Fostering may be the single most impactful way to save the lives of shelter dogs. The only thing that comes close are proactive spay and neuter initiatives that prevent overpopulation from occurring in the first place.
However, fostering isn’t for everyone. There are lots of articles out there explaining why you should foster dogs, but, in my experience, many of those articles create misconceptions about the fostering experience.
Well-meaning volunteers get in over their heads, return the dogs, and move away from volunteering altogether.
Should I Foster A Dog?
While there are countless benefits to foster a dog, it’s not right for everyone. Closely examine your personal circumstances, like your schedule and emotional preparedness, as well as your home environment and physical ability to handle a rescue dog before deciding to foster.
In this article, I will guide you through the essential questions you need to consider to determine if fostering a shelter dog is the right decision for you.
I provide context about each aspect of your life to examine before deciding whether or not fostering is right for you. I also provide thought-provoking questions to help you dig deeply into the specifics of how fostering a dog will affect your own life.
Feel free to read the questions and move on, but if you click on the question, helpful and specific guidance will appear in a drop-down menu. If you’re struggling to understand how a certain question relates to you, you may find this additional context helpful.
Deciding Whether Or Not You Should Foster A Dog
You may find my guide to on how to tell how old a dog is helpful, too.
Schedule and Time Availability
All dogs thrive on consistency, but it is even more important for a shelter dog coming from a stressful environment.
While your daily routine doesn’t need to be rigid, it’s essential that you have enough daily time available to commit to your foster. They need all the same things any other dog does, plus a little extra.
Do you have a regular time for feeding, walking, playing, and training?
It doesn’t have to be exactly the same schedule every day, but there should be a general routine, especially around feeding and walking.
Can you handle vet visits and emergencies?
Shelters typically do a good job of scheduling regular vet visits for your foster dog around your schedule. However, in the likely chance of an unexpected emergency, you may need to bring your shelter dog back to the rescue or the emergency vet yourself.
Will you be home frequently to help them adjust?
Many shelter dogs do just fine being crated while you’re at work or school, especially fresh out of a shelter. However, many fosters struggle with accidents, anxiety, and crate training. You may need to prepare to allocate more time to help them adjust, especially in the beginning.
The duration of your fostering commitment can be pre-arranged with the rescue or shelter. Many have a required minimum.
My local shelter has imposed a two-week minimum (barring any unforeseen circumstances), though they’re generally flexible about it. Some rescues, however, expect you to foster until the dog is adopted, and who knows how long that might take?
While transferring a foster is typically an option, not all can suddenly accommodate a returned dog if your schedule changes or it takes too long.
Conversely, I’ve experienced instances where my foster dogs were adopted within a day or two, which can also be frustrating. Just when you feel like you’ve settled into a routine, they’re gone, and you have to start over with a new one.
True, this is the goal, but some people prefer to build more of a relationship with each of their fosters.
Are you ready for both brief and extended fostering commitments?
The duration of fostering can be unpredictable, so it’s essential to be prepared for this uncertainty before committing. While fostering dogs with medical conditions, like heartworms, might have a more predictable timeline, typical fostering can range from a few days to several months or even more.
What’s your strategy if fostering takes longer than anticipated?
If unexpected plans arise or you find fostering overwhelming, it’s essential to have a plan in place. There’s nothing wrong with transferring a foster or returning the dog to the shelter, but it can be emotionally challenging to call it. Make sure you and the rescue you’re working with have a clear understanding and strategy for situations where you might need to end the fostering before the dog finds a permanent home.
Most municipal shelters and virtually all private rescues do their best to cover all expenses associated with fostering. However, the reality is that sometimes, they run out of resources for you.
Are you prepared for the costs of extras like toys, grooming, treats, or special food?
You don’t have to commit to paying extra but may realize that you may spend more on your foster dog than you had anticipated.
Can you manage unforeseen expenses?
If your foster dog suddenly needs to go to the vet or needs food or resources the rescue can’t currently provide, they’ll typically expect you to cover those costs upfront. Most rescues reimburse you for approved expenses, but many don’t have cash readily available. It’s best to ensure you have sufficient funds to cover an unexpected expense until the rescue can reimburse you.
The dogs most in need of fostering at community shelters and rescues often face the greatest adoption challenges: they’re usually mid-sized, robust bully breed types.
(Want to know why so many pit bulls are in shelters? Check out my article!)
I discuss selecting the right foster dog later, but note that, while you’ll find dogs of all sizes and energy levels at the shelter, you can expect most of them to be strong.
Can you match the dog’s energy and manage their weight/strength?
Many well-intentioned foster parents are caught off guard by the strength of a shelter dog that seemed calm in its kennel. Common challenges include managing the dog during walks and preventing them from inadvertently knocking people over as they dash between rooms or attempt to exit the house. It’s crucial to ensure you can physically manage and, if necessary, lift the dog you decide to foster.
Are you capable of providing the necessary physical activity?
Many shelter dogs are young, high-energy dogs that require lots of exercise. Ideally, you’ll have a fenced area where you can let them run and play, but you’ll also need to take them for regular walks. Fostering can be a great way to become active and get into shape, but you need to ensure you can commit to exercising the dog every day.
If you have absolutely no experience with dogs whatsoever, you can still foster.
When Justin and I started fostering in college, my only experience with dogs were my two childhood pets, which had both passed away by the time I was in middle school. Justin had never had a dog.
Nevertheless, we took great care of a series of small dogs, several with serious health concerns like heartworms. That said, it’s important to fully understand what you’re getting into.
How does past experience aid in fostering shelter dogs?
Experience with the kind of dog you’ll be fostering before you bring them home is invaluable. Knowing how to effectively leash and handle a powerful dog at the shelter sets you up for success when you’re doing it in your home and vehicle. After all, if a shelter dog slips the lead at the shelter, you’ll have a few moments of chaos. If they do it in the street, the consequences could be disastrous. If you haven’t worked with dogs before, I recommend you start with small, relatively easy-to-handle dogs like we did.
Are you aware of the biases you bring into your foster dog experience?
