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?

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Good luck, Trina!

This brilliant, sharky, sweet little puppy is on her way to a happy life with a young family!

Trina the shark

Trina the shark

I am happy to report that Trina (soon to be named something else, probably) went on trial with a family who has a 9-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old lab mix, Belle.

Trina the shark

The meeting went quite well; Trina was nervous about Belle at first, and kept barking at her, but within a few minutes, she was her typical wiggly puppy self, and did her best to make Belle love her. (Belle wasn’t so sure, but she seemed tolerant, kind of like a mannerly dowager.)

As you can see, I think our crazy little girl has found her happy ending!

Trina went on trial today with her new family! #happyendings #dontbecry
Trina with her new family.

Semi-related life update: Because we recently learned that our landlords are selling the house we’re living in (BIG sad face), our housing situation is kind of up in the air right now. So we’re going to take a hiatus on fostering. I’m sad about this, but this is the best decision for us right now. We’re hoping that the stars will align so that we could buy our first house — and then, of course, we could keep fostering easily — but everything is uncertain right now. I’ll keep you posted!

Hope you all had nice weekends! I’m still basking in that fuzzy feeling after seeing another foster happily adopted. It’s such a nice, intangible reward.

Laszlo updates

Laszlo in the backyard

Laszlo updates!

Look at this adorable little dude. He is going to be hard to say good-bye to, but… we might be doing that soon!

There is a pending adoption on little Lasz, so we are awaiting further details! Excited!

And more sticks

Watching bugs

He was such a good boy at the big meet-and-greet event on Saturday with the rescue. It was a potentially overwhelming environment — tons of people, children, and several dogs (one of whom was quite agitated by the other dogs) — but Laszlo took it all in stride.

He was so friendly and affectionate to everyone who came up to pet him; his little tail would just thump, thump, thump against my side whenever someone came up to greet him. Laszlo was great with little kids, babies, men, women, the elderly, the mentally handicapped, people of a diversity of races and backgrounds, etc.; he met everyone on Saturday! It was a great socialization experience. We only stayed for about an hour and a half, because I could tell he was getting tired, but I felt like it was a great day of experience and exposure for him.

Mmm, sticks

His relationship with Pyrrha still isn’t the best — she still gets easily annoyed with him and still plays too rough with him — but he is not afraid of her anymore, so I consider that progress! He enjoys running up to her and licking her mouth, which she tolerates for a time, but when she tries to reciprocate play, she is inevitably too rough and he starts to cry. So we are usually playing referee during most of our time at home.

He has a lot more energy these days, too, which makes me wonder if he’s growing? He’s only been with us for about two weeks, but I think he’s bigger already. Look at those ears!

Being his adorable self

We are looking forward to hearing more about his potential adoption! Updates to come.

Big things in your future, bro!

A successful introduction to the foster dog

The foster dog, currently called Lyndi.

We had a really wonderful introduction to “Lyndi” on Friday night! I don’t want to say too much at this point, since we still haven’t had our home visit (happening this Thursday), but it went very, very well and I have high hopes!

Guion was sold as soon as she sat down on his feet in the grass. I was sold as soon as I saw how calmly and considerately she handled meeting all kinds of children and people in Lowes, at a restaurant, and on the extremely busy and crowded downtown pedestrian mall. We can’t wait to see her again on Thursday! Of course, I’ll keep you posted…

First home visit scheduled

Not much to report today, except that we have scheduled our first home visit with a volunteer and foster parent from Southeast German Shepherd Rescue! I am SO excited.

Lyndi, whom we'll meet on our home visit.

She will be bringing her two current fosters with her, too: Lyndi and Onyx.

Lyndi (above) is a 1.5-year-old female who was rescued from a backyard breeder in North Carolina. She is a very beautiful and ladylike black-and-tan, but she does have some shyness issues and needs work with confidence-building. Lyndi was on trial with a family, but the family’s busyness and young children didn’t make her very comfortable. Her foster mom says she’s already made great strides in her confidence, but will continue to need gentle and reassuring guidance and training.

Onyx, whom we'll meet on our home visit.

Her foster sister Onyx perhaps has the opposite problem: She’s a very bold, extremely intense Belgian malinois/shepherd cross and she is just stunning; she is sable with orange-rust-colored eyes and looks like a wolf. Onyx sounds amazing, but probably way too much to handle for us, being first-timers. Her foster mom says she is twice as intelligent and twice as energetic and driven as any shepherd she’s ever fostered! Schutzhund–and daily 5-mile runs–would probably be best for Onyx. She doesn’t sound like a fit for us, but I am excited to meet her just the same.

Right now, I have my heart set on Lyndi… I am now petrified that someone is going to snatch her up before we can meet her. (I hesitated even posting her picture here, for fear that someone would see her beautiful face and try to adopt her… You won’t do that, will you?) I am positively obsessive right now. Can’t wait. Can’t.

The visit is scheduled for just two days after we move in, so it will be a little crazy, but I am more than ready for it to happen! One week and six days…

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!

Metropolitan Opera's tenor Lauritz Melchior with his wife and their Great Dane, April 1944. Source: LIFE Magazine Archives.

Dog-related links from around the Web this past week:

Paying the Price of a Fat Pet. Just another friendly reminder: Don’t let your pets gets overweight. For their sakes and for your wallet’s sake! (Well Pets, the New York Times)

The Crazy Ones Are Always Beautiful. On loving one’s German shepherd, even though she’s a handful. (Especially compared with those genteel greyhounds…) (Tales and Tails)

Don’t Let Your Leash Hold You Back. Tena shares some advice on how we humans are particularly prone to misuse leashes in training sessions. Good reminders! (Success Just Clicks)

Why Tyler Is My Dog. Moira just adopted this handsome boy, and she finds that they have something in common. Too sweet. (Dog Art Today)

Black-and-White French Film Takes You Inside a Cat’s Daily Torment. OK, this has nothing to do with dogs, but I think it is hilarious and that most cats probably have a similar internal dialogue. (Best Week Ever)