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?

Lessons from the foster dog: What Rainer taught us

We learned a lot from Rainer, likely because we had him with us much longer than our other fosters (Brando and Laszlo). We are going to miss him, even though our life with him wasn’t always easy.

He is a sweet boy, and we are so happy that he found his forever home! I’ve heard a bit from his adopter, and it sounds like he is really settling in and learning to love being doted on as an “only child.”

Dogs in the yard on Sunday
Rainer in our yard.

What Rainer Taught Us

  1. A dog’s personality can change over time. This is especially true of shy dogs. We already knew this with Pyrrha, since she really blossomed into a happy dog since adopting her, but it was rewarding to see this shift occur in Rainer too. The first few days, he would hide from us in corners of the backyard. Everything made him nervous. I thought he had a neurological disorder because of how much he slunk around and moved in such strange, stiff ways. But after more than a month living with us, Rainer turned out to be a totally different dog. He was so content being in our house. He wanted to be EVERYWHERE I was (I mean everywhere; private trips to the bathroom did not happen with Rainer in the house). In the latter days, he was affectionate with Pyrrha, whereas he first made her pretty uncomfortable. They even got to the point where they would sleep side by side, something I NEVER thought Pyrrha would allow in a million years. His whole physical demeanor transformed; he started jumping and sitting and letting his tongue hang out — all of these things that I thought he was incapable of doing when he first came to us.
  2. Correlated with that, a dog’s personality (and the canine power dynamic) can be different in different environments. This one surprised me. In the house, Rainer tended to take charge and let Pyrrha know her place. But in the backyard, Pyrrha ruled; she initiated play with Rainer, she got him belly up all the time, she taught him how to patrol for her feline nemesis. I’d never seen this dynamic before, and it still interests me. Rainer also reminded us that new environments are still very stressful to shy dogs. Getting groomed, going to the vet, and even going on walks made him extremely anxious, despite the fact that he was the picture of calm in our house. Again, good reminders to be vigilant in training and rehabilitation.
  3. Let dogs figure out the power structure. Obviously, do this within reason, and don’t let scuffles get out of hand, but Rainer taught us to hold back a little bit. Dogs are better than we are at figuring out canine dynamics; they suffer when we try to impose our human rules on them. For instance, it rankled me at first that Rainer laid claim to Pyrrha’s bed when he came here. My human instinct was to intervene, thinking that this is Pyrrha’s bed, she was here first, etc. But Pyrrha was OK to let Rainer take it. By the end of his stay with us, they were happily sharing the bed, and there were no more bed-territory scuffles or warnings.
  4. Don’t let strange dogs meet face-to-face, and don’t underestimate the protective instinct. We learned this lesson the really hard way with a dog fight (between Rainer and a potential adopter’s dog). I was naive, I didn’t trust my gut instincts, and I really, really should have known better. This is not a mistake we will ever make again. (And thanks to you all for your kindness and advice. This incident certainly revealed me to be capable of dangerous amateur mistakes, and you were all gracious with me. Many thanks.)
  5. Pyrrha really enjoys having a canine sibling. Even though their relationship had a somewhat rocky start and even though his presence in our home was very isolating to her social life, I think Pyrrha misses Rainer’s company. Particularly in our last weeks with him, Rainer and Pyrrha shared so many sweet moments: kissing each other’s faces, play bowing in unison in the living room, just sitting side-by-side in the yard and watching the birds and cars and people. They were happy and gentle with one another (especially Rainer, who was so tolerant of Pyrrha’s antics!).
Someone's not so shy anymore
Good luck, buddy!

You taught us a lot, Rainey Baby. We’ll miss you! But we are SO happy that you are starting a new life with your new family.

We are taking a few weeks off from fostering. Carrie from Tales and Tails reminded me that this is OK, that you shouldn’t feel guilty about taking a fostering hiatus. I appreciated hearing that. I feel like I need to spend more time with Pyrrha, particularly refocusing on her training, so we’re enjoying this little respite.

What have your foster dogs taught you?