Having prior experience is certainly useful, but it can get in the way as well. Every dog is an individual. When you’ve worked with a lot of them, it can be easy to typecast the nervous dog, the fear-reactive dog, the outgoing buffoon. However, trying to put a foster dog into a category like this too quickly can be disastrous. Be sure that you approach every foster dog with a fresh perspective, despite the experience you may have had with rescues, client-owned dogs, or your own dogs in the past.
Fostering has brought me immense joy and profound sadness. To say it is an emotional roller coaster is a tremendous understatement.
Are you ready for the ups and downs of the fostering journey?
Be honest about your likely emotional stability during the fostering journey. You may face serious hardships dealing with behavior or medical challenges. Or you may bond with a dog over the course of months only to see them go home with someone else.
Can you handle challenges without major discouragement?
Your foster dog will test you. Every rescue dog goes through an adjustment period as they transition from their previous life to life with you. This process includes setbacks in training, unexpected new behavioral issues, and a dog that might seem more independent and detached than before. You must be ready to handle the ebbs and flows of your dog’s behavior and the challenges that come with fostering without taking it personally or losing hope in the goal.
Fostering a dog is a humbling experience. I’ve never found myself more lost for what to do next or more creative in adjusting to problems than while fostering. The lessons in empathy and adaptability I’ve learned from fostering are invaluable and were not optional.
Are you open to personal growth from fostering?
When you start the journey to foster a dog, you are also embarking on a journey of personal growth. This can be a tremendous opportunity for self-improvement, but like all personal growth, it’s also trying. Ensure you’re ready to leave the experience different than you started.
Are you willing to reflect and learn from joint experiences with the foster dog?
If you enter this experience with the attitude that you are the teacher and the dog is the student, you’ll be setting yourself up for failure. Your new foster dog is going to teach you in everything you do together, from the first time you bring them into your home to the last walk before they join their forever family. If you’re not ready to learn from your foster dog, then you can’t expect them to learn from you either.
Mental Health Benefits
Studies have proven the mental health benefits of interacting with and caring for animals.
The selfless nature of fostering and the knowledge that you are doing good for the dog and the community can also boost feelings of self-worth and provide a sense of social participation.
However, fostering comes with many additional stresses that a pet or, particularly, a therapy animal would not introduce.
Are you considering fostering for therapeutic reasons?
If so, it may be a great tactic for you. If you’re not sure whether a dog would improve your mental health, fostering is a good way to try it out before making a lifelong commitment. The unique benefits of fostering can be uniquely therapeutic.
Are you aware of the mental health ups and downs of fostering?
I cannot overstate the emotional turmoil that fostering can cause. There’s simply no way to go into fostering with confidence that the dog will not be sick, have serious behavioral issues, escape, or that some other trauma may result. If you are struggling with your mental health, it is wise to talk to a trusted friend, mentor, or therapist about whether fostering is the right step for you.
Attachment and Letting Go
Saying goodbye to my foster dogs has been one of the hardest things I’ve done. I’m going to tell you right now, you will cry. Not with every dog, and each time will be different, but letting go of a foster dog is hard.
My longest-term foster, Jazzy, truly felt like my dog, and sending her to her next home was very difficult.
Do you have strategies and coping methods to handle the emotional roller coaster of fostering?
If you’ve dealt with loss before, you probably know something about how you handle it. Think honestly about what it will be like to say goodbye to a foster dog. Will a pint of ice cream and a good movie be enough to console you, or will you really struggle?
Potential Loss of a Foster Dog
As a foster home, you expect to say goodbye. However, the difference between a dog going to a loving home and passing away is an overwhelming one.
There are two dogs (Malone and Earl) that I have fostered who never got to find a forever family. I feel a bit nostalgic when I think of every dog that entered and left my life, but those dogs always make me cry.
How will you handle a potential passing of a foster dog?
You might do your best to avoid fostering a dog who will pass away by avoiding sick or elderly dogs, but the truth is that more shelter dogs in foster homes are euthanized for behavioral issues than die of natural causes, in my experience. One way or the other, are you ready for how it might feel if you are the dog’s last home?
Do you have a support network to help you cope with the loss of a dog?
I emphasized it throughout this article, but I cannot say enough how important it is that you have a tight-knit group around you to support you. The foster community in my area is extremely supportive and has been invaluable to me in so many things, including dealing with my emotions after the loss of a foster dog.
Patience and Tolerance
There are many useless things I said to shelter dogs over the years as I attempted to work through a difficult behavioral challenge. By far the most useless is “I’m trying to help you!”
There’s an instinct in people who rescue dogs to believe that the dogs should somehow appreciate it. It’s true that some dogs do, but many have absolutely no idea that they’ve been rescued or that you are their rescuer. In time, they will learn to trust you, but don’t expect a constant barrage of sloppy, thankful kisses from all of your fosters.
Are you ready to face challenges with shelter dogs when it comes to patience?
I’m fairly confident that everyone who has ever fostered a dog has lost patience with that dog at some point. The warm-hearted people who take rescue dogs into their homes are some of the most understanding and patient I know, but dogs have a way of getting under your skin, both for good and for bad. There will be times when you simply need to take a deep breath and decide whether you want to keep going. It’s okay to give up on fostering, but you can’t give up on your foster dog. As long as they are with you, it’s your responsibility to treat them with patience, kindness, and positivity.
Can you remain understanding despite slow progress?
When you’re cleaning up the 5th potty accident in 2 hours with your own puppy, it can be easy to justify it by thinking of the many years you’ll spend together. With a foster dog, it can be a bit more difficult to face challenges with grace. Rescue dogs can take a long time to learn basic behavior. After all, some of them have run loose or have been kept on chains or in cages for most of their lives. They may have unlearning to do. You need to be confident that you can approach training a rescue dog with an eye for progress, however gradual the incline towards success.
Adults and Their Roles
One person can take on the bulk of the responsibility for caring for a foster dog. However, there’s simply no way to fully isolate the responsibility of caring for a foster dog to one person if there are multiple people in the household.
