Fostering Success

For many homeless dogs, foster homes are the springboard from which they find that special home they’ve been waiting for. People get into foster care for many reasons. Maybe they’re not financially ready to adopt a dog, they want to help homeless dogs, they enjoy dog ownership but cannot care for a dog 12 months of the year, they want the training experience that working with many different dogs provides, their dog enjoys the companionship of foster brothers and sisters, they feel strongly about promoting a certain breed, or maybe it just plain makes them feel good. Whatever your reasons for doing foster care, it can be a wonderful and fulfilling experience.

Tank snuggles with his adopter.

Tank snuggles with his adopter.

When I work with new foster homes, I always tell them that there’s no “wrong” way to provide foster care. No matter how you care for your foster dog, you are saving a life, and that’s wonderful. That said, I think it’s very important to foster in such a way that you put the dog’s best interests first.

You see, many foster homes get it backwards. It’s easy to do. When the dog comes into our home, we treat him or her just like one of our own pets. We welcome them in and encourage them to sleep on our bed and snuggle with us. They become comfortable and begin to blossom. We take them to adoption days and share their picture on Facebook, and eventually they find that perfect adoptive home.

And their heart breaks. You see, from the dog’s perspective, he was already home. He has become attached to you, and now you appear to be abandoning him. How is he to know that you were just a foster? How is he to know that this new family isn’t going to do the same exact thing?

Separation and attachment issues are two of the most common issues I am hired to work with in adopted dogs, and these issues are far, far more common in dogs who come from foster homes than from shelters. I don’t think this is a coincidence.

As a foster, it’s important to think about what you’re teaching the dog. Are you really preparing that dog to succeed in his new home?

Remember, most of us in the rescue community are truly “dog people.” We don’t mind fur on the couch or paw prints on the linens. We don’t blink when a new puppy cries for half an hour in his crate or a senior dog needs to go outside multiple times in the middle of the night because he just can’t hold it anymore. We naturally know how to set dogs up for success, gating off the litter box and blocking access to the front door. We read body language well, and subconsciously adjust our own body to make a timid dog more comfortable or redirect an aggressive dog before he escalates from mild warnings.

We do all of this, but your foster dog’s new family won’t. And we need to prepare our foster dogs for that.

I want my foster dog to think that his new home is way cooler than mine was. That means that I set him up for success right from the start. I don’t know whether my foster’s new family will allow him to get on the furniture, so I teach him to sleep on a dog bed and stay off my sofa. Sure, my dogs are allowed on the couch. That doesn’t mean I need to extend the same privilege to my foster dog. I don’t know whether the foster dog’s new family will have a fenced yard, so I teach him to toilet quickly on a leash. I don’t know whether my foster dog’s new family will want him loose in their house overnight, so I teach him to be content sleeping in a crate.

Kip learned about polite yard manners with his Gentle Leader and dragline.

Kip learned about polite yard manners with his Gentle Leader and dragline.

As much as I love my foster dogs, they are not my dogs. Treating them as if they are is nothing less than selfish. I am only a caregiver, preparing them for bigger and better things. So I treat them differently than my own dogs, caring for them kindly and fairly but not letting them get too attached to myself or my other dogs. I train them and teach them that people are gentle and trustworthy. I teach them that good things happen when people handle their paws, mouth, or ears, that wonderful things happen when people reach towards their food or toys, that crates are comfortable and safe places to rest quietly, that sitting and looking at people works wonders, and that calm behavior in the house results in great rewards. I take them on field trips and introduce them to new people and places. They learn so much.

And then they get adopted, and they go home. Their new family gives them more privileges and attention than they had from me, and they quickly become attached. They bond with their new owners, and while they’re very happy to see me whenever we encounter one another for the rest of their lives, they are also quite clear whose dog they are. My heart breaks for dogs at adoption days who only have eyes for their foster parent, because I know that the dog is going to feel heartbreak when they get adopted.

Consider what you’re preparing your foster dog for. Teach him to succeed. Then let him go gently, and watch him blossom under the love and care of his new family. There is no better feeling, and no bigger service you can do for that dog.

19 responses to “Fostering Success

  1. I love this blog – I read every word of it – and I don’t have a business where I can promote you – but I tell anyone I know that is a dog person to read your blog. I have been accused of being a “crazy dog person” – I don’t care – I accept the phrase as a badge of honor :) Thank you for fabulous blog!

  2. Once again another great article. We became foster failures 3x because the dogs became too attached to us – one coming to us so terrified of people she would cower and piddle. When we got her over that there was no way I could give her to someone else. We’ve fostered pregnant moms and their litters and didn’t get overly bonded so it was much easier for them to go to new homes.

