Hello, Dear Reader!
So glad to have you here, because obviously you’re a kind and caring soul – who wants to help animals, otherwise your internet browsing may have landed you on something less savory than ‘top tips for foster dog parents’. ;-D Well, we here at Home2K9 Dog Training and Hope2K9 Rescue, think you’re AWESOME, and the aim of this piece of writing is to give you tons of support as an existing or potential foster dog parent, so you can get it right – and help save a life.
As I type this, our country has been hit with a particularly heartbreaking amount of flooding and widespread fires recently, both of which are displacing animals (wild and domestic) by the thousands. As more caring people like you step up and extend themselves to help these creatures, we want to ensure that you have a healthy process, and a solid plan.
Our rescue partners are mobilizing to make as big a difference in the stress and burden these affected pets and their families are experiencing, and we look forward to seeing our collective efforts bring about some calm after all this storm. Unfortunately, this won’t be the end of the rescue need, nor was it the beginning, and over the years I have witnessed many a foster family’s tragic departure from rescue and volunteer positions on account of a lack of training, respect, and support.
We want to change that, and I believe we can, but your job is to follow through on the important rules of the foster parent’s role, AND let your leadership know when something is missing or unclear.
By becoming a foster parent to dogs currently held in shelters and rescues, you can add time, quality, and increased opportunity to their lives. You can be making necessary space for those organizations to recruit funds, help more animals, or even find a little relief/reprieve (HUGELY important to staving off burnout). As a foster parent, you may also give that dog a chance to relax and come out of its shell, or to learn some life skills and show itself more appealing as an adopted companion. You’re also at risk of creating more problems for/in that foster dog, and of costing that dog its chance at a happy ever after. It really can go both ways.
When you become a foster parent under the right circumstances, and for the right reasons, you can add value to your own dogs’ lives, or the lives of those family members who contribute to your foster dog’s care as well. This is what we want for you as foster parents, enjoy the journey, while also respecting the individual dog and his/her primary and instinctual needs.
So, without further adieu, here are our tried and true Top Ten Tips For Fostering a Dog to Success, and we hope they help you in your volunteer journey.
We begin with the all important Rule #1, the Numero Uno, absolute Head Honcho of guideposts, and something you simply must respect as a foster parent:
1. You’re harboring a species (predator) that can bite, never ever take that for granted:
By definition a predator is: an animal that naturally preys on others, a person or group that ruthlessly exploits others, or a company that tries to take over another. We’ll focus on the animal that preys on others part for the sake of this piece of writing, but it’s remarkable how applicable those other examples are in the canine world as well.
Predators use their teeth, they choose between fight or flight when stressed, overwhelmed, anxious, or obstinate. Your foster dog can and may bite; if stressed enough, willful and resistant enough, sometimes because of poor socialization with people or other animals, frustration, arousal (leash reactivity, etc), or even because of a chemical imbalance. Biting is a big deal, and should not be taken lightly, but it’s also the way of dogs, and isn’t an automatic reason to freak out or assume the dog is broken and not adoptable.
The truth is, in the same way that we are not able to guarantee with 100% accuracy whether or not we will battle cancer one day, we cannot guarantee that our dog (foster or otherwise) will NOT bite, so we should assume he/she WILL – then play our cards to prevent it.
Responsible rescues work diligently to select only the best candidates for their adoption programs, and carefully focus their efforts on dogs who are good natured, well socialized, and overall good citizens and ambassadors for their breed(s). Regardless, dogs can and do present with biting behavior issues based on environment and relationship, so your job as a foster (or adoptive parent) is to respect a dog’s potential based on biology and psychology, and be proactive in your advocacy and leadership for him/her.
A good rule of thumb, to prevent fights, bites, and heartache, is to not allow strangers or unknown dogs to approach your foster dog, on or off leash, and to never leave your foster dog unattended with other dogs or children. It takes time to get to know a dog, and foster dogs are actively “setting in” or revealing themselves to us over many weeks and even months.
In every single circumstance you face with your foster dog, ask yourself if you have the upper hand or not. Do you have control of the situation, and can you prevent a potential behavior issue? That is your number one priority at all times, no matter how cute and fluffy a puppy. A bite on a rescue dog’s record is very bad news, and can mean the end of the line for a dog who was once full of potential.