A door left open, a chicken wing left on the table, or an unexpected guest can all mean disaster when there’s a foster dog in the house.
Have you discussed fostering with your housemates?
Regardless of whether the lease says you can have whatever pets you want, or whether your spouse is the type that doesn’t mind if you bring home something unexpected, you need to talk to them ahead of time before you foster a dog. Most shelters and rescue organizations ask who is living in the house and require their approval. Even if they don’t, it’s essential to realize that having a foster dog in the house will impact the other people in the home, perhaps negatively. They need to be onboard and recognize the responsibility they’re taking on.
Do you trust the other adults in your house to help you foster a dog effectively?
Regardless of what the other people in your home say, think critically about what it will really look like to have a dog in the house with them. What if it chews up a possession of theirs? How about if it reacts to them fearfully or aggressively? What if they don’t listen to the instructions you leave for the dog’s safety, such as not leaving out potentially dangerous food or objects? Know what you’ll do if the other people in your life don’t do what they say they will.
Understanding and Support from Adults
Justin and I are both passionate about rescue, but since it was me who went to the shelter and chose a dog to bring into our lives, it was typically me whom he comforted when something went wrong with that dog.
Being the support system for a foster is a big responsibility, and one that many spouses, housemates, friends, and parents don’t appreciate until it’s happening.
Do the adults in your life grasp the commitment of fostering?
Make sure that, regardless of the level of responsibility other people in your life will have with the dog themselves, they understand that this is going to be a big change in your life. Ensure they are on board and believe this is a good decision for you, and that they’re ready to support you.
Will the adults in your life offer you support? How much and what kind?
It’s one thing to enthusiastically say “Oh yeah, I’ll help” before a foster dog comes into your life. However, once the demands start coming, your friends, family, and housemates may start to put some limitations and specifications on what they meant when they said they’d help. It’s best to get these questions out ahead of time. Are they willing to take the dog out for a potty break or walk? How about helping to train and socialize the dog? Are they willing to engage in conversations about whether fostering should continue if challenges arise? Find out what the people in your life are willing to commit to so that you won’t base your plans on false expectations.
Boundaries and Shared Responsibilities
Other people in your life are on board for the journey of fostering together. Great! It is much easier to foster a dog if you have help. Furthermore, having multiple caregivers makes it less likely that the dog will form a hard-to-break bond with their primary caregiver.
However, shared responsibility for a shelter dog comes with potential problems built in.
Who will handle tasks like feeding, walking, and taking the dog for vet visits, etc.?
Studies have found that dogs are more likely to get out for consistent walks when only one person is designated for walking them. That doesn’t mean you can’t share the responsibility, but it does mean that you need to set clear expectations. Don’t just assume that somebody will get to it today. Determine who takes the dog for a walk every morning, afternoon, evening, or whatever schedule you have worked out. Make sure everyone is in agreement about what and when the dog eats, what kind of behavior is acceptable, and what kind of behavior modification, training, and socialization is appropriate and prioritized.
What are the designated dog zones in the home?
How the house is divided up and where the dog can go is something many foster families do not think about ahead of time. They then encounter problems when they learn that the dog’s favorite place to noisily chew a bone is by the toilet, or that its preference for one roommate’s bed is keeping them up all night. It’s much easier to expand a dog’s space down the road than it is to restrict it once they’ve already become accustomed to it. It’s best to designate a shared area, perhaps a living room or kitchen, to start and then gradually expand the dog’s space as everyone in the house becomes comfortable with it.
Are you the type that needs your house to be just so all the time? If you’re looking into fostering a shelter dog, you probably realize that your couch cushions’ lives are at stake.
With proper supervision, you can avoid most property damage. However, the occasional nail scrapes on the wood floor or front door, a knocked-over lamp, and some potty accidents in inconvenient places are likely.
Are you willing to adapt your home with things like baby gates, floor protectors, couch covers, etc., as necessary?
Some of these things are almost certain to be necessary, so it may be a good idea to come to grips with what kind of changes you’ll need to make to your house before you’re scrambling to do it while the dog is there.
Are you able to cater to the different needs of diverse dogs?
You can certainly choose a certain type, size, or energy level of shelter dog to focus on. There are plenty of dogs desperate for a good roof over their heads of all different varieties. However, if you want to foster diverse dogs, you may need to make various adjustments. A ramp may be necessary for a foster dachshund, while a higher or more secure pet gate may be necessary for that big sweet bully dog who just can’t stop trying to get to the fridge.
Living With Other Pets
If you already have pets in your home, they will also be facing a big adjustment as you foster. Some dogs do great with this, enjoying a never-ending cycle of new playmates.
If you have a very gregarious, energetic dog, they may thrive with a fostering lifestyle. However, most dogs are at least somewhat selective about the other dogs in their life.
I have typically separated most of my fosters to some degree from existing pets, sometimes because of concerns about shared diseases, and other times because of concerns about them not getting along.
Do you have a plan for keeping your foster dog separated from current pets if they have disagreements?
Lots of foster parents are able to let their foster dogs live in their home with all of their current pets without any problems at all. However, it’s best to have a plan in place in case things don’t work out. Baby gates are a great way to introduce dogs to living closely together with current pets, gauge how they’ll react while they’re separated to make a fight less severe, and be a dividing place in case play gets too rough or someone is annoying someone else.
Is everyone in the household in agreement about managing foster dogs and pets?
The last thing you need is someone in your household deciding that today is a good day for the foster dog to play with the current pet without your go-ahead. Make sure that everyone knows how foster pets should interact with current pets to avoid problems and potential heartache.
Living Space & Home Environment
Most fostered dogs can do surprisingly well with surprisingly little. Let’s remember, most of them haven’t been used to getting much. However, they do need enough space to exercise and meet their basic needs.
You can absolutely foster a dog without a fenced area, but you’ll need to get ready for a lot of walks and possibly some work on a long line. Your dog needs a safe, quiet place for their crate or sleeping area and somewhere they can play and chew on their toys without irritating everyone in the family.
Aside from the physical needs of the living space, shelter dogs often need a stable, calm environment to decompress from the trauma they have gone through.
