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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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? 

Compassion for animals

More couch snuggles. #draco #fosterfun

“Compassion for animals is intimately associated with goodness of character, and it may be confidently asserted that he who is cruel to animals cannot be a good man.”

— Arthur Schopenhauer, The Basis of Morality

(Photos from September 2013 of my husband and our foster pup Draco, who came from an abusive/hoarding situation in West Virginia. He was such a cuddler! Dogs’ capacity for forgiveness of human beings never fails to astonish and humble me.)

Someone thinks he's a lap dog. #draco #gsd

And happy 29th birthday to my husband, whose compassion for animals qualifies him as a good man, and who very patiently puts up with my dog craziness.

A photo I never thought I’d see

Those of you who have been reading along here for a while may remember Rainer, the shy, foxy-looking German shepherd who we fostered for a little over four months.

Rainer was so gentle toward us and toward Pyrrha, but he had some serious territorial aggression toward other dogs, and he once tried to kill (actually kill, not just scare off) a potential adopter’s male dog — a terrible, terrible day which resulted in several ER visits for humans and dogs. He also showed lots of aggression toward baby Georgia when she came to visit, and he was always riled up by seeing other dogs on walks.

For this reason, when he was adopted by a young Marine, we counseled him to be extremely cautious with Rainer and other dogs and to continue the positive reinforcement training around his fears. That said, Rainer certainly had the potential to be good with other dogs, because he loved Pyrrha, and she loved him; they never had a serious quarrel.

Just last night, I got a text from Rainer’s adopter, who said that he was doing well — and to my shock and delight, Rainer had a puppy sibling! An 8-month-old German shepherd, whom you can see dozing here:

Former foster dog Rainer (on the sofa) with his canine sibling.
Former foster dog Rainer (on the sofa) with his canine sibling.

Rainer looks so chubby and content; I love it. Cody, his adopter, said that Rainer has been great with the puppy. I asked him how Rainer was doing in general, and his sole comment was: “He has been a real blessing.”

I’ll take it! I’m always amazed at how much our former foster dogs have grown and matured since we had them in our home. Rainer was perhaps our hardest case, and I can’t say how much joy it brings me to hear that he is doing well — and coexisting peacefully with a sibling.

Have you ever been surprised by a dog’s behavioral change, particularly once he or she was in a new environment?

Update from our former foster Kira (fka Trina)

I always really appreciate it when the adopters of our former foster dogs stay in touch. Their e-mails and photos are so heartwarming!

We recently got this e-mail from the family who adopted Kira (fka Trina):

I wanted to give you guys and update on Kira. She gets more accustomed to her new home with every passing day; she is so smart. She loves the snow and is getting big. Attached are pictures of her.

Kira | Doggerel

Kira | Doggerel

Can’t believe how big she’s getting! She almost looks like a full-grown lady. And he is right: She is SO smart. One of the smartest dogs I’ve ever met. So happy that she has found her forever home. We were tempted to keep her ourselves, but I know she’s in just the right place. And that’s the best feeling of all!

Hope you all have great weekends ahead!

Foster update: Trina! (Now Kira)

We recently got an update from Kira (formerly Trina) and her family! They say she is doing very well and loving her life with them. The family sent this photo of her in her new dog bed:

Kira (fka Trina) in her new dog bed. It looks like she's wearing a Thundershirt here, and I'm not sure why; they didn't mention it.
Kira (fka Trina) in her new dog bed. It looks like she’s wearing a Thundershirt here, and I’m not sure why; they didn’t mention it.

I can’t believe how big she is now! She almost looks like a full-grown lady.

I love hearing from adopters of our fosters — particularly when it’s about a foster that we were tempted to keep ourselves. But I think we really made the right choice for Kira. I had five different adopters that I had to choose from, and I feel confident that she’s with just the right family. They are young and active; they work with her on training; and they have her practicing agility already. (I got a phone video of her practicing with her agility tunnel in their backyard! So cute. She clearly loves it.)

She’s such a whip-smart puppy — maybe one of the smartest dogs I’ve met — and we’re so happy that she’s in the right place. Warm, fuzzy feelings.

And now back to moving/packing madness!

Do you ever hear from the adopters of your fosters? Does it make your day like it does mine?

Happy ending for Draco (now Otis)!

This week, I got the most heartwarming e-mail from Jamie about Draco, who has been renamed “Otis.” Almost made me shed some happy tears!

The e-mail, below, was sent with this photo:

Otis (fka Draco) and his sister Gabby!
Otis (fka Draco) and his sister Gabby!

Hey Abby!!!

Just wanted to check in with you guys and let you know that things are going great!  After repeatedly calling him Otis, he is starting to come when called and responding well.

The first night, the cat scared him to pieces but they have come to just look at each other and for now walk the other way. Gabby and him are doing great. They are snuggle buddies. Gabby likes to use him as a pillow.  Otis does not let her out of his sight. I have to let them out together and he stands beside her while she pottys then walks her back to the door then he turns around and goes to the bathroom then comes in.  It’s quite the sight to see. ❤

Thank you again for everything!!

I think our sweet, cuddly boy is set for life! SO happy.

In additional foster news, we get to meet our new foster puppy tonight! She was named Trina by the rescue, and she’s a 6-month-old black-and-tan German shepherd. And that’s all we know! Photos to come!

Hope you all have great weekends!