Things I’ve learned from fostering so far

We’ve only been fostering for two-and-a-half weeks now, but we have already learned so much!

Trifecta of shepherd protection
Trifecta of shepherd protection: Vera (adoptable pup), Pyrrha, and Brando (former foster)

A few of the fostering lessons we’ve learned:

  • Personality will probably shift over time. I thought Brando was a WILD MAN on the first day–and he was. He was so stressed out. I never thought we’d be able to let him indoors. But after a week, he’d settled down and he turned out to be quite a mellow dude. Likewise, Laszlo was fairly shut down for the first few days, but now he is all energy and play.
  • Baby gates are a lifesaver. The ability to separate the dogs when needed and the ability to keep them in a small space has been an excellent tool. Even though Pyrrha and Brando both could have jumped our baby gate if they wanted to, they respected the barrier. I also keep Laszlo in the kitchen with me while I’m eating or cooking; he can never be too far away from my sight.
  • Our small house has actually been beneficial. Although, yes, having two full-grown German shepherds in a 830-square-foot home is overwhelming, it’s actually been something of an advantage. Brando could never be too far out of our sight! (Cooking in our tiny galley kitchen with both dogs underfoot is another story, though…)
  • Crates are the best! I love crates. Brando didn’t love crates, but he gradually got used to them. I don’t know how people foster without them! We could leave for a few hours at a time without worrying that he was getting into something, going on the floor, etc. (I’m just praying now that we don’t get one of those Houdini GSDs who are able to get out of crates at will. Pyrrha has a touch of that ability–she has sprung herself out once for a gastrointestinal emergency–but thankfully she stays put 99% of the time.) Laszlo seems to have adapted to the crate as well. He still cries a little bit when we put him in there, but he has now been accident-free for four days (knock on wood!) and has been sleeping through the night (thank God).
  • Pyrrha loves having another dog around. Even though Brando would get tired of her, she never seemed to get tired of him! She was like a silly kid with him. Like a silly kid, she would occasionally get petulant and sassy, but she was always THRILLED to see Brando every morning. Very sweet. She also liked to follow him around and copy whatever he was doing, which was good news for Guion, because he got an extra dose of cuddliness from her when Brando was around. While she isn’t so thrilled with Laszlo, the two do have moments of affection.
  • Don’t underestimate the value of routines. Dogs love routines. Especially nervous dogs. Having a set schedule every day has helped our fosters relax and recuperate during their transition period. These dogs have, for the most part, had fairly rough lives thus far. Being able to count on a consistent daily routine helps them settle down and into the family life. This is the prime advantage of fostering, after all: Helping a dog (who has likely had a rough start) acclimate to life with humans.

Obviously, we still have a lot to learn, but it has been a fun journey so far!

Tomorrow, I am taking Laszlo to an adoption event with the rescue. I am sure he will garner lots of attention, being the adorable puppy and all. Here’s to hoping he finds his forever home soon!

Last day with Brando (and meeting Vera)

Our last day with Brando was a whirlwind of dog-transporting activity!

In the middle of the day, I picked up this little lady at Petco:

Sweet Vera

Isn’t she a doll? Vera is a young (11-12 week-old?) pup who is up for adoption through the rescue. She seems to be mostly German shepherd, and she has a TON of personality! Vera is a very confident, vocal, and outgoing puppy. I have no doubt that she will be adopted in a heartbeat!

Baby Vera!

Later that day, Vera needed to be transported, along with Brando, to be taken to their new homes. Vera was going to her foster and Brando would be moving up to his new foster home in the northern part of the state.

Brando and Vera

Brando and Vera

Brando turned out to be very fascinated with Vera. He was a little rough with her at first, but gradually, the three dogs settled down in the yard.

Three dogs

Pyrrha and Vera

Trifecta of shepherd protection

Brando, we will miss you, dude!

Last day with Brando

All best luck to him at his new foster home. Here’s to hoping that he finds his forever home soon.

Coming soon: An introduction to our new foster, who was also received on that crazy Friday!