Is your home a calm and safe place for a foster dog to work through their traumas?
You don’t have to be a Zen master, and it’s okay if your house can be rowdy and loud, but there needs to be a sense of consistency, safety, and familiarity. A home that’s filled with lots of yelling and anger is not conducive to a shelter dog’s needs.
Do you know how you’ll exercise your foster dog?
A fenced yard is best, but you can also bring your dog to a dog park if there aren’t any other dogs there. Dog parks make me nervous in the best of circumstances, and I’m loath to give them a shot with a foster dog. Furthermore, most animal shelters and rescues do not allow fosters to take foster dogs to a dog park. If there isn’t a fenced area, long walks, jogging, biking, and playing on a long line are options.
Foster dogs will need to be taken to the vet periodically, and will also typically need to go to adoption events or meet up with potential adopters. Depending on the rescue you’re fostering through, some of these may be significant trips.
Breed rescues, in particular, often ask fosters to transport the dog a significant distance to meet a potential adopter.
Do you have a vehicle suitable for transporting a foster dog?
A hatchback is best, but if you have a car or truck where the dog has to be in the space with you, it’s important to use a crate or a dog seat belt so they don’t jump into your lap while you’re driving. It’s essential that there is good climate control wherever the dog will be.
What will you do about issues like car sickness or anxiety during car rides?
Car sickness is another reason it’s great to have your dog in a crate during transport. A seat protector that makes a hammock of the entire backseat is also a very good idea. Some dogs respond well to pheromones, calming treats, thunder jackets, or other anxiety aids. Others benefit from a little bit of exercise periodically along the drive.
Fostering Dogs With Children
Child’s Comfort with Fostering
Kids and dogs can be a magical combination, but they can also be a disaster. It all depends on matching the right kids with the right dogs and managing their interactions effectively.
Some of the most heartwarming foster stories I know are from families with kids. Kids have a way of rapidly gaining the trust of even the most nervous shelter dog and can showcase the gentle side of even the roughest-looking old pit.
However, dogs can and do injure children, and a dog that you don’t know well with an unknown history can pose a significant danger in your home.
What is your child’s perspective on fostering?
Are they excited? Apprehensive? Indifferent? How your child feels about it matters. A fearful child can make a dog more fearful, creating a cycle that can lead to reactivity. An overly excited child may have a very difficult time letting go when it’s time to adopt the dog out. Kids who are indifferent may happily coexist or may have trouble adhering to rules for the dog’s safety, like not feeding it inappropriate items and keeping doors closed.
Does your child know how to interact properly with dogs?
Saying that they do fine with your dog at home is not what I mean. The family dog can learn to tolerate all kinds of inappropriate behavior from a child they grow up with and live with. While we do our best to manage interactions between our child and Romeo, our family dog, I’ve turned around to find him happily wearing a hat while being ridden by a doll more often than I’d like to admit. Your child needs to know how to interact with dogs that don’t know them and may be fearful. Do they know to wait for the dog to approach them, and never to approach the dog, especially if it’s eating, sleeping, or with a toy? Do they know how to touch a dog gently and without grabbing? Good dog manners are an essential first step before bringing a foster dog into a home with a child.
Safety Measures for Kids and Dogs
When working with rescue dogs and kids, I advise treating every interaction as though the dog could suddenly behave aggressively or the kid could do something totally unexpected at any moment. Rescue dogs often have varied backgrounds and may have unexpected triggers.
Unfortunately, too many dogs that end up in the shelter system have been improperly treated by children. Shelter dogs should be child-tested with a shelter worker present, from the safety of a secure fence and leash, before the interaction proceeds.
Once the shelter has determined a dog to be child-friendly and clear to be fostered by a home with a child, it’s still up to you to act as though the dog may behave unpredictably.
Do not trust the shelter’s assessment to mean you don’t have to be mindful of their interactions.
Do you have strategies to ensure safety for the foster dog and your child?
There are all kinds of things to prepare before the foster dog comes home:
- Fenced-off areas outside where children can interact through a fence before interacting directly with the dog
- Baby gates throughout the home so that children and dogs can have minimal interactions or see each other without touching
- Teaching regimens with your child so they will freeze and stop moving if you say so, and so that they remember to close doors, put away food, etc.
Do you know how you will guide interaction between your dog and child?
The shelter worker should facilitate the first introduction between the child and the dog. They will watch for any early warning signs and ensure the dog is showing natural and comfortable body language. However, when you take the dog home, it’s up to you to guide their interactions. Do you know what you’ll do if the dog jumps on the child? How about if the child grabs the dog? Make sure you know what kind of commands you’ll use and what recourse you’ll take if a situation arises.
Teaching Responsibility to Kids
Fostering can be an incredible way to teach responsibility, social altruism, and empathy to children of a wide range of ages. Understanding that bad things happen but that good people can make it better is a lesson that most parents would love to instill in their children.
Caring for any dog can be a great way to teach children responsibility. If you’re not sure whether a child is ready for the responsibility of a dog, fostering is a great test. However, for this experience to teach your child the positive traits you want them to learn, you’ll need to create a structured schedule for interaction between them and the foster dog.
Are you ready to guide your child through dog-related tasks?
Depending on your child’s age, it may be much easier to just fill the food bowl or take the dog for a walk yourself than to talk them through it and supervise them while they do it. However, it’s worth the extra time. Having your child help you in caring for the dog will instill responsibility in them, but it will also teach the dog that your child is someone to look to as a leader.
Can you ensure tasks are done properly?
The key phrase above was “supervise.” You’ll need to supervise your child to make sure everything is being done correctly. It may be your 10-year-old who wanted to foster in the first place, but it’s you who needs to take a walk with them and the dog to ensure they’re teaching good leash manners and not letting the dog pull them all over the neighborhood. Your 5-year-old may be gung-ho about handling morning feedings, but it’s you who needs to ensure that the correct amount of food is distributed.
Managing Kids’ Emotional Attachments
It’s easy for most of the parents I know who foster dogs to tell me what’s hardest about fostering with kids: the inevitable “Can we keep this one?”