  3. This article should be handed out to everyone who is thinking about fostering. Thanks for another great article.

  4. Continued from my previous post. This is from a rescue rep.
    This is the best description and advice. I try to explain this exact thing to fosters. I’m an anomoly, most reps tell their fosters to spoil the dogs and stay with them 24/7. I’m just the opposite, just as you describe. How can I download this article to be used for those not on FB?

  5. Excellent – and thank you for clarifying how foster homes should approach their foster dogs without guilt over not making them “part of the family.” I’m passing this on to my two wonderful foster homes.

  6. “And their heart breaks. You see, from the dog’s perspective, he was already home.”

    So, you are able to see things from a dog’s perspective? One thing I can be quite certain of – no one, not any human on the planet, has the first idea what a dog is thinking.

    “He has become attached to you, and now you appear to be abandoning him. How is he to know that you were just a foster? How is he to know that this new family isn’t going to do the same exact thing?”

    Again, this is quite a stretch of confidence (and a rather anthropomorphic idea) to make statements about what dogs think and feel in such an infinitely dynamic situation such as going to a new adoptive home – or going anywhere for that matter.

    “Separation and attachment issues are two of the most common issues I am hired to work with in adopted dogs, and these issues are far, far more common in dogs who come from foster homes than from shelters. I don’t think this is a coincidence.”

    As a scientist, my first question – stats please? What does “far, far more common” actually come out to in real numbers? You are implying that you are hired by the adoptive families…and they give you an accurate history of that dog’s day to day life in their previous foster homes?? And I take it you have the life histories of these dogs? Or again, you are making big assumptions to support your personal opinion. This statement is highly flawed, you are creating a connection between two things based on conjecture, hardly a responsible thing to do. How many adopted dogs with ZERO issues whatsoever do you see? I’m guessing your sample population is quite skewed. The masses of families with happily adopted dogs (that came from foster families that loved them as their own) with zero adjustment issues, aren’t calling you for help.

    I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point.

    Having the opinion that fosters should set their dogs up for success by crate training them, leash training them, training good house manners and not to get on furniture without permission, etc. – that’s a given. Calling them selfish because they love them as their own and allow them to experience whatever privileges come with that if they choose – very, very poor word choice.

    • From a 15 year foster of dogs ranging from shut-down scared to wild, thank you for this excellent alternate perspective. Teaching a dog what it is to be completely loved – in the foster home – helps the dog to be completely loved in its adoptive home. Dogs remember the past but live in the now. Part of preparing them for a new live with a loving family is teaching them how to trust and be loved.

    • I agree too. I never held back and in my experience, no matter how much I loved them, there was still an instant connection between them and their new family, regardless of how long they stayed with me. Loving them gave my fosters confidence they didn’t have before and when they went to their forever homes, they were open and ready.

      • Totally agree. Dogs aren’t just like humans. They look forward, not back. They move on and adjust to the here and now. Cuddling and living my foster dog as my own, while training them and working with them the same way I teach my own dog is a great thing for them. I’ll miss them terribly, but I have no doubt it’s more one-sided, and they’ll be just fine as long as they are placed in another loving home.

  7. Love this article, very well written.
    I’d very much like to get your permission to translate this into Dutch and publish it on my blog and/or on FaceBook? Of course naming you as the source.

  8. In her book “The Other End of the Leash,” Patricia McConnell has a very different perspective on sending dogs to new homes. She observes that they experience a day or two of disorientation, but slip into their new packs quite easily.

    My foster dogs aren’t allowed on furniture, but neither are my own dogs. My foster dogs are trained in leash manners and house manner, as are my own dogs.

    All dogs in my house are encouraged to have manners about seeking affection, and I give my fosters the same amount of affection as my own dogs. I agree with Toni – I’m conditioning my foster dogs to be loving house pets and allowing their personalities to blossoms so they will be appealing to adopters. It’s part of the whole package of helping a dog transition from a stray into a house a house pet.

  9. Reading this article left me feel uncomfortable. I have been fostering for years now and I also run a home boarding facility for dogs. My first hand experience of dogs is that they very quickly adapt. This has been their survival skill for thousands of years. They do not sit & ponder getting depressed when moved to a new family. There will always be a sample of dogs that take the transition in a more stressful way but generalising about that is simply giving the rescue dogs yet another bad name.

