dog.

English trainer and author Gwen Bailey compiled this short and helpful introductory guide to dog adoption. Adopt the Perfect Dog was published by Reader’s Digest and is short and hands-on, filled with lots of photos and instructional side bars.

At this stage in my dog-book reading process, it wasn’t the most illuminating book. But that’s not Bailey’s fault: When I was reading this, I’d already read 52 other books about raising and training dogs (I know; I have a problem). Most of her advice and recommendations–while being very true and helpful–I’d already encountered numerous times. (I think I’m finally realizing that I’ve just about exhausted my dog reading potential. Until some other great book comes out, I may be nearing the end of my dog book list for now.)

This book would be a great place to start for someone who, again, was a total stranger to dog adoption, particularly adopting an adult dog and acclimating him or her into one’s home.

Bailey advocates positive reinforcement training techniques and provides clear, hands-on advice about how to introduce your dog to your family, how to set house rules, how to handle possessiveness, and how to avoid separation anxiety, among other things.

On the whole, I think I’d be more willing to recommend Petfinder’s guide to dog adoption, as it is far more comprehensive while also being very accessible to a first-time dog owner. But this is a nice, quick little book and it is not without value.

Pup links!

This little girl found her valentine. Source: LIFE Magazine.

Happy Valentine’s Day! Are you watching the conclusion of the Westminster Kennel Club show tonight? I’m going to watch it with my husband and his hilarious poetry colleagues from the university, who have an annual tradition of watching Westminster at a local sports bar. I am so excited. Could there be a more ironic combination of things? Poets + wings + cheap beer + dog show = I think not. Who’s your bet for the big win?

Dog show fun aside, here’s a few interesting links from around the Web:

Famous Artists Photographed with Their Dogs. Apparently, famous painters have a thing for dachshunds. Who knew? (Flavorwire)

5 Reasons to Adopt a Dog. These are the standard, excellent reasons, or at least, a great place to start in listing them. I like reminding myself of these reasons. I’m always surprised at how many people look sad or disappointed when I say I want to adopt an adult dog. “Don’t you want a puppy?” they plead. Next time, I’ll gently remind them of some of the elements on this list. (The Bark Blog)

NYC Dog Art Tour. A collection of canine artwork from around New York City. (Loving the Dog Art Today site redesign, too! So sleek!) (Dog Art Today)

Sharing the Love. Sweet-faced border collies and a dachshund with their Valentine’s message. (Raising Addie)

Do rescue groups have excessively high standards?

Source: Vaute Couture.

Slate published an article by Emily Yoffe last Thursday, “No Pet For You,” with the subtitle: “Want to adopt a dog or cat? Prepare for an inquisition at the animal rescue.” It is a largely anecdotal article, but still, it’s one that I wish more rescue agencies could read.

Yoffe writes about the general interrogation that a prospective adopter will face from overzealous and protective rescue groups, and she says that she was so turned off by rescue groups that she ended up getting a Cavalier King Charles spaniel puppy from a breeder instead. She shares a litany of similar rejections her readers got from rescue groups:

Katie wrote that she wanted to adopt a retired racing greyhound but was told she was not eligible unless she already had an adopted greyhound. Julie got a no from a cat rescue because she was over 60 years old, even though her daughter promised to take in the cat if something happened to Julie. Jen Doe said her boyfriend’s family lives on fenced farm property with sheep, but they weren’t allowed to adopt a border collie—whose raison d’être is herding sheep—because the group insisted it never be allowed off-leash. Philip was rejected because he said he allowed the dog he had to sleep wherever it liked; the right answer was to have a designated sleeping area. Molly, who has rescued Great Danes for more than 30 years, was refused by a Great Dane group because of “concern about my kitchen floor.”

Yoffe’s article is not about the good that rescue groups do, because I think we can all agree that they do a lot of good, but rather about the very high standards they seem to impose on potential adopters.

Several rescue groups I’ve seen have applications that look more like applications for adopting a human child. There’s one group I’ve seen in my area that I already know I won’t apply to because of how extreme and excessive their application is. I read these lists of qualifications and wonder, “WHO are they looking for? What kind of person fits this bill? Stays home all day, doesn’t work, has a huge fenced-in yard, never wants children, already has specific plans for the dog’s every waking minute of life??” Unless you’re a trust-funded housewife with an estate and nothing to do, I don’t know who these people are.

I myself have met many people who tell me the same story. They are extremely responsible and dedicated pet owners, even well experienced with the particular breed, but they’ve been rejected by rescues. When I tell them that I hope to adopt from a GSD rescue, I’ve received lots of raised eyebrows and warnings. Some people have outright told me NOT to go to a rescue group for the reasons Yoffe lists.

It’s a sad state of affairs when rescue groups have such an increasingly negative reputation. I myself have heard little good about them, especially breed-specific groups, from people who are trying to adopt dogs. They’re doing hard work to rehome needy animals and they deserve lots of support. But I can’t help but wonder if their standards are increasingly way too high. I really want to adopt a dog, but reading this article makes me really worried about it.

In many ways, despite my feverish year-and-a-half of research and totally serious commitment to the well-being of any dog we bring home, we may not be ideal candidates in a rescue’s eyes: This would be our first dog; we rent; we don’t have a vet recommendation, because we don’t have a vet yet!; we want to have kids one day, etc. I’m already nervous about applying. I don’t think I could stand the rejection. And I think it’s ridiculous that I feel this way! It’s not like I’m applying to college or to a job or to adopt an Ethiopian orphan. I just want a dog.

What do you think? Do you think rescue groups have excessively high standards for adopters? Or do you think they’re just right? Have you had positive (or negative) experiences with rescue groups? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one.

Review: Pack of Two

Pack of Two.

I read a selection from Pack of Two in the wonderful anthology, Dog Is My Co-Pilot several months ago. I liked the late Caroline Knapp’s gently humorous and honest style. In that excerpt, she talks about the prejudice that a single woman with a dog faces over a single man with a dog. I don’t have the quote in front of me, but the jist of her argument is: People watch a single man playing with his dog in the park and think, “That’s so sweet. Look at them having a great time together.” But people watch a single woman with her dog and think, “Poor lonely woman. She is projecting on that dog. She must really want a baby.” Kind of funny, but true! The injustice!

Anyway. I was happy to find a copy of Knapp’s full book, Pack of Two, which tells the story of her breakup with two significant relationships: Her long-time boyfriend and alcohol. Knapp decides to make a better life for herself as a single woman. On a whim, she adopts a sweet and wolfish-looking German shepherd mix, whom she calls Lucille.

Lucille quickly becomes the center of Knapp’s entire universe. The rest of the book is split into meditative chapters about the profound emotional roles that dogs play in our lives. This is primarily a book about a woman’s deep and ineffable bond with her dog. While Knapp does mention a few men, it is a book by, for, and about crazy dog ladies.

Knapp is a skillful writer and the book was enjoyable to me. I also identify as a Crazy Dog Lady and found myself nodding along with many of her points. My only reservation with the book is that a lot of it comes across as Knapp trying to make excuses for her undying attachment to her dog. She writes as if she needed to apologize or compensate for something. Clearly, she has faced judgment from a lot of people because of her unwavering devotion to her dog, and she writes about that, but she doesn’t seem to have been able to get over it quite yet. It’s kind of a small complaint, because I really did enjoy this book, but it just left me hoping that Knapp found a place of contentment with herself and with her love for Lucille.