It may be your goal to eventually keep one of the dogs you foster, or even to keep the first dog you foster. In that case, this won’t be as much of a problem for you.
However, if you plan on actually getting the dog to their forever home one day, you’re going to need to answer this question. Children bond fast, which makes goodbyes tough. They don’t always get over it quickly either. Children may pine for a certain dog that they made a particular connection with for some time.
Have you prepared a strategy for what you’ll do when the dog moves on?
Make sure that you and any other caregivers in the child’s life have talked to them extensively about the fact that this is not your dog, but a dog who needs your help before they move on to their final home. It may help with young children to explain that they are just babysitting or that the dog is on a vacation. Ensure the temporary aspect of it is emphasized throughout the fostering experience.
How will you support your child through this emotional transition?
There will be tears. Are you ready? Crying together and expressing your feelings of sadness when saying goodbye to a foster dog is perfectly natural. In fact, this can be a wonderful opportunity for children to learn how to handle loss and transitions. While it can be helpful to mention that now there’s room in your home for the next foster dog, it’s also important to thoroughly grieve the end of the lovely experience you had with the last one. Encourage the new foster home to send pictures and videos of your foster dog in their happy forever home to help your child realize that while they’re sad that the dog is gone, the dog is happy in its new home.
Maintaining Consistent Training with Kids
Kids can be incredibly good dog trainers. Children often have a knack for timing and a rigidity for rules that work extremely well for training shelter dogs.
Encouraging your child to train the dog is not only great for their confidence and attention span, but it also builds a very real relationship with the dog that will make it easier for your child to handle an animal that may be physically bigger or stronger than them.
However, it’s absolutely essential that training is consistent. If your child does it differently than you do, or differently between sessions, the foster dog may become confused, delaying training, and it will also be harder to teach their new owner how they respond to commands.
Have you discussed the importance of training consistency with your child?
Your child should be able to recite back to you why it’s so important that they are consistent and deliberate in their training. Make sure they can demonstrate the same training protocols repeatedly even before the dog comes home.
Does your child have a thorough understanding of dog rules?
Most children have a sense of things that they absolutely must never do under any circumstances, and a vast majority of things they are not supposed to do, which are things they can kind of get away with sometimes. It’s important that your child understands that dog rules are the first kind of rules. A dog must never be fed food that an adult has not approved for it. A child must never take a dog that they are not physically able to control for a walk or out in the yard by themselves. These rules have to be ironclad for the safety of your child and your foster dog.
Compatibility & Health
Choosing a Foster Dog
Picking the right dog is half the battle in foster success. If you were picking a dog to adopt, you would be particular, and it’s best to be so with foster dogs as well. Remember, every single shelter dog in a foster home opens up space at the shelter for another dog, so pick the best dog for your family.
Is the dog you’re considering known to be friendly with members of your household such as either gender, children, other dogs, livestock, etc.?
- Either gender: Some dogs have specific fears or preferences based on past experiences. It’s important to know if a dog is comfortable with all genders to avoid potential conflicts.
- Children: Kids have unpredictable movements and may not approach dogs properly. Ensure the dog is child-friendly if you have youngsters at home.
- Other dogs: Determine a dog’s temperament around other dogs. This is crucial if you already have another dog to avoid tensions or fights.
- Livestock: If you have farm animals or smaller pets, assess whether the dog has a high prey drive or can coexist peacefully with them.
Are you familiar with the dog’s breed or mix and likely characteristics such as prey drive, reactivity towards other dogs, etc.?
- Breed or Mix: Being aware of the dog’s breed or mix can give insights into its likely behavior, needs, and temperament.
- Prey Drive: Some breeds have a strong instinct to chase, which can affect how they interact with smaller animals or even moving objects.
- Reactivity towards other dogs: Recognize if the dog tends to react aggressively or fearfully to other dogs, which can influence social interactions.
- Likely Characteristics: Familiarity with common traits of the breed or mix helps in setting expectations and preparing for potential challenges.
Has the dog been with the rescue long enough for them to learn about behavioral concerns and see the dog in multiple environments?
The longer a dog has been with the rescue, the more information they’ll likely have about its behavior. Has the rescue identified any specific issues, such as anxiety, aggression, or fearfulness? Observing a dog in various settings (like a home, play area, or around other animals) provides a comprehensive view of its adaptability and temperament.
Do you click with the dog, feel a connection that makes you think that you will be able to physically and emotionally handle them?
- Personal Connection: Trust your instincts about whether you feel a bond or rapport with the dog.
- Physical Handling: Consider if you can manage the dog’s size, energy level, and strength, especially in challenging situations.
- Emotional Handling: Reflect on whether you can support the dog’s emotional needs, including potential anxieties or behavioral quirks.
Health & Behavior
Shelter dogs are often not in the best physical condition. They often come into the shelter malnourished, flea and tick-ridden, and with intestinal parasites. Especially here in the South, heartworms are extremely common in neglected dogs that have not been given heartworm preventatives.
Are you acquainted with the dog’s health needs?
A dog that has been with the shelter for some time should have known medical issues, if any. However, a dog that has recently arrived may show signs of illness later on.
Can you provide medical care to a foster dog?
Foster dogs may require any kind of medical care that any other dog could need. They may need to have regular medication given, including the kind that’s not so fun, like for ear infections. They may need a specific diet to overcome allergies or to be on restricted exercise to treat heartworms.
It’s not just the foster dog’s health that you need to think about when you’re bringing a shelter dog into your home. Foster dogs often have things that other pets or even people could catch.
A dog that has been with a reputable rescue organization for some time should have been treated for these things before they come to your house. However, I have certainly discovered a health issue in a shelter dog after they came home with me.
Are all of your current pets up to date on vaccinations, or can you effectively isolate them such that they won’t be able to catch something from the shelter dog?
One of my own dogs cannot be vaccinated, so I’ve always ensured that all of the foster dogs that come into my household are long-term shelter residents who have been fully vaccinated and been with the shelter long enough to be sure that the vaccinations are effective.