It’s bad enough for dogs to bite when they have a committed owner, but once a dog without a committed owner has bitten, he/she loses a certain amount of support and advocacy, and the options dwindle for that dog’s chance at happily ever after. Time and time again, we have been involved in training/rehab/rehoming situations where a dog in limbo has exhibited his natural instincts and bitten in circumstances that were preventable. Be smart and always cautious – it’s not worth the strike for anyone involved.
If your foster dog has bitten you, a family member, or any person they engage with while under your care, inform your rescue contact immediately. If you are unsure of the motivation or causation behind that dog’s choice, or uncomfortable with addressing and preventing it in the future, this dog may be above your dog level and require a more experienced training/foster situation. Nipping, if not addressed correctly, can escalate to worse behavior, and biting doesn’t just go away on it’s own. Nipping or biting is a sign of deeper foundation issues, and a need to tighten up the ship for that dog.
2. Be sure that now is the right time to foster:
Before signing on to foster, or accepting a particular dog, you are responsible for ensuring this is truly the right time/circumstance for you to add a rescue dog to your plate. In spite of our best efforts, no organization can truly interview or assess you and your lifestyle thoroughly enough to ensure that there is never a chance someone joins the foster pool who really should not be at this time.
Quality shelters and rescues do their best to inquire on your skills, experience level, competency and reliability, but only YOU can know what your bandwidth truly is at this time. Just because your heart is aching for those in need, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to heap more onto your To Do list. There are many ways to help, and fostering is hugely important, but it’s not the only way. If you’re not honest about your abilities at this time, and a dog comes into your home only to be met with chaos, confusion, instability and a lack of advocacy, you will have, in fact, made things worse for that dog.
Be honest with yourself and others, if you have several small children, are sleep deprived, feeling stressed in your marriage, overloaded and unhappy at work, financially struggling or facing health issues, now is absolutely not the right time to foster. If life needs some sifting and sorting on your end right now, or at any time after signing on to foster, please DO NOT foster for awhile. Give of your heart, time, or financial support in other areas.
You are wanted and needed in the rescue community, but not to the detriment of yourself or others, so please secure your own oxygen mask FIRST. I promise the opportunity will still be there when you’re truly ready. <3
3. Dogs crave leadership, and you can’t lead with empathy:
One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a foster dog parent (or dog owner in general), is to try to lead with empathy. It doesn’t work. No matter where your foster dog came from, or what he/she has been through, dogs -predators, and pack animals especially – crave leadership. The order of hierarchy is extremely important. A leader is not leading with focus on her followers weaknesses, she is leading with focus on her followers strengths. Leaders motivate, guide, and hold their followers accountable to achieving their very best, and this is your job with your foster dog.
From the moment you are handed your foster dog’s leash, your job is to communicate that he/she is at the bottom of the pecking order, and that you are the leading source of all important information. This is created through a balance of correction, direction, then affection, and must start immediately – and continue indefinitely. You will be actively assisting this dog in moving through some pretty stressful transitions with much greater ease, if you create a solid communication of leadership and advocacy in your relationship.
Your time together is usually a drop in the bucket compared to this dog’s remaining life. Don’t get stuck in the story of where they came from or what might have been, your foster dog is living in the here and now, so show them what they have to look forward to, not what they should continue to fear, manipulate, or otherwise manage.
Bring a confident, calm, and assertive energy to the relationship, and do not allow rudeness, disrespect, or avoidant behavior. Even the most fearful, shutdown, or overwhelmed dogs are better served with advocacy and a steady, consistent, believable leadership. We teach people how to treat us, this is exactly true from the moment you are introduced to your foster dog and he/she will fall in line if you represent a respectable leader.
Join us in the Leaders Lounge if you need more motivation for what healthy leadership looks like.
4. Structure = Freedom:
If you want to accomplish more, reach bigger goals faster (and more reliably), or feel more in control of your days, the key to success is structure. Dogs crave structure, they thrive when their days, relationships, and resources come with consistency, predictability, and believability.
Set an intention from day one with your foster dog to provide him/her a schedule, routine, and systems they can count on, especially with puppies, so they can feel secure in offering you behavior you want, and avoiding choices that don’t serve them.
