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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10 things you need to foster a dog

We haven’t been fostering very long, but these 10 essential things have been SO helpful to us in our dog fostering adventure. So, here are some items to have on hand for your venture into the world of dog fostering.

Last day with Brando
A foster home is always full of crates. Foster Brando and Pyrrha.
  1. A crate. Crates will be your lifesaver! Crate training keeps a dog safe when you can’t watch them, prevents them from tearing up your house until they know better, separates dogs when necessary, and gives adjusting fosters a sense of security. Many fosters will be unused to crates, so it may be rough at first, but make the crate a happy place for sleeping and receiving good things. We give our fosters treats once they’re in their crates and reward them warmly when they are calmly crated. Never use the crate as a place of punishment! We love crates, and our dogs do, too!
  2. Baby gates. A corollary to crates, baby gates will also save your sanity as a new foster parent. Since you don’t want your dogs to always be crated, baby gates in key areas of the house will help you keep dogs separate while feeding or when you can’t keep an eye on one of them. We have a baby gate to our kitchen walkway, and it has been a huge help. We have this gate, and I really love it. The swinging door makes it much more convenient for humans, too!
  3. Martingale collar. I am a huge devotee of martingale collars, like the ones made by Premier. If you foster shy dogs, as we often do, being involved in German shepherd rescue, martingale collars will be immensely helpful to you. A nervous dog cannot back out of these collars, but they do not endlessly and dangerously tighten, like a choke collar. Love them. I have a martingale collar in every size for all of our fosters! (Note: We often just use martingales for walks and outings. They can catch on things if they are too big for the dog or during dog-on-dog play.)
  4. ID tag. Make some generic ID tags with your name, contact information, and address for your fosters, particularly if your rescue does not provide this for you. Make sure your foster is wearing this tag at all times! Jeffers Pet has some very affordable ID tags in a variety of sizes, and I bought a number of them with our info on it for our fosters to have, while we are waiting to get tags from Southeast German Shepherd Rescue (SGSR).
  5. Kongs, sterilized hollow bones, or other stuff-able toys. Dogs are going to get bored, and new fosters are likely going to be anxious about their new environment. A Kong or a hollow, sterilized bone, stuffed with something like kibble, canned pumpkin, or peanut butter is a great way to keep a dog occupied, happy, and out of trouble.
  6. Vehicle restraint. If you can’t fit a crate in your car, find an alternate method of restraint for a dog in your car. I made the mistake of assuming that other dogs would be as calm as our dog is in the car. Not so! (Brando, particularly, was a NIGHTMARE in the car.) Get a car harness that straps down or buckles into the seatbelt. Or get a grate that prevents the dog from clambering up into the front seat and endangering you while you drive. If you’re like us, you’ll probably be transporting your foster often, so a trustworthy method of vehicle restraint will be very helpful to you.
  7. Lots of old towels and blankets. I’ve given up on expensive dog beds. Our dog and our fosters like to rip them to shreds, and they can often be difficult to wash. Instead, I’ve been going to thrift stores and buying lots of old, cozy blankets and old towels to put in their crates. These can provide just as much comfort as a dog bed; they’re inexpensive; they’re easily replaceable; and they’re easy to clean in the event of accidents. (Old towels will also be very helpful in the car and around the house on wet, muddy days.)
  8. A trustworthy local groomer (or self-serve grooming station). Fosters often come in reeking of what we like to call “the shelter stank.” (You’ll know it once you’ve smelled it.) A reliable local groomer or a self-serve grooming station will be your best friend. Grooming makes a lot of dogs, especially rescue dogs from uncertain backgrounds, very nervous. We don’t have a great set-up at our home for bathing indoors, and so our local self-serve grooming operation has been a godsend. We’re huge fans of Wash & Wag!
  9. High-quality food. Most rescues have been eating pretty poorly. As SGSR recommends, we get our fosters on a high-quality kibble immediately. Grain-free kibble is important to me, so we are always researching what’s best for our dogs. Even though we can’t afford (financially or time-wise) to feed our dog or fosters raw, we are passionate about improving their health right away through a four- or five-star kibble. Dog Food Advisor provides great information and reviews on dog kibble.
  10. PATIENCE. And this is the most important thing of all! Foster parents need lots and lots of patience. But you probably knew this already. It’s hard work, but it’s rewarding work. There’s nothing quite like helping a dog transform into a happy, healthy, functional member of a family!
Laszlo in the evening
Foster Laszlo with a toy.

For those more experienced fosters out there, what do you recommend? Anything I’ve missed on my list?

Advice needed: Aggressive behavior from Pyrrha on walks

So, since we’ve been fostering, Pyrrha has displayed a totally new behavior on walks with our fosters. She has never done this with us before, not even a shade of it.

Pen Park with Laszlo
Pyr walking trails with my sister and brother-in-law.

Here’s the scenario:

We are walking with Pyrrha and the foster (whether it was Brando or Laszlo) in the neighborhood. Another leashed dog and its human start approaching us. When the dog gets close enough to pass by us, Pyrrha FREAKS out. She lunges at the dog, barking ferociously, hackles up. I pull her back with all my might, utterly stunned and shaken. (And embarrassed!)

I am pretty sure that this new behavior is not a fear display. In the early days, her fear exhibited in her hackles up, tail curled under, ears back, lips curled up, slinking away, quiet growling; THIS is lunging forward, vicious-sounding barking, full body thrown at the other dog. Although it may still have its roots in fear, it does not look like a fearful display; it just looks outright aggressive.

I don’t know what this means. Someone suggested that she’s protective of the foster. I guess this could be, but I’m unsure. I need to walk her on her own, without another dog, and see how she does. Again, I have never, never seen this before and I don’t know how to handle it. She has now reacted this way to passing dogs on walks with both Brando and Laszlo. (As a side note, she hasn’t flipped out with every single dog we see; it’s only certain dogs. Last night, she freaked only after Laszlo had barked at the other dogs.) It’s only with dogs, too. We passed some unusual-looking people, children, kids on scooters — nothing.

I started to question my posture and energy, but I don’t feel like I was tensing up, because normally, when other dogs would pass us, she was SO happy! I wasn’t nervous when other dogs passed us. She’d pull me to them and start play-bowing. I just had no idea this behavior even existed inside her.

Any advice?

What do you think could be causing this behavior? Ever seen this in your own dog (a totally surprising reaction in a familiar environment with familiar stimuli)?