Are the pets and even people in your home medically fragile such that catching something from a shelter dog would be highly impactful?
A case of ringworm in a healthy kid or pet is annoying, but might be devastating in an immunocompromised person. Make sure you’re thinking about what the foster dog might be bringing into the home.
Your Role, Responsibilities, & Hidden Benefits
Tool for Eventual Adoption
Fostering can be an awesome tool to help you choose the perfect dog to adopt. Most rescue organizations are more than happy for their fosters to adopt a rescue dog.
However, some rescues, particularly breed rescues for high-demand breeds, request their fosters to commit to fostering at least one or two dogs before they are able to adopt one. Some dogs are already slotted to be adopted and have a matched family, but need temporary fostering.
Have you talked to your potential rescue organization about the possibility of adopting your foster dog?
Make sure to be clear that this is a potential outcome and know whether it is allowed and how it will go from the beginning.
Are you committed to fostering until you find the right dog?
Some foster families start out intending to foster for a while, but can’t give up the first dog. If you’re worried this might be you, make sure you’re as particular about your first foster dog as you would be if you were planning to adopt.
Understanding the End Goal
It can be so easy to let things get in the way of the goal when fostering. Searching for that family that you think is just perfect for your foster dog can keep them from finding a good home earlier.
Trying to solve very difficult medical or behavioral challenges in one foster dog can keep you tied up and prevent you from saving dozens of others. It’s perfectly normal to be emotional as a foster family, but it’s important to remain pragmatic as well and keep the greater good in mind.
Are you able to keep the objective in mind in the face of emotional situations?
The same people who are willing to foster homeless dogs are also people who tend to have big hearts. There’s nothing wrong with letting your heart lead you down your foster journey, but it is important that you not let it get in the way of the dog’s successful outcome.
Rules in Your Area
Local laws can influence your fostering experience. The number of dogs you’re allowed to have, allowed breeds, how dogs are registered, etc., can all vary by municipality.
If you’re working with your local municipal animal shelter, they’ll probably be up on these mandates. However, if you’re fostering from a rescue organization in another area, they may not be aware.
Are you aware of local laws regarding dogs that may affect your fostering?
Familiarize yourself with regulations specific to your area regarding dog ownership, care, and responsibilities. Some regions have bans or restrictions on certain breeds ore requirements that dogs to be leashed in public spaces or specific locations. You should aalso ensure you understand licensing or registration requirements for dogs in your locality.
On Your Terms: Fostering According to Personal Comfort
I fostered dogs for months through heartworm treatment, kept dogs for a couple of weeks until they found a home, and took dogs from the shelter for a weekend or overnight every chance I could.
Luckily, my local municipal shelter and the rescues in my area are extremely accommodating to my needs as a foster home. However, I have absolutely had to put my foot down about taking a dog I wasn’t comfortable with, keeping one longer than I wanted, etc.
Are you comfortable making your own demands as a foster family to ensure you have a positive experience?
Remember, if fostering isn’t a good experience for you, you’ll stop doing it. The best outcome for you and the dogs is to ensure that fostering is fun and comfortable for you.
Are you willing to be reasonably flexible to accommodate the often understaffed and overworked shelters and rescue organizations?
It’s important that you stand up for your rights, but it’s also essential to be realistic about the world you’re entering. Remember, no one’s making money off of this enterprise. These organizations are funded by scanty tax dollars or fully by donations and largely run by volunteers.
Having a Say in Adoption
Assuming they’ve been with the dog for any amount of time, fosters often have a lot of say in who the dog is adopted out to.
I had the awesome experience of meeting several of the adopters who’ve adopted my dogs at adoption events or even just out in the community while I was taking the dog for a walk. It makes sense that fosters should have some say in who the dog goes to, as they are likely the one who knows the dog best.
What kind of role do you want to have in the adoption?
Talk to the rescue organization you’re working with about how much of a role you’ll be able to play in adoption and let them know your preferences. Some fosters I’ve known would much rather send their dog to adoption events and not be there to have to say goodbyes.
Understanding One’s Strengths as a Dog Owner
Every dog is a mirror for their handler, and handling many dogs means you’ve had many mirrors. You look a little bit different in each one.
Some dogs will make you look like a master trainer, while others will make you feel like you have no right to handle a dog ever again. Fostering has made me a better dog owner and prepared me to choose a dog that was a good fit for my household and family.
Whether you adopt one of the dogs you foster or not, fostering is an excellent way to learn about what kind of dog owner you are and what kind of dog will work best for you.
Are you excited to learn more about yourself as a dog handler?
You’ll handle the ups and downs in your dog handling confidence better if you are prepared for it and believe that you’re benefiting from it.
Are you interested in a career working with dogs?
Whether you want to be a vet, a groomer, a trainer, or open up a dog daycare someday, there’s no better way to get acquainted with working with lots of different kinds of dogs and lots of different personalities and issues than by fostering.
Working with Rescue Organizations
Rescue Organizations’ Expectations
Every rescue organization has a personality. Municipal shelters often have limited resources and may or may not offer fostering at all.
Large, well-funded rescue organizations like the Humane Society offer a streamlined experience. Small local shelters are often run by one passionate individual and a committed circle of volunteers, and may have more dedication than they do resources to help foster families.
Some rescues have stringent requirements of foster families, while others are thrilled to get just about any application they can find.
Have you researched the best organizations in your area and chosen one that is aligned with your values, commitment level, and abilities?
Dedicate time to investigating local dog fostering organizations to identify reputable ones and ensure their mission and practices resonate with your personal beliefs. Try to gauge whether the organization’s expectations match your availability and if they undestand your skill set, experience, and capacity to handle specific dog needs.
Do you have a plan in place for what will happen if the rescue organization doesn’t provide you the support they promised?
- Backup Plan: Always have an alternative strategy should the organization fall short of their commitments.
- Alternative Support: Identify other local resources, such as veterinarians, trainers, or pet supply stores that can assist if needed.
- Communication: Ensure you maintain open lines of communication with the rescue, voicing any concerns promptly.