Providing structure to a dog looks like;
- giving direction regularly (place command, structured walks, crate routine…)
- holding them accountable to right choices (correction, consequence)
- limiting freedom unless/until earned (leash on at all times until you know you have a good listener, no free access to the entire house if you’re unsure about potty training, destruction, etc.)
- keeping up rituals/routines, and being proactive about rules/boundaries (communicate with your entire household – exactly how to handle the schedule, and common or uncommon scenarios you may run into with your foster dog)
- be consistent and stable (no losing your cool because your foster dog doesn’t know the rules yet, is waking you up at night because crate training is new to him/her, or after your shoe is chewed when you weren’t paying attention…)
5. Separation Anxiety is Togetherness Addiction, and you are your dog’s dealer:
Watch the video, this is a BIG ONE. Separation anxiety is a common piece of luggage in rescue dogs, but it can be eliminated almost instantly if the foster/adoptive parent knows how. Separation anxiety does not have to worsen, or even continue, in the majority of cases, and you must understand that the chances of successful placement for a dog with severe separation anxiety are not good.
Nip it immediately, stay strong and reach out for professional help immediately if you find yourself over your head with a dog battling separation anxiety. These dogs need you to not be excessively emotional, affectionate, or obsessive.
6. Tools bridge the gap:
As soon as a new dog comes in to our rescue program or begins a private training service, we focus on applying the right tools for the job. In dog training, tools bridge the gap between our two species and ease the difficulties we face on account of speaking different languages. You don’t build a house with a spatula, and you especially don’t build a sturdy structure successfully that way, if you’re not at least a professional. Using the right tool for the job makes finishing the project easier, and more enjoyable for all.
Don’t shy away from the tools that work. There are many ways to arrive at your final destination, but we have found that 99.9% of the dogs we serve get where they need to go quickly and easily, when we use tools that allow for clarity of direction, calmness, consequence, relevancy, and motivation.
In our professional environment, the absolute go-to tools for training success are crates, prong collars and e collars, and consistently leashing dogs who are not trained/reliable yet, providing satisfying mental challenges each day, or chews in the right context for dogs calmly crating or relaxing on place. We do not advocate for the use of training tools unless you have experience, a clear and confident process, or the supervision of a professional trainer, but the simplest thing you can always due to ensure your foster dog has clarity and accountability is to keep them leashed at all times until they have shown themselves to be reliable and safe in their day to day situations with you and others.
Feel free to browse our YouTube channels and Facebook pages for much more information on the tools we use, and the commands we teach our rescue dogs each and every day, which ensure a great chance at success in their adoptive homes. Some tools work better than others, and the absence of the right tools could mean increased and unnecessary struggle for you and your dog. Dig in and get to know what’s available, talk to your rescue or shelter organization about their rules and regulations for tools and training, and be sure you’re empowered to problem solve for your dog if not addressing training needs will present a danger to themselves or others. There’s a solution to pretty much every issue your foster dog may throw at you, but the mechanics and dynamics should be clearly understood before implementing them.
7. Nothing In Life Is Free:
This one is a bit hand in hand with the Togetherness Addiction conversation, because often the same mistakes of excessive/unearned attention, affection, and freedom are contributors to attitude and ego as well as anxiety. Use common sense… you care a whole heck of a lot more about your paycheck when you’ve earned it, right? This too, is true for dogs also.
Bringing home a foster dog and turning them immediately loose to roam the entire house or yard, to possess a basket full of toys, bowls full of food, or allow lounging on furniture and claiming human laps, is like purposefully creating a spoiled rich kid – who can’t fully appreciate (or respect) that which he/she has.
Dogs become entitled, bratty, jealous, resentful, and possessive too. Don’t be the kind of foster parent who takes pride in being “the fun one,” you’ll not be doing much to help set your adoptable dog up for success in the real world, especially if his/her new owners have to pay the price for the dog’s developed reactivity, anxiety, or willfulness when things must be tightened up.
Make your foster dog earn everything. Ask for a sit before food or toys are given, enforce manners at the door and expect calmness before being released from the crate. A permission based dynamic creates reverence and respect, and promotes a calmer state of mind that employs impulse control when making decisions. Expect excellence, and your foster dog can build confidence as they rise to the occasion. Give everything away for free, and you risk representing someone your dog views as optional – and open to negotiations.
