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?

Advertisements

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!

Good luck, Draco!

That was fast, wasn’t it? But darling Draco is on a two-week trial with a family! (Our rescue has a trial period, in which adopters get to take a dog home for two weeks to see if he or she is a good fit. After the trial period is up, the adoption is finalized.)

Draco and his new dad and sister
Gabby and Jerry with Draco.

Jamie, Jerry, and their yorkie mix Gabby came to visit us last night, and the meeting went so very well! After our experience with Rainer, I feel like I have a little PTSD about dog meetings now, but we took the introduction much more seriously this time around, and everything went beautifully. The dogs met peacefully in the front yard, then we moved to the backyard to let them negotiate off leash, and then we went inside, where Draco immediately jumped up on the couch with Jerry, Jamie, and Gabby. Too sweet!

Think Draco found his forever family today!!
Bad cameraphone picture, but as you can see, Draco is really happy with his new family!

I’d say it’s a perfect match!

Cuddling acrobatics. #germanshepherd #draco

A few hours after he left, we got a sweet photo from the family, showing Jamie, Gabby, and Draco (who is probably going to be renamed “Otis”) all snuggling on a sofa together, with the caption, “I think they’re going to be best friends!”

Although nothing is final until the trial is over, my feeling is that Draco just lucked out on his perfect forever home! We couldn’t be happier for the guy. We came to love him a lot, after just a short week with him! He is a gem of a dog, and I think he is well on his way to a wonderful, stable, happy life.

Draco buddy

Happy endings! Fuzzy feelings! Good luck, Draco!

Draco buddy

And now we’re gearing up for the next foster adventure, because we apparently have a 6-month-old female heading our way in a few days! Whew! I will, as always, keep you posted…

These German shepherd twins…

… are settling in together nicely.

Shepherds at their posts. #pyrrha #draco #germanshepherd

As you can see, they can be hard to tell apart sometimes.

Shepherds chilling. #draco #pyrrha #fosterfun

With their eyes all aglow. #demondogs #fosterfun
Demon dogs!

Draco is a fast learner, and thanks to the help of consistent treats, he has learned to see the crate as a pretty cool place. He will still whine a bit, particularly at night, but he’s learning quickly.

A note on his name, too! Just so you didn’t think we named this gentle, affectionate boy after the punk bad boy Draco Malfoy… Draco was the name that he came with, and so we didn’t try to change it. (We got criticism from friends and family for giving such a sweetie such an aggressive-sounding name! Not our fault…)

More couch snuggles. #draco #fosterfun

And he’s still getting in plenty of cuddle time, as you can see.

Pyrrha is learning how to navigate some feelings of jealousy. She is not cuddly at all, not even with me, but watching Draco be so willing to snuggle has had an interesting effect on her. Last night, in fact, she jumped up on the empty space next to Guion — something she would never normally do — because Draco had just been right there. She grumbles at him occasionally, but they enjoy each other overall; we often find them sneaking kisses and playing “tag” in the backyard.

Hey handsome! #draco #germanshepherd

The exciting news is that he may have an interested family already! There’s a chance that they may come by this weekend to meet him! Hope that will work out for this sweet dude. Will keep you posted!

Hope you all have nice weekends ahead!

Meet Draco!

Last night, we picked up our new foster Draco (aka Tyr)!

First night with Draco

Draco is a 2-year-old who was rescued from an animal hoarding situation in West Virginia, where he was living in filth with 54 other dogs. Thankfully, the other animals were farmed out to rescues, and Southeast German Shepherd Rescue picked up Draco and his brother, Oro (who was just adopted!).

He was quite nervous when we picked him up (back legs shaking) and whined a bit in the car, but after a while, he settled in very nicely.

First night with Draco

First night with DracoI, for one, have never met a shy dog who was so quickly willing to be affectionate with people. He was way cuddlier with us in a few hours than Pyrrha even is, after a full year of living with us. As you can see, he found his spot on the couch right away:

I'd say the new foster is settling in nicely. #draco #gsd

My idea of a good night: wine, "Breaking Bad," and a shepherd sleeping in my lap. #draco #gsd

He slept like this in my lap for a full episode of “Breaking Bad.” Aww.

Pyrrha got a bit nervous during their introduction, but Draco is clearly an expert at calm, calculated avoidance. He didn’t show the slightest sign of anxiety or aggression toward her initial reactive display. He seemed to know exactly what to do to tone her down (a talent I imagine he acquired by having to survive in a house with 54 other dogs).

First night with Draco

He was still nervous about the new space, but she was quickly ready to play with him. She threw some desperate play bows and side taps his way, but he just wasn’t in the mood for playing last night.

First night with Draco

First night with Draco

First night with Draco

This morning, however (after a fairly scared, whiny night in the crate), he was ready to ROMP in the backyard, and they have been playful and sweet toward each other ever since. We are grateful! It’s always kind of a gamble how new dogs will interact with one another.

First night with Draco

In all, we think he is a total sweetheart and we can’t believe he’s still waiting for his forever home! Feel free to share photos and information about him with anyone you know, who may want a gentle, laidback dog in the southeastern United States.

First night with Draco

(Sometimes, when my glasses aren’t in, I can’t really tell them apart. Ha! As you can see, they have very similar markings and are almost the same size [Draco is a bit taller].)

First night with DracoWe are looking forward to getting to know this sweet dude!

Interested in Draco (aka Tyr)? Check out his adoption bio on the SGSR website!

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?