- Contracts & Agreements: Review any written agreements you have with the rescue to understand your rights and obligations.
Many people just getting into the rescue community are surprised to learn that most animal rescues operate without a physical facility where animals are kept. Many rescues operate entirely off of foster homes.
They keep a list of available foster homes and constantly scan shelters and respond to owner requests for rehoming depending on what foster homes they have available.
Breed-specific rescues often are run this way, as are many other smaller organizations. Typically, the only general space for dogs to go if there’s not a foster available is the founder’s home. These can be great rescues to work with because they can provide specific types of dogs such as small dogs or specific breeds.
However, because there’s no place to bring a dog back to, they often take a couple of days or even a week or more to find a replacement foster if something isn’t working out with the dog.
Are you prepared to potentially have to wait to find a replacement foster home in case things don’t work out with your foster?
Before you work with a foster-based rescue, think critically about whether your schedule is flexible enough to stick it out with this dog, even once you’ve decided to find it a new foster. It may be emotionally challenging to continue to commit to the dog once you’ve decided a new home is best. You’ll need to be mentally prepared to deal with that.
I fostered dozens of dogs for around 5 or 6 different rescue organizations through the years. Nevertheless, I actually have been turned down as a foster home before.
Things like having rehomed previous dogs, whether or not you have a fenced yard and how high the fence is, how much you work, whether you’re a student or not, and much more may make you ineligible to foster for a given organization.
Keep in mind that private rescue organizations are run by individuals with their own ideas, prejudices, and preferences. Particularly, rescues for highly desirable breeds and small dogs are picky about who fosters for them, just as they’re picky about who adopts from them.
Have you applied to multiple rescue organizations that fit your needs if you’ve been found ineligible by one?
Please don’t let one rejection stop you from fostering. Appeal if you really want to work with that organization, and apply to more organizations as well. Many rescue coordinators will reconsider with a heartfelt request.
Can you adjust anything to be a more suitable foster?
Consider modifications to your living space to make it safe and dog-friendly, such as secure fencing or dog-proofing rooms. Adjust your daily routine to accommodate the needs of the dog, ensuring adequate time for feeding, exercise, and bonding. Continuously educate yourself on dog behavior, training techniques, and breed-specific needs to better address your foster dog’s requirements. And make sure you have access to essential supplies like food, toys, and health products, and perhaps identify local pet services or support groups.
Challenges of Fostering
Potential Property Damage
I’ve never had very serious damage done to my property because of a foster dog. I have definitely had some chewed up drywall, diarrhea on the floor and wall, and scratched floors. The likelihood is that a foster dog will do some level of damage to your home.
Are you prepared for damage to your belongings?
This is also a good question for the other adults in your home and a landlord if you have one. The fact is that there will probably be some kind of damage done somewhere, so be ready for it.
Have you done what you can to protect your home?
Waterproof slipcovers protect the couch and the bed if the dog will be sleeping with you or allowed on the couch. Bite-deterrent spray protects furniture that looks tempting. Waterproof protectant for the floor and areas dogs will be make cleanup easy. Make sure to provide your dog with plenty of chew toys and food distributing toys so that they will chew on the appropriate things and not on your home. Crate training is the most invaluable tool you have for protecting your home from foster dogs.
Waking Up at Night
I’ve never had a problem with being woken up at night by a foster dog except for puppies. The exception was one very nervous Golden Retriever mix who turned out to have anxiety in the crate at night and was vigorously chewing the crate pan.
Most of the time, shelter dogs are tired out and happy to snooze through the night. However, puppies will wake up at night, and many older shelter dogs do too.
Can you handle occasional sleep interruptions?
Are you the type who can’t stand being woken up? It may be best to take a foster transfer from someone who already knows the dog sleeps through the night. However, even in this case, an unexpected ailment may cause even an adult dog who’s well crate-trained to cry to get out at night.
Do you have strategies to help a dog sleep through the night?
If you’ve trained a puppy to sleep through the night before, you probably have some idea how to do it with a rescue dog too. Restricting drinking and eating before bedtime, a late-night potty break, and a chew toy in the bed to occupy them if they get bored at night are all helpful tips.
Accidents in the House
Many foster dogs are not potty trained when they come to your home. Some are, and often you can tell at the shelter because they’ll hold it as long as they can and try to only go out when they’re taken out of their run.
Many shelter dogs have an instinctual potty training that prevents them from going anywhere they think of as being their bed. However they may go in an unused corner of the house.
Many dogs aren’t neutered when they arrive at the shelter, and male dogs who’ve only been recently neutered may try to mark inside.
Are you ready to commit to a consistent house training schedule?
House training is not hard, but it is repetitive. The best way to do it is to take the dog out every hour or even every half hour, depending on age and size, and give them an opportunity to go. When they do, mark it with a click or reward sound and promptly give them a treat. In time, they’ll learn to hold it in order to get the treat or toy.
Do you know how you’ll deal with accidents in the house when they happen?
Even if you are very committed to house training, accidents may still happen. Make sure that nowhere is available to be soiled upon that would be very difficult to clean, like that antique rug or those dry clean-only drapes.
Chewing Valuables or Favorite Items
It’s important to decide how attached you are to your things before you bring a foster dog into your home. With careful management, you can protect your most valued objects. But dogs that haven’t lived in a home before may not know what’s appropriate.
A dog can do a lot of damage before you notice and correct it.
How will you safeguard valuables?
Have a plan in place for dog-free zones, pet gates, slipcovers, chew deterrent spray, and other techniques to protect your belongings from your foster dog.
What’s your plan for deterring unwanted chewing?
Plenty of chew toys and food distributing toys are a great way to encourage your dog to chew on the right things. I’ve had great luck with bitter apple spray, but deterrents don’t work on all dogs. Plan to supervise your dog very carefully to deter them from unwanted chewing and redirect them to appropriate chewing.
Rescue dogs require a lot of training to settle into living in a home environment. After all, this is one of the huge advantages of fostering as opposed to keeping the dog in the shelter. Even adult dogs often require substantial potty training.