8. Treat puppies the same as adult dogs:
Puppies are not exempt from any of the above keys to success, in fact, they’re even MORE in need of these resources in preparation for adoption (and long term) success. Your job as a puppy foster parent is even more involved than that of an adult or senior dog foster, and what you do or do not commit yourself to accomplishing with a puppy (specifically 6 months and under) while in your care, will have an impact on their life as a whole.
Puppies need a ton of socialization with balanced adult dogs, exposure to a very wide variety of experiences and stimulus on a daily bases, and they need more patience than the average rescue dog. The key to puppies is to treat them as adult dogs and hold them to the same behavior and training potential, but with more bathroom breaks and patient repetition of new tasks to master.
Handle and engage with puppies in the same way you would want or need to handle or engage with them when they are full grown. Touch and condition your puppy to tolerate invasive grooming, bathing, and examinations such as the ones they will face over and over as they grow throughout the years. Expose them to different kinds of handlers: kids are more rough or startling and offer a different conditioning than adults most of the time. Also, if you will not be able to tolerate a 75 pound dog jumping on you, then do not allow that future 75 pounder to jump on you (or others) simply because he/she is currently 10 pounds.
Your foster puppy may be adopted by a family who works full time, so he/she will need to be able to be calm and confident in their crate for parts of the day. Focus then, on setting them up for success by creating a healthy level of comfort and respect during crate time, even if you work from home and have the luxury of spending extra time with him/her.
These are examples of where your responsibility as a puppy foster is greater, and potentially more rewarding, but why it absolutely can’t be about you – or what you want to do with your days cuddling that squishy nugget of rescue goodness. More information, if you’re interested, can be found on our Facebook page video playlist, Puppy Raising 101.
9. The Big Picture – Nutrition, detox, and immunity in the face of stress:
Many rescue dogs find their way into foster homes with a laundry list of health issues or a history of behavior problems which can be linked to poor health/nutrition. Some rescue pups show up and seem perfectly fine, only to blow up in a serious skin rash, urinary infection, or digestion issues due to food changes, stress, or social exposure.
We advocate for all dogs to have a biologically appropriate diet, and to be on the highest quality food possible – as this can and does contribute to better immunity, as well as better behavior. When a dog goes through transitions from one home/holding solution to the next, they can’t help but experience some cumulative stress. Stress is a big culprit of immune deficiency or malfunction, so it’s even more important to pay attention to food/nutrition as a part of your foster dog’s care program if they are already showing signs of stress or immune issues.
The vast majority of rescue dogs receive a once over vetting assessment and are automatically updated on shots or spay/neuter surgery regardless of the availability of past medical records. These heavy hitting stresses on the immune system of especially vaccines and anesthesia, can cause all kinds of physical side effects that you as the foster parent should be mindful of, and not rush to assume a vet appointment is needed.
Whether your foster dog is already showing signs of wear and tear, or has recently received treatments that would be hard on their system (surgery, vaccines, antibiotics, steroids, anti-inflammatories, etc.), your focus should be on building the immune system with safe and holistic measures from the inside out. Seek out fresh, natural, high protein food that is grain free and USA made, educate yourself about supplements and natural solutions for complementing the incomplete commercial pet food diet (probiotics, vitamin c, omegas…) then give the body time to regulate.
10. Tell the truth and stand for the honest needs and potential of your foster dog.
Your job is to learn everything you can about this dog, and to tell it like it is to everyone you’re in contact with at the rescue, shelter, or direct adoption prospects. NEVER sugarcoat a dog’s behavior, disposition, or lifestyle needs and NEVER assume adopters will accept, tolerate, or enjoy certain quirks or nuance in a dog the same way you do.
It’s best for your foster dog to be presented authentically, so they can find a forever home that will truly be a best match, and so your organization can maintain it’s duty to the public by placing safe dogs who represent their breeds well. Misrepresenting an adoptable dog increases it’s chances of being returned, unnecessarily stressed, and/or a danger to itself or others.
Thank you so much for taking the time to work your way through this blog, it’s a doozy! Please don’t hesitate to share your stories of fostering success and the adventurous journey of rehabilitation, you can connect with us in the Leaders Lounge for more support and encouragement, or email your questions for our weekly Q&A series to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find more information like the above top tips on our Facebook page(s), YouTube channel(s), and website mailing list. Good luck, and happy fostering!
To your training success,