  10. I’m always pretty happy when I see my former fosters and they cling to their new families with a “oh no! There she is – don’t make me go with her!” expression on their faces. It isn’t what they left me with, but I’m perfectly fine with it. I have also had a few, like a sweet cocker-tzu girl who found me at the rescue reunion last fall, came up behind me a slapped me on the back of the ankle with a paw – then stood close to her new mom – wagging. What I got was “HEY! how’s it going? This is my now mom!” LOL!

  11. I really enjoyed this article and agreed on most points. I’m a foster momma myself, and have two rescued dogs of my own. We foster because we love dogs, especially shelter dogs, and our own boys really love having new friends around. We treat each foster dog as an individual, and tailor our care of them depending on each dogs needs. None of our dogs (even our two) are treated the same. One of my dogs is a senior, the other is handicapped. Both have ‘special rules’ about certain things and they know what they are allowed (or not allowed) to do. For instance, Scooter our handicapped Pomeranian is allowed into the kitchen, while all of our other dogs are not. We try to avoid cooking with dog hair, and keeping them out of the kitchen really helps! Most of our foster dogs take their cues from Bear, my senior dog, and don’t come in the kitchen because he doesn’t. Dogs learn SO MUCH from watching each other

  12. Im so glad i found somewhere to tell my story i have adopted a shitzu female
    she is about 3 years old she was gotten from craigs list and the people gave it to my daughter when they delivered the dog they said that her husband hateded the dog and her children didn’t like the dog i now have the dog because my daughter couldn’t keep her. I have no paper work on her about shots i do know she has a chip.. These people said she grew up with cats she won;t eat any kind of dog food or treats i took her fo a check up and she almost bite the dr they put a muzzle on her and that didn’t help so they couldn’t finish the exame i don’t know what to do she is so cute she is a lap dog with me she sleeps with me she only eats people food she needs a hair cut bad but im afraid to take her to anyone in fear she will bite what can i do she must of been abused to be like this can you please help me i don’t want to give her up, i already have a shitzu that is 10 yers old.

    • Hi Annette,

      I’m so glad to hear that you were able to provide a loving home for this poor dog. It sounds like she’s had a rough start to life. If you live in the Rochester or Twin Cities area in Minnesota, I would recommend a private consult to get started on helping your new dog. You can email me (sara@paws4u.com) for more information. If you are outside the area, please go to http://www.ccpdt.org and find a qualified trainer who can help you. These issues will likely require ongoing collaboration with a trainer, but are very workable. You may also find the Fearful Dogs website at http://www.fearfuldogs.com quite helpful. Best of luck with your new little girl!

      – Sara

  13. I was reading this post and wondered if anyone can help me. I found a dog and had an email confirmation that I could adopt him. He was due to be picked up the next day by the nice people who put me in touch with his foster carer. His fosterer had called me in the afternoon and told me a lot about the dog and was happy for him to come to me and said she would like to keep in touch to keep up with how he is doing. By 8pm the same night the fosterer sent me a message to say that she was going to keep him and I couldn’t have him anymore. This was obviously really upsetting for us, to let everything go so far and then pull out like that. I got in touch with my contact who quickly got in touch with the foster carerer. The long and short of it is she won’t give him up now. Is there anything I can do to fight for my dog?

    • Hi Lisa,

      I can imagine that this experience must have been very upsetting for you! It must have been so hard to have your heart set on adopting a dog and then not been permitted to do so at the last minute.

      In my experience most rescues do allow the foster caregiver to keep their foster dog if they wish. Look at it from their perspective: if they’ve already been caring for the dog and have fallen in love, it’s in the dog’s best interest to stay in the home that he’s already settled into and become accustomed to. As disappointing as this experience must have been for you, at least you can take some comfort in the fact that the dog is in a good home that loves him.

      If you really, truly believe that this was an error on the part of the rescue organization, you could certainly talk to a lawyer to see whether you have a case. However, my recommendation would be to continue your search for a wonderful rescue dog who will be a great match for your family. There are lots of them out there! Check out my blog post “Responsible Rescues” for more information on screening potential organizations (so that you can avoid a heartbreaking situation like this in the future), and on “Why You Shouldn’t Adopt a Dog” for information on finding the BEST match for your family. Good luck! I hope your future experiences go much more smoothly than this one did.

      Kindest regards,
      – Sara

  14. This article is a good way to make people not want to foster. Many already fear getting attached to the dog and vise versa. Therefore, this article will surely reinforce the fears of many who are reluctant to foster. As a result, many animals won’t be saved, since there won’t be enough foster homes.

    I noticed that there was no response to the valid questions and points that Debra made. In addition, I noticed that you didn’t support your claim to the others that didn’t agree with you either.

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