Challenging behaviors like pulling on a leash, excessive barking, or aggression require more advanced training.
You may find some of these other rescue dog training resources I’ve written helpful:
Do you have experience in training dogs or are you willing to find ways to learn?
Too many fosters I talk to think that training will come intuitively. On some level, it does, but some basic education on training techniques is essential before bringing a foster dog into your home.
Are you willing to reach out to obedience classes or a professional trainer if necessary?
Sometimes, it’s not until a foster dog goes into a home that a serious behavioral challenge is recognized. It is perfectly acceptable to send the dog back to the shelter or find a foster replacement. However this can be difficult for some fosters. Know whether you’re willing to take the next step in training if you end up with a serious problem or whether you’ll be okay with returning the dog.
Consistent Behavior Management
More than anything else, training a foster dog is about repetition. The first few training sessions where you realize how quickly the dog can learn to sit, lie down, and heel are a lot of fun.
However, it’s the day-to-day repetition for potty training, eliminating undesirable behaviors like reactivity, and continuing to meet the dog’s evolving needs for behavioral modification that can wear on foster parents.
Are all adults in the household aligned on training and dog rules?
Any inconsistency in training will result in training delays. Even slight differences in what dogs are rewarded for or reprimanded for can be extremely confusing for foster dogs. It’s essential that everyone agrees on what training will look like before the dog comes home.
Issues Unique to Rescue Dogs
Many foster dogs are perfectly happy and well-adjusted pets that simply have a change in life that resulted in them going into the rescue system. Some were lost by loving families who never found them.
However, many other dogs have had very hard lives up to this point. Past traumas, abuse, and neglect result in deep-seated behavior problems that may not be present in other dogs.
Do you have the patience and empathy to work with dogs through the behavioral problems instilled in them by their past experiences?
Working through apparently random fits of anxiety or aggression, overcoming random fears of things like newspapers or shoes, and a refusal to accept people in your life can be exhausting.
Do you have support available to assist with the needs of your rescue dog?
A trainer who can help work through some of the more difficult behavioral challenges or an understanding shoulder to cry on and someone to listen to you as you work through challenges with your rescue dog can be invaluable.
One thing I can definitively say about working with rescue dogs is that you must plan for the unexpected. Just when you think you have things under control and know what your dog’s going to do next, they do something you never would have thought of.
From other pets, to friends and housemates, to everyday life, you never know what to expect with a rescue dog.
What’s your contingency if the foster dog doesn’t get along with household pets?
Sometimes household pets and foster dogs get along great from the first day. Sometimes they take a little acclimation. Occassinally they do fine until, for some reason, they don’t. “Crate and rotate” is a reasonable way to separate pets. It is also perfectly understandable to find a new foster home or return the dog to the rescue if your current pets are suffering.
Do you have separate places prepared for your separate pets?
Never assume that your foster pet will get along great with your current pets. Foster animals need to be supervised closely with your current pets, typically for the duration of the foster experience, except in rare circumstances. Know where the foster dog will go and where your pets will go when you can’t supervise.
Fostering is when someone takes care of a dog for a time but does not own the dog. The rescue organization retains ownership of the dog. They typically cover most of the major expenses associated with fostering, such as medical bills. The organization or shelter continues actively looking for an adopter while you are fostering the dog.
When you adopt a dog, you become financially responsible for it. You also assume the responsibility of rehoming it if you decide you no longer want to keep it. However, when you are fostering, you are not financially responsible. It is the rescue’s responsibility to find a new home for the dog if you cannot take care of it. While you are fostering, the rescue organization will continue looking for an adopter for the dog.
Puppies too young for adoption require a safe interim home.
Dogs recovering from surgery, illness, or injury need a secure place for recovery.
Nervous dogs displaying signs of stress in shelters, such as pacing or hiding, need a home where their best traits can be highlighted.
Dogs unfamiliar with home environments or with minimal human contact need socialization and training.
Shelters running out of space for new dogs open up runs by getting dogs into foster homes.
Rescue organizations typically cover most of the bill for fostering. You won’t pay for medical expenses like neutering or heartworm treatment. However, some rescue organizations do run short on supplies like food, toys, and pee pads. You may find yourself paying out of pocket every now and then.
A foster is responsible for providing safe housing and care for foster dogs. They are responsible for basic training and socialization, teaching the dog appropriate behavior for living in a household. They may also be responsible for administering medication, bringing the dog to veterinary appointments, and attending adoption events or coordinating with potential adopters.
Most shelters and rescue organizations do everything they can to get puppies out as quickly as possible. Puppies are extremely vulnerable to diseases that are often prevalent in the shelter environment. Puppies are often fostered along with their mother until they are ready to be weaned. At this point they are typically separated into pairs or triplets for easier handling. Once they are 8 weeks old, neutered, and ready to be adopted, they typically don’t last long in the shelter before being adopted.
Special needs dogs are in high demand for fostering. Most shelters and rescues are not equipped for dogs with limited mobility, or who are sight or hearing impaired, etc. Often, without a foster, these dogs may be euthanized at municipal shelters. With a foster, they have a chance of finding an adopter who loves them despite their special needs.
Many of the costs for fostering, such as the animal’s medical bills and food, are covered by the rescue organization. Some organizations may compensate you for things like gas money if you drive the dog a long way to an appointment or adoption event. However, you are not directly paid for fostering.
Senior dogs often have an especially hard time at the shelter. Dogs that have been accustomed to a certain way of living, regardless of whether or not it was good, are shocked by the sudden change of a kennel run. Many dogs struggle with mobility on slippery floors, which is what shelters usually have. Some rescues have designated “golden year fosters”. A foster takes care of a senior dog or a dog with a terminal illness until it passes away. They don’t take on the cost of ownership.
To foster a dog, contact the local rescues in your area and see if they offer a foster program. Typically, the application is a simple form. Some rescues will also perform a home visit or ask for pictures of the home and garden.
All you need to foster a dog is a home where they can be safely contained, and your time and love. Rescue organizations typically supply dog crates, baby gates, and all of the other equipment that you may need to temporarily care for a dog.