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?

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? 

Former foster update: Laszlo

Anyone remember Laszlo, our foster puppy from Southeast German Shepherd Rescue?

Watching bugs

Pen Park with Laszlo

He was just a little guy when we had him, back in April 2013.

Found: Old photos of Laszlo

I got the pleasure to see him again this past March, when I taught a calligraphy workshop at the vineyard where his person, Tracey, works.

Calligraphy workshop: Laszlo all grown up!

What a handsome little dude! He looks like a miniature German shepherd, with macro ears.

Calligraphy workshop

Calligraphy workshop

Dogs in March

He has turned into a fantastic dog, and he is so well-mannered and calm.

Dogs in March

I taught the workshop for about three hours, and he camped out like this in the room with all of us, like a complete darling.

Tracey has done a marvelous job with him. He gets to roam around the winery with her all day and behaves himself beautifully with people, children, other animals. He also is still loving life with his big sister, BB, a German shepherd, and a gigantic cat out on their mini farm.

Calligraphy workshop

It does the heart good to see a former foster thriving. Laszlo has a great life, and I couldn’t be happier for him.

If you fostered, do you ever get to see your former fosters?

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.

Picking up our next foster tonight!

Tonight I’ll be driving to pick up our next foster through Southeast German Shepherd Rescue!

Here is his (blurry) shelter photo:

new foster

All we know about him is that they say he is a 10-month-old male who was picked up as a stray in the countryside. And that’s it!

I always get pretty nervous when we bring in a new foster, mainly because of all the unknowns — what if he’s dog aggressive? What if Pyrrha hates him? What if he’s a constant barker? Or destructive? etc. — but it always works out, and my husband is a great mood equalizer. Thankfully, my leg of the transport isn’t too long, so I’m hoping he’s not extra rowdy, since I am unable to fit a crate in my car. I got a seatbelt-hooking harness for him… here’s to hoping that will hold!

We also get the fun task of renaming him, a job that I always love. (His shelter name is “Mel,” which is plainly awful.)

Here are the top contenders:

Boston
Bowie
Declan
Gage
Hugo
Knox
Marius
Marko
Murray
Rainer
Sander

Which name do you like best? What would you name him?

(Obviously, we’ll probably pick a totally different name upon meeting him! Have to see them first. We were going to name Pyrrha “Inez,” but after meeting her, we knew that just wasn’t going to fit her look and temperament.)

More to come on the new guy!

New foster: Laszlo!

Everyone, meet our new foster pup, Laszlo!

Pen Park with Laszlo

Laszlo is a 9-10 week old German shepherd mix. He was thrown over the fence in the middle of the night at a West Virginia shelter, and that’s basically all that we know about his background.

Out back with baby Laszlo

He was dropped off at our house by a sweet family who volunteered to transport him on Friday. Laszlo arrived somewhat overwhelmed and withdrawn, but he was very cuddly with everyone and always wagged his little tail whenever a person approached him. Within a few hours, he had started to open up and explore the house.

Pen Park with Laszlo

Pyrrha has been a little less than thrilled with his arrival. She treats him with a kind of reserved disdain. He was quite frightened by her at first, but after a day, the two of them now coexist peacefully. (This morning, the two were playing bitey-face while I ate breakfast…)

For all of her standoffishness, Pyrrha remains gentle with puppies, and she does seem to respect his size and age. For now, they are tolerating each other, which is all we can really ask for. I imagine, however, that within a week or so, he may gain more confidence and the two of them might actually interact more.

Laszlo in the car

My sister and brother-in-law were visiting for the weekend, and on Saturday, we took the dogs to the local trails for an afternoon walk. Laszlo kept up quite well and did OK on the leash, partially thanks to Pyrrha’s example, I think. We did carry him part of the way back, but he was a trooper. He even met a few dogs on the trail and didn’t seem too scared of them, which was a good sign.

Pen Park with Laszlo

He strikes me as quite smart and trainable. Within a day, we trained him to sit, and he’s now habituated to sitting in front of us when he wants something, instead of jumping up. He still does jump, but he doesn’t seem to have many of the typical GSD vices yet (noisiness, biting people, chewing up stuff). Essentially, he strikes me as a rather easy puppy. He slept through the night on his first night here, and he’s still getting used to the housetraining.

Out back with baby Laszlo

What would you guess he is mixed with?

His paws are somewhat small and proportional, so I don’t think he’s going to get very big. He clearly has GSD markings, but purebred GSD puppies don’t get their ears up this young. His coat is also unusual and unlike a GSD; instead of the fluffy puppy fur that leads to the thick GSD double coat, this guy has somewhat odd, silky fur that is close to the skin. He has a stocky build, too.

My best guess is either some terrier or some heeler somewhere in his lineage, but of course, we have no idea. What do you think?

Out back with baby Laszlo

Looking forward to getting to know this little dude more and more! More details to come!

Laszlo is looking for his forever home! If you are interested in adopting Laszlo, fill out an application at Southeast German Shepherd Rescue.

How to foster a dog: Resources

As we are moving toward the idea of being a foster home (landlords have approved us! Yay!), I have been searching for lots of inspiration and advice for first-time dog fosters.

Greeting Blake
Pyrrha meets friends at a Southeast German Shepherd Rescue event.

The first place I looked for information on fostering is the great blog Love and a Six-Foot Leash. While Aleksandra and her family have stopped fostering for now, they’ve had a ton of experience and offer excellent, thorough advice. Some of the most helpful and informative posts for wannabe fosters:

Love and a Six-Foot Leash

Lindsey at ThatMutt.com has also fostered before, and she has some great posts about it, too, including:

ThatMutt.com

I’ve also enjoyed reading other dog bloggers’ experiences in fostering, including Pamela’s list of 9 Things You Must Have to Foster (Something Wagging This Way Comes) and the posts on fostering from Vanessa at The Rufus Way.

Other Blogs about Fostering I Follow

Do you blog about being a foster for dogs? If so, share your blog, and I’d be happy to add it to the list!